This post is contributed by Benjamin Goodman, marketing director for Crush Mobile.
Michelle Citrin is a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter, YouTuber and Jewish worship leader who has performed in front of thousands and thousands of concertgoers. Citrin performed at the 2015 Union of Reform Judaism Biennial that was held in Orlando in November. She’s now on the road supporting her new album Left Brained Right Hearted and leading worship at synagogues in the U.S.
Michelle’s popular YouTube videos include “20 Things to Do with Matzah,” “Call Your Zeyde,” “Rosh Hashanah Girl” and “Hanukah Lovin.”
Last month, Michelle partnered up with JCrush, a Jewish dating app available for free on iPhone & Android, to help spread the word about each other. Users of the app can share four of Michelle’s songs (via Spotify) with their matches (also known as Crushes).
We just spoke with Michelle to discuss her latest album and plans for 2016.
What inspired you to sing, write music, and pick up the guitar?
One day I lost my hamster, Junior. While searching around the basement, I came across a roll of carpet that I moved aside to see if maybe he curled under it. When I moved the carpet aside, I uncovered a small, classical guitar with 3 strings on it and felt like I had just discovered gold! I sat down on the carpet roll, and just as I started plucking the few strings, Junior came running out of the carpet roll!! I believe that Junior led me to the guitar and the guitar led me to Junior. I found some books, downloaded tabs (on dial up internet!) and taught myself my favorite songs by The Doors, The Indigo Girls and Queen. Since I did everything by ear, I experimented a lot between sounds and out came new melodies. The beauty of being an untrained musician is that there are no rules, just space for creativity. As I got older, I discovered the joy in studying the craft of songwriting, voice and guitar very casually by studying performers I love. As for lyrics, my writing stemmed from a desire to express myself in ways I didn’t feel I could as a shy kid. For me, there is no greater joy than knowing that something I’ve written out of my own journey has helped ‘name’ something for them in their own personal journey.
What led you to write and perform Jewish music?
Being Jewish and being a musician! No, really – it was a very natural progression. The first interaction with a musical instrument that I ever had was with my maternal Grandmother who taught me how to play “Chag Purim” pointing out the piano keys to me note by note. Meanwhile, my Grandfather and I used to discuss the weekly parsha and he was a chazzan with an amazing nusachy soulful voice. In other words, music is a direct link to my ancestors and it’s an incredibly powerful thing for me to be able to compose Jewish music and share this deep connection to our collective ancestors with the larger Jewish community. My family gatherings for holidays were and are still filled with such joy, humor and music with everyone participating in some way – some on piano, violin, some dancing, banging a table and some on guitar. I feel so passionate about helping the larger Jewish community feel this amazing sense of joy that Judaism that has instilled in me.
And yet, I always felt I had to keep my Jewish self separate from my singer/songwriter self. The turning point for me, was meeting Debbie Friedman and Craig Taubman. It became very clear to me that I did not need to keep these parts separate. In fact, my writing and performing only became stronger once I found a way to unite these fragmented pieces of myself. I am eternally grateful that they showed me how, simply by being who they were, and by welcoming me under their wings to learn from them.
How did you come up with the ideas for your creative YouTube videos?
Each video comes with a unique story behind it. For example – ‘Hanukkah Lovin’ stems from my longtime wish for there to be warm ‘n jazzy Hanukkah music similar to the beautiful repertoire of Christmas music. I never understood why we didn’t have more songs for this beautiful time of year. So, my partner Molly Kane and I got together and explored the rich imagery of the holiday and season. I called up some wonderful musicians including Norah Jones’ drummer and out came Hanukkah Lovin! The exciting part is that this song was featured on XM and FM radio and then people started to share the video via social media or as a greeting card.
Another example of video inspiration is with “Shake Your Grogger” – which stems from my desire to highlight the often underrated themes of Purim – it is an exciting holiday that is all about overcoming hardship and honoring a fierce, kick ass female heroine, Esther. I wanted to deliver this positive message through the ultimate Purim party song video with an upbeat, lively song.
