Culture is an important thing to all of us. It’s not always about what race or religion you were born, sometimes it could be based on where you grew up, what fandom you belonged to or what hobbies you enjoy. No matter what it is, it shapes your core and gives your life a push in certain directions. For me it’s pop culture, for my fellow SoCal resident and music man Mikey Pauker, it’s his Jewish heritage.
Pauker didn’t grow up that hardcore about his culture, but as he got older he found a place for it not only his life but his music as well. Today he’s one of the most renowned artists out there for taking the Jewish world and crossing it over into the mainstream. Keep on reading on to find out about his heritage and how it shaped him, and Pauker’s take on another reigning Jewish artist, Matisyahu.
Kendra: When you started, how important was it that you keep your heritage at the forefront of what you do?
Mikey Pauker: I released my first demo when I was in high school. In my early years of performing and recording I didn’t have solidified vision. It wasn’t until after my third EP and post college that I transitioned over to spiritual music. After writing my first song based off the Morning Prayer for Peace, I took a series of months to intentionally think and re-create my music direction. At the same time I was recording my first spiritual EP, Sim Shalom, deepening my spiritual practice. Following the release I worked on new material with past band mates Elizabeth Joy and Jared Stein and released Mikey Pauker & The JoyMachine, a project with liturgics, mystical references. At the conclusion of 2011, The JoyMachine ended our collaboration because of creative differences, and I went on my way to study at yeshiva in Jerusalem. It was here where I wrote most of the music from my new full length album Extraordinary Love, an album inspired by Jewish spiritual text, Jewish liturgy and mystical experiences. I live my life with authenticity and integrity and see great value in having pride for where I receive my inspiration as an artist. The themes in my music are universal, regardless of what you believe in.
Kendra: The Jewish culture is so rich with traditions, what were some of your favorite growing up? Any of them musical?
Mikey: I grew up very rarely ever celebrating Shabbat or participating in tradition. However my family always celebrated Passover, which is the festival that celebrates the Jews being freed from Egypt. I have always loved eating my mother’s matzo ball soup. As a child I didn’t enjoy Jewish music so much so it wasn’t until my mid 20’s that I started really connecting with the music.
Kendra: You’ve often been dubbed a “trendsetter.” Was that always the case, even when you were in high school – were you the hip one in the halls?
Mikey: I dunno if I was one of the hip ones, I did my own thing. I was the dentist in Little Shop Of Horrors, Charlie Brown in Charlie Brown The Musical, Farmer Carnes in, Oklahoma, and even the understudy for Thenadier in Les Miserables. I was highly involved in choir and sang in Men’s Choir, Chamber Choir, and even participated in songwriting. As for being a trendsetter… I’m just doing my best to start with a foundation of strong intention, songwriting and production. If people think I’m setting trends, then so be it. I’m just being me.
Kendra: In recent years Matisyahu really shined the light on the whole Jewish crossover, and you’ve gotten to share the bill with him before. How do you compare and differentiate with him?
Mikey: We both are making “Jewish Crossover Music,” we both have red facial hair, we are both tall, and both studied at Yehshiva. When Matisyahu shaved off his payot and beard the whole media and many of the Jewish community had a major freak out. I sure didn’t. I was cheering him on. I have always understood that a Jew doesn’t have to look a specific way to be more “spiritual or religious” than another Jew. I grew up reform and pretty secular. So in the summer of 2011 as I was working as a “songleader” at a camp in Los Angeles my good friend, Rabbi Sara Brandes who I was studying devotional heart centered Jewish teachings with, recommended I go study at a Chassidic yeshiva in Jerusalem inspired my Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Coming from the secular world, I knew if I really wanted to expand my views and build love for my ultra orthodox brothers and sisters I would have to live with them and keep my heart and mind open to receive the teachings in an experiential way. So I immersed myself in daily spiritual renewal through ritual, torah study, law, rabbinical commentary, and even Jewish meditation classes. I think the big issue why the Jewish people are so split and point so many fingers at each other is because everyone thinks they are living the “right” way, and people are not adventurous enough to leave everything behind and live with the communities they have always pointed their fingers at. I was able to experience the power in owning a life style centered in torah. Two years after leaving Yeshivah I have now chosen what kind of life I want to live, and know that I was given the gift to create transformation and connection with the divine through Jewish instrumental music on Shabbat. I know Matisyahu doesn’t perform or play instruments on Shabbat. And this is how we majorly differ. Look, one day I may stop but for now my calling is to elevate as many souls with the gifts I have been given. I think of myself as a performer, artist, educator and spiritual practitioner. I work closely with the youth all over the world facilitating Jewish ritual and prayer, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to participate in spiritual renewal.
Kendra: Extraordinary Love is your current record’s but are there any immediate plans to record another in 2014?
Mikey: Yep. As a matter of fact I am on a train headed from Scotland to England where I will be for a few days and gig before I head back home to Laguna for some local gigs and writing sessions for my new album. I have about 8 songs I’m working on. I’m writing right now with producer and artist Brian Judah and a handful of other co-writes with other talented artists. Brian is releasing his new album this year, and I have helped co-write a few songs on his new album. I have tracked a few songs for my new album; I can’t believe how it’s sounding, and really playing with my SoCal reggae/hip hop roots. Not sure when I will release new material, but I would expect something in mid to late 2014.
Kendra: What about touring this year?
Mikey: I’m kind of on this continual tour. I have gigs and festivals lined up all over the country and even back in Europe later this year. The next gig back in the states is at the Orange County Music Awards Best Live Band Showcase at the Tiki Bar in Costa Mesa, California on February 11th, at 7pm. Make sure to come through, it’s rare that I play all ages and a free gig. Some artists that have been featured in this gig over the years are: Thrice, Young The Giant, Micah Brown, Dirty Heads. It was also just announced that I will be performing with Yo La Tengo and Basya Schechter at the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival on March 29th at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta! Don’t miss these amazing shows!
Kendra: Can you make me a mixtape of five songs for your hood? Five songs that capture the greatness of your hometown, go!