From Southern Fiddler to Jewish NY Rocker

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Why classically trained violinist Clare Burson taught herself guitar and began exploring her Jewish identity.

Listen to her music: http://www.clareburson.com/music.html

Indie rocker Clare Burson was a finalist in both the 2004 USA Songwriting Contest and the 2005 International Songwriting Competition. How would one describe her music? It depends on what stage of her life you look at. While growing up in Tennessee, Clare was trained as a classical violinist who went on to learn bluegrass and Irish fiddling. As a young adult, she opted for a guitar and the chance to write songs that explore her identity as a Jewish woman. Her new album, SILVER AND ASH, will be released on September 14th, 2010 via Rounder Records.

When did you decide to bring your Jewish heritage into your music? How long had you been performing before you made that decision?

I have been playing music in some sense since I was 3 years old—first as a violinist, then as a fiddler, and finally as a singer-songwriter. On some level, my Jewishness has always been present in the music I make. Whether it was my affinity for minor chords, subtle references to Shabbat, or even my approach to self-expression, my upbringing and religious-cultural leanings have always influenced my work. It wasn’t until I applied for the Six Points Fellowship [appointed to NY artists who develop new projects with a Jewish focus, theme, or element] that I began to consider identifiably Jewish music as a commercially or artistically viable option for me.

Why was it important to you?

I don’t think I realized at the inception of my project how important the process (and resulting work) would be for me. I knew it would be an interesting experiment—as a musician, as a writer, as a secular Jewish woman—to write around a specific theme or set of themes. And then, through those themes, I would be using my art to explore my Jewish identity. By the time I had finished writing and recording the Silver and Ash song cycle, however, I knew I had engaged in what may well end up being the most important creative project of my career.

Did you ever worry that by focusing your lyrics on Jewish stories you might start to limit your audience that they would not be interested? or that you would become “that Jewish musician?”

Absolutely. This is something I still consider when brainstorming plans for the marketing, publicity, and performance of my music. On the other hand, the stories I sing about are intensely personal ones. And, while they exist within the specific realm of Jewish history and culture, they are fundamentally human stories.

The songs of Silver and Ash explore the life of your grandmother in Germany, who was born in 1919 and escaped from Nazi persecution in 1938. Did she open up about her experiences, or did you have to imagine them?

There have been many beginnings to the Silver and Ash project—some more recent than others. One such beginning was one morning in Sunday school when, at 8 years old, I learned about the Holocaust. Upon telling my mother what I had learned, she urged me never to discuss Germany or the Holocaust with my maternal grandmother. Since then, I have been trying to get my grandmother to open up about her childhood and her relationship to a country and history that both robbed her of everything she knew and loved and sent her into a new life full of children, grandchildren, and now seven great grandchildren.

All of the songs on Silver and Ash are based on the memories my grandmother has chosen to tell me and have been enhanced by what I know of their historical context. The pathos in the songs comes from my own imagination—though I still question my ability to imagine/express even some of the feelings tangled up in this process of such unimaginable loss—and the very real feelings of my own that are wrapped up in my grandmother’s story.

How long did you spend making the album, and how did the process change you?

How long did I spend making this album? One answer is 20+ years. Another answer is 2 years. How did the process change me? How did it NOT change me is probably a better question.

For the first time in my life, I was able to bring together my passions for Jewish history, psychology, music, and performance. The process of unearthing my grandmother’s stories has opened up lines of communication—between me and my grandmother, me and my mother, my mother and my grandmother—that have only enriched and deepened already strong relationships. I’ve come to understand my career as a musician as being integrally tied into my experience as a Jewish woman— daughter, sister, and now wife. I could go on, but I’ll spare you the long laundry list…

I loved what Jesse Oxfeld, from Tablet Magazine, said about Silver and Ash: “You begin to think of Europe’s lost Jewryof Burson’s grandmother’s lost childhood, and lost familynot as distant, sepia-toned artifacts, but actual people, with immediate troubles.” How do you feel when you read that?

I feel like a success—like the songs that I wrote accomplished for others what they accomplished for me, that they turned recorded names and faces into multidimensional, brightly colored lives with meaning.

You were born in Nashville, obviously a city with amazing musical influence for songwriters. What was it like growing up Jewish there?

I was actually born in Memphis. My family moved to Nashville when I was 13. On a certain level, the experiences were the same—small (compared to NYC or even Boston) but strong Jewish communities in the Bible Belt of the American South. Yet the experiences were actually fairly different for me largely because, in Memphis, I was surrounded by family. My family, more than anything else, is what has shaped my sense of Jewishness, from eating fried chicken and chicken noodle soup for Shabbos dinner at my paternal grandparents’ home to the southern accents reciting prayers. Perhaps most important to the music I am currently creating, my family, and the Jewish community of which it was a part, has given me a great sense of pride for who I am as a Jewish woman and as an individual along with a real appreciation for and love of the larger non-Jewish world of which I am also a part.

You have said that you relocated to Brooklyn to focus on creating a life for yourself that could “better integrate my life as a musician with my love of Jewish history, ritual, and culture.” Could you say more about that?

I moved to Brooklyn from Tennessee for a host of reasons, but finding balance was the main one. I wanted a life that was characterized more by inclusion than exclusion, in which all of my interests and passions could co-exist and inform each other; a life in which being Jewish or a musician or an educator could mean more than only one or two things.

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