Washington, DC-based Folk/Americana artist Eli Lev is making his mark with audiences and the industry with his impressive live shows. An avid traveler, Lev’s travels are a source of inspiration for his songwriting and gives him the chance to see new places and meet new people. Our staff writer, Emily May, recently talk with Lev as he discussed how he sees music as a universal language, and although his travels may see him encounter people that he cannot communicate with verbally, he finds that he can always communicate through music. He recently released his debut EP entitled All Roads East, the first in a series of albums that will also include Way Out West, Deep South and True North, all of which are inspired by the impact of each direction on his life. You can stay up-to-date with Eli and upcoming tour dates on his website here or Facebook here and can check out his music on Soundcloud here.
EM: You recently released your debut EP entitled “All Roads East”. How has the response been so far to the album? Do have a favorite track?
EL: The response to my first album ‘All Roads East’ has been amazing. Folks from all around the world have been contacting me on social media and via email about how they really connected to certain songs. It’s such a wild experience to get a message from someone from Indonesia about writing about my music, or a fan in Florida that has been playing my tunes on repeat. My favorite track changes by the day but right now it’s the first song, ‘Making Space’, that I’m really getting good vibes from.
EM: I read that will also be releasing a second EP entitled “Way Out West”. What prompted you to record two albums together and what inspired the album titles? What can fans expect from this EP?
EL: ’Way out West’ will be the second album in the series, with ‘Deep South’ and ‘True North’ coming soon after. Each EP has a theme about what that direction means in my life, and they all come together to make a bigger picture of all my travels and how all directions lead back home eventually.
EM: What sparked your love for music and storytelling? Did you grow up in a musical household and what drew you to folk music?
EL: My mom sang and played guitar and piano while my dad played oboe semi-professionally. They played all of the classics like Simon & Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan while I was growing up, and that definitely sparked my interest in music and acoustic guitar. I was actually a career educator before starting to do music full time last year, so storytelling and teaching are quite similar activities. I liked making every day interesting and bringing themes together in the classroom, and now I’m doing the same thing on stage!
EM: Who were your musical influences growing up? Do you have any current influences?
EL: I grew up with grunge. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots and then moved on to Radiohead and Tom Petty. I got into electronic music when I lived in Andorra in Europe and fell in love with middle eastern melodies while living in Tel Aviv. Currently I’m getting deep into bluegrass but I still like rocking electronic music like Sylvan Esso. My playlist is a little bit all over the place.
EM: You play a variety of instruments, including the native flute, the woodrow and the mandolin. Did you always have the desire to learn a variety of instruments?
EL: I started with piano as a child but had a ukulele around and was fascinated with the different sounds and feels they created. A melodica creates a very different visceral response than a mandolin – and I guess you could say I’m just obsessed with sounds and how they are made! In my gig bags I’ve got harmonicas and wooden blocks and shakers and flutes and whistles for days. They are great to pass out to the audience too and get some participation!
EM: I read that you craft much of your music based on your travels around the world. What sparked your interest in travel and do you have a favorite travel location or a particularly memorable experience? Where are you hoping to travel next? What do you think it is about music that makes it such a universal language?
EL: Travel has been a constant in my life. It brings new experiences and new friends, new sounds and tastes, new languages and new ideas. There are too many stories to pick just one, but my last travel adventure was to the North Carolina Appalachia Mountains and connecting with my cousins who lived up there. I found an instrument called a ‘Woodrow’ and started playing it to the mountain stream, just listening to the songs it was singing and playing along. I got some great ideas from that session and am excited to incorporate them into some new songs soon! Music is universal because it’s based on vibrations and emotions, two things that we all feel as humans. I’m currently planning a 2019 tour for the USA so very excited about it!
EM: What is your songwriting process? What inspires your lyrics?
EL: I don’t know how I wrote the songs on these albums. It’s a long process from idea, to chords, then to lyrics, then to the recording booth, and then adding instrumentation. Each song is a journey into that specific story and it just feels pretty incredible following along and listening to where it leads.
EM: You seem to be pretty involved in the Washington DC music scene. What do you love about the music scene in DC and who are some of your favorite artists?
EL: The DC music scene is a hidden gem. I feel so lucky to have started out here because everyone is so supportive and there are so many venues who want live music. The audience is great and very smart- they really listen to the stories and I very much appreciate that as a performer. My favorite artists are my soul-sister from another mister Emma G, who I feel like I’ve grown up with on the DC music scene. Also, Justin Trawick sings some incredible songs and has really supported the DC community through his ‘The 9 Songwriter Series’ that bring local artists together at big venues. Add in Louisa Hall, Chris Cassaday, and Marielle Kraft, and you’ve got just a few of the incredible artists in DC who are really honing their craft and creating buzz on the scene here.
