Huey Lewis and the News have been known to sing about “The Power of Love” but it was “The Power of Music” that brought Julia and Ira Levin together. Their collaboration is a mighty one and it sure feels like it was a union that was truly meant to be. As they state in the interview below, they are committed to making the world a happier place through their music. There’s no doubt that they are achieving their goal.
The Levins are 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
To learn more about The Levins, visit their website.
Here’s a video of The Levins singing “The Sun Never Says.”
I love the description of your music as “The Mamas and the Papas having coffee with Cole Porter.” Your songs are harmonically driven but tell us more about your sonic connection to Cole Porter.
Well, we both have jazz backgrounds and a sincere appreciation for music of that era. Cole Porter represents for us, a crafted lyrical witticism with melodies to match. He is capable of writing a heartfelt anthem to love, like “Night and Day,” while being able to recognize the need for good humor amid the madness of the era. His “Anything Goes” could have been penned yesterday, which is another thing we love about him, his sense of timelessness.
We are influenced by the music of the 30’s not only because of the high bar they set for musicianship and songwriting but because music was used to lift people’s spirits, literally, out of a Depression. It reminds us to lighten up and not take ourselves too seriously during the process.
Yours is a happy love story about meeting at an open mic in Berkeley. Was it love at first song?
It really was.
Ira: I was a member of the Northern California Songwriting Association and while this open mic was a competition, I was on the lookout for folks to invite to a songwriter’s soiree I was hosting. When Julia came up, not only was it clear that everyone loved her but when she started to sing, I knew why. Her whole being just glowed. I got the nerve to go up and ask her to the party I was throwing, even though she was sitting next to someone I thought could be her boyfriend.
Keep in mind, I looked like a cross between 90’s Bono and Mork from Ork with no sideburns, a mullet and rainbow suspenders. I saw that Julia stayed in the doorway to hear my song and I noticed how happy that made me. Afterwards, I asked my friend how I did. He said, “You were alright.” I laughed because I was aware that it was the thought of Julia prompting me to ask the question.
Julia: I can still see him standing on stage with the mullet and suspenders, but that’s not what I remembered about him after that evening. He was singing this really beautiful song. It had these sweet intimate lyrics over an unconventional chord structure. It drew everyone into silence. We were married two years later. Ironically, we were so wrapped up in our other musical projects that we didn’t really start singing together as an act until a few years later.
You refer to your music as “happy-folk or smile-pop”? Are you both naturally upbeat people? Do you feel it’s your musical mission to bring more smiles to the world via your music?
We are naturally upbeat. Of course it doesn’t mean we are happy around the clock, but it’s definitely where we resonate. When we left California, we added “Dedicated to making the world a happier place” to our business cards as a mission statement. Music is one way to do that. It is such a powerful force that can allow a room of people with various political, cultural, religious and philosophical affiliations, an opportunity to have a great time together.
We are conscious as we write music to be inclusive and consider it a chance to give the audience a lift. But this is as much for ourselves as for those in front of us. Since we moved out from CA to play music full time, we have been together almost non-stop, working, playing, driving, and regardless of how we feel when we start singing, at least by the third song in, we are both in good moods and remember what we are doing and why. It’s quite a copacetic set-up 🙂
You have had some success as children’s music artists. Tell us about that. What took you down that path? What do you find is rewarding about those gigs and making that kind of music?
Ira was working as a songleader at a summer day camp and taught songwriting classes to the campers. This led to many wild and silly songs written for the kids as a celebration of childhood as though it was written by a “peer.” Because when it comes down to it, Ira has a powerful five year old inside of him, ready to take command of the tree fort at any moment. What emerged was the persona of Uncle Eye – singing storyteller, champion of childhood. Uncle Eye was invited to sing and be a part of PBS Kid’s Piggley’s Storyteller Playhouse as part of their hit show Jakers!
When Julia came into the picture, she joined Uncle Eye, originally as Miss Melody but when it comes down to it, there is no topping Julia, so our act became known as Uncle Eye & Julia. Her career in Elementary music education and curriculum development was valuable when creating thematic programming for libraries, schools and special events.
We really do love the theatrical uninhibited energy of that age level. Writing music and performing for them is a way to keep tapped into and cheerlead the celebration of imagination and wonder. This ultimately spills over into all other performances.
These days we tend to continue the children’s music under The Levins umbrella, as a Family Show. So if you see that on our calendar, you know you will probably get the chance to hear Uncle Eye favorites such as “Ruby, the Rescue Cow,” “The Flamingo Tango” and “Pollo Elastico.”
I’ve got to know more about the Rubber Chicken of Freedom. What’s that all about?
