Avi Jacob, a self-taught, passionate and determined musician who calls PVD home, is releasing his newest album Naked in spring of 2022. Like his father and grandfather before him, Avi has chosen to pursue art that helps him explore his identity and yearnings, allows his deep emotions to come through and levels critiques of social structures that seek to overpower our humanness. His music is perfect for a snowstorm or a rainstorm, or anytime you want to ponder life’s ups and downs and feel comforted by beautiful sounds. His latest songs are ones that let you peek into our collective subconscious, reminding both the artist and the listener that we all experience joy, love and loss, and are therefore never alone.
Mayté: I’d like to hear more about you and your musical journey before I get into album-specific questions.
Avi: Well, I grew up in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. My father was a professor at UMass and was a historian of the Holocaust. He wrote many books on the [subject] and was extremely passionate about writing. I started playing trombone at age 8 and got a solo in fourth grade. I got my own separate round of applause and that’s where it all began. Then I started the guitar when I was 12 because I saw a video of Jimi Hendrix playing. And it wasn’t so much the playing, although I thought that was cool, it was more that the women were like losing their minds! And I thought- I want girls to like me like that! And I’d like to play the guitar, that’s a cool instrument. But then I became the nerd who plays guitar all the time and never goes out.
Mayté: Haha. Double-edged sword there.
A: Yeah! I remember very distinctly trying to play the guitar, trying to press my fingers. I didn’t do lessons, same with singing. And so, I just remember being very fascinated with it and being determined to play guitar and sing at the same time. I was really inspired by Kurt Cobain, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon… I was amazed by these people that can write songs, and sing and play guitar. And it was very difficult to do for me, and then even when I was able to do that, I was really determined to keep getting better. As I am now, I like to write and play songs that mean as much as possible in a way that best serves them. I work hard at my [music], much like my father with his writing. He was the example for me to be passionate about something and then go for it. Not just a job, but an actual passion. And my grandfather was a photographer for the Boston Globe, his whole life was photography, he loved it. And now my twelve-year-old son is extremely focused on cooking and Dungeons and Dragons. He’s full force into both those things, and makes amazing risotto. I think that is the most valuable thing you can pass on: to be passionate and do what you love. Instead of getting a job and then doing what you actually like on the weekends. Unfortunately, that’s what a lot of people have to do.
M: I love the through-line between your family, yourself and your son. And the commitment that you all exude.
A: Yeah, it’s important. There are things that are inherited, like some families have inherited wealth. And, you know, I didn’t have that, we are Jewish and I didn’t have inherited wealth. I do have all the advantages of white privilege, being that I am essentially white- but it was more that I had the inherited passion thing.
M: Yes, wealth of a different kind.
Avi: Definitely, also you know- people that are born wealthy are just like the worst. Right?
M: Oh yeah, I’ll definitely put that in the article.
A: Please do!
M: So, I’ve only ever seen you play solo. Is that typically what you do or have you played in bands before?
A: I’ve been playing a lot solo, it’s just easier. But I also play with my friend Ben Cosgrove on piano, he is on like all the tracks on the album. I actually just got the offer to play the Americana festivals, on June 10, 11 and 12. I’m playing in Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen and they asked me to bring backing musicians. Luckily, my friend James and his band the Felice Brothers are playing the same days as me, and my friend Libby (who plays fiddle), is in a band called Mipso; I’m gonna ask her to play with me, and Ben might come with me and play piano. If I could cover piano, accordion and fiddle that would be pretty cool. I mean, I hear so much. I think every musician does- if we could have a 10-piece band then we’d do it. I’ve always wanted to play with an orchestra. Also, it’s gonna be my first time going to Europe.
M: Oh my, that is gonna be amazing for you!
A: Yeah, I’m in my 30s and I’ve never left the country. And I’m excited because I want my son to see other cultures too.
M: Since you mentioned it already, you want to tell me about your album? You said it’s coming out in the spring?
A: Yes. I don’t have an exact date, sometime in March. I put out the second single February 25, that’s called “Tears like a River Master.” The first single “New England Woman” came out in January.
M: There’s a lot of storytelling in your songs. I’m curious about how that process is, given that lyrics seem to be a driving force for you.
A: Yeah, lyrics are everything. I don’t perform a song, or record it until I feel 100% confident about every word. It’s very important to me. Sometimes in the process of writing, it’s not totally done, right? So, then I’ll just kind of mumble, or I’ll say nonsense. A lot of times when I’m working on a song, the inspiration is a feeling or a thought: usually it’s a big feeling and a big emotion. If I’m really happy or really upset about something, or if I’ve watched a really powerful movie then I get an inspiration for a song. It just comes as an initial feeling. And then I work on it, pick up the guitar and I kind of just play around with chords until I find something that fits what I want to say, and find words that go with it. It’s a very natural process where I don’t think too hard about it. The words become much more honest than if I think or am [too] conscious about it. And what comes out is always very- what’s the word… when something is like a confessional kind of thing?
A: Yeah, it’s very unfiltered. It becomes a sort of a window into my subconscious. They become an explanation to myself of how I feel, and I don’t even understand the depth of things until it comes out. When I was doing “New England Woman” (first single of the album), I was thinking about capitalism, and how terrible it is that it takes us away from our families- to work a 40 hour a week, or even more- in this specifically American drive to make as much money as possible, while also not valuing labor. I’m very much on the side of the exploited because I grew up with Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. I believe very strongly in unions, and I was an organizer when I got out of college. That’s not something that I would sit and write a song about consciously- but it comes across somehow. “New England Woman” is a song about how a relationship can be really beautiful, and you can really love somebody a lot- and then how terrible it is that we live in a society that doesn’t let us have time with those people. Like how women have no [to little] maternity leave. I mean, I can’t imagine that. That’s insane. And so, I was thinking about that, subconsciously, I wasn’t trying to write a song about how much I hate capitalism, but it happened.
And then the first line, “Break my back, Bethlehem / Steal me away”- that was because Bethlehem Steel is a company that was the biggest steel company in the country (in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania) started by several people including Carnegie. That line sets the whole tone of the song. [The job] takes you away from people you love, you can love them and not get time with them because your body gets broken down by this system. It takes you away from your family because you have nothing left, you’re spent physically, mentally and it cuts you down as a person. So that’s kind of what that was about, and also in an emo way, it’s about my romantic relationship.
M: Your second single, “Tears like a River Master” sounds very autobiographical. The words that struck me had to do with someone admitting their faults.
A: I’m trying to become the best person I can and I hope my songs are coming across in a fair way. We’re all doing our best and there are these systemic things at play as well. I think as a male artist, you have to be super careful not to be sexist and blame women. You don’t want a guy to listen to a song and say, “Yeah I’m right and that girl is wrong!” Men are so fucked up from either not being able to express themselves, not being allowed to feel emotions, or they’re entitled because they’ve been given everything they want. When they’re in a relationship with someone they don’t even see them as people sometimes, and they don’t have the language to deal with [what arises]. They don’t have the ability to see themselves honestly. You know, the mediocre white man syndrome, where you’re not aware and you think you’re amazing, even though you’re not… like Kid Rock.
M: For you the process of being your best self is about admitting your part in a situation, not necessarily only in romantic relationships.
A: Yeah, as a father, son, sibling… that’s why the line “sure, it’s been easier to blame and to fight” is about recognizing that yes, that’s easier but that really what we need is to be decent to each other, to be treated kindly. The song is a plea for mutuality- like the Lauryn Hill song, “Ex-Factor.” I was obsessed with that song growing up, my favorite part was when she sings “reciprocity.”
M: When I’ve seen you perform another word that comes up for me is “authenticity,” especially when I’ve seen you be honest about how you don’t have a lyric for something yet and you’re basically engaging in conversation with the audience while playing.
A: Yeah, I’m very aware that the crowd is there- it’s very much a sharing of energy. I was just telling someone the other day, I used to spend all this time learning hip-hop dance, going to dance classes in my 20s. I felt so grateful when I played shows, that people were there to see and listen to me, and I felt like I owed them more than just singing and playing, I felt like I owed them a show. So I dance and hope that it then frees others to do it too. We don’t feel permission until someone else does it, I think. I feel a great appreciation for the crowd- for their time and energy, their eyes and ears. It’s such a valuable gift. And so, I feel like I owe them everything that I can give them. I need to give everything, sing it with all my heart… and be authentic.
If lyrics and guitar are your loves, Avi’s album “Naked” is for you. Listen to his music on @avijacob.bandcamp.com, follow him on Instagram @hawkinthenest and ask him about his love of birds, his hip hop moves, and roller skating. Trust me, you’ll want to have a lengthy conversation.