Singing This Week: Clare Burson

Silver and Ash

There’s one more week left of The Washington Jewish Music Festival, and you don’t want to miss indie, folkie songstress, Clare Burson, who will be performing on Thursday, June 23rd at 7:30 pm at the Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater. (For tickets, click here.)

Clare’s newest album, Silver and Ash, which tells the story of her grandmother’s life in Germany from 1919 until her escape in 1938, is emotional and engaging. Her music is purposeful, poetic, and tells a story that resonates with a wide audience of American Jews, but it has a kind of Americana-Indie pop vibe that strays away from sounding particularly like traditional Jewish music.

Clare is currently on a busy summer tour, but I managed to get a word in with her on the road as she headed from Chicago to Indianapolis:

Where are you from and what was your family life growing up like?

I grew up in Memphis, TN.  Both of my parents were born there, as were my dad’s parents. I grew up in a close-knit family with a pretty rich family life.  I went to Shabbas dinner at my father’s parent’s house every Friday night – a good southern meal.  Chicken noodle soup and fried chicken.

How did your Judaism, specifically your grandmother’s story, inspire you as an artist?

There are a bunch of different answers to that.  I’ve been obsessed with my own family history for many, many years.  My history major in college [at Brown] was a result of that because I wanted to better understand the world my ancestors came from.

Where did the inspiration for Silver and Ash really come from?

I never set out to write a record about my grandmother’s experience.  But in 2007 I was awarded the Six Points Fellowship for emerging Jewish artists; I received a grant in order to pursue my music, but the main stipulation was that the project had to have Jewish content.  I used some of the grant money to go to Eastern Europe to explore the other side of my family, and I was completely unprepared for the emotional impact of that experience.  I thought I would be totally fine to visit the spot where my great grandparents were killed, since I had spent a year in Germany in the middle of college, but I just wasn’t prepared for this particular experience.  So, the bulk of the songs I wrote for this album came out of that trip.  I realized I still had a lot to process about what this all meant to me.

Is the album one continuous story?

Some of the songs are written from my perspective, and some songs are written from my grandmother’s perspective.  And then some of the songs draw on stories that my paternal grandmother told me from her father’s experience growing up in Eastern Germany and immigrating to the United States.  I put the two families together to tell a general story of exodus from Eastern Europe and Germany to the United States.

Did you ever dream that this would happen to you?  That you would become a musician?  After all, you were a history major in college!

Well, when my family moved to Nashville when I was 13, I was really exposed to the music scene and folk music.  But it wasn’t until I was in Germany on a Fullbright Scholorship that I decided I wanted to pursue music.  I got my hands on a guitar and started writing songs.  I always dreamed that this would happen, and when I first started writing songs, I wanted to make sure that they would get beyond my bedroom walls.  It’s nice to know that my work resonates with people and that I can share my perspective on the world with others and in turn have others share theirs with me.

What’s something unique about you that no one really knows?

I wear my heart on my sleeve, so I don’t keep much bottled up.  But… I used to play violin for the polar bears at the Memphis zoo!