As the son of a rabbi and grandson of a cantor, Avi Wisnia learned to be comfortable on stage at a young age, composing melodies on the piano as soon as he was tall enough to reach the keys. After the release of his first album in 2010 he wasn’t sure he was ever going to release music again.
“I had just finished touring my first record when my brother passed away. He was the person that introduced me to the joy of making music and the first person I ever played with. When I lost him, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I retreated away from everything that I loved.”
Lucky for us, Avi eventually did return to the music scene. On November 5th he released his first full-lenghth album ‘Catching Leaves’ in more than a decade. The album was produced by acclaimed bassist/conductor Ken Pendergast (Melody Gardot and Macy Gray). It follows the passing of his brother and grandfather, a singer and Holocaust survivor who helped him rediscover its communal power.
“The process of making this album was a necessary and cathartic one: I had to learn to lean into my grief and sadness and all the feelings of loss and uncertainty I was dealing with. It made me examine the moments that felt so overwhelming and learn to see the beauty in them. This album is a reflection of that time and I’m so proud of the songs that came out of that period.”
What can you tell me about your childhood and growing up?
“My father is a rabbi and my grandfather was a cantor, which means I quite literally grew up in a synagogue, seeing these members of my family regularly on a platform in front of hundreds of people. I saw their ease and comfort at being in front of a large crowd, and I learned how to be comfortable with that myself. I also saw the positive impact that big communal experiences can have, and how necessary these experiences are to help us connect to one another as human beings. Being raised with Jewish rituals, there was always an emphasis on community and I love how music is used to really bring people together.”
How and when did you learn to sing, write and play?
“I started taking classical piano lessons when I was 5, and I quickly realized that I was more interested in improvising what I heard than playing what I saw, which probably frustrated my piano teacher. I was grateful for the foundation and technique classical training gives you, and I was able to use it as I expanded my playing into jazz and pop and other genres.”
“I had a lot of incredible music teachers over the years who all encouraged me to keep pursuing music and I ended up studying composition and performance at New York University. That’s when I started really trying out my own music as a songwriter.”
“One of the best ways I learned to hone my songwriting skills was going to open mics around New York City, and hearing the incredible diversity of voices, all of us trying out new material in front of each other. By trying out my songs in front of an audience, I got to learn what felt right to me and what really resonated with those listening.”
What kind of music do you like to listen to?
“Being one myself, I’m certainly drawn to a lot of piano-based songwriter performers. Stevie Wonder, Carole King, Sara Bareilles, Ben Folds, John Legend, Rufus Wainwright – all these artists have unique voices and distinct sounds and they’ve taught me a lot about the art of crafting a good song and telling a good story through music. I also love listening to the classic bossa nova that came out of Brazil in the early 50’s and 60’s, songs by Tom Jobim and Joao Gilberto. These songs are so complex and rich but also mellow and subtle, and I love how all those intricate musical puzzle pieces fit together.”
Is there a song you wish you’d written yourself?
“‘Walking in Memphis’ by Marc Cohn. It’s a classic and timeless Piano Man tale that everyone can relate to that also has so much soul and it’s just so fun to play and sing along to.”
I always want to hear about the creative process. What can you tell me about yours?
“For me, music comes first. I’ll have an idea for some chords or a melody line, and often I’ll sit with just the music for a while before I have a subject to write about. It is rare that a song will come to me fully formed overnight – it has happened, but it’s not often. Most songs take work, they need time to evolve and reveal themselves. Many of the songs on my new album were completed over many years.”
What inspires your lyrics?
“I’m very inspired by nature and there’s a lot of references to nature on my new album. I think these allusions to things in nature set up a very interesting dynamic in thinking about how much of our lives we actually control, and how much we are just pushed along by other forces. Writing about nature also provides a lot of opportunities to explore themes I’m always thinking about: change and transition, love and loss, grief and hope.”
Are you happy with the response to the album?
“This album was a long time coming and I’m thrilled it’s out in the world and that people are loving it. One of the most exciting things about releasing new music after so many years is getting to hear the response to the songs and getting to hear which ones resonate the most with people, which ones are people’s favorites. Sometimes the answers are surprising! Radio play and playlist adds are great, but the most gratifying thing for me is knowing that my music is a meaningful part of someone’s life.”
You released an animated video for the first single. You’ve mentioned before you are planning more music videos. Any updates on those?
“I’ve gotten great response to the animated video for my first single ‘Catching Leaves’. I have more music videos and live performance recordings in the works that will be coming out this winter.”
For ‘Catching Leaves’ you worked with Ken Pendergast, who has also worked for Melody Gardot. Is there anyone else you’d like to work with?
“I would love to make an album with John Alagia, jam with Questlove, and record a song in 57-part harmony with Jacob Collier.”
Do you have any hobbies that contribute to your musicality?
“I love hiking and getting out in nature. And swimming. Whenever I’m on tour, if there’s a hotel with a pool, or if I’m near the ocean, I have to spend some time before a show in the water. Both of these activities clear my head and help me come up with musical ideas. Anytime you can unplug from a device and free yourself up to access some inner creativity is worth it.”
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
“I got great advice from Dar Williams at a songwriter festival. She was giving the daytime keynote address and I asked her how she balances making music with the business of making music. Her advice was to pay attention to what you prioritize – what’s the first thing you do in the morning? Do you dive into email? Do you get lost in social media? Or do you practice your instrument or journal and write? There’s a time to focus on all of that, but you can easily distract yourself if you don’t set a priority.”
Do you have any advice for young artists?
“For any artist just starting out, try not to get consumed with comparing yourself to others. It’s great to get inspiration from others and take notes on how others are achieving success, but the best artists set themselves apart and forge their own path. There is no one path to success, and as artists, we get to define for ourselves what success is. Set your own goals and just do that thing that excites you.”
“I’m excited to get back to live music! I’m really looking forward to getting out on the road more in 2022 and traveling with this new album. I feel so fortunate to do what I love – to make music, travel, meet new people, bring people together. I’m ready to get back out in the world and make it happen.”
Do you have any plans to play some shows in Europe?
“I have tour dates in 2022 I’ll be announcing soon. I have done tours in Brazil, Japan, and Poland, but never a multi-country tour, and it’s definitely a goal of mine to perform in cities throughout Europe. I love traveling and I can’t wait to get back out on the road. Anyone out there who likes the music, let me know where you are and I will come!”
What’s your favourite song from the Cool 20?
“I’m really loving the classic songwriting style of Sky Diving Penguins on ‘I Don’t Want, I Don’t Care’, the sparse acoustics of ‘Paris’ by the Collective Music Society, and rocking out to ‘No Goodbye’ by Harry J Hart.
What song would you like to add as a bonus track and why?
“I recommend everyone check out Mary Jennings and her song ‘Not Yet’. Her voice is so rich and full of emotion but also floats lightly on these beats and atmospheric sounds that just envelope you. Her latest release Matriarch is fantastic.”
(All photos by Derek Brad)