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Exclusive Interview with Eli Lev

I originally connected with Eli Lev a couple weeks ago at the Mo Lowda & The Humble concert here in Washington, DC. As it turns out, Eli himself is a Folk/Americana artist based here in the area. As soon as I listened to his music, I knew I wanted to feature him on the site. His work is unique, with each song being masterfully created with each beat and each word. I got the chance to chat with him about how he got started in music, his debut EP, his Patreon page and so much more. Keep reading to see what he had to say!

Tell me a little bit about how you originally got started in music. How old were you?

I really only went full-time maybe a couple of years ago, maybe a year and a half ago. [I had] just been kind of dabbling, writing kind of silly songs while I was traveling here and there. I was in a high school band and just jammed a little bit in college. I played in a cover band when I was living in Europe in Andorra. 

Just for the English and Spanish tourists and stuff. So that was fun. But nothing really serious until about a couple of years [ago] when I came back from Spain. 

Was there a specific moment or a person who made you realized music is what you wanted to do? Because if I remember correctly, didn’t you tell me you were a teacher before you started doing music full-time?

Yeah. That’s funny. Three years ago, I was finishing up my master’s degree in language education, and thinking about going back into the teaching biz and teaching teachers, doing teacher training. Then I took my own solo vacation in winter, the semester before I was going to graduate, to Mexico, a place called Sayulita. I brought all my camping stuff and I camped out on a beach for two weeks, the whole time, just on my own.

It was a really, really cool experience and I was just listening to some of the tracks I had recorded on my phone and I was like, “You know what? I really kind of just want to do music and [laughs] not put this master’s degree that I just worked so hard on [to use].” I just have to at least try it once, just to see, or else I feel like I would go my whole life and wonder what would happen if I did that. So I made a commitment to myself. I was like, “I’m going to come back from this, I’m going to finish up grad school but then I’m going to be music full-time afterward and we’re going to see what happens.” 

So you finished the master’s degree and then started doing music full-time? 

Um, more or less. I finished [my] master’s degree, did a little traveling around the world, took a solo bike trip in southern Spain, Andalusia. Then [I] came back and just started doing shows, just dabbling in it while I was doing other things, LYFT driving and landscaping and other part-time stuff. It’s tricky to earn a living full-time as a musician, so I was just doing other things to supplement it. [But] I just kept getting more shows and more shows and doing less of the other stuff. And now it’s full-time music. 

It sounds like travel has been a big part of your story too. 

Yeah. Massive. All of my songs have come from journeys in Israel or Andorra or Arizona or Australia and New Zealand and Morocco; all these places kind of come together in the songs.

You’re based here in DC, which has a really unique music scene. I’m curious: does that play a role in the music you create? Whether it’s referenced in your lyrics or has inspired the sound of your music. 

Yeah, definitely. My song “Growing Up and Going Down” is about coming back to DC, back home and connecting with my roots. But growing up in Silver Spring, Maryland, it is a very diverse community. So you know my friends were Sikh, Indian, Jewish, Asian, Iranian, Hispanic; everybody was from somewhere. That gave us a lot of sounds. We would have like assemblies every month on some kind of different culture [laughs]. So we would always hear just really cool music. So yeah, that’s been a part of it for sure, just coming from a diverse background and connecting that to the music.

I know your music bridges a bunch of different genres. I’m curious, if you had to describe your music without using genre names how would you describe it? 

I’d call it adventure music. Storytelling, adventure music. Because it’s like… when you put a song on it takes you somewhere that might not be the same place that I was. But it’ll take you either to a memory or to a dream or to a thought or to a time had with a friend or a family member. So it’s kind of like going on a little adventure every time you hear something. 

I want to talk a little bit about your debut EP that came out a few months ago. What has the response been like? 

It’s been really wow. There was a long time where I had the album and I was just waiting for it and I knew it was going to be released. Then the day came and it came out and I’m like, “Okay. My music is out there and whatever happens, happens. People like it, no worries. If they don’t, you know, at least I tried.” But the response has been wild. Blogs in Indonesia have picked it up, you know what I mean? People from Florida are always emailing me. I got a tweet from Wyoming saying they’re playing the song on their radio. People that I didn’t even send it to are, all around the world, just really kind of responding to it in a really cool way. Social media is really kind of cool in that regard, where someone from, Saudi Arabia can just leave a comment [saying], “This is amazing. Keep doing this.” All those little things really matter. I mean, yeah, I’ve gotten features on CBS News and Paste Magazine and Scope Magazine and BuzzFeed and all that stuff and that is cool on it’s own. But it’s the individual people who are like, “The song really connected to me” that make me smile. 

Is Indonesia the furthest place you’ve heard from a fan who has listened to your album or song and has reached out to you? 

Yeah. Indonesia, Japan, China. I’m kind of forming cool friendships or relationships with them online too. They’re always asking when the next song is coming out, when the next Folk Friday video that I do for Youtube every Friday [is coming out]. It’s really, really wild. 

I wanted to ask you about your writing process because that’s something that’s always fascinated me. For this EP in particular, what was your writing process like?

They say you’ve got your whole life to write your first album [laughs]. So these songs go back as far as… two or three years. Most of them are actually quite recent. They were just songs that I wrote, like my sister gave me a mandolin for my birthday so I wrote “Making Space” on that. And then “Long Way Back to Shonto,” while I had lived the experience on the Navajo reservation eight years ago, I also wrote that song a year or two years ago. “Growing Up and Going Down” is about coming home. Then “Go Down” was really cool, that was from my time in Israel. I witnessed a baptismal site over there. 

It was really sexy and spiritual and touristy and it was just everything at once [laughs]. So I wrote “Go Down” about that. But yeah, every song is about an adventure that I have lived at in the past 10 years.

Did you write all of these yourselves or are you someone who collaborates with others? How does that part of the process work for you? 

So all of these just kind of started on my own because they were solo-ish songs that I wrote while traveling. But now that I’m in the game and talking to producers and meeting other singer-songwriters, co-writing is definitely part of that and I’ve got a bunch of cool projects that I’m working on with other people. I really love collaborating with folks. I’ve got a new project with this producer out of Virginia called Mr. MP. It’s like summer kind of hip-hop, soulful melodic jams and it’s something totally different. But I’m into it [laughs].

It’s a cool experience and he’s here and he’s local, so why not? 

Exactly. Yes. I mean the DC scene is awesome. You’d be silly not to collaborate with other amazing musicians here.

There are so many fantastic musicians here. You also released a music video for “Go Down” that has a really unique concept. What inspired that?

So the “Go Down” one was about going into one’s self and finding that creative spark and bringing it out and showing it to the world. I thought that a cool metaphor for that was baptism, going and putting ourselves in a ritual cleansing. It doesn’t have to be Christian baptism or Arabic baptism or the Jewish mikvah, but the tradition is the same in most religions, just a ritual cleansing. I thought that was necessary for anybody who’s a creative to do. So I wanted to represent that and I just got all my creative friends from DC together and we went to the creek about 10 minutes from my house and we were just like, “Let’s just do this video.” No storyboarding, no producer, just let’s make this happen. We learned a lot, I was really, really happy with the product that came out.

I was going to ask if that was filmed in the DC area because those shots were incredible.

Yeah. I mean, it doesn’t look like it but–the way we got the angles and it had just rained like two weeks beforehand so everything was just green and lush–it’s just right in my backyard. Silver Spring, Maryland. Right behind my elementary school. 

Is there a track from your EP that you feel best represents who you are and who you are as an artist? 

Yeah, I really think “Making Space.” The video for that is coming out soon and it is just me with a mandolin going around DC and singing the song with people. It’s going to be a really, really cool video and that kind of represents me where it’s just mobile and making community with humanity and whoever that is around and whoever wants to participate and enjoy the music. Everyone’s welcome [is] that universal message. So I really think that’s my anthem at the moment. 

Where in DC did you film it? 

I filmed at Meridian Hill Park, which used to be Malcolm X Park back in the day. Then we went down to Georgetown and went to the waterfront over there. It was a lot of different locations, but it was great. It was really fun and I’m really excited about it’s release. 

