In Part 2 of our 3-part interview Shirley Levi discusses her latest album, “Break Free” in-depth.
What are your goals for “Break Free” that will make it a success for you no matter how it does chart wise?
The fact that I completed my hearts work, in spite of the exaggerated adversities I faced with this album, has already made me feel like a big success in the most important ways for myself. This kind of happYness that will last in my heart forever. For me to keep fighting and not selling out is something I’ll be proud of for the rest of my life. I did it myself and stuck to my true vision from the beginning. I wanted success so bad yet it wasn’t what shaped my intentions behind this album. I stayed really really true to myself. I never in my life thought I could ever withstand that much and still stay that true to myself. I wanted to let go and not hold so tight to my principles but I just couldn’t allow my album to be diminished from my highest standards for it. I wanted so bad to let go of creative control cuz I needed to fly but I knew nobody else cared as deeply as I did to see my vision through properly. I’ve had this thing in me for so long I just wanted to give birth to it already! It felt like desperately trying to find the right doctor who could help me to finally give birth to it! Then I finally realized I have my own label, my own publishing company, I’ve written, produced & remixed it all myself. I’ve also written, produced, directed & edited all my own music videos. I’ve developed my own non-profit and even my own merchandising. My image is made up of my own imagination to fit my soul. My marketing is totally from my heart. I do it all! I own my masters! NOBODY OWNS ME. DUH!!! I’m the one who is gonna give birth to it!!!! I already did!!!! I’m so proud! Nobody did it for me. I did it for myself!! NOW, the next step is making sure that it really helps others. Since I’ve already gone through it all now I can tell it to somebody else so that hopefully it’ll help them to not trip or make mistakes with their precious dreams. I hope they believe in themselves on those dark painful nights, knowing that someone else has gone through it and not only succeeded but in a much better way than they could have imagined! Look at me, I’m like the poster child for the underdogs. I’m an immigrant, a woman and have so many things that have worked against me in so many ways that if I can do it, anyone can!! If helping to inspire others in need is the main purpose my music serves, and my album spreads hope in people’s hearts, helping them towards their own happYness in Breaking Free, then I have accomplished my mission in full! I found a way to make it happen on my own. I didn’t falter. I didn’t sell out. I released it. I flew & because of that there’s a whole bunch of people flying with me : >>>!!!
Thank G-D I shot some of the most difficult times with a documentary of the making of the album. U wouldn’t believe it! I don’t. If you saw it you’ll wonder, “how did you get through it?!”. That’s how bad I wanted it and believed in it! I will never know how I never gave up on so many of the little steps and big steps that it took to release this album. I also had to fight with all my might to be the sole writer, to own my masters, to find the budget, to produce it myself & then figure out how to remix it all so it became even more in tune with my vision. I somehow got through all the disappointments that threatened to ruin my progress & keep me back. Although I was so yearning to be set free and give birth to my album already, I somehow still found the strength to not sell my soul, which would have been much easier. I didn’t allow my true voice to become misguided by all the ignorance & mass production strategies usually set upon artists. There were endless disappointments. Still I couldn’t let go. I felt like I was holding on to every asset I’ve cared about since birth. My time and resources were continually wasted with every new person who luved what I had going but still tried to convince me that the only way I could succeed was to change everything about me that was uniquely me. I fought all my own demons at moments that it would have been so much easier to give up and call it a loss. It wasn’t about ego. G-D no! Ego never keeps me going. I knew deeply that this album was important with the potency and intention it was created in. It carried with it a story that I felt could potentially help many others who have been through what I have in a creative and genuine way. I gained more insight than I can Xpress in this interview. It made my voice as an artist that much stronger! BREAK FREE is setting me free. FINALLY!!!! When I forget my strength, people who luv the album remind me. Finishing this album is worth more to me than any money or success, chart wise, could ever bring me. Nobody can ever stand in the way of my album’s purpose, its important messages or its success, anymore!
How did you begin remixing your own music?
Initially, I started producing at home on Protools and then a friend named DJ Kris B gave me a quick lesson on Ableton Live & supplied me with a bunch of sounds and it was history after that! : >>>I began remixing my own music simply because I had no choice. I realized if I wanted my album to sound completely the way I envisioned I’d have to do it myself & become a full-time Remixer. Since I was dealing with so many DJs and remixing so often, it seemed only right to go by a different name, which is DJ SFL, when I work with DJs or release my remixes. Initially, I started my album “BREAK FREE” in LA & completed it in Israel but when I brought my album home I felt it still wasn’t completely where I needed it to be. We didn’t have enough time to fully mix it properly. Time ran out because I had to rush back to the U.S. since I was invited to showcase in NY for the president of a major label. After what seemed to be the most grueling but sentimental many months of my life, I finally came home from Israel with my masters. Although It’s my album, I wrote it, lived it, paid for it & killed myself to go to Tel Aviv for it, I still had to fight with all my being to have the final say in the production. Coming back to America with the album unfinished turned out to be a good thing because I realized I could figure out on my own how to re-mix it all the way I felt was right. I ended up really re-producing most of BREAK FREE. Many times Remixers and Producers really want to do things their way according to their personal taste, which may be great but contradicts the natural signature style of the artist. A big lesson that I learned is that by the time I found someone who would agree to my vision and have the ability to make it happen, I could have already done it myself! They won’t invest or take a chance at the artist’s vision and they force you to sound the way they think you should for album sales. That may be right for some artists but I’m not one of them. I wish I could let go but it’s very important to me that I feel my music from a real place. I would never sacrifice so much if I didn’t really feel and believe deeply in the vision of my work. It’s not about ego. It’s about staying true to what feels right naturally and believing that others will feel it’s genuine intent.
By no means did it even seem possible at the time to take traX with so many real instruments competing with each other for sonic space, from a professional studio, and still be able to capture the epic & cinematic scope of what the album needed to become. It was a huge challenge considering that I had to achieve and mix a big studio sound all on my own on my Apple laptop, lol! It’s one thing to mix a song that is made up of just electronic or digital elements but my album also has a strong blend of string quartets, all sorts of acoustic, flamenco and electric guitars, bass guitars, a lotta live & electronic percussions, pianos, world instruments and organic sounds straight from the streets of Jerusalem, etc etc etc….To achieve the exact vision of proper sound, technically and creatively, and then master it, was a monster of a job. It took me almost two exhausting years of the trial and error of mixing on my own. I also had to learn all new software just to complete it, all of this while still juggling all the day-to-day stuff like marketing, promoting, major hustling, surviving and so much more! I was in such a rush to hear it finally come to life!
I also remix my traX for nightclubs & for my live performances. I may take a rock song and turn it into a dance song. With me you never know what I’ll need for a specific show or video. If you check out my compilation for my song “Your Eyes” I have like a dozen mixes of just that song! Haha! That song was a really big hand in helping me to really master the art of remixing. I remixed that track so many times that afterwards I realized there was nothin’ I couldn’t remix properly if I set my mind to it! 🙂 It’s great too cuz I’m able to reach people from all walks of life that can enjoy the same song in a completely different genre! Why not?! When I’m inspired there’s nobody telling me that I can’t! If I feel it then I’m boss and I’ll create something totally unique with no boundaries. Since I am self taught, I feel super lucky to not be confined to any formulas and I’m totally free to discover lots of new & innovative ways to create simply because I never knew the rules to begin with 🙂
Now, when I need to capture the right mix for a certain creative & positive message for a live show that will also fit my energy, performance or mood, I’m free to create a remix that will fit perfectly for that specific performance. I also just happen to like many many different genres and want to hear my music in all the different compositions & styles I envisioned in my head.
