The Levins - October 2012
The Levins - Something Beyond Radiance
by Richard Cuccaro, Acoustic Live!
Sometimes the stars line up just right. Two talents find each other, merge and create something unique. Ozzie and Harriet, Laurel and Hardy, Simon and Garfunkel, Lennon and McCartney… Ira and Julia Levin. While we’re at it, let’s get it right. It’s not LEHvinn. They pronounce it LeVin, calling themselves The LeVINS. Other than the last name pronunciation, there’s no confusion — especially regarding talent — once Ira and Julia Levin start to sing. A configuration of harmony and melody lights up the area. Their voices fit together, like water and ice, like heat and steam. Something joyful explodes inside the listener’s chest like a Roman candle. Their effect may, in fact, begin before they start to play. Even at first glance, Ira and Julia seem to radiate a positive energy. That “look” always keeps its promise. The origins of all that talent and energy blossomed in each of their pasts, building a depth of experience uniquely suited to their musical essence.
Julia Bordenaro lived in Jefferson, Iowa. as a child. At an early age, her mother declared she’d start piano lessons. Fortunately, this suited Julia perfectly. Additionally, there was a progressive piano teacher, Monica McGregor, in Jefferson — quite unusual in a small town of 4,000 people. When Monica found that Julia was learning more by ear than sight reading, she stressed chord structure to keep things fun and allowed Julia to play pop songs such as those by Cheap Trick. Although Julia eventually learned to sight read musical notation, Monica was wise enough to show Julia how to improvise using chords that worked well together. Julia didn’t understand how much it would benefit her until much later. She studied with Monica from age 5 to 18.
Julia wasn’t just good — she was special. Beginning in the seventh grade and through high school, Julia became the piano player for all the choral teachers. Singing at this point wasn’t in the picture. She didn’t know she could sing well until she got to college.
Julia was inspired by old movies and loved musicals — unaware that these were traits she would share with her future husband. In high school, like many of us, she embraced the music of Neil Young and Jackson Browne. However, unlike many in her age bracket, she became a big fan of British jazz pianist Marian McPartland’s late-night radio shows. She’d turn on her tape cassette recorder at night before going to sleep, press “record” and “see what I would wake up with the next day.” Adding to that, after hearing Harry Connick’s jazz version of “If I Only Had a Brain,” from The Wizard of Oz, Julia wanted to focus on playing solo piano and singing. Playing the baseline was necessary in emulating Harry Connick, but had to be discarded when she got into ensemble playing — giving it over to other instruments. Discarding it was difficult, but she managed to unlearn it. She would circle back to it, however, when she began playing solo and in a duo format.
As a testament to her advanced talent, Julia was invited to join her piano teacher’s family musical group — one of the only non-family members so honored.
Julia went to college at Briarcliff University in Sioux City, Iowa, getting a degree in Music and Education.
The Singer Emerges
As a member of a 200-person choir — part of her study program — she had fun, but it led to something more auspicious. The choir director drafted her into the university madrigal group, telling her “I need you for this part.” It involved singing a big solo in a piece by the late heralded operatic composer, Benjamin Britten, and gave her a new perspective as an accomplished singer she hadn’t realized she was.
In 1992 after college, Julia went directly into teaching. She taught music at the K-5 level in a rural area of Iowa for two years. During this time Julia began writing her own songs for voice and piano. She then moved to the “big city” of Des Moines, as she laughingly called it, continuing to teach while she played music. She became a member of The Taz Band, a blues outfit playing locally and on the road. They opened for bigger acts like John Lee Hooker and Buckwheat Zydeco.
Julia began playing solo in coffeehouses, using her own “singer/songwriter” material. Then she joined a group called Lost Art Café which opened for Sheryl Crow, early in Crow’s career, during Sheryl’s Tuesday Night Club album tour. Lost Art Café played a lot of Julia’s material and was the opening act for high-profile performers such as Susan Werner and Ferron (incidentally, Susan Werner had appeared on the McPartland radio show some years earlier and Julia was thrilled to finally meet her and play as an opener).
Julia spent a summer on a cruise ship on the inside passage of Alaska playing jazz piano, which is what inspired her to move to the West Coast.
Teaching Runs Its Course
Around 1996, she moved to Marin, Calif., and continued to teach K-5 musical education, not bothering to pursue her own music. She was also coordinator for an after-school piano program from 3 to 7pm. She did this for about four years and burned out. It was the year 2000 — the wrong time to switch to a job with a dot.com firm. Two days before she was to start the job, the dot.com bubble burst and the company folded.
She had already decided it was time to get back to playing music and had begun performing at coffeehouses again. She joined the Northern California Songwriter’s Association (NCSA) which held open mics at the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley. It happened that a certain musician was highly involved there — Julia Bordenaro… meet Ira Levin. After Ira heard Julia sing at the open mic (“Everybody loved her — she had such a radiance about her”), he invited her to his weekly singer/songwriter soiree held at his house. Though he was obliged to also invite her then-current boyfriend, it quickly became obvious that, next to Ira, the boyfriend had no shot. Upon seeing Ira’s band room, filled with rock posters, Julia found herself thinking “I can’t marry this guy!” Then, examining those unexpected thoughts, she pondered, “Why am I thinking this?” We found the answer in examining the life forces that had created the galvanizing personality of Ira Levin.
