The Wailing Wall

Artist Info
The Wailing Wall" began as a solo recording project by songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jesse Rifkin in late 2004, and became a real band in October 2005. Live, the Wailing Wall can be anything from Jesse playing alone to a sprawling collective of musicians. Here he talks about songwriting, touring, and fitting into the Jewish music community.

INTERVIEW

December 2010
(tss) So Jesse, I've found that the more I have your songs ingrained in my memory, the more I realize they're carried by these brilliant lyrical phrases. The fun is often hearing a phrase that takes the listener on a journey and is full of surprises. E.g. "Hissing of the Gravel", "God knows we chose a real (pause) rough road to travel.", "I rode a crooked cloud across the sky into my mother's womb". It captures our attention, and it seems to be presented in a playful spirit. It suddenly occurred to me that there are probably some poets you are particularly drawn to, or particular ways of constructing phrases. Do you have some literary heroes? What specifically draws you to them?

(Jesse Rifkin) Ooh, good first question! There are definitely writers who have had a big impact on me, the most important probably being an Indian poet named Rabindranath Tagore; his book Gitanjali just devastates me. Also Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens, Charles Baudelaire, TS Eliot, Ranier Maria Rilke, Octavio Paz, and St. John of the Cross. I am a sucker for a clever rhyme (especially an internal rhyme scheme) or a particularly impressive use of alliteration. I find these to be especially pleasing to the ear. In fact, I often have a hard time reading any poetry that doesn't rhyme, regardless of how good the writing is.

But honestly, I would have to admit that many of my biggest literary influences are in fact musical ones- for my money, nobody can rhyme like Leonard Cohen! I have a book of his collected lyrics and poems and I probably read that more than any other book I own. And of course Bob Dylan, Jeff Mangum, Bill Callahan, Phil Elverum, Joanna Newsom, Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, Will Sheff, Will Oldham, John Darnielle. Lately I have been listening to Paul Simon's Graceland album an awful lot, and my heart stops a little every time I hear those lines in "The Boy in the Bubble" where he sings 'the boy in the bubble and the baby with the babbling heart / and I believe these are the days of lasers in the jungle' - such awesome alliteration and rhyming! And he delivers it so perfectly too! I definitely listen to a lot more music than I read books of poetry, so really, those guys are the true literary giants for me.

You've done a really impressive amount of touring. In all the adventure, there's so much to pay attention to. When you're traveling to a totally new place, what are the kinds of things you're looking for? What questions do you ask the people who live there?
Hmm, well I would hardly say that I have done an 'impressive' amount of touring- now the Grateful Dead, there's an impressive amount of touring! Anyway, if there's a neat museum or art gallery in town (especially a free one), that's a nice way to kill some time and keep your mind engaged. And honestly, more than anything, I look for good, cheap vegetarian food- especially breakfast! Eating a good, satisfying meal at the start of your day makes all the difference.
Throughout your songs, there's a lot of references to the Jewish faith. Even your band name speaks to that history. Even so, you have avoided being categorized as 'Jewish music'.
This is something I grapple with constantly. I suppose there's really no mistaking it- there is some pretty obvious Jewish content. I write about these things because they are what I know- I was raised Jewish, went to a Jewish school, studied religion in college. It is an identity and a faith that I have yet to feel totally comfortable with, to be honest, but it impacts how I view the world, and there is simply no escaping that fact. But what I am really trying to do is to address topics and questions that are universal, I am just occasionally presenting them via the cultural language that I am most familiar with. And the truth is, so much of the music we listen to is concerned with religion and spirituality- off the top of my head: Leonard Cohen, Sufjan Stevens, Danielson Famile, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Neutral Milk Hotel, Johnny Cash, Nick Cave, Will Oldham, Lungfish, Mount Eerie, and The Mountain Goats have all addressed the topic quite frequently, and with great success. And that's to say nothing of all the amazing gospel and roots music, or all the incredible devotional music from around the world! Anyway, isn't a cliché at this point to say that sex, death, and god are the three major subjects that art addresses? I would simply make the argument (as any good religion major would) that the first two are simply facets of the third.
Are there still old songs you have in your arsenal waiting to be given their day to shine? If so- what is it about them that makes it so hard to let them go?
Yes, tons! Honestly, the biggest thing that gets in the way is my perfectionism. I feel somewhat justified in this- now more than ever, there is just too much music in the world. We have so much that if nobody ever made any more ever again, all our appetites for new music could still be satisfied forever. So with that in mind, I don't really want to clog up people's shelves and / or iPods with my songs unless they are absolutely the best that I am capable of producing. When I write a song, I always try to ask myself if it is something I absolutely need to be putting out into the world, and if the answer isn't a clear yes, the song is left alone. Of course, some time down the line, my opinion could change. For example, 'Floral Park', off of Hospital Blossoms, was an old song that I didn't feel good about for a very long time. It felt too simple, too easy. It wasn't until much later that it started to resonate with me to the point where I felt I should put it out.
We're seeing more and more often that recorded media is available for free download. It's certainly an interesting idea, and a 'business model' that doesn't seem to have any parallel outside of the music industry. I know you have a lot of admiration for the art of recording (I'm thinking of Dylan's Desire as an example). Do you worry that, with the recorded media losing strength as a commodity, musicians will be cutting corners with recordings, sacrificing the art?