In addition to the remixing for my live shows, I like to stay even more true to my vision by also creating all the choreography & lighting. I also create specific videos for the projection screens myself that are a part of the show. It’s getting to be way too much now but at least I’m staying true to my vision and my creative works are in motion. Soon I’ll start delegating more of the technical elements, now that I know how to monitor & plan for it. It was never a part of my plan to have to be all these people, but my music needed all of this to be set free properly. I also founded own label which is called Re-Bel Visionary Music & create all my own artwork and promotional materials and even designing all my web pages.
Talk about what song from “Break Free” is most personal or resonant for you right now.
As much as I would have thought that luv or other subjects would have been most prevalent for me today, breaking free, completely free is still an issue I struggle with daily. I can’t seem to do anything right unless I break free. I guess that would make my song “Break Free” still the most personal to me nowadays.
“They call you Van Gogh
they say no one will ever know
who you are ’til after you die
no matter how hard you strive
You’re not dead yet
no… you’re not dead yet!
Break free from the chain
break free from the pain
of your mind
that makes you blind
try and combine your heart with your head
let it lead you instead of playing dead.” ~ “Break Free”
When I’m singing “They call you Van Gogh”, it’s me that everybody calls Van Gogh. One of my fav aunts takes credit for starting the trend with my nickname 🙂 Vincent Van Gogh was never recognized during his life for his paintings. He couldn’t sell a piece to save his life while he was alive. He was put down and written off as if he was never born. His visionary signature style was completely dismissed & considered wrong just because he was so unique & ahead of his time. He was never made to feel nor was he recognized to have had any worth whatsoever while he was alive & yet he was blooming with such huge talent. He was mistreated and made to feel ashamed of his gifts. He was a really goodhearted man who never sold out. After he died his pieces became worth millions. I was referred to as Van Gogh in that no matter how hard I would strive or how talented I may be, nobody will know my work till after I’m dead. They would say, “Wow, Shirley you do it all so well but it’s so sad cuz you’re like Van Gogh and life is so unfair. It’s such a shame that you will die a poor and misunderstood artist just like Van Gogh. No matter how many talents you have.” Well, I’ve already changed that! There’s no way that will be my destiny! I am in control of my life. I have the power to surpass their standards and even my own! That’s somebody else’s bad story. I’m fighting harder than ever! I am determined to be heard! I’m past that mark already. With no budget, no help or support I’ve already reached millions and I’m just gettin’ started! I will break free from all my demons one by one & pave my own path based on my heart’s guidance. Still, it haunts me everyday and every single day feels urgent to me as if G-D forbid, it may be my last. I’d like to live heaven on earth. Here and now. To get all my creative works out of me and be treated with the respect I feel I’ve earned. “Give me Luv, Give me Light, TREAT ME RIGHT!” ~ Treat Me Right!
I never cared enough about money to have experience making it or protecting it, but I always cared deeply about my works as if they were my children and for that reason I not only made sure to complete all my visions but to also protect them beyond belief. They don’t even belong to me. I really do feel as if I’m just protecting it for The Lord. I know the worth they hold in my heart and how that will translate to the right kind of success. Everyday we have to break free. Why should we wait till the next life time for happYness & success?!! Why should we be misunderstood, unknown & unappreciated as if we’re living our lives looking out the window at happYness from this small dark room?! No! We deserve it! I deserve it. You deserve it! I want that for all artists out there who share my story and absolutely anyone who is trying to make their dream a reality. We deserve to be treated respectfully for our calling and not be made into cash cows or let our souls be stolen by committing creative suicide. I know that there are people in the world with much bigger problems but what happens to you in your world can still affect u deeply and shape your entire existence in this life. Suffering sucks. No matter what forms it comes in. Everyone’s suffering matters and means something no matter how small or big it is. How wonderful if we could live a free & happY existence so that when life hands us the uncontrollable natural disasters, we could deal with them from a happY heart that isn’t having to suffer everyday.
“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.