EM: You recently released music videos for the songs “Go Down” and “Making Space”. What inspired the ideas behind the videos?
EL: The inspiration for ‘Go Down’ came from my visit to a baptismal site on the River Jordan by the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel. Tourists flock here from around the world to put on white robes and become baptized in the place where they believe Jesus was so many years ago. The scene is an incredible paradox of spirituality and consumerism, religion and fanaticism. Tourists watch as believers put on see-through white garments and wade into the river. The music video builds on those themes and is filmed in the forest near my childhood home. Six creatives from DC (dancer/photographer/jeweler/athlete/model/musicians) undergo a change of clothes into white robes in the forest, then proceed to submerge themselves in a small river and come up to the other side confident in their own skin. Each participant had the freedom to enter, submerse, and exit the water on their own terms and how ever they felt they needed the process to go. The video has some incredibly compelling images and I feel really proud of the production as it brings a lot of the DC artist community together for one project. “Making Space’ comes from the idea that connecting with people through music is a powerful activity. To highlight that I went around DC with just my mandolin and and a camera man, singing the song with new friends along the way.
EM: You perform with your band The Fortunes Found, as well as solo. What do you enjoy about each way of performing?
EL: Performing solo is great because I am able to connect personally with the audience and put the focus on story telling and audience participation, but there is nothing like playing in a full band. The sound and energy and sense of event is just something really special, so I feel super lucky to be able to play my tunes with such talented musicians on stage.
EM: How did your Folk Friday videos on your YouTube channel begin? How do you choose which songs to sing?
EL: Folk Friday began as a way for me to connect with my community of friends and family around the world. As I have lived in Arizona, Tel Aviv, Andorra, and have traveled to many other countries, many people can’t come to my shows in the DC area but still want to hear my music! Each week I choose a cover or an original to sing and frequently collaborate with local musicians on new tunes. It’s a really fun way to get my songs out there, connect with local artists, and share my music with a worldwide audience.
EM: I read that you stopped by Leesta Vall Hall Studios in Brooklyn earlier this year to do a special recording session in which you recorded one song in one take that was then pressed to vinyl. I also read that there was a very limited number of vinyl pressed and that those who ordered one were able to choose their song! How did this idea come about and how was the response?
EL: When Leesta Vall approached me about doing a session I really loved the idea. As it turns out, I had a show at Rockwood Music Hall in NYC the same weekend they were available to record. The recording process was super intimate, as Aaron Zimmer read out to me in my headphones who requested what song. I put that person in my mind, sang the tune just for them, and a few days later the unique recording was in their mailbox! Folks loved their individualized takes and it was a really cool experience. I’d definitely recommend it to artists who have and engaged fan base and want to give something special to their top supporters.
EM: You have been staying busy performing lots of shows! What do you love about being on stage and performing for an audience?
EL: Something strange happens to me when I get on stage. It’s almost like I’m not even performing, just feeling the spaces in between the audience and my guitar strings, the melody and the story of the song, the vibrations from my voice and the stomp of my boot on the stage. It really becomes an otherworldly activity, and is a very special feeling that I respect deeply. I love it when the audience sings along to the choruses, or keeps rhythm with a clap or a stomp. I love it when my fellow artists join me on stage to play along, it starts to feel like family up there if enough people join in. After playing a few hundred shows in just a couple years, the stage starts to feel more familiar than anything else! I’m just super happy that folks are so enthusiastic about coming out to shows and looking forward to bringing my music to a wider audience in the future.
EM: You have performed with some pretty amazing artists so far! Who have been some of your favorites? Are there any particular artists you would like to perform and/or collaborate with in the future?
EL: Opening for Shooter Jennings at The Fillmore in Silver Spring last year was a night I’ll always remember. He is such a down-to-earth guy, and I love his approach to music and performance. Hanging out with him after the show and seeing his tour bus was a really cool introduction to what life on the road as a performer is all about, and I hope to be living that dream very soon! Warming up the stage for Ellis Paul at Jammin Java last month was a dream-come-true as well. I have such admiration for Ellis and his direct-to-fan model of sustaining his music career. I took three pages of mental notes on performance techniques that night and learned a lot about open tuning from him backstage before the show.
EM: What’s next for you?
EL: With my next EP ‘Way Out West’ releasing soon, and more regional and national tour dates being added, I’m excited for what’s next for my solo act as well as my full band, The Fortunes Found. It seems like the buzz is really just getting started and I’m really excited about taking the show on the road around the US in 2019 and Europe in 2020!
Watch the music video for Eli Lev’s newest single “Go Down” below: