A Folkie With A Hip-Hop Groove

L.A.-based songwriter Mikey Pauker makes his N.Y. debut.

08/13/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
A native of California, Mikey Pauker combines several musical sources, traditional and modern, in his songwriting.
A native of California, Mikey Pauker combines several musical sources, traditional and modern, in his songwriting.

Never underestimate the power of persistence.

When Mikey Pauker first started performing Jewish music professionally, he played a prominent Los Angeles-based festival, Jewlicious. He opened for Matisyahu, was on the same stage with the East Coast heavyweights of Shemspeed, Y-Love and Kosha Dillz, and he yearned to work with their producer, Diwon.

“I thought he was a total badass,” Pauker says of Diwon, perhaps better known in these pages as Erez Safar. “I sent him my music. He said, ‘I don’t know what to do with you.’ My music is not what he usually does.”

The 28-year-old Pauker, who will be making his New York debut on Aug. 18, says that his writing process draws heavily on hip-hop and reggae, two major streams within Diwon’s music. However, Pauker is also a product of the Jewish summer camp songleader movement; by his own admission, he’s a folkie who looks to L.A.-based singer-songwriter Craig Taubman as a mentor. You can understand Diwon’s initial bafflement.

Pauker understood it too, but he kept sending material to Diwon and “kept the conversation going,” he says. Finally, the producer-DJ saw Pauker and his band live in L.A. and the deal was done.

In an e-mail last week, Diwon wrote, “I know most people know me for the hip-hop, world and electronic type of sounds that I produce, but folk has always been one of my favorite genres, and I had always wanted to bring some hip-hop and electronic sound design to folk. Mikey’s record was the perfect opportunity. The idea, at least for me, was to create a sort of world of sound, bringing it back to the days of vinyl where a record was a world and had a feel throughout.”

The result is a smart, funky album that mixes a creative singer-songwriter with an equally innovative beat-driven producer. The beauty of “Extraordinary Love,” Pauker’s forthcoming album, is that it never feels like two divergent concepts held together with rubber bands and good intentions. Rather, it feels like the end product of an organic process.

To hear Pauker and Diwon tell it, that is precisely what the record is.

“When we went into the studio, Diwon would say, ‘Let’s work on this one thing and see how it works out,’” Pauker says. “I’d lay down a rough guitar track and vocal with a metronome. And I said to him, ‘You’re a DJ, take my song and cut it up and recreate it.’ Four days later he had changed the order around, put in different synths and rhythms. The first time I heard that first track, I almost cried, he had done something so amazing.”

“Working with Mikey was great because I had just moved to L.A. and was setting up my spot exactly when we had begun tracking the record,” Diwon wrote. “We tracked some of the vocals and guitar in the bathroom which sounded really cool. The vibe of recording on the West Coast is really cool and I think the general feel of L.A. fits the record really well, as it’s really chill and natural but still brings in some big urban elements.”

That is entirely appropriate since Pauker is a Californian, born and bred. Raised as a Reform Jew in Liguna Niguel, he describes himself as a “problem child” in shul, a kid who “acted out by talking” in class. But as he settled down, his interest in spirituality grew, as did his involvement in Jewish summer camps. When he went to San Francisco State as an undergraduate, he joined a Jewish fraternity, worked for the campus Hillel and made his first visit to Israel. Eventually he would spend time at a Carlebach-inspired yeshiva, “living chasidish, studying Tanya and mysticism, going to the mikveh every morning, wrapping myself in tefillin.”

On a sojourn in Safed a Chabad rabbi handed him a chapter of the Tanya and said, “Why don’t you write me a song. “I was sitting in a dusty little room on a bunk bed and read the chapter, and then I puked up this song in 15 minutes.”

At the same time, Pauker was exploring other spiritual interests, becoming involved in yoga, going to the famous Burning Man festival.

Through it all, he was writing songs continuously. 

Diwon concluded his e-mail by observing, “Mikey is a great songwriter. I really love how he incorporates spiritual texts and ideas in a way that fits very well with folk and doesn’t feel like religious music.”

“When I’m writing, it’s like I’m being given a gift every time,” Pauker says quietly. “It’s coming from God and I’m just a vessel for his creation.”

He had begun a program for Jewish educators at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, but dropped out “to focus on music,” he says.

“My gift and job is to inspire as many people as I can,” Pauker said, “to put them in touch with the inner light.” 

Mikey Pauker will be performing on Sunday, Aug. 18 at the Milk and Honey Music Festival for the Benefit of Israel Cancer Research, at the Highline Ballroom (431 W. 16th St.), along with Y-Love, Max Jared, and Israeli artists Onili, Shira Gavrielov and Arlene Gould. For information, call (212) 414-5994 or go to www.highlineballroom.com. For information about “Extraordinary Love,” which will be released on Oct. 1, and to hear some of Pauker’s music, go to www.mikeypauker.com.

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