Hey you with your dreams
life is not what it seems
Stand up for what you BELIEVE!
Your dreams are your wings
let them carry you
not bury you
beauty’s trapped in your head
bring it out
let it shout!
Bring it out
Let it shout!” ~ “Break Free”
Tell me about your most surreal moment in the industry so far?
Well Kristen…the most surreal moment for me right now is actually our interview 🙂 The definition of “surreal” is: “Marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream.” As I’m reflecting so in depth about your questions and almost wanting to pay you hourly lol, I’m re-living a lot of a story that I now can clearly understand the irony of. This interview is unveiling for me my entire album and true uncensored story. It feels beyond surreal to BREAK FREE & let it all outta me uncensored!
Other than this interview :), performing live feels most surreal to me. People always say to me that I’m so Xtroverted. No I’m not! Not at all! I’m the most introverted person you will ever meet. My mom knows it. Everybody knows it. You can’t get me outta my own head. I’m there all day long. For me to step out from the creative process & acknowledge that I’m in front of this HUGE live audience that’s about to see me completely naked and soon will hear all of me, SMACK, LIVE & UNCENSORED, is a much bigger deal than people realize!! Nobody believes me cuz they see me once I’m in my element already on stage and not everything that goes on before. I get to Xpress my deepest luv in this lifetime in front of this massive vibration. It’s so surreal when the lights come on and I’m on this massive stage with the same music that I composed, produced and remixed myself in this small little space on my little laptop is now blaring out of these gigantic speakers! Ideas & concepts I created completely from my imagination are now being totally sparked to life. You have absolutely no idea how intense it is when my music & voice are blaring as I’m watching people dancing, hugging, with their hands held high in the air…it’s beyond surreal! That true live feedback & reaction from your audience is beyond priceless. It literally feels like I’m floating and flying into light. I suffer like crazy before I get on stage, like I’m being taken to my death. Nobody knows how nervous I get. I wanna quit music every single time I’m about to get on stage lol cuz the anticipation is just too much. I’m nervous in front of even one person when I’m singing! It’s as if I’m about to finally meet the truest luv of my life but I have no idea if the luv of my life will feel me too. It’s like I’m finally being let out of my cage with pure electricity running through me. The second I step on stage and I hear my music come on the surrealism just takes over and possesses my heart, body and soul as if I’m in another dimension and I’ve never been more purely and potently happy with myself and happy to be on this earth. To witness something you’ve luved & believed in so deeply, blindly and been so loyal to all your life, finally turn into something so real, so magic & tangible, is even better than I could have ever hoped for. It’s as if it is G-D’s big validation that I’ve been on the right path all along! For that moment my audience is in total harmonious luv & light. Ultimately, it’s the closest I can ever truly get to uniting people from all walks of life. It confirms my belief that my dreams are real, purposeful and that I haven’t been living in a fantasy world after all!
What is the strangest thing that’s ever inspired a song?