The Precocious Performer
Ira Levin was born in Miami. To say that his parents influenced him would be an understatement. Ira was exposed to radio and theater early. His father was the general manager of one of the first talk radio stations in the United States, WKAT. His mother was an actress. He was “thrown into” the theater crowd at around 5 years old, doing child roles (“Auntie Mame,” etc.) in community theater. “I was 5 years old going on 42.” he said. “They called me ‘the midget.’”
An uncle who was an actor in New York City would come to visit. Obviously a larger-than-life character, “he was a nut,” Ira told me. An element of daring was planted deep into an already bold youngster. Old movies crept into the mix. Ira became enamored of the Marx Brothers, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, absorbing their brazen wackiness. His mom would play recordings of the scores of Broadway musicals on a regular basis and that went into the influence database.
The piano in the living room saw a lot of use. Ira began taking lessons when he was 8 years old and studied for about four years. Although he didn’t pursue the piano, he found it enjoyable. His mom played a little bit and there’d always be sheet music on the piano of themes from then-current movies.
Ira’s dad would frequently pull a classical record out of a closet full of them, put it on the turntable, and tell him to close his eyes and describe what he “saw” — a great way to develop an imaginative relationship to music. When he was around 5 years old, his dad took him to see Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Ira described it as a “near-religious experience.” He said he “melted into the screen.”
He’d hold “Evenings with Ira” in his parents’ living room, entertaining his parents and their friends with various monologues and comedic bits originated by Shelly Berman, Bob Newhart and Mel Brooks. When he performed Bill Cosby’s “Chickenheart” routine in school and his classmates chanted his name, he was fatally bitten by the entertainer bug.
The Guitar Sneaks In
Ira “picked up” a guitar when he was 12. A friend showed him the basic chords and how to play “Maleguena.” From there Ira ran with it, learning on his own. Later, Ira went on a “Teen” travel tour when he was 14 and was exposed to a variety of music and what he terms “the counterculture.” His parents called it “the big mistake,” he recalled, laughing.
Ira’s father was appointed Florida’s Secretary of Commerce, so they moved to Tallahassee and that’s where Ira finished high school. Music by The Allman Brothers Band and Southern rock in general were added to his growing storehouse of influences. During this time, he and a group of friends formed an “underground” (non-performing) band called The Testonious Phibonz Banz . They would wait until someone’s parents left for an evening, then would converge at the house and bang out versions of songs by The Doors, The Who and Jethro Tull.
After high school, Ira attended Florida State University in Tallahassee, majoring in theater. While he did a lot of theater, he also played in clubs and bars, doing acoustic rock covers, solo or with a friend. Ira learned four sets worth of songs, so he did a lot of playing. He dabbled in writing his own material but mostly did stuff by Neil Young and The Grateful Dead as well as those he did with Testonious Phibonz.
After graduation, Ira taught drama at a community center for a summer and played in a band. He then moved to Boulder, Colo., for three years. Ira took classes at The Institute for Music at Naropa University and got deeper into musical theory. He was in a band called Ceiling People where he sang, played guitar and flute (self-taught), and later, after a key player left, filled in on saxophone.
A Gorilla in the Midst
Ira started doing singing telegrams in Boulder just before moving to Berkeley, Calif., and continued doing them there. One day, he was running down the street dressed as a gorilla in a tuxedo. No one batted an eyelash and he thought to himself, “OK… this is a wild place.” The tentacles of Ira’s continuing development have a long reach. He studied voice with Judy Davis, a legendary vocal coach whose students included Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland.
He took sax lessons and helped start a band called 52nd Cousins. This morphed into another band called Comfy Chair. Ira got intensely interested in Fats Waller, Charlie Parker and the music of the Harlem renaissance period — Duke Ellington and The Cotton Club. Comfy Chair shifted from art rock to “slam swing.” Ira wrote an entire album’s worth of music based on that period. They released an album called Party On the Titanic (1995). The swing revival hit and Electra, their record company, put out a compilation, Jump Up and Boogie (1998). The Comfy Chair number, “Renaissance In Harlem,” was included on the compilation. The band morphed again into theatrical vaudevillian rock and put out an album, Hello Dali, a tribute to the Surrealists.
