Getting to Know Avi Wisnia

Avi Wisnia is eclectic and he revels in that fact.  He’s not your typical acoustic musician. When’s the last time you heard someone cover Lauryn Hill or Bjork, for instance? Avi takes his own unique view of the world and wraps creative chords around clever lyrics and out pop memorable songs.

Avi  is one of 24 Emerging Artists chosen for this year’s Falcon Ridge Folk Festival.  The Emerging Artist showcase is always one of the highlights of the festival. The musicians are chosen by a three-member jury and are given the opportunity to perform two songs (not to exceed ten minutes).  The audience votes for their favorites and three or four acts are asked to return to the main stage the following year.

Learn some more about Avi by visiting his website.

Check out this creative video of Avi’s song “Rabbit Hole.”

The beginning of your bio sure says a lot— imagine the love child of Ben Folds and Norah Jones…in Brazil.  What is it about your hypothetical parents that you have inherited?  

I admire both Ben Folds and Norah Jones in so many ways, most notably for forging their own distinct paths as artists and putting out music early in their careers that was so different from what their contemporaries were doing, for going against what the mainstream trends were, and for making the music that they wanted to make. I know I’ve been influenced by both of their performance styles. I love the playfulness of Ben Folds’ piano, and the dynamic range of his playing. And Norah Jones totally encapsulates this romantic, melancholy, mellow mood that totally hits my sweetspot. Her sound is tasteful and subtle, and she’s able to interpret songbook standards as if they were written for her. In my own playing, I like straddling that line between playfulness and subtlety, so I think both influences are present when I perform. I also think that Ben Folds and Norah Jones would be really fun to have as legal guardians and parental figures. So – just to put it out there – if they are interested in adopting me and co-parenting, I would be totally on board.

And the reason you’d be in Brazil is your love of bossa nova.  What turned you on to Brazilian music?  (For me it was the “Girl from Ipanema.”)

Yes! I recently gave a TED talk about how I fell in love with bossa nova, and the genesis is absolutely Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “The Girl From Ipanema” – which I think still serves as the entry point to Brazilian music for so many people. For me, this song was just the beginning, and made me so curious about what this unique sound was and where it came from, and it opened up my world to a genre of music that completely fascinates me. The way bossa nova combines complex rhythms and unexpected melody, while keeping this relaxed and unassuming tone.  The more artists I began to discover – Joao Gilberto, Elis Regina, Chico Buarque – the more inspired I became. In some unexplainable way, I felt like I had found music that fit me. Bossa nova definitely informs a lot of what I compose.

It’s clear that you have some other pretty big influences in your music.  I’m assuming you didn’t start off your musical influences with bossa nova?  What kind of music did you gravitate toward as a kid and how did those influences change when you started to play music?

Though my tastes are pretty eclectic, I’ve always been really drawn to strong melody and intelligent songwriting. So early influences were Marc Cohn, Billy Joel, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder. I also started classical piano lessons when I was 5, so there was definitely an appreciation for structure and harmony. But I was always improvising during my practice sessions – which would foreshadow my later exploration into jazz and folk artists.

I’ve been checking your videos on YouTube and see that you really do play an eclectic range of cover songs including Amy Winehouse, The Cure and most especially Neil Young.  “Harvest Moon” with a piano lead adds a whole new element to that song.  What do you look for in a cover song?

I love playing other people’s music. When I take on a cover song, my goal is to give the audience something familiar yet unexpected, and to do it differently than it has been done already. Some of my favorite live performance moments come when it takes a few lines for the audience to figure out that they know the song I’m playing. I love playing with expectation and keeping an audience guessing – there’s something thrilling about handing the audience something new and having them experience it in a totally knew way. There’s no point in playing a song exactly the way a great artist has already played it, so it’s a really fun challenge to filter a song through my own lens.

How long have you been writing your own songs?  Are you a disciplined writer who sets aside time every day to write?

I’ve been writing ever since my fingers could touch a piano keyboard. I remember that, from a very young age, I would frustrate my piano teacher because I was always wanting to improvise off the classical pieces and exercises. But I didn’t really pursue songwriting seriously until I graduated college and considered performing as a songwriter.

Every song comes together in its own way, but mostly I try and capture the inspiration when it hits me – I find it’s usually as I’m walking around the streets of Philadelphia, or after coming home from a bar at 2 a.m., or when I’m in the shower. I find that chords and melody come pretty easily, but it’s the lyrics and subject matter that always take time to form. But every song needs its writer to sit down at the desk and go over it to smooth out the edges, fill in the holes, revise and edit. You can’t always wait for inspiration to come to you – sometimes you sit down with a song in front of you and do the work to make it complete. As I’m beginning to write more and focus on putting new material together, I recognize the value in setting aside that time to do the work, not just when the inspiration hits.

Tell us about the music video for your song “Rabbit Hole.”  Did you come up with the concept?  I understand the video has won a couple of awards which is pretty cool.  

The video for “Rabbit Hole” was a collaboration between me and some childhood friends, Seth Kroll and Alan Cohen, who co-directed. I have a tight group of friends that often collaborates on projects together. We took the original concept of the song: frustration and complacency in a relationship, the idea of feeling ‘stuck’ with someone, and used the video to approach that concept from a really creative and unexpected angle, with a healthy bit of humor and a little bit of creepiness. I think we were successful in creating a video that completely adds another layer to the song, rather than just creating a visual representation of the song. The video features cameo appearances from my band, as well as fans and supporters – every extra you see is a member of Team Wisnia who responded to an open call from my mailing list. So I’m really proud that this team effort was accepted as an official selection in film festivals across the country and won a few short film awards. If you’ve heard the song, then you need to see the video, because it will make you think of the song in a completely different way.

Your tutorial about how to play the kazoo is a YouTube hit.  Do you ask your audiences to participate in the musicmaking during your shows?

I definitely encourage audience participation during my shows. It’s great to hear people sing along in multi-part harmony, to add weird percussion noises, and yes, I bring extra kazoos with me wherever I go and I like handing them out and having people participate in the shows. Although, I’ve found that people surprisingly don’t know how to play the kazoo (or they forgot how) so I made a ‘Kazootorial’ video to remind people how to do it. It’s amazing – the video has earned me a pretty diverse international audience, and I’ve been shipping my Avi Wisnia kazoos, which are available on my website, all over the world – from Brazil, to Mexico, to China.

What’s next for you and your ensemble?

I’m gearing up for a summer tour, and I’m really excited to participate in the Falcon Ridge Folk Fest for my first time – both as performer and attendee.  After that, I’ll be doing lots of shows, including a house concert tour down the East Coast, performing some brand new songs. After that, it will be time to focus on my next recording project.  I’ve been working on a lot of new material lately, so if you happen to see me live, you can get a preview of some of my new music, and I hope to have a new album out soon! Stay tuned!

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