Acoustic Breezes - Rahel - Songwriter
Mary Wheelan from the TV broadcast called "The Song", which focuses on original songs and the songwriting process, interviewed Rahel:
What is your first musical recollection?
Sitting at the piano – maybe aged 6 or 7 yrs. old - my mother trying to teach me to play. I can still dabble at the piano but guitar is my main instrument.
How old were you when you wrote your first song?
I believe I was a teen in high school – aged 14 or 15 - which is when I learned to play guitar. The song is called “Carnival”. However, I would consider that a teaser. I am still tweaking it! I think it’s about how I was experiencing life at the time. Life was swirling back then. My first real song came out when I was in my mid-20’s: “Lachash al haYam / Whisper by the Sea” came out in 1981. That was followed by “My Sweet Land” both coming to me complete and whole and ready to sing.
Under what circumstances did you write your first song?
“Lachash al haYam / Whisper by the Sea” – I don’t remember writing it. I think it just appeared somehow. Surprisingly it appeared to me in Hebrew which I was barely fluent in at the time. It was nearly perfect too. “My Sweet Land” came to me in 1982. I had been living in Israel for a few years where I had transitioned from a "closet musician" playing in my bedroom to a performing musician and songwriter playing on stage. I had come back to America for a short 6-month stint and the song came out.
Why do you write songs?
I’m not really sure myself! I don’t write them. They seem to just come to me. If I try to write a song it doesn’t work. I think the songs have come to guide me through my life. Sometimes I have no idea what they mean until after I’ve lived some after they appear. I am not even sure if they are meant to be heard by the rest of the world. However, I can’t for the life of me figure out why on earth I would be blessed with receiving so many songs if not to share them? I hope listeners will find them relevant and meaningful too.
What do you write about?
Ideas, concepts, dreams, visions…. People I meet, people who have influenced me and about my personal relationship or interaction with them. Maybe some sort of philosophy or perspective. I’ve had songs that came as visions, scenes and even in dreams, for example the song, "Oseh Shalom". I woke up singing it after dreaming it. The lyrics are traditional liturgy but the music is my own. Some songs reflect only a few brief, yet important moments in a life. For example: “Fire in the Forest” is all about a great sage named Rebbe Nachman. “Pierrot” is about the clown character in the Italian theater/Comedia del Arte. Pierrot is in love with Columbine but Columbine is loved by, and in love with Harlequin. So it’s a love song – very typical of what love brings to us, and us towards. "Belong" a more recent song, was inspired by crickets. You can hear the song and the story here.
“Buried Treasure” came as a vision- like the final scene of a movie. In that scene a woman is standing on a pier waving good-bye to her lover. He’s a pirate who is on the ship seeking treasures beyond the seas. The woman is standing on the pier watching as the ship leaves the port. She’s wondering when and if she will see her man ever again. As she’s waving she’s silently praying that her man will be safe and guarded and will be guided home again soon. It wasn’t until years later, when I was in the studio attempting to record this song that I realized the true meaning of the song – at least what it’s deeper message was to me. The “buried treasure” was love that was buried somewhere deeply within me and that was kept safe and well-guarded - out of danger. My childhood was not easy – emotionally. This revelation struck me suddenly and unexpectedly while in mid-song at the studio. I was so surprised by the revelation that I stopped singing and began to laugh. I couldn’t believe that I had missed the true meaning of the song for so many years. I had to really look again at the song before I could sing it again! I haven’t yet recorded it but I do love to sing it. “My Sweet Land” was a vision too – another short scene in a life of a man and woman, two lovers. The woman is sitting on a step in front of a log cabin which is their home. She is gazing towards the river which is more like a brook that runs by the front of the cabin. The man is paddling a canoe down the river. The feeling is serenity – tranquility - peace – contentment. The cabin is on a hillside in an open space. The land around the cabin is lush green in its color. There is no-one else around. I’m not sure if the woman is with child. The song speaks of a “child that sleeps within me”. This could be a real child or simply a metaphor. I’ve never really known which.Then there's the song, "I'm the Bus Driver" which is all about the job I had as a school bus driver!
You can find more lyrics here.
What is your process of writing a song like?
In order for a song to come out I need to be in a place, or space, of what I call, “E.S.E.T. – Empty Space and Empty Time”. I used to sit in my room and stare at the blue walls for a long time – daydreaming. Then I’d pick up my guitar and songs would come. Sometimes songs, lyrics or melodies will jump out when I’m driving. Once a song came when I was teaching and waiting for the students to arrive. I had my guitar and was mindlessly plucking on the strings. A song jumped out. Then the students arrived and I couldn’t write it down, work on it, or even record it. However, that song somehow stuck with me the entire day which is unusual actually. In the evening, when I was finally free I was able to receive it. By that time it was all done and ready. I simply wrote it down and recorded it on my tape recorder for safe keeping. In fact I later won an award for that song. It’s called “Dialog”. I haven’t yet recorded that one either. I won two awards for songwriting. The second award went to a song called “The Gift”. I have a decent home studio recording of it. There’s also a video clip of me singing it “live”. I don’t think there’s just any one process. Whenever a song comes you have to be ready to receive it. Have pen, paper or something to record your ideas on available. Sometimes I will go back to the page or the recording to see what’s there. If something strikes me I will revisit it, tweak it, work out what’s missing and finish it. Other times I have a lyric and need to put it to music. Sometimes I’m sitting and plucking on my guitar without thinking much and a chord progression starts – and I put a melody to it – if it seems to need a lyric I will give it a try. Once I simply went to my bookshelf. Robert Frost’s book of poetry met my eyes. I grabbed the book and opened it exactly to the poem that seemed to fit the music I had just composed. That song is called, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.
The CD I just released, “Song of the Lark” is all instrumental. The songs are melodies that came to me a long time ago – in the 1980’s. It looks like they were just waiting for Sue, a brilliant flutist, in order to be completed and sent out to the world. When I heard Sue playing them they took on new life and we gave them new names. They seemed to reflect a journey around the world. Each one has a different feeling that seemed to represent a certain country or geographical place. I can’t say why. It’s just what we felt about the songs. Since there are no words listeners can simply relax and travel to wherever the music leads them. It’s a musical “time out” for relaxing, refreshing, renewing and for self-exploration and discovery. Sue and I also do a lot of improvising. We choose a key and run with it. Since she plays the flute she is essentially creating the melodies and I am supporting them and flowing in, out and around them rhythmically as well as melodically with my guitar and sometimes adding my voice. Sue and I also developed a music, yoga and movement method we call, “Mugalive!” and use when working with very young children aged from 1-6 years. We get a lot of inspiration when we are playing as part of an activity especially the “time out” – relaxation - part of the lesson where the children rest while we play on our instruments and sometimes sing a soothing song.
How has your process developed over the years?
When I was in my 20’s I was doing nothing but music and so I became very prolific. I had lots of E.S.E.T. That was before marriage and children. I never stopped doing music though. It just took on different forms. Writing songs turned into working musically with babies and young children. My creative juices went towards developing creative lessons. Still songs popped out here and there. In 1995 my personal circumstances changed and the music worked to heal me and help me rediscover myself. A three day period of “E.S.E.T.” resulted nine years later into my recording of the Hebrew Psalms entitled, “Tikkun – Songs of the Heart, Prayers of the Soul”. This also led me to a new career as a “Therapeutic Musician” or “Healthcare Artist”. I provide music at bedside for the ill and dying. Sue and I also provide music for a healthy stress-free “time out” session for all ages. We create a space to refresh, renew, relax and for self-exploration and discovery.
Unfortunately I’ve been distracted by the Internet and social media for my own relaxation as well as for 24/7 marketing and promotional efforts – and to find work! This takes up all of my “E.S.E.T.” I will need to break loose of this delightful waste of time!!
For many years I was a guitarist and harmony back-up singer. I'm still not used to being called a "performing songwriter"! In 1981, when I lived in Israel, I became a founding member of an all-woman band, “Tofa’ah” that still performs today. I have the pleasure of performing with these wonderfully talented women still whenever I go over for a visit. For 15 years I simply played the songs I wrote while others sang them. I regarded myself as an instrumentalist – part of the support team for the singers. I was perfectly happy with that arrangement. I began to sing my own songs in 1995. This was while I was still raising children and didn’t have a lot of time to devote to band rehearsals. It was scary at first. At my first solo performance I was approached by a listener after the show. He asked me what the meaning was of my song, "Deja Vu". I was so surprised that someone was even curious and was standing in front of me asking to explain. The fact was that I didn’t really know the whole meaning of the song myself. I was also unprepared to be questioned about it. Today I enjoy singing a lot and I feel very close to my songs. I’ve had to work a lot on understanding them in order to sing them properly. I’m still working on that - and also on feeling more confident with my singing voice and ability to emote vocally. I actually much prefer, and enjoy, working with others to evolve and develop my songs into new creations. I am very open to using my songs as a basic framework from which together, with the creative input and energy of the other musicians, a new more fantastic version of the song will result.
Do you ever co-write songs?
Yes. I absolutely love to work with others musically. It’s more creative. We can bounce ideas off each other and that inspires and motivates me a lot. I love to see how a song evolves from beginning to end. I love the creative process. For that reason I also love studio work where a simple song or piece of music becomes a masterpiece with the help of the recording engineer.
What songwriters do you feel have influenced your music?
Growing up in a Boston suburb and coming of age just after Woodstock, my earlier songs were influenced by the folk music revival of the ‘60’s – singer/songwriter/guitarists such as Paul Simon, James Taylor, Mary McCaslin and other soloists. The ‘70’s post-Woodstock era brought all sorts of creative musicians to the forefront that changed the world. I love harmony singing so I was drawn to PPM, CSN, the Indigo Girls… and funk and Motown. The music was simple and straight forward and the rhythm too. Bands produced harmonious sounds based on 3-4 chords and a good steady beat. When I moved to Israel I was struck by new sounds and rhythms. The songs had more chords and used diminished or augmented chords generously – those chords that sound a bit off and disharmonious. Israel is a melting pot of immigrants from all over the world. So I was introduced to a wealth of cultures, each with their own distinct sound and rhythm. As immigrants integrated and became part of the Israeli tapestry the sounds and rhythms slowly fused together to create new music. I consider my songs to fall into the category of folk or folk-rock however I’ve been told this isn’t the case. As it turns out my music has its own sound - one that seems to reflect a fusion of all the cultures I’ve been exposed to.
Today I am absolutely in love with Korean Pop music – especially the band TVXQ aka Tohoshinki especially Kim Junsu - XIA. Each of the five original members of that group to be extremely talented with much to offer. But I am open to hearing all kinds of music from all around the world.
What has the experience of co-writing been like for you?
Exciting. I love bouncing musical and other ideas off of others.
Are you a member of any songwriting or music associations?
I’ve joined a few musicians groups on Facebook and I recently joined BMI. I’m waiting to see how that works and if musicians really do benefit from organizations that claim to protect musicians! So far I am skeptical!
Do you record your songs yourself or do you hire a producer?
I leave the recording to the experts. I prefer to play the music and let the experts do their magic with it.
Do you write lyrics and music at the same time or separately?
Sometimes together – other times separately.
Where online can people find out more about you and your music?
I’m all over the web – I hope.
What advice can you give songwriters, especially young people listening who are just starting out writing songs?
Find or create your “E.S.E.T.” Don’t worry about what comes to you. Just receive it happily and without judgement. Then flow with it.