In the conclusion to our 3-part interview, Shirley Levi talks about her artistic process, path and payoffs, and of course Life & Death Karaoke and Guilty Music Pleasures.
Give me some insight into your music & songwriting process.
If I don’t feel Chills that won’t go away from a beginning lyric, melody or concept I won’t bother finishing it. I create and put music out there that I would listen to myself and would want to keep playing over time. I also will never force the direction of the production just so it sells. The music will tame YOU and SHOW YOU the way! The production should be the decoration to follow your original demo & signature style.
I’ll never forget the meeting I had in NY with an A&R big wig for yet another major label. His biggest problem with my album & songwriting was, in his words, lol, “You seem to have a lot of potential hits. There’s just too much usage of metaphors in your lyrics. It’s not commercial enough for Middle America. Believe it or not nobody knows who Van Gogh is in middle America!” I was incredibly insulted on behalf of us all in America! The funniest & most ironic part about it is that while he was so strongly disapproving of my “Van Gogh” metaphor in my song “Break Free”, he kept referring to the song as the “Van Gogh Song”!! Haha! 😉 I walked out of there telling him that I will forgive his ignorant feedback and may even allow him to reach me after the millions of albums and hit songs I was gonna sell all over the world! I’m still holding onto that self-fullfilled prophecy because I know in my heart that it will not only happen but that he will remember everything he spewed out of his small scared little brain. I will not change a thing about my lyrics for “BREAK FREE”!!! It still helps me today when I listen to my own lyrics. Others will not only get it but be thankful that I didn’t water down my work and that I had more faith in America! If you force-feed people the same damn thing OF COURSE THEY WILL DIGEST IT! IT’S THEIR ONLY CHOICE! IT’S TIME TO CHANGE THAT AND GIVE PEOPLE AN ALTERNATIVE TO THE MUSIC PROGRAMMING OUT THERE NOWADAYS! IT’S ALMOST AS IF YOU JUST WON’T GET HEARD ON COMMERCIAL RADIO IF YOU’RE NOT THE EXACT GENRE WHICH IS BEING MILKED TO DEATH AT THAT MOMENT, NO MATTER HOW COMMERCIAL OR WORTHY YOUR SONGS MAY BE!
I literally see life as one big poetic song, which is why the songwriting process, singing and the performing elements feel so natural to me. It’s disappointing that I just don’t have as much time to get all my material out of me lately cuz I am constantly having to do so much of everything else that it takes for an indie artist to keep going. Songwriting is total magic because the lyrics & music will come out totally spontaneously when something is feeling urgent, inspiring me or deeply wounding me. It’s life that truly inspires the songwriting. A lot of times it just happens to be that I’ll dream about something that I just can’t get out of my mind or I’ll have flashes of visions in everyday life that just won’t go away. I’ll have a revelation and for some reason I just have that need to express myself. Lol, my name should just be “Miss Xpress Myself” because I have a strong need to be understood which is why I probably constantly end my spoken sentences with “U know? U know what I mean?” Lol! That comes with the territory of feeling like a misunderstood artist for so long. It literally hurts me to not get my songs out of me. When it feels urgent I’ll write on anything, anywhere or anytime I feel the urgency is setting in. No matter what is going on in my life I fight to find the time and I run as fast as I possibly can to jot down the idea before it may vanish! It’s like running to give birth to something that just can’t wait cuz it comes out of me as quickly as I came out of my mom to make it! 😉 Once I have completed the heart of the lyrics I usually then begin to create the music which feels to me like pure light & a total gift from G-D. I’ll notice a lot of composers sitting down and writing out sections and applying learned formulas, which seems so foreign to me. When I write songs, I’ll have the lyrics and then will sit down, usually with a guitar, and the entire melody will just pour out of me spontaneously on my first try after playing one chord which is why I tend to always record my first takes! I’ll just start singing it and it’s so crazy cuz it will all come out of me as if an angel whispered the whole song in my ear from beginning ’til end. “Could you help to set me free? The angels gave me melodies.” ~ Office in the Sky”
Then, I’ll take that first magical inspiration & I’ll produce it. I have a lot of material that’s produced very minimally and I luv it cuz it seems so genuine with spontaneous takes of me on guitar. On the other hand, my album “Break Free” is very epic sounding. Since I’m also a visual artist my music is a very emotional cinematic experience and you can feel it from all the cinematic & dramatic string sections and instrumental compositions. It feels epic as though it was meant to be on a soundtrack to a story of someone’s life…um…I guess mine 😉