Ha! Wilber, Rupert, Rufus, Gongolez-Martinez Allegro, The Rubber Chicken of Freedom! He was discovered out in Portland Oregon, where Ira and a friend liberated him from a pawnshop where he had obviously ended up after being turned to rubber by an evil wizard. The song “Pollo Elastico” (Spanish for Rubber Chicken, roughly) came out that very day and it has been the top Uncle Eye song ever since. From the first moment Ira laid eyes on him, it was obvious from Wilber’s expression that here was no passive vaudevillian gag, but a symbol for the struggle of chickens everywhere! From CA to Scotland (Fringe Festival), Wilber has increased awareness of his fellow fowl by helping to transform the audience into chickens as they cluck and flap their way through the song. “Pollo Elastico de Liberacion!”
You’ve got an unusual collection of songs on a recording called Raise Your Glass to Charles Dickens. That sounds intriguing. How did that project come about?
This is really a single which will be a part of our next recording project called, The Levins get SideTracked!
We had been listening to an audio recording of The Pickwick Papers as we drove around between shows and we remarked how much we were enjoying it when a friend said her father was the head of the Baltimore Dickensian society. In that moment, we became aware of the cover of the Smithsonian magazine that was announcing Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday. We decided we would write a song for the old boy in honor of the synchronicity we were experiencing.
What resulted was a song that summarizes seven Dickens novels in under seven minutes. Ira wanted each novel/verse to have a different musical theme but Julia, thankfully, asserted that the song should have an expanding sing-a-long zipper-song chorus that could be sung in a beer-hall or a classroom.
We do bring songsheets of the chorus with us. It has proved to be a popular request. During a week-long power outage, we huddled into the light from the window and cut out hundreds of images and put together a stop-action animation video with the same title that is up on YouTube. And then it evolved into an entire Dickens program that we perform in the winter season. Who knew? We never know what will become of a song but we’ve learned not to ignore the prompt. (see Cereal Days / You Tube )
Your eclecticism knows no bounds. You’ve also recorded an album based on the Sufi poetry of 14th century mystic, Hafiz of Shiraz. Tell us about your fascination and connection to this world music and what inspired you to record it.
This album is close to our collective heart. We have always resonated with inclusive spirituality. (We have another song about the Perennial Philosophy, which talks of the thread that runs through all faiths, but we won’t get started on that…)
ra was given a book of renderings of Hafiz poetry called The Gift for his birthday by a friend who knew his love for Rumi. This poetry opened a creative portal and songs and short stories started to flow. It was not a conscious decision to create a concept album, we were just opening the door to Hafiz, who was disguised as our muse.
The fact that this collection of songs made it into the top twenty on the folk charts and John Platt’s/WFUV top ten list of albums for 2013 may be the spirit of inclusiveness that Hafiz took up so effectively, laughing through us.
We are also very excited to announce that the Sweet Can Productions of San Francisco, CA has chosen the music of My Friend Hafiz as the live soundtrack for a dance-theater-circus collaboration. We will be joined by our World Folk Ensemble for multiple performances this September 19th-21st at the Dance Mission Theater.
You’ve played many gigs. Do any stand out as most memorable? What was it about the gig that made it so perfect?
Lots of gigs have given us so much joy but it really comes down to moments. Seeing an audience member’s face light up while you are singing, when the audience starts to sing along in chorus, that high we get from having a great time performing or being joined by other musicians.
One show that comes to mind was opening up for Cheryl Wheeler at the Iron Horse in MA. Her fans are so dedicated they waited out in a blizzard for hours, lined up to see her. That level of dedication between performer and fans was intense and inspiring. The place was absolutely packed and we had a great time singing for them. When we played our last song, the place became absolutely silent until they started singing along. It touched on something more than being a performer for an audience. It didn’t feel like there was a division between us at all. It was pure community.
I understand that you’re currently recording a folk-pop record. We’d love to know more about the process and what we can expect!
We’ve been excited to do this album for a while and thanks to our current Indie GoGo-crowdfunding campaign, we can stay the course! We have been fortunate enough to be working with a great engineer, Mark Dann, who we consider to have Merlin-like properties and magical foresight and insight. He would laugh at that, but we do really feel lucky to work with him. A few wonderful musicians, including Mark, are contributing as well. Sara Milonovich on violin and Sean Dixon (Barnaby Bright) on percussion.
Our intention with our new album Trust is to provide a lively follow up to My Friend Hafiz with songs that offer strength, introspection and encouragement without pushing an agenda, religion or dogma; but that simply offer a positive outlook without skating over the complexities of life. Essentially, we hope the listener’s heart expands with these songs of compassion and recognition of our shared humanity.
Ira and Julia make my world a happier place!