Any idea when it’s coming out? 

Yeah, it should be next month or so. I’m going to have a global kind of countdown to the music video. Got a new website coming up. So all that’s kind of getting ready to rock. I’m really, really excited.

You’ve done something really cool with your music in that you’ve created this Patreon page for people to directly support you. And if I’m not mistaken, from what I read at least, wasn’t that a big part of how your EP was released?

So Patreon page is pretty much the future of how we support creatives. Album sales are nonexistent. We get maybe like twenty cents if you get the album on iTunes; it’s like point zero, zero, zero, zero one cents on Spotify, so none of that stuff supports an artist. However, it’s very important for exposure. So the future of supporting your favorite creative is these kind of micro-patrons… Now that we have technology available… like these kind of crowdfunding are really important to creatives and connecting to people on an individual basis so they want to support you is also really important. So I’ve been really, really blessed with an incredible group of family and friends and community that have come together for the Patreon page and that’s really kind of helped me keep going as an artist. I’m almost up to 80 patrons now and when I get to 100, I’m going to release my next album, Way Out West, exclusively to them as just a thank you kind of thing. 

That’s awesome. 

Yeah. And it’s been great. I mean like I highly encourage any creative to work that route and really connect to their fans in whatever way that they find is best because that’s the thing that’s going to kind of keep us going in this modern age. 

Right. So musically, what can people expect from you for the rest of the 2018? Do you ever play shows that aren’t in this area? Like are you going on tour, for lack of a better word?

I’m playing in New York, Rockwood Music Hall in July. And I’ll be in Chicago at Uncommon Ground Coffee House in a few weeks. Then I’ve got some festivals coming up, [some] Baltimore shows and Richmond and I’m [usually] in Virginia quite a bit. And then we’ve got our northeastern tour [we’re] planning for this fall, 2018.

I just have a few more fun questions to wrap things up. You were talking about how travel is a big part of your life and a big part of your story. What is the next place you’re hoping to visit and cross off your bucket list? 

Yeah, so that’s funny you asked that. Because I had traveled so much in my life, the next space is my internal self. Meditation and connecting with my community here has allowed me to explore that more. It’s almost even harder to actually sit and explore then just getting a ticket to like the Bahamas or Bermuda. But I’m really understanding that there’s a vast internal landscape that each of us have and it requires a lot of resolve, but it’s really, really amazing what we can find there as well.

Interesting. So are you really big into meditation and yoga and all that stuff? 

I have just kind of started doing an hour of meditation in the morning, an hour of meditation in the evening, called Vipassana Meditation. That has been really helping me kind of stay grounded with the whole music thing. 

If you could go on tour with any artist, who would it be and why? 

I opened up for Ellis Paul at Jammin Java. He’s like one of these original singer-songwriters and he has been doing the crowdfunding thing since before I was born. And just seeing him on stage and hanging out with him backstage and seeing how he weaves the audience into his songs and makes everybody feel involved was really, really incredible. So if I could go on tour with anybody it would be Ellis Paul, just to keep taking notes and learning from one of the masters. 

I’m going to have to look him up. I’ve never heard of him.

He did the soundtrack for “Me, Myself and Irene,” a Jim Carrey movie back in the day. I had also heard some of his stuff but not that much, but he’s incredible. 

Last question — our website is called Talk Nerdy With Us because we all have an inner nerd. What is something you nerd out about? 

I am beginning to nerd out about design. Whether it’s how to present a plate of food to somebody or how to create a poster or how to make a social media post or even a song. It’s all design. It’s like, how much can you take out to keep the actual essence of something? So I’m getting really, really nerdy with Photoshop and all of this kind of stuff on how to make designs cool and make it pop and make people connect. 

Do you have any kind of background in design, like graphic or whatever?

No, nothing. I’m just learning everything right now, as a musician you have to. You just have to be a business person, a creative, a designer, you have to do it all. So I’ve just been really learning all that in the last year. 

For more information, you can visit Eli’s website or follow him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. You can also support him on Patreon.

Written by Bryna Kramer

I could have followed in my father's footsteps and become a doctor. But there was just too much good television on.

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