Most times, I’ll write songs on my acoustic guitar first, except for my songs “Mental Affair”, “Break Free” & “Re-Bel” which I composed on my sequencer w/electro elements. I luv composing all kinds of genres but ultimately singing acoustic on guitar feels most home and deep to me. Without any production. Just raw. I feel my voice is best that way…even with just a piano. My vocal Xpression is strongest with just one organic instrument. Surprisingly enough I luv singing and writing ballads the most. I am also finding it so much fun to rhyme in hip-hop. My choice of words are very Xpressive minus the Xploitative elements that I’m finding in the current hip-hop out there. It’s supposed to empower not kill and Xploit the beautiful minds out there that want to make it and break from their poverty, repression or suffering. Wait till my next album!! ; >>>
My music also comes out of me mixed with so many different elements, genres, cultures & languages. I just can’t help it. The Middle East still roams in my blood and weaves itself into all my Western influences. When I sing punk, I’m totally punk. When I play rock n roll I’m totally feeling Rock! When I’m singin’ my folk or country, I feel my spirit totally immersed and possessed by it. When I’m writing or singing in Hebrew, Farsi or even Spanish I feel it deep in my being. I just can’t make up my mind and I refuse to! Music is like pure luv & light. It crosses all boundaries and barriers, so why is the music industry so adamant about sticking with one genre or fitting artists completely and perfectly in one small box forever? That’s total hypocrisy and a complete paradox to what music really is! Music is one of the most powerful vibrations, which is why it’s used in prayer to reach THE LORD. It cannot be tamed or stopped from crossing all social & cultural boundaries. It can create positive change or destroy the world. It’s that powerful and should be taken very seriously. It should not be caged and predetermined or forced to come out of its creator in a different way other than it’s intended natural birth. It can be improved with time but never changed. It can be watered down and mass-produced but will never stand the test of time unless it is genuine and true to the spirit of the one who gave birth to it. Yes it can make millions over night and still be soul-less but it will not stand the test of time or make any real change in the world. I hope with all my heart that every artist in this world comes to terms with that and realizes that they do have a choice & don’t need to sell their soul. That the happYness behind their eventual success will depend on their true voice and unique style being Xpressed. I protect my music very carefully with all my heart and make sure it is channeled & set free properly to reach the world and enhance our Xperience in this journey : >>> Together as ONE : >>>
What has been the biggest reward on your artistic path to date?
Besides having to become a Producer, Remixer, Editor, Director, Choreographer, Record Label founder, public speaker, simply because I had to if I realistically wanted to make things happen with my music, my greatest reward up to date would pretty much be any time somebody really felt my music deeply and it helped them on their own path in a positive way. I always appreciate when people tell me specifically what they liked most about my work and allow me to receive the opportunity of truly knowing how my music affects people. My live shows are a big gift to me as well because I get to receive an instant and very honest reaction from my audience but ultimately it’s when people tell me that something I created helped them in their life that I feel so content and all my struggles suddenly seem so effortless. My friends, family and others always ask me, “Why do you want to save the world so badly? What’s your problem!? Save your own life first then worry about making sure others are ok!!” Lol, I swear to you it’s not even my personality to be so extroverted and involved in the public eye. I would have been happy to live on a Kibbutz somewhere out in the middle of nowhere and go back and forth to the city making music, painting and being left alone but there’s this unbelievably loud siren of an urgency that has been in me for so long that I cannot be at peace unless I know I did something to help the world. I just can’t escape it. Believe me, I’ve tried, lol. I do my best to help every day in every single interaction that I have with people, even when it’s backfired and I didn’t get treated well or equally. Still, it’s very important to me that I ALWAYS make decisions that will vibrate with compassion to every living creature that crosses my path.