Wow, even till this day, I haven’t forgotten my powerful dream of the lyon, which I had several years ago. It was what led me to write my song “Lyon of JerUSAlem”. Might as well call me crazy but my dreams and visions really do have a huge influence on my songwriting & offer me a lot of insight & guidance into my path. If you look up my astrological birth date, I’m born on the day of Dreams & Visions. I can’t help it. I’m also incredibly psychic which helps me to have a lot of insight to what is coming up and helps with my decisions in everyday life. My dreams are usually pretty prophetic and seem to come true which is why I started taking them so much more seriously. I had a dream one night that I was in this room and there walks in this massive beautiful powerful lyon. In my dream I really luved & respected the lyon but was also very nervous & terrified. I kept thinking, “Oh my G-D he’s gonna bite me!” Then all of a sudden, before I could do anything, the lyon quickly bit my arm. The next thing I know I’m in some restaurant with some guy and I’m asking him if he knows anything about lyon bites. As I’m pointing to where I got bitten by the lyon on my arm, all of a sudden my entire arm turns into this mystical, fairy tale-like, gorgeous music box, which slowly opens up. As it started to open all these beautiful images of music started coming out of the music box. (You will notice pieces of those music notes and the images from my dream spread out & scattered into so many of my paintings.) Then I started to hear the most beautiful melody coming out of the music box. As the music got louder and louder I remember thinking in my dream that this song is so incredible I hope I’ll remember it! Next thing I know, I said in my dream “Oh my G-D this song is all over the radio around the world! It’s a huge hit around the world!! Wait! Oh my G-D it’s my voice! It’s me!!” Then I woke up. It’s one of the most surreal, vivid, euphoric and visually stunning dreams or visions that I’ve ever had visually, emotionally & prophetically. I was deeply affected by it. It is slowly unveiling all it’s hidden meaning and probably will continue to do so for the rest of my life. Nothing compares to what I witnessed & the intensity I felt in that unforgettable dream. Anyway, that dream haunted me consistently until one day when I was in Jerusalem on a visit. I was walking around the old city in Jerusalem and filming. I kept noticing lyons everywhere. I couldn’t figure out why the image was everywhere so I called my grandma who lives there and asked her. All these years I was trying to figure out the meaning behind that incredible lyon dream that I had. I found it too ironic when she told me that the lyon was the symbol of Jerusalem!
“I had a vision of a lyon in my sleep. He bit me on the arms. Where a music box flew open and music notes came flying out from my arm. Playing a familiar song on the radio. My voice came shouting out! JerUSAlem, JerUSAlem. I left my home in the USA. I left my heart, JerUSAlem. I got bitten by the lyon!” ~ “Lyon of JerUSAlem” – Shirley Levi.
Ironically, during that same trip I was also played for the first time on Jerusalem radio. It was such a dream come true to be played in that old city of Jerusalem. It wasn’t the song from my dream but I felt it was a definite G-D wink and a peek into the future. I know what I have witnessed and if that is any evidence of what the future holds then it’s a really good one. My premonition from that dream has been guiding me toward using this special song to contribute to the world peace process, specifically in the Middle East.
“Tonight is the night my song will play from the radio into my heart, reminding me of my vision. The lyon appeared from the sky & kissed my heart” (English translation of Hebrew lyrics in “Lyon of JerUSAlem“)
In my song I sing about Jerusalem & The USA as if I’m being haunted by & missing both places every time I’m away to the other. When I’m in LA and away from Jerusalem for too long I start smelling Jerusalem in my heart and missing it deeply. Then when in Jerusalem my heart starts to ache if I stay away from LA/The City of Angels, for too long. It almost feels like Jerusalem is like my grandparents and The USA is like my parents 🙂 That’s one of the reasons I wrote the song in English & Hebrew. If you look real close at the spelling of Jerusalem I’ve discovered that USA is smack in the middle of Jerusalem as you can tell from the way I print out the title with USA highlighted. “I’m back in the city of angels, with visions of JerUSAlem. I’m dreaming of King George Street as I’m walking in Los Angeles….with visions of JerUSAlem” – Lyon of JerUSAlem”. My song has absolutely nothin’ to do with politics. I’m stating that Jerusalem reminds me of the grandma I luv and yearn to visit every summer. Jerusalem reminds me of my uncle who’s always been there for me. Jerusalem can be anybody’s grandma or uncle or deep meaningful experience. Almost everyone has some reason to feel a special bond or connection with Jerusalem. In fact, if we all truly think about that connection, it really has nothin’ to do with politics. The cab ride a Muslim took with a Jewish driver during a visit to Jerusalem and the special conversation they shared without prejudice can be the experience. It can be any positive memory or sentiment. It doesn’t have to exclude anyone. We don’t have to think so harshly with the attitude that Jerusalem can only be special to a certain race or religion. We can’t rely solely on politics to unite & shape our hearts with understanding towards our neighbors because it blindly dismisses the infinite power of luv. The culture in Jerusalem is a mix of many different cultures. Hebrew slang is mixed with a lot of European, Arabic, English and many other dialects because the language represents the voice & soul of the entire country. Jerusalem is filled with such rich history because of all the different cultures that have been there throughout the time. There are so many touching stories behind the scenes that people completely overlook. I can’t wait to film my video for “Lyon of JerUSAlem”! I hope to capture everything I’m talking about in that video once and for all! My song “Lyon of JerUSAlem” is a song of peace & hope. I allowed my writing in the song to not exceed my natural simple Hebrew to keep my real voice to pay tribute to all the different immigrants and cultures that make up Jerusalem. I figured since everyone in Israel is really an immigrant that came from somewhere else and had to learn Hebrew at some point for the very first time, they will relate :-). America is very similar in that way since from the beginning it’s been a country that was started by immigrants and till today consists of immigrants from all around the world living together as one. I hope one day for people all around the world to be able to sing “Lyon of JerUSAlem” by heart, just feeling the sentimental & happy energy of the music and vocals, since unity can only be achieved without any remenance of hatred. That moment of feeling as one can potentially keep our hearts open long enough to not even notice the language barrier. To remember the words based on just a blissful & memorable melody. A sentiment that has no desire to divide cultures, religion, color, gender etc… A happy song with lack of division can spread at the speed of light from our hearts and will hopefully spread it’s message of unity throughout the Middle East : >>>G-D speed : >>>
My personal greatest, most sentimental memories & experiences in Jerusalem include everyone not excluding the Muslims or Christians or Jews and/or any other religions or races which make up the beautiful Jerusalem. It just wouldn’t be the same any other way for me & many others. My grandma, who is a big luv in my heart, is an Israeli Jew but was born in Damascus, Syria, so Arabic is actually her first language. It’s the most beautiful thing to see her as a Jew interacting with her Arab buddies or when she is shopping. They sit together and speak their native tongue with so much enjoyment, warmth, respect & humor it almost seems as if they go way back. On one occasion I noticed her and the Arab merchant drinking from the same water as they were seated, making jokes and having a blast together. In some ways it seems like she is most content when speaking Arabic with her Muslim buddies even though she is a proud Jew. This says a lot to me about the possibility of peace. It really spoke loud to me. When we want to go shopping in the old city she always takes us to buy from the Arab merchants. She says that she wants them to prosper and always stay happy in the heart so they continue to live happily as one with the Jews & vice versa. Everywhere we go she has strong ties The Arabs. You would never think in a million years that they are not happy living in the same country as one. Till today, when I visit The Old City in Jerusalem, I mostly shop in the Muslim quarters. 🙂 I luv my cab rides with Arabs & Israelis and everyone else that has settled in Jerusalem because most of the time I can’t even tell them apart 🙂
And speaking of my grandma, she is a singer too! My grandma also inspired all the Arabic drums, which came out of me on my mix called “Daddy Boy” – (Jerusalem Grandma Remix). I sampled real sounds of the old city on the same trip that I discovered the lyons in Jerusalem. During that trip I also secretly sampled my grandma humming softly in the kitchen while washing the dishes. I brought my samples back to The US where I recreated a this new dance remix to fit my grandma’s vocals. I get so sentimental every time I hear her voice in my remix. I really luv that we are singing together on my track and that we are from such different generations. My grandma never followed her dream of singing because she was forbidden to even though her voice was so beautiful that she was offered a scholarship to the best music school in Damascus as a young girl. She had no choice in breaking free back then. I’m making up for it in my life! I hope my remix plays so often on that Jerusalem radio that her voice will finally be heard! I feel like my grandma’s ethnicity roams in my blood, weaving itself into my western upbringing & musical influences so perfectly. It works so magically to join & blend cultures together in the purity and sincerity of music. Why should it be any different than our hearts uniting as one?
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.