It took the Seattle-based singer-songwriter Ben Fisher just 15 minutes to write the first of the resonant songs on his new album, “Does the Land Remember Me?” In an interview with JewishBoston, Fisher recalled that he was on vacation in Japan in 2014 when the song “The Shell Lottery,” about the founding of Tel Aviv, came to him. The story—part myth, part history—is about the first Tel Aviv homesteaders. Living in Jaffa, they met on the beach with 60 dark shells and 60 lighter shells in hand. They wrote out each family’s name on a dark shell and a number on the lighter shells, and matched families to plots. “That was the beginning of the bustling metropolis of Tel Aviv,” he said. “It’s a great example of Israeli ingenuity and practicality.”
History is important to the 26-year-old musician. He majored in Middle Eastern studies and Arabic at the University of Washington and made his first trip to Israel soon after college. “I had this black hole when it came to Israel,” Fisher said. “I knew so much about the Lebanese Civil War and Sufi poetry. I was fluent in Arabic, but I didn’t know anything about Israel.” Fisher said he was brought up in a Reform household, but his parents were “bacon-eating Jews who went to synagogue only on the High Holidays.” His Jewish education didn’t sink in until he read books by Martin Gilbert, Daniel Gordis and Yossi Klein Halevi. Those works inspired him to take another trip to Israel. Five months later, he moved to Jerusalem.
Fisher chose to live in Jerusalem over Tel Aviv. “Tel Aviv could be anywhere,” he said. “It’s a great cultural scene, but it’s 100 years old. It doesn’t have the roots Jerusalem has. Jerusalem’s history fascinates me.” When he first arrived, Fisher spent several months immersing himself in Hebrew and tending bar on the side. He then worked at The Jerusalem Post as a writer and editor. He eventually moved to an apartment in an area he described as “the seam” between East and West Jerusalem. “I loved living on the seam,” he said. “But I also lived there when lone-wolf terrorist attacks were happening in Jerusalem. There were attacks near the light rail and the Damascus Gate. I regularly heard gunshots. There is a song on the album called ‘Horses and Helpers’ about that time. The liner notes to the album talk about the gunshots from terrorist attacks and the dead terrorists you see in the public park next to the walls of the Old City, or the reason you’re late to work because a car plowed into your stop on the light rail.”
Fisher said he intended to write songs from different perspectives. “There are 17 songs on the album with six distinct perspectives,” he said. “I don’t agree with all of the viewpoints. [The album] is meant to be a crash course in Israeli history. For example, there are two songs about the ‘48 war. In one, a Palestinian man flees from his home, and in another an Israeli soldier talks about winning the war. There’s also another song from the point of view of a settler on the West Bank.”
Fisher explained that “Does the Land Remember Me?” is a concept album in the vein of one of his folk music heroes Sufjan Stevens’ cult classic records “Illinois” and “Michigan.” Stevens intended to record albums about each of the 50 states, but only made it as far as Illinois and Michigan. Similarly, writing the “Shell Lottery” resonated with Fisher, and he went on to write songs about various eras and key moments in Israeli history. There are songs recalling the history of Masada, songs about terrorist attacks and even a song about Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut to go to space, who was killed in the Columbia mission in 2003. “Israel has so many layers to it,” Fisher said. “I want to get kids interested in the country. I want them to have a stake in Israel and have a stake in what is going on there. I want the album to have the effect that ‘Hamilton’ has had, in that it got people interested in the American Revolution.”
When Fisher’s album made it into the studio, it went through an unexpected evolution. He asked another one of his folk music heroes, Damien Jurado, to produce “Does the Land Remember Me?” Fisher’s intent was to play folk, acoustic guitar renditions of the songs he wrote. He said Jurado interrupted him during the recording and gave him the bad news that Fisher was making the wrong album. “Damien wanted a different sound, which had me playing the piano,” he said. “I had to take a walk around the block to think about that. When I came back, I knew he was right, so we scrapped everything we had done and did it on the piano. It was totally different than what I was expecting, but Damien was right.”
Fisher is still working on East Coast tour dates. He often thinks about returning to Israel but isn’t sure how he would make a living there. However, he fondly remembers his former neighborhood on the seam of Jerusalem. “One thing about living on the seam was the way things quieted down on Friday afternoons,” he said. “Shabbat was coming, and the Arabs were returning home from prayers at the mosque. There was something calming about that twilight time. You don’t see anything in the world like the way Jerusalem stops for Shabbat.”