Knowing that I have the power to affect somebody in need is beyond crucial in my heart maybe because I didn’t have any help from anybody around me at moments that I needed it so badly. There have been so many times that someone I knew was in the position to make a HUGE difference in my life with very little effort on their part by making one call, pressing one button, or doing one small favor but not one person in my life was ever willing to help me and so from a really young age I realized I just gotta help myself. I lost a lot of people and walked away from a lot of people along the way. Throughout it all, only my mom and my best friend stood by me. They kept my heart lit at such crucial moments. Not sure what I woulda done without that support. I really feel that all of these disappointments have been so exaggerated and so loud in my path so I could learn from them and use that wisdom to help as many people as possible! I was forced to become an expert in defeating and overcoming disappointment haha! 😉
I’ve been though so much that I’m completely aware of how important it is to give & receive help when someone needs it the most. It’s such a big gift for me to know that what I luv and fought for helped somebody else in their life as well. It gives me the kind of peace that I need to sleep well at night and to want to continue making music. It can take what seems forever to manifest something you luv properly. It’s your baby from the beginning to the end so when somebody feels it in the way that it was meant to be felt or in another way that just helped them, it makes your entire path seem effortless and ultimately your greatest reward.
I guess being creatively understood is also pretty high on my list of artistic rewards. I think it’s something every artist is ultimately searching for which is why I guess I seem to always end my sentences in interviews with… “You know?”…. “You know?”…. “You know?”….. “You know what I mean?” Haha! 😉
What is the most ridiculous gig you’ve taken on as an artist/musician?
I can definitely recall the most ridiculous and humiliating gig I’ve ever taken lol. It really got to me too cuz of the timing of it all. It was during a time when I was already really insecure and just staring to get my self out there. I was involved heavily in charity as I am today so I was really open to helping when approached to perform for a cause I felt dear to my heart. A good friend called me and told me that a buddy of hers needs the right kind of artist to perform at a charity function that will help raise money for a school with a lot of young Latinos from low-income families. It was supposed to raise money to develop their Music & Art Department, which would also help to keep the kids off the streets. She told me that she let him hear my music and he really luved it and would really appreciate if I played a free show to help raise money. So I thought OH WOW that’s definitely an important cause that I’d really really LUV to contribute to!! I got my entire band together, paid them from my own pocket so they’d show up for rehearsals and the show. I helped find a sponsor & got us all ready. I was supposed to just show up and not promote. Well, we show up like an army marching forward ready to do something great in this gigantic room and the next thing I know the room is totally empty. Completely & TOTALLY EMPTY!!!! Lol, there was maybe about ten people there and I thought, I came here to do something and I’m just gonna do it anyway so I went through with the show & sang my heart out! I tried my best to pick our heads up and just realize I that even though people have good intentions in mind I will never work with anybody again unless I truly feel in my heart that they are realistically trying to help and that they have a realistic plan that is going to reach out and help others. I would like to tell other artists that you should always value yourself & your time and start treating yourself with a lot of respect. Don’t let people take advantage of your time or take the gifts that could really help the world, for granted! NEVER FORGET that there are a lot of people out there who really do need your help and your music can help to change their lives! You just need to do your research and find the kind of people who take their own time and causes very seriously too. Don’t give up just because of a few imposters. It’s all a test in life that is making sure you really want to help. Make sure that you don’t let people use your gift when they’re not willing to do their part. Find others who are needing you in their project and will really focus on making a difference with it. I played that show and went to bed at night with a good conscience anyway! 🙂
Why do you believe music has the power to affect change?
My Napoleon Dynamite Xperience in the third grade was by far my most tangible evidence to the power of music being able to affect such immediate & massive change!
I never believe things just because it’s cool or accepted by the majority. I am one of those people that really needs to Xperience & think about it & question it for myself first. I don’t like to convince people to believe in G-D & it really insults me when others try to force feed their religion down my throat unless their enlightening me with teachings that can enhance my existence. I personally prefer to spread freedom & unconditional luv and I sing about reaching happYness through creation and light! To me, that’s something positive that anyone can relate or find happYness with. I’m mentioning that because I really feel no one should force anyone to believe anything unless they witness something for themselves and feel it on a deep & personal level that fits with their unique make up. I’ve Xperienced how music effects others and myself on so many different occasions, on such a personal and deep level, that I’m a complete believer in THE POWER OF MUSIC!! I’ve heard songs written for specific causes that were so compelling and emotional that it made me want to immediately contribute to that cause! At times, music has hit me so hard that I cried and was able to understand another person’s suffering having never even met them. Music can allow you to feel that strong compassion without any boundaries. I’ve witnessed firsthand how it can change my life and others in so many powerful ways! I could go around telling every single person I meet about Autism Awareness but I find that my song “Anne Marie” reaches people so much faster. Even if the listener has never met anyone with Autism, they will become ever so compassionate from Xperiencing the spirit of the awareness in my friendship ballad. As I already mentioned, I was given my biggest life lesson back when I was a kid and others refused to accept me simply because I was seen as a foreigner from a country they hated. As soon as I performed the music, all the unnecessary hatred disappeared into thin air! I saw the way the room completely changed and I’ll never ever forget it!! I realized that music has the power to truly enter our hearts and connect us in the purest way, just like luv! It can also create a lot of damage! If you don’t care and you’re preaching your lowest potential then you can potentially really damage your audience!
I was at a party a while back, which was put together by some really big legendary musicians that were raising money for Hunger Relief in Africa. Bless their souls, they really dedicating their hearts and resources to this very important cause. They got up and started speaking for hours and, G-D forgive me, we were all dying of boredom not because we weren’t interested but because we were expecting to hear their thoughts through what they do best, which is music! They had already affected us in the past with their gift of song. It’s great to hear powerful convictions in unforgettable speeches like that of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s, but let’s be honest, we are not all great speakers like Mr.King :). We are musicians and we should be using music to help the world. It’s like magic! It reaches u so fast & deeply as if you’re feeling the pure emotion of it’s intention coming from your own heart without much effort. I confronted one of the legendary musicians and said flat out in my turrets…”You know Sir…wouldn’t it just be better if you just killed it and knocked it out of the field with one of your songs? We’ve been standing in the cold for three hours, lol. Why don’t you just sing a really incredible song already??!” I meant it with a lot of luv & support & really hope he wasn’t offended ;). Songs by musical prophets like Bob Marley, John Lennon or Marvin Gaye are timeless in their positive effect and continue to live in our hearts, even after the Artist has passed. Their spirit will never die! They change our lives every day! Every single day! So, music can and WILL change the world! We’ve already raised a lot of money and awareness so it’s a proven fact that music can change the world! It can change your life and mine! Kristen, I know how much you can relate!
“They call you Van Gogh
You know no one will ever know
Who you are ’til after you try
Your spirit will never die.
They call you Van Gogh
You have to be the first to show
Who you are and how to fight!
Your spirit will never die.” ~ “BREAK FREE”
What’s next for you?
Hmmm that thought overwhelms me cuz the future of my creations seems completely limitless and endless. People I really admire approach me to get to write or collab on other projects that are less urgent in my path, but would be so much fun to do. I feel so inspired & flattered but then I start to feel guilty & frustrated cuz I realize I have a deeper calling. Until I get to all the issues that seem most urgent in my heart, I unfortunately can’t focus on projects without a deeper purpose. There doesn’t ever seem to be enough time in my life, even if I live to be one-hundred-and-twenty, to get it all out and feel totally at peace! So to think “what’s next”, oh my gosh…the film “Break Free” definitely! There are so many videos I’ve envisioned for my songs off my album “Break Free” that need to be created but I can’t seem to find the time since I’m doing it all myself. The next step for my album “BREAK FREE” is definitely The Movie or Theatre Production! There’s so many details in my songs that I feel should be also told, captured & experienced with visuals and dialogue. I can’t wait to make it happen!!! : >>>
My next album “Survive”, which I’ve already written, is also a BIG urgency in my heart to produce & release. My album “Break Free” took such a long time to truly complete & release in the right way that it’s taken me way longer than planned to get to my next album. I have sooooo much more material that’s waiting to be unleashed! I also have a lot of stuff that I’m creating for kids. I’ve got projects where I’m doing a lot of writing for hip-hop, world stuff, all sorts of music. I really want to get out and push all of my charity projects out to the forefront on a much more massive level! It’s getting harder and harder to do it all myself but I have faith that help will come if I continue to build towards it. I’m in the process of making my charity called “MUSIC ON MY SHOULDER” an official legal non-profit. I plan to perform at The White House with my Autistic Musicians at my side singing my song “Anne Marie” and raising major awareness!! Honey, I’m just getting started! 😉 I also would like to write a book based on the stories I tell in my paintings. I paint the spirit in abstract and I think it would be so inspiring to unveil some of the hidden messages & intentions in my paintings since they are all in sequence to real events in my music & in my life. I have song after song after song for so many important causes and album after album! There’s just way too much that’s fighting & competing to come out of me that I don’t know what’s gonna come out first but…in the immediate future, I’d really luv to get back on stage after The New Year : >>> I’ve been behind the scenes really building my company and legalizing my charity, making videos and just getting my music out there, finally releasing it, promoting and makin’ appearances, etc.. TV is also an avenue I am building towards. I have held onto so much of my documentary footage that it’s time for it to all come out & help the world!! I think I’m just gonna have to get on Television and begin aiming my songs of hope towards specific causes which are really close to my heart. I’m gonna have to get out there and fight…and sing & speak, making some major noise out there…so I think the platform of TV is calling my music’s name!! 🙂 It’s also time for a lot more of some really really memorable massive shows that are going to reach the entire planet! Oh and one more thing…Hit after hit after hit after hit for CHARITY!!!!! : >>>
You’re forced at gunpoint to get your karaoke on; go!
So, forcing me at gunpoint is the right way to put it because that is what you’d literally have to do to get me to sing Karaoke lol!…I’ve never really tried too hard to sing covers cuz I’m consumed with my own material. Music is such an important and big part of my every day life that when I’m out I’d rather be watching other people when I’m not on stage myself lol…but if I was forced at gunpoint…um…I’d probably want to be super drunk and singing a really great country tune. It sounds strange but I prefer singing to a man’s vocals cuz it’s way more fun. I feel a lot of times that women are expected to sound so feminine and pretty with so much dainty, high-pitched stuff that it takes away the edgy raw attitude that I relate with. I feel women are pushed into expressing and focusing more on sounding seductive, which doesn’t always bring out that power in their voice. To me, Patti Smith has a killer voice & range. Her voice kills me. She has so many dynamics and emotions…it’s just HOT…it’s like you know she’s not trying to be perfect or dainty. I relate with that big time, especially when I get to sing live & totally untamed in all different languages. To me it’s almost like a technical musician who can play someone else’s music super great but can’t create an original on their own. I guess I prefer character in everything much more than just soul-less technical perfection. So…back to your question Kristen, I definitely would like to get my Karaoke on with would be Elvis or just flat out whip out a Johnny Cash country song, drink a bunch of beers and whiskey and belt it out of me…haha…I might even have to wear a cowboy hat! 🙂 I think I may have to do that the next time I visit Nashville…where I do hope to record & perform in the very near future. I still have my heart set on playing at the Grand Ole Opry one fine day ‘cause G-D knows I’m a huge country fan and I write so many country songs of hope… and how cool and incredible would it be for an artist born in the Middle East to play there?!! HAHA!! 😉 A MAJOR DREAM COME TRUE FOR ME!!!! I got so many great folky, bluesy sounding country songs that I hope to release on my next album. It’ll be so cool to have an album filled with a variety of genres from country to rock to reggae to electronic to world music etc..!! Check on my next album!!: >>>
Name your Guilty Music Pleasure.
Okay, so my guilty music pleasure…definitely would have to be… yeah… John Denver. John Denver is one ‘cuz I grew up trying to learn guitar on his songs and ‘til today I hear his voice and get chills. I just love John Denver…really really love him musically, I love his voice and I love his song writing. He sounds to me like a super free spirit taking flight in his songs. His melodies kill me their so pretty. Melodies in songs like “Rocky Mountain High” or “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. Speakin’ of other guilty music pleasures…I have to admit that if there’s one cover song that I’ve always wanted to do which is …ok what can I say…haha.. I luv Neil Diamond’s song “Coming to America”. I love that song cuz it’s such a powerful “I luv America” immigrant song. U can feel everyone who came here to make their story a success standing up in glory and waving their flags…In America, the land of the free. The American Dream is so sparkly when witnessed from other countries :). Once you’re here and you become an adult, you realize you really do have the power to make a difference in your own life and in others’ lives. Even though there a lot of times I feel powerless, when it comes down to it you have the opportunity to do a lot in this country. In the song, “Coming to America”, I listen to it and I get chills!! Chills!! I get really sentimental and I feel like I’m that little immigrant girl who first moved to America who grew up with a strict immigrant father who never wanting me to do music and the fight of it while being in America, the land of the free…so I get chills and I will have to do that cover song one day! 🙂
“FUTURE BELONGS TO US!!!” ~ “Re-Bel”
For all things Shirley Levi, please visit her official website http://www.shirleylevi.com/ or buy Break Free on iTunes. Shirley will also be debuting her song “Re-Bel” on Indie 103.1 with legendary DJ Jonathan L. this Jan 14th.