Hyperactive Talking Cows
At the same time, Ira had been doing a lot of rock ‘n’ roll with Jewish community centers as a director of music at summer camps. The director of the community center where Ira worked said to him, “I’ve created a songwriting class for you to teach the kids.” Ira responded with a skeptical, “Oh really?” but readily agreed to do it. It turned out to be tailor-made for him. He’d already been 5-going-on-42. Now he could revert to his ever-present 5-year-old self. He began creating songs along with the campers. While teaching kids at summer camps, Ira grew as a children’s music writer. He developed a persona called “Uncle Eye” and appeared on PBS as a singing storyteller. Employing a kind of hybrid rock, a cross between Shel Silverstein and Frank Zappa, he did two frenetically energetic albums as Uncle Eye. A review from Parents’ Press for one of them, Hippo On My Head, read “definitely not for naptime.” The title track of his second Uncle Eye CD, Hyperactive Talking Cows, came to life in 45 minutes with an assist from a large room filled with 80 camper co-writers.
The Start of Something Big
After Julia met Ira at Freight and Salvage and went to his house for the songwriter’s soiree, they became good friends. She helped him pack for his trip to Scotland for The Fringe Festival as a performer of children’s music. He followed the festival up with a trip to London, busking at Covent Garden, a highly competitive scene.
When he got back, Julia was the first person he saw. The romance got serious as they watched a DVD of the movie The Philadelphia Story one night, knocking back glasses of champagne along with the actors, then slow dancing in the wee morning hours.
Ira held a CD release party at Judy Davis’ studio and Julia opened for him. They “played out” separately on the same bill a bunch of times. On occasion, they’d sing together. After one such performance, Linda Hirshorn of Vocolot saw Julia and asked her to join her a cappella group and Julia accepted. Ira and Julia got married in 2002 and when they returned from their honeymoon, Julia joined the group. Over the next eight years, Julia would perform with Vocolot and with Ira as well.
Ira continued as Uncle Eye with his band, The Strange Change Machine. Julia was a member as well. She is listed as “Aunt Eye” on Hyperactive Talking Cows, playing on a number of tracks.
Faith Inside The Laser Tracks
A sense of spirituality has been at the core of the couple’s recorded output. The album 36 (2008) is based on the Jewish concept of the 36 Lamed Vavnicks, 36 humble and righteous saints who live on earth and hold the fate of the world in their hands. No one knows who they are and they don’t even know who they are themselves. A central idea in the concept is to treat every person one meets as if they are one of the 36. Even for those outside the Jewish faith, the beauty of the songs can bring chills, which use a variety of Middle Eastern percussive instruments and soaring harmonies: When you are in trouble, I will be with you / I know your name / Halleluyah – Yah! / I know your name / I set you on high because you know my name. The Levins were invited to play in both Amsterdam for the Jewish Music Festival and to England’s UK Limmud because of this album.
My Friend Hafiz (2009) is based on the writings of Persian lyric poet Hafiz of Shiraz (1326-1390), widely recognized as one of the great Sufi poets. Again, the sense of uplift is all-encompassing as the album begins with “Dropping Keys.” Over the sound of a tabla we hear: I am one of many, I’m not one alone / When I sing from the center of my soul / I shine like a diamond in the old king’s throne. In this day of discord between Muslim and Western societies, the embracing of this essentially Muslim-sourced material is typical of The Levins’ focus on one-ness through musical expression. The Levins plan to rerelease My Friend Hafiz with bonus tracks and original stories in early 2013.
In 2010, The Levins left the “Left Coast” behind. Julia also left Vocolot for a career as a duo with Ira. The children’s music of Uncle Eye would continue with The Levins Family shows.
The title track of their first recording as a duo — a 6-song EP — Barely Contained (2010), illustrates their grasp of whimsy and imagination: I once saw a fish in a tall tree / He saw me and he started to grin / the melody reminds me / there’s water in air and he started to swim. Although I tend to raise an eyebrow at the cliches of songs about coffee, when they sing “Coffee My Love,” I’m won over. It’s like Cole Porter as they lead off with: I’d like to see you, early in the morning / I like to hold out, hold out till noon / I might go crazy, crazy if I see you / I might go crazy if I see you too soon / But it’s a love affair, when your perfume’s in the air /I love this love affair, you perk me up!
On the EP, they cover the old standard “Blue Skies” with a melodic twist I hadn’t heard before. At first, I wanted to hear them do it the way I’d always heard it before, perhaps with that archly sad version some artists use. Those voices would sound so good, I thought, using the standard melodies. Then something changed. Every time I hummed the song to myself, the melody running through my head was The Levins’ version. Their single, “Cereal Days,” with its nostalgic look at the breakfasts we loved as kids, has had audience members waving boxes of cereal as they sing along. When Ira and Julia make a musical statement, it’s tough to resist. Why bother?
Ira and Julia love writing together and were the winners of the 2011 CT folk Festival songwriting contest
The Levins are an invitation to a love-in and everyone’s invited. Just show up and enjoy the radiance.
Oct 14 1pm Warwick AppleFest 5 South Street, Warwick, NY Free
25 8:30pm Wherefore Arts Greenlawn, NY $25
Nov 8-11 Northeast Regional Folk Alliance Conference Hudson Valley ResortKerhonkson, NY Showcases include: Friday Night Acoustic Live 1am