The Wailing Wall Live on Phoning It In -
On Monday evening, I had the pleasure of appearing on the legendary radio show Phoning It In on KDVS, hosted by Nadav Carmel. Since 2005, Nadav has had such esteemed musicians as Devendra Banhart, The Mountain Goats, The Wrens, WHY?, and Daniel Johnston play their music live over the telephone. Rather than being an impediment, the lo-fi sound of the phone connection often enhances the performances, adding a special sense of intimacy that would likely be absent from an in-studio appearance. Indeed, many of musicians have utilized the phone line as an instrument in and of itself in their performances - I’m a big fan of The Blow’s appearance, where Khaela Maricich sang unaccompanied fragments of new songs she was working on, and the completely improvised set by Daniel Higgs from Lungfish. For my appearance, I opted to play six songs on the harmonium - three new, two old, and one cover of a song from a David Lynch movie.
Nadav had this to say about it:
“Jesse Rifkin phones it in from Annapolis, MD. Jesse is a ‘Jewish’ musician (on a ‘Jewish’ record label), in the same sense Leonard Cohen is a ‘Jewish’ musicians, a ‘Jewish’ poet. That is, Jesse’s explorations into language and song, emotion, pop culture, life and death are informed by many things, and one of them happens to be the faith of his birth. And while there’s plenty of Cohen in the Wailing Wall (and even some cantorial music, I think), he’s also been influenced plenty by the modern crop of DIY troubadours- many of whom he’s shared the stage with- Tiger Saw, Thanksgiving, Castanets. It’s a moving blend, and that it recalls a Mangum or a Meloy is an asset to this end rather than a weight. Even over the phone, accompanied only by harmonium, Jesse’s songs are never less than electric.”
You read it here first, folks: the next, as-yet-unrecorded Wailing Wall album will be prominently featuring the harmonium on almost every song. To my ears, there is no instrument more perfect - something about that thin, reedy tone and the sound of the air pumping through the bellows just devastates me. My own harmonium is a hand-me-down from the mid-70’s, when my mother and her friend Abby ran a meditation center in San Francisco, and though I’ve used it sporadically in the past, it was only in the last year that the instrument really came alive to me.
Though perhaps best known for its use in Indian and Pakistani music, it has actually had quite an illustrious history worldwide. It appears in a number of classical and early music pieces (none of which, surprise surprise, are on youtube), and has been used quite prominently by The Beatles (”The Word”), Jeff Buckley (”Lover, You Should’ve Come Over”), Radiohead (”Motion Picture Soundtrack”). Adam Sandler even plays one in Punch Drunk Love! Personally, I would recommend Nico’s albums Desertshore and The Marble Index, which feature harmonium on nearly every song.
And now, for your viewing pleasure, here are some more great moments in harmonium history: