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JDub Records Artist Clare Burson Takes Inspiration From A Relic

Christin Davis |
February 16, 2011 | 2:08 p.m. PST


Photo by Erica Beckman
Photo by Erica Beckman
The 118-year-old piece of cheese that inspired an album just landed singer-songwriter Clare Burson on national TV. A five-man film crew taped her latest show live at the Hotel Café in Los Angeles, which recently aired on NBC’s “Last Call with Carson Daly.

After mingling a bit at the bar, Burson took to the stage with a sky blue electric guitar and three band members to begin a set inspired by her family’s religious and cultural heritage.

The event was one of 200 produced in 52 cities each year by JDub Records, a nonprofit label that currently represents 15 Jewish artists, including Burson.

Founded in 2002 by then NYU students Aaron Bisman and Ben Hesse, JDub—which consists of three arms: JDub Records; Jewcy, an online news and community site; and consulting services for connecting young Jews to each other, and the Jewish culture and community—expanded to Los Angeles in 2006.

“JDub is creating a different kind of Jewish community,” said Deb Leipzig, vice president for strategic planning and development.

The events “bring proud, authentic Jewish culture into the mainstream world within which today’s young Jews exist…[and] offer them meaningful opportunities to connect with their Judaism and one another,” according to the JDub website.

Burson, who considers herself “an artist who is Jewish,” said she realized early in her career that much of today’s popular music reflects a worldview outside of her own.

“I questioned whether or not my religious and cultural background has an influence on my writing, and I realized it does,” Burson said. “I didn’t want to write Jewish rock/pop, but my attachment to Judaism informs my work.”

Musical legacy

One of JDub Records’ most prominent artists, Burson is a Memphis-born songwriter and classically trained violinist who taught herself to play the acoustic guitar while studying history at Brown University. Following graduation, Burson spent a year in Germany as a Fulbright Scholar. She eventually moved to New York and was awarded a Six Points Fellowship, which financially supports artists who are shaping Jewish culture and community, and helped to fund Burson’s third full-length album—“Silver and Ash” (Rounder Records)—an artifact of Jewish history and culture.

Photo by Erica Beckman
Photo by Erica Beckman
Inspiration for the album is two-sided. When Burson’s parents found a now 118-year-old piece of cheese in an old trunk, Burson was fascinated by its travels through her family and Diaspora Judaism. The homemade wedge was originally given to her great-grandfather by his mother when he left Lithuania in 1893 to avoid enlistment in the Czar’s army. He never ate the cheese, which is now preserved in a jar in Burson’s Brooklyn apartment.

“I thought, wouldn’t it be great to create art that resonates and stands on its own with people no matter where they come from and also be representative of a Jewish trajectory into the past and the future?” Burson said.

But it was her grandmother’s escape from Germany to Tennessee in 1938 that largely stirred the album. At the height of World War II, Burson’s great-grandparents fled to Latvia but sent their children to the U.S. From Latvia, they wrote letters to Burson’s grandma and her brother for two years; the letters stopped in June 1941.

With the fellowship grant, Burson traveled to Eastern Europe to follow her family history through the Holocaust.

“I went to Riga to symbolically lay a stone…it was incredibly overwhelming,” Burson said. “I was powerfully moved by being in this place that was the last home for my great-grandparents. Coming home after that visit, I realized I hadn’t achieved closure on this history…I spent the next year writing songs to help process it.”

Fresh perspective

With subtle undertones, Burson conveys her family’s stories in song. The album, though purposefully vague, depicts a family legacy for the Jewish community.

“The songs are not fundamentally different than songs on my other records, but are held together in a more meaningful and poignant way with an overarching narrative,” Burson said.

“She writes about a couple generations removed, and it absolutely worked,” said Adam Daniel, a songwriter and recording artist who was at Burson’s show. “The sound is a revival of folk music with a spirit about it that’s not folk—it has an ambient rock twist.”

Leipzig said the progression in “Silver and Ash” is special.

“It’s a perspective on the Holocaust but told in an a-typical, different, and fresh way,” she said. “It sounds new, even though it’s a story you’ve heard 100 times.”

“One of the goals at JDub is to reach universal recognition and coverage in press outlets outside of the Jewish community,” Leipzig said.

“This taping of Clare’s show for the Carson Daly show is a real place for this genre to be recognized by a national program. Unlike a written article, this will be a tangible piece of her work.”

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