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Musician with a message

Michelle Citrin works to build community, one note at a time

Singer, composer, and producer Michelle Citrin calls music her “outlet to tap into something greater than myself.”
Singer, composer, and producer Michelle Citrin calls music her “outlet to tap into something greater than myself.”

Michelle Citrin — who lives in Brooklyn now but grew up in Fair Lawn, where her mom, Rachel Hanuka, still lives — is a singer/songwriter, composer, and producer. Clearly, she has much to talk about. Why, then, does she often focus on her height?

At 5’1”, the musician often hears comments on how short she is. “It’s a strange thing I had to become comfortable with,” she said; the key “is not letting what the world thinks of you inform what you are.” Whether confronting the challenge of height, or being a woman in a male-dominated music industry, “music has been my outlet to tap into something greater than myself,” she said. And with her large, bluesy voice, Ms. Citrin said that “people are shocked by the sound that comes out.”

Ms. Citrin, who is equally at home playing before an audience of thousands or in a small, intimate venue, is also a composer and producer.

“My whole life I’ve been into capturing moments and reflecting the truths that I see,” she said, adding that her aim is to produce “the soundtrack of our lives.” She has always been active in some mode of production. Now, she communicates through music and video; when she was a child, she used “Legos, creating sets, themes, and stories. I love storytelling, and reflecting a perspective.”

Nothing beats hands-on experience in learning how to produce, she said. About to release her first album, “Left Brained, Right Hearted” — which will launch formally on May 19 at the Bitter End in Manhattan — she learned a great deal in the studio working with producer Tim Bright. “It’s like learning how to fly by jumping first and growing wings on your way down,” she said. She also learned a tremendous amount from working on YouTube projects with William Levin. Creator and star of the Internet sensations “20 Things to do with Matzah,” “Call Your Zeyde,” “Rosh Hashanah Girl,” and “Hanukah Lovin” — which got millions of hits from around the world — Citrin said the unexpectedly huge response to her work impressed on her the power of the web.

“While I was always into computers and technology, in college” — she graduated from Rutgers — “I started to see that music was being shared on a global network,” she said, citing music-focused services such as Napster. “It was a conversation happening worldwide.” When she posted her YouTube videos, “Here we were thinking it was just a platform for sharing video. I didn’t know it would spread like wildfire. The truth is that it’s my job as an artist to put the art out there, but you never know what will resonate.”

In fact, after the success of her YouTube videos, she was, among other things, featured in the New York Times and asked to score the music for a Broadway production of “Sleepless in Seattle.”

While music today increasingly is streamed — “there’s a whole new generation of listeners who don’t even have CD players” — Ms. Citrin said she still believes in the CD, and her album will be available in that form as well. The problem with streaming, she said, is that “artists aren’t fairly paid. The technology is growing faster than the law can keep up.” Still, she said, she hopes that “we’ll find a solution,” pointing out that in no other industry is it assumed that exposure is more important than income.

A primary goal of her work is to bring people together, “creating community, finding connection points to our tradition’s wisdom and culture in an easily accessible way,” Ms. Citrin said. “It’s not just producing music and stories but events that bring people together.” She now is traveling around the world with an artist-in-residence program she created called “Eat. Pray. Sing.”

“I go to different communities on Friday night, lead services, introduce original liturgical melodies and alternative readings,” she said. “After the service, we have a communal dinner, followed by an intimate singing circle. Food, prayer, and song are three things that have been the main components of our tribal connection for thousands of years. There’s an amazing energy that comes from being together, and I believe more people are responding positively to participating in tribal gatherings and immersive experiences.”

The response to her events, she said, “has been amazing to watch. When a group of strangers enter a space not knowing each other and then by the end — after we have shared a meal, gone deeply into prayer and singing beloved songs — the whole room is glowing with warmth, laughter and new friendship. What else could one ask for on a Friday night?!”

She was especially moved by her recent experiences in Bulgaria. In that country with a group called “Gesher,” which, she said, “is an organization for Jews in the 20s and 30s to get together to explore and share innovative ways to revitalize Jewish communities,” she saw a resurgence of Jewish life. “It’s an exciting time to be Jewish and to see all these programs popping up,” she said. “The grandkids of Holocaust survivors are volunteering their time to make Jewish community possible. It’s amazing.”

Ms. Citrin, who has appeared with artists such Matisyahu, Achinoam Nini, David Broza, and the Idan Raichel Project, said that while people don’t think of the synagogue as a tribal home, it is a place where intergenerational gatherings are, or should be, taking place. “I believe the synagogue should be a place of positive energy, inclusivity, and warmth,” she said.

Quoting Hans Christian Andersen, who is widely credited with having said “Where words fail, music speaks,” Ms. Citrin added that “Music helps people connect to something larger than themselves.” And, she said, “In this day and age, where we are so isolated with screens in front of us 24/7, I am seeing more and more people thirsty for and welcoming an engagement in communal gatherings and immersive experiences. I’m thrilled to be offering this program as a response to that need. Shabbat!”

Ms. Citrin said that throughout her life, she was pulled to both music and medicine. Now, however, she realizes that the two fields “are much closer than you think. There’s something very healing about these gatherings, about integrating mind, body, and spirit, as they contribute to holistic well-being.

Her “aha” moment in music, she said, came when she was studying abroad in Australia during her junior year at Rutgers. “People were coming to shows, buying CDs, and I kept winning contests, like being a VH1 Song of the Year finalist and a Sony Music Future of Rock finalist. I was excited by the idea that people were interested in what I had to share,” she added, noting that she had been composing since she was 14.

“I was in a folk rock duo with my best friend,” she said. “Folk music and Judaism have been my roots. It’s cool to see it all come together.” In her mind, “music is synonymous with Jewish identity.” Her grandmother, Beba Wishnia, is a trained pianist who taught Michelle to play piano when she was 3 years old — chose “Chag Purim” as the first song to learn. “It was all one big merging of worlds,” Ms. Citrin said. “It was fun to watch it unfold.”

Influenced by bands like the Doors, Queen, and Cream, Ms. Citrin also has been surrounded by music throughout her life, whether it is the songs of Ofra Haza or the tunes of the chalutzim. “You can hear the early Israeli folk music influence in my arrangements; that’s where the world influence comes from,” she said. She also grew up loving Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, “amazing singers and songwriters.”

Ms. Citrin said she is impressed by the harmonies of the Indigo Girls and especially by the Roches, three sisters “whose records really shaped my ear for harmony. I was especially thrilled when Terry Roche took me on as a student.”

She also was thrilled by the chance to sing the U.S. national anthem at the recent AIPAC conference in Washington, D.C. “It was a conglomerate of people who love Israel,” she said. “I was in front of 12,000 people and half of Congress. It was phenomenal. I always love to say yes to new opportunities to learn and grow,” she said, noting that she is now enrolled in a program with Rabbi Shefa Gold to learn more about the art of sacred chanting.

“We have more and more distractions in our lives,” she said. “And here we have these sacred texts and wisdom from our ancestors, who have graciously offered us lessons and a map to make life meaningful. Who are we to think we are the first to live life on this planet? Why not learn from those who came before us? We have a lot we can gain. We also have a lot to offer with our own unique new perspectives.”

Her new album has been a long time in the making, she said. She began working on it in 2008, but it was put on hold while she pursued the new opportunities opened by her Internet success. The album’s theme “is to explore the dance between head and heart. Sometimes one wins, sometimes the other. The question is how to make them work together in a harmonious way.” Several of the songs take place in Israel, and one — “Someday” — was inspired by the words of Rabbi Hillel, “If not now, when?” Excited about the album’s May 19 release, she said she always aims to find a way to name moments through song.

“I searched for a long time to find the right people to make this album,” she said, explaining that she has collected a “phenomenal group of musicians,” who have played with artists such as Suzanne Vega, Lisa Loeb, and Dido. “It turned out exactly how I wanted it — diverse, fun, and with an eclectic array of instruments. I’m really thrilled about how it came together and can’t wait to share it.”

Tickets: The Michelle Citrin CD Release party tickets are available via Eventbrite.

‘Left Brained, Right Hearted’: Available now at www.michellecitrin.com, iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play.

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