Music and (Yiddish) Lyrics

Published: March 31st 2010
in Culture » Music

Mitch Smolkin in concert
Pic: courtesy of Mitch Smolkin
Mitch Smolkin
Pic: courtesy of Mitch Smolkin

Singer, producer and actor Mitch Smolkin has been in the music business for many years. He has performed on various stages, including concerts in Canada, the U.S., South America and Israel. But the road to releasing a full album was more winding than he anticipated.


After years of working on different projects such as the Ashkenaz Festival and currently at the Harbourfront Centre, Smolkin finally finished his first album. And, he did not have to look any further for inspiration than his own Yiddish background. A Song is Born comprises 13 tracks that salute Yiddish history as well as Smolkin’s own journey in music. He recently spoke to Shalom Life to discuss his debut album.


Can you talk about your thought process in terms of what you wanted to achieve with this album?


I think that I primarily wanted to do something that I would like. I know it may sound somewhat simplistic; I think making one’s first album is challenging because there are so many routes that one can take. It was a bit of a surprise in a sense that in the past I had false starts. I was actually in the studio thinking that I was going to begin and realizing that it wasn’t the right time. It wasn’t the right way to move forward. So it wasn’t until I was leaving the Ashkenaz Festival as artistic director in 2006. It was basically the second-to-last day when I performed with some friends that I knew that those were the individuals I wanted to work with. From there, it just flowed.


Speaking of the Ashkenaz Festival, you were the artistic director there for six years. What was the transition like between working there and then recording your own album?


I kind of did things in reverse. A lot of people come to those jobs with albums or with artwork, depending on one’s artistic practice. It made things in many ways a lot easier for me because I had the experience of working with so many artists and watching their process. Had I started to make an album before having been there, I wouldn’t have the same contacts and the same skills for being able to know how to launch an album, how to go on tour or how to get grants. I think it was beneficial.


You chose the inspiration of Yiddish history for all of your tracks. Why did you choose that theme?


I kind of looked at a metaphor of building a house, in terms of building my body of work. It dawned on me at some point that it was really important to go with my heart and not necessarily what is commercially viable. Ultimately, I wanted to love what I did. So I see this album as sort of having a foundation of the work that I want to do: a start of the beginning. And the beginning very much for me is Yiddish music. I feel like I paid tribute to where I come from, so that I know better where I can go.


How has your background, whether it’s your faith or culture, affected your music?


It’s given me a sense of place. A few months I had the opportunity to tour to South America. The best example was Uruguay. I was able to perform for 600 people in Uruguay that I’ve never met before and I don’t speak Spanish. But I could go to all these countries, whether it’s across the United States, Canada, South American or Europe and sing in Yiddish. I think it’s affected my approach for this work. It allowed me to connect to the audience.


Related articles: (Music, Mitch, Smolkin, Yiddish, Ashkenaz, Festival)

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