Silver Spring native Eli Lev, 40, just released his pandemic-based project “Walk.Talk.Dance.Sing.” The singer-songwriter draws inspiration for his indie folk music from his Jewish upbringing and time spent teaching at the Navajo nation.
Before his new album, Lev spent five years working on his “Four Directions Project,” a four EP series journeying through different parts of his life and different sounds from across the country.
What was the inspiration for this newest album?
I was in the generation where mixtapes were actually mixtapes. I got my first mixtape when I was in fourth grade from one of my friends and it totally started my love affair with music.
A key element of a mixtape is that it encapsulates that moment in your life. I wanted to pay homage to that and create a mixtape of all the songs I wrote, recorded and released in the last two years in the pandemic so they’re all in that theme. These five songs really encapsulate the entire experience for me.
What are some of your goals with music?
My music is a way for us to come together as humans. Coming from a Jewish identity, living in Israel, all of that is encapsulated in my music in a way that celebrates that identity without necessarily being like you have to be Jewish to listen to the music. A lot of my fans are Christians from the South, Muslims from the Middle East, Hindus from India.
When did you get into music?
I really just wrote silly songs in middle school. I did a talent show in seventh grade and sang an original song. Studying for my bar mitzvah and putting me up in front of a lot of people was kind of preparing me for this stage. I did some bands and cover bands in high school and college. It wasn’t really until five or six years ago when I graduated with my master’s, it was just a point in life where I could stop, take a breath and look around. A musician that was coming through D.C. asked me to open a show for him after seeing something on Facebook.
Five or six of my friends came out to the show and asked, “When’s your next show?” Just kind of followed the bread crumbs into now being a completely 100 percent self-sustained artist. It’s a pretty amazing trajectory.
How have you used your music to connect with Judaism?
Those are the first melodies that I ever heard, those minors, those lilting tropes from temple. The one guitar lesson I took was from my cantor in my temple so I learned Reform Jewish songs from my temple. That started me off on that folk tradition. Leading a group of people in song and being a song leader was just as important as having people around you feel like they’re involved. Instead of going with this “I’m a rockstar” mentality, my music has been a participatory act. That kind of idea of being a song leader, instead of a singer or songwriter was instilled with me in a very early age and came from that upbringing with Judaism.
Can you speak about your time teaching at the Navajo Nation?
As an undergraduate, I had the chance to do something called the Cultural Immersions Program, from Indiana University, as a student teacher. I could go overseas, I could go to an inner city or I could teach on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Northern Arizona. I thought to myself, I could travel at any time of my life and I’m from the city, but I might never ever get a chance to connect with the indigenous population of our country. The community really brought me in and I learned just as much from them as they learned from me and I stayed there for three years. That was the inspiration for the “Four Directions Project.” On the Navajo Nation, they have the cosmology that the sun rises in the east, goes south, west and then north again. Each direction has a color, an animal and a story that goes with it. That really impacted me because there’s a lot of balance there, a lot of strength in that teaching. I wanted to recognize that and honor that with my music.
The next series is going to be “Three Worlds” then “Two Friends” and lastly “One Road.” The whole project is lined out for me. It’s going to happen. This mixtape was a bit of a breather and a step back. Also, I’m going on tour, cross-country tour from July to October, which is very exciting.