Avi Wisnia: Open, Unreserved and New

 While every artist today enters the music industry ready to pave their own way through this unpredictable and sometimes threatening landscape, they all promote their EPs and records through the same tactic: live performance. This part of being a full-time musician excites Avi Wisnia.

“My schedule is kind of crazy,” he states, “but I love the challenges that come with it; I always play for a new audience. Playing one of my songs live is always a new experience, and I love the spontaneity and openness that comes with doing so.”

Roger Greenawalt on ukulele and band

After reviewing Avi Wisnia’s performance at CMJ 2011 right here on Music Historian’s Hear; Don’t Listen, I was set on interviewing him for a feature article. This past Saturday, I arranged a meeting with Avi backstage at the Brooklyn Bowl following his performance in the Beatles Complete Compilation with the Ukulele band.

During our conversation in the poorly insulated loft right above the Brooklyn Bowl stage, Avi talked about the obstacles he had to overcome before entering a studio. These challenges followed his from his pre-college years all the way to recording his first full-length album, Something New. Today Avi leaps over hurdles in order to do what he loves most: getting others excited about music.

“I want people to feel like they’re taking away something they haven’t heard before”

“I feel music is all about expressing yourself in the moment and creating that communal experience with the audience.

“Whenever people listen to me perform or sing on a record, I want them to feel like they’re taking away something they haven’t heard before – a mixing of different styles – something new.”

Avi Wisnia at the Brooklyn Bowl, January 14th.

Something New is also the title of his first full-length recorded album, one that evolved from his 2007 EP, Avi Wisnia Presents. As I researched Avi’s background online, I noticed he rerecorded many of his songs from his first album for his latest one. Further into our conversation, I discovered that rerecording these songs was essential to Avi. He wanted to present himself as the same musician from his EP on his full-length feature.

“I started performing my own music for people while I was in college, just to see their reaction. They would come up to me and ask for copies of my music to take home with them. This led me to recording an album.

“I brought my band from New York City to New Jersey to make this record in the a Synagogue where my father was a rabbi. My uncle, who was a cantor in that same temple, engineered our recordings.

“Working on this album was a real grassroots effort: I felt like were recording the songs just as they were in that moment. Everything we recorded for Avi Wisnia Presents was only a first or second take.

“Creating Something New gave me the opportunity to rerecord these songs exactly the way I always heard them in my mind. Although I felt more pressured to realize my own songs, we really made the most of the recording space – incorporating different sounds to bring the most out of the songs.”

  The ability to hear a brand new song before writing it to paper is nothing short of amazing and sought-after in the music industry. However, it would be years before Avi learned to trust his own ability.

“I didn’t accept the idea of projecting my influences through my own music, but then I embraced it”

“It took me a surprisingly long time to put songs onto paper. I thought if the song wasn’t going to be a masterpiece, then I didn’t want to write it down. I didn’t get over this until college, and before that; I never really allowed myself to finish songs. I eventually realized that every song I composed wasn’t going to be complete or perfect.

“For a long time, I also didn’t accept the idea of projecting my musical influences through my music. At first, I didn’t want to sound like someone else. Later, I embraced the fact that I couldn’t escape my influences. Now, I channel all the songs I grew up listening to through my voice and live performance.”

Avi proves to me that a musician can’t escape his or her greatest musical influences. These help shape an artist’s proclivity for a specific style. For instance, some tracks featured on Something New include musical elements popularly used in 20th century music, like ‘song quoting,’ which is present in the title track, “Something New,” and the 12-bar blues form in “Rabbit Hole.”

I then ask myself, why call a record from today, which pays so much homage to the styles that were new before our time, “Something New?”

The intimate mix of Bossa Nova, west coast jazz, acoustic folk, and blues 

“This was my first full-length album, and it was an introduction to me as full-time recording artist. It displayed my flexibility and diversity as a musician.

“Also, I want people to hear a new mix of different musical styles,” some of which include acoustic folk, west coast jazz, blues, and Bossa Nova.

I then asked Avi what he liked about these genres, and he responded:

“Looking back to all the records I listened to growing up, my favorite track on every album was the last, the really quiet and intimate one. You find that same intimacy and mellowness in folk, west coast jazz and Bossa Nova. Although they are different styles, they channel that same idea of mellowness and intimacy.”

Songs like “Rabbit Hole” and “Sink” focus lyrically on intimate issues like foolish young love and hitting rock-bottom. Musically, the slow tempo and improvisational style in “Rabbit Hole” helps both the attentive and recreational listener transcend to a silent space, closed off from the busy world. I asked Avi to talk about “Rabbit Hole” and I was surprised by his motivation behind this track. It was not what I initially assumed.

“One night, while I was half-asleep in my college dorm room, I wrote down a line that stuck in my head. I then spent the next 5 hours into the morning hours trying to develop it, and soon, it turned into a song. While it made sense to me as I wrote it, I still had to be sure it made sense in the morning.

“When you experience a moment like this, when an idea for a song just comes to your mind, you have to let it take you places. Just go with it.”

Avi then also explained that not all songs come to him as naturally. The story behind “Sink” is dramatically different.

“Sometimes, you have to put work into a song. Then the inspiration comes later”

“For “Sink” the idea of melody and rhythm were there, but I had trouble with both the lyrics and tying together different segments of the song. 

“When I took the song to the studio, I wasn’t sure how to communicate the track to either the musicians or the producers. Something was missing, and the song wasn’t translating. I also struggled with this song when I performed it for others.

“Sink” was the last song on the album to get attention, and I, along with my musicians and producers, felt it was holding the rest of the album back. I was pretty sure I would throw “Sink” into the trash.

“Then one day, when I was visiting my childhood home in northern Philadelphia, I went down to the basement and found a Fisher Price Xylophone. I started playing and found that the range of sound on this toy-xylophone fit the octave within “Sink.” So I brought to the studio, put a microphone to it, and started playing. Afterward, we invited some friends to sing a simple back-up chorus, and eventually, all these elements happened to sync everything.

“Sometimes, you have to put work into a song. Then the inspiration for the song comes later.”

The uncertainty of the next hit song, masterpiece, or duration of the next full-length recorded album may frighten some, but not Avi.

“The constant change allows me to express myself in different ways”

 “As I got more into the business, I had to remind myself that in the end, it is all about being excited by music.

“Before I became an artist, I was a music teacher for pre-school aged children. When I gave them a music lesson or handed them an instrument, they were always excited to play music. Even if their playing did not sound like a song, they were happy to express themselves.” This gratifying experience encouraged Avi to adopt a more positive attitude towards in his own life as a musician.

“Every time I go on stage, I remind myself to be open and unreserved when performing. I shouldn’t worry about being “good enough.” Music in this way can be very forgiving; and it’s a great way to get rid of the hang-ups in life and enjoy the moment.” And he wants to continue doing this even as a full-time recording artist.

“I love going on the road and meeting new people and also feeling the vibes of different cities. The constant changes in location challenge me to express myself in different ways, and I never want that to stop. I always run in to something new.”

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