Since Esther was unavailable for the filming, I thought it’d be neat to experiment with animation meets live video. So, I invited my favorite Brooklynites who radiate ultimate joy and fun to come to one of my favorite Brooklyn venues – The Way Station — to come dance and party for 4 hours and they nailed it! The result was better than I could have expected – synagogues started to play the song at their Purim parties, people began creating flash mobs for the song and perhaps the biggest surprise of all was receiving a note from a Holocaust survivor saying, “In my lifetime, I never thought I’d see such a joyful exhibition of Jewish identity and my Grandaughter adores it!” I never know how the art that I put out will be received, I just put it out there – so it is incredibly humbling, heartwarming and rewarding to learn about the positive impact it has on such a wide variety of people.
What have been some of your favorite shows and performances of your career so far?
Traveling the world with my music is by far the most exciting aspect of being a performer. I love meeting new people, immersing myself into new cultures and communities. I was especially thrilled to perform at Birthright Mega Events in Israel, right down the coast of Jaffa where my mother was born. I was also really excited to be able to sing the national anthem and perform a set in front of 15,000 people including members of Congress at the AIPAC convention in Washington D.C. That was amazing!
How do secular shows compare to shows at synagogues or other Jewish venues?
For me, sharing music is all about the connection with others. When I’m performing in secular venues, I’m particularly interested in connecting with the audience around the shared stories and journeys of our lives. When I’m with a congregation and using music and my voice to lead people in prayer, I feel it’s my role to help people connect to something greater than themselves through awareness and higher consciousness. Regardless of where I perform, I believe the most important thing I can offer is an honest delivery and open channel to fearless vulnerability with a desire to connect. I believe this is the way to help others connect to their truest selves. Music has an extremely powerful ability to open us up in a magical way and I truly believe that the secret key to a happier and healthier world is through awareness. I have a deep desire to help tune this planet into a kinder, more loving vibration and music is the platform I feel I can best do that.
How was your experience at the 2015 URJ Biennial?
Phenomenal! It’s an amazing gathering of people who are excited about making great things happen and incorporating positive changes not just the Jewish community, but the world at large. It is incredible to experience prayer with 5,000 people in one room together and I’ve never been a part of a more energetic Shabbat song session. It truly is electrifying I highly recommend everyone to experience it for themselves!
How was the recording process of your new album Left Brained Right Hearted?
Humblin. It was filled with moments of growth and excitement. I started this project years ago with a massive search to find the most talented people to help make this album what I hoped it to be. This included searching for a violinist, cellist, trombonist, bassist, guitarists, keys, drummer, percussionist and, of course, a great producer. I feel so lucky to have been able to work with a dream list of wonderfully talented folks who’s work I greatly admire. I am especially grateful to have worked with producer, Tim Bright who was there to be the glue of all the musical ideas together and teach me so much about the art of production.
Right in the middle of the recording, I was pulled into an amazing whirlwind of adventure thanks to the release of my YouTube videos and a surprise trance dance hit that topped the charts in Europe and three and a half years of scoring music/lyrics for an upcoming Broadway productions of Sleepless in Seattle. It literally all happened at once and was completely insane. I had two quotes I held with me to get through it –
1. In this world nothing worth having is going to come easy”
2. “Sleep when yer dead”
Because of everyone’s amazing talents, this album sounds better than I could’ve imagined and I’m psyched for you to have a listen! It’s my goal to create a soundtrack for people’s lives and I’m especially excited to now explore ways in which I can get these songs into the soundtrack of film and television.
What are your plans for 2016 at the moment?
Right now, I’m on tour supporting Left Brained Right Hearted and prepping for its launch party in the Spring and its radio release. I’m also enjoying a side project called, “FourTelling” which is a collaboration with some of my favorite Jewish musicians – Julie Silver, Peri Smilow and Beth Schafer. Our performances include luscious harmonies and stories behind our music. It’s a great opportunity to enjoy sharing the stage with people I love and admire and the shows are a blast! While that’s all happening, I’m in the process of diving deep into studying sacred chant, ancient forms of healing, sound energy and Torah in preparation for my next album release which will be focusing on sharing ancient Jewish wisdom through a modern lens inspired by liturgical texts.
For everything Michelle Citrin, visit www.michellecitrin.com/