Elliah Heifetz — Interview
As the son of Latvian immigrants, Elliah Heifetz never quite felt like he belonged in the country/Americana scene, and yet, the calling he felt was something he could not escape. With his latest album First Generation American (due April 1), the singer-songwriter is embracing both his roots and roots music, making no apologies along the way.
You can listen to the single “Living Proof” now.
I recently sat down with Elliah Heifetz to discuss an otherness like no other, anxiety, and why he is prepared to be a country music tourist for the foreseeable future.
Americana Highways: Your album, First Generation American, is a love letter to both your family and your country. That said, how important is this record to you personally, and, how big of an accomplishment is it seeing these songs released into the world?
Elliah Heifetz: Most of my life, I was afraid to write country music at all—and when I finally did, it was always for other people to sing. Never for myself. As the son of Latvian immigrants, I was already “less than American” in many folks’ eyes; adding on the fact that I’m Jewish and from the Northeast, it was hard to believe I had a right to be making country. But the truth is, country and roots music is the product of so many immigrant musical cultures. My otherness is actually what gives me the right to participate. So I started writing and recording Americana songs for myself to sing.
Still, I’d internalized all this so much that I somehow completely avoided talking about my family roots and personal story. I guess in my head, I had something to prove—that I was just as folksy as anyone else, and could write folk music that sounded just like what everyone else was making. (Pro tip, never do that.) I’m proud of my earlier releases, but it’s funny to look back and realize how you could listen to them all and never know this huge piece of my truth.
In that light, on a personal level, putting this album out means not only publicly acknowledging my migrant roots, but also basically shouting about them from the rooftops—celebrating the thing I’ve been most self-conscious about. Which is a huge step for me both as a person and as a songwriter seeking to write the truest possible music. And in general, it means being able to ask the world the same questions I’ve been asking myself my whole life: why should American music (and America, really) be limited to anyone?
AH: Do you think First Generation American means just as much to your family as it does to you, especially knowing what they went through in order for you to have these types of opportunities?
EH: I hope so! They’ve had the album for a little while now and have made me feel pretty good about it being accurate to their experiences. I know they’re still a little confused about why I’m making this kind of music (having raised me on classical, jazz, and klezmer) but I think they’re excited to see such stereotypically “American” music tell stories like theirs. Well, literally their stories!
AH: Your mother, father, and sister came to the United States from the Soviet Union. How have those eastern European roots impacted your songwriting?
EH: My dad definitely instilled in me a strong familiarity with the kinds of melodic and harmonic turns found in Eastern European Jewish folk music (klezmer). He’s at least a fifth generation klezmer, with who knows how many more generations going back, so it’s personal to me to appreciate and understand that musical world. And I do think the tension and release, the minor to major to minor again that klezmer captures so beautifully and tragically, has had a huge influence in the shapes my melodies take.
AH: We live in a very divided country right now. As a first generation American, have you been able to view these societal wounds through the eyes of your parents, and if so, what can we learn from those who left their countries of origin for a better future? How do we discover perspective as a society and get on the same page?
EH: Growing up with my parents showed me that a lot of these lines of division come simply from ignorance—intentional or not—about the real, human truth behind every immigrant story.
As a first-generation American, I’d been hearing stories of hard traveling my whole life, of being dirt poor, told you’re nothing, forced to start over again and again. Of the tenacity of the human spirit and the power of love. I’ve witnessed these stories personally as my immigrant parents lived through them. And yet, these are the exact myths that many “born and bred Americans” base their nationalist identities on, pointing to their “brave, rugged, pioneering” ancestors. The truth is, every American has an immigrant in their past who did many (if not all) of the same things migrants are doing today, no matter how much certain people may disapprove. Literally, Donald Trump’s earliest American ancestor immigrated to the US illegally! Did he not have the same hopes, dreams, and grit as those being detained at the border? Did he not want a promise of something better?
But beyond the acceptance that none of us would be here if not for our immigrant ancestors, the first step to getting on the same page has to be realizing that, put in the situation most immigrants find themselves in, any of us would make the exact same choices. Any of us would break the law to save our children from early death. Any of us would risk everything for those we love. Any of us would do whatever it takes to escape persecution and find acceptance.
AH: Your first single, “Living Proof,” is out now. Why did you choose this song to be the introduction to the album-to-come?
EH: There are a lot of moments on this album where I don’t pull any punches when it comes to my experience as the child of immigrants in contemporary America, but ultimately, it is a love letter—a celebration of a story that could’ve only happened in this country, told through music that evolved uniquely in this country. And I wanted it to be clear off the bat: jokes and barbs aside, this record genuinely comes from the heart.
AH: I have experienced my fair share of anxiety and panic attacks throughout the course of my life, so I was drawn immediately to the song “Anxiety.” Is anxiety something you have suffered from, and, was writing about it a cathartic exercise in coming to terms with those thoughts we don’t always have control over?
EH: Absolutely. I’ve been dealing with GAD since a triggering incident when I was 19, and for a few years, it went undiagnosed. I just thought I had this huge personality flaw that I was terrible at keeping in check. For a few years, it subsided, but I moved apartments in late 2019 and (of all things) that seemed to drudge it back up. (Folks with anxiety know that just about anything can be a trigger!) I nearly lost a lot to it, and wrote this song in the pits of that moment, desperate to get that control back. Fortunately, I started taking some really helpful medication that seems to be a pretty permanent fix—but writing this song definitely gave me a vital moment of catharsis during a rough patch.
AH: If someone sat down and listened to First Generation American front to back, what would they learn about you?
EH: Besides the obvious—a fairly decent run-down of what my life has been like as a first generation American and how it’s shaped my worldview—I think people might see that deep down, I’m kind of a sap! Yeah, I have a lot of fun being sarcastic and dry and telling half-baked wisecracks, but at the end of the day, I’m an optimist. Even about the country I spend a lot of time criticizing. And no amount of tongue-in-my-cheek or wink-in-my-eye will obscure that.
AH: What are you most proud of with the album and why?
EH: One thing I really pushed myself on was to make sure I was telling a variety of stories in a variety of ways. On an album with a loose concept like this one, it’s hard sometimes not to feel like you’re being hit in the head over and over with the same ideas. And with such a personal (and often political) concept, I was really nervous about coming off preachy, or not serious enough, and undercutting the power in the truth of my own life’s story. So I tried pretty hard to make each song feel like a fresh journey told in a unique way and often through a distinct perspective. And I do feel on some level I accomplished that.
AH: You had some incredible musicians lending their talents to the album. What did you take from them that was not directly related to music? Were there any lessons about life beyond the studio that you took from the experience of being in the studio?
EH: Recording with Andrija and his dream team of musicians felt in many ways like taking a time machine back to the recording sessions of my favorite ‘70s country acts—all straight to tape, barely any practice, just a band learning a song down quickly and gelling together through its deep, innate sense of rhythm and groove. As an anxious neurotic living in New York, overthinking and over-explaining things can be a huge problem for me. And so in removing the ability to make big cosmetic edits on my own voice by going analog (and having to simply trust a band of master musicians’ intuitions), I learned a lot about letting go.
AH: You call yourself a tourist through country music with First Generation American. With that said, what other musical locales would you like to visit in your career? Are there any other styles or genres that you want to focus on in the future?
EH: It’s a bit of a cliche at this point to say “I listen to all genres” but it’s the truth—in terms of melody, harmony, and lyrics, I find inspiration in everything from jazz standards to hip hop. Thing is, there are still so many vibrant corners of country, folk, and roots music I have yet to explore and that I love so dearly. I’d love to do a whole record of old timey music, for instance, or a dance-y album drawing on the late ‘70s/early ‘80s country disco era, or something lean and hard-hitting like a lot of ‘90s alt-country. If I’m being honest with myself, I’m still so hopelessly enamored by the myriad little nooks and crannies that have made up what we now call “Americana” that I think I’ll probably be a tourist a little while longer.
AH: Time machine question. If you could jump ahead 10 years and get a glimpse of what your career looks like a decade from now, would you take that journey? If not, why?
EH: I don’t think I would! My favorite thing in the world is writing music that sounds like this—as in, the actual process of sitting alone in a room writing the music. Where that music ends up (who ends up singing it, even) is almost less relevant to me. Sure, I’d like to be the one touring around and telling these stories. But I’m open to any avenue that lets me write music for a living, and the mystery of what that’ll be allows me to focus on the brass tacks of writing itself.
For more information on Elliah Heifetz and the upcoming thought-provoking album, visit www.elliahheifetz.com.
Enjoy lots more music coverage on our website, for example here: REVIEW: Billy Joe Shaver & Kinky Friedman Live Down Under