I think free music is awesome. I myself am a frequent (illegal) downloader, and because of the shear breadth of music from all the around the world that this has enabled me to find, I honestly believe that it has made me a better songwriter and musician. Of course, I do buy records, probably more than I should given my meager bank account, but usually this only happens after I have downloaded the record and familiarized myself with it. When I buy it, it is partly because I cherish the physical item of the record (especially one which is beautifully packaged and/or on vinyl), partly because I want to hear it in a higher fidelity, and partly because I want to patronize the artist who has made the work. But a lot of these records, I don't know if I would have ever bought them if I hadn't downloaded them first. It is a sticky situation, but there's no arguing that downloading is here to stay. And I know plenty of people who have willingly given away amazing records for free; actually, I did the same with my first album, Hospital Blossoms. The only thing that kind of sucks is that most people will end up hearing your album as low-quality mp3s, but I have a feeling that problem won't exist for too much longer. I do worry, though - I love a lot of lo-fi recording when its used well (see The Microphones/Mount Eerie, The Mountain Goats, Jason Molina's solo records, Palace Brothers' Days In The Wake), but it seems like mp3 culture had created an environment in which sloppy/lazy/uncreative/bad home recording is not only becoming a standard, but is being rewarded in a way I find sickeningly counterproductive - Wavves, for example. I really hope Wavves isn't a sign of things to come.

Many of your songs have lyrics that are part of a large story- they are often arranged almost like a kaleidoscope version of the source. Do you think the listener should know what the full stories are, or is it better to only know what's said in the song?
Honestly, the songs are probably a lot more interesting than the actual events they are based on. I don't think its necessary to know what the songs are about by any means- I certainly don't know what specific events the majority of my favorite songs refer to! And even the ones I do- when I hear Bob Dylan sing 'Just Like A Woman', it doesn't matter that he's actually singing about Edie Sedgwick, because as the listener I interpret the song in the context of my own life.
What is it that turned you to songwriting? I've been thinking about this question a lot. Was it astrology? Was it upbringing? Was it a girl?
I don't actually remember any moment where it clicked. I just loved music, and as far back as I can remember, I always just kind of felt like I should be making it. The first two artists I was really aware of as a child were Bob Dylan and The Beatles, and in both cases, the fact that they wrote their own songs was a pretty big deal. I wrote my first song when I was maybe three or four years old. It was a political number called 'Don't Put Trash in the Ocean'. I've been hooked ever since.

LISTEN&DOWNLOAD

Jesse Rifkin (vocals) and Ben Bernstein (pipe organ);
recorded live at Wesleyan University's Memorial Chapel by Ben Seretan, 10/11/09

1. Hospital Blossom [ Download ]
2. Bones Become Rainbows [ Download ]
3. Words We Choose [ Download ]

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