Elliah Heifetz Embraces Outsider Status on ‘First Generation American’
Elliah Heifetz (pronounced "High-fits") knows the value of a good song. He wouldn't be here without one. The New York-based lyricist is releasing his debut country album, First Generation American, this Friday, April 1. Produced by Andrija Tokic, the album defiantly claims country music on behalf of people whose authenticity within the genre are questioned.
Heifetz's grandfather, a musician, was also a Holocaust survivor. His previous life as a mandolin orchestra band leader enabled him to curry favor with one of the Nazi guards. Bored and tinkering with instruments looted from Jewish homes, the guard asked if any of the inmates could play.
With swollen fingers after enduring the inhumane living conditions in the holding camp, he managed to play the guard's favorite song from memory.
"The guard was so moved, he actually switched my grandfather's placement. Instead of going to the death camp, he ended up going to a work camp," Heifetz explains.
While First Generation American does not deal explicitly with the Holocaust, the story's lesson informs Heifetz's music.
"Stories that are what made me believe in the power of music. Not to be corny or anything, but they're really fundamental to how I approach music every day."
To that end, Heifetz wants to use his debut album to make a point about Americana and country music as a whole. First Generation American questions what it means to be Americana, and what it means to play music associated with American roots.
"Part of Americana is obsession with nostalgia and authenticity. Anybody claiming that there's some sort of authenticity factor towards country music that would preclude somebody with a funny name like mine, someone not from the American south or the west or wherever, it's insane. When you look back at the history of country music, it's literally a bunch of sounds jumbled together from various immigrant cultures which all had different values."
Heifetz points to the fact that country music is, in fact, the music of rural people of European descent from various countries thrown together in urban environments during the Industrial Revolution as well as the influence (borrowed and stolen) from African American and indigenous music. "There isn't a single bit of the sounds of country music that is like authentic and original to the short history of the place where it has become most popular."
Heifetz draws parallels between his experience as a first-generation American (he is the first of his father's children to be born in the U.S.) to country music's history as one for dislocated people.
"It was an exercise in coming to terms with that myself and like saying, 'I'm just going to claim my outsider status as loudly as I can."
But, if somebody were to question Heifetz's credentials, he would point to the long line of klezmer musicians in his family, the folk music of Eastern European Jewish people.
"We're seeing other marginalized groups totally fight for access within country music. I don't know that it's as difficult for me to fight for access," he says. "As evidenced in my album, I definitely insisted upon my status is first-generation American, but you may not know that I'm Jewish. I want to check my own privilege there."
Heifetz felt he had unfinished business when making First Generation American. "On my first EP New Folk Songs, I needed to prove that I can make music that sounds just as folk as anyone else doing it right now. So I like really talk about what makes me different. I don't regret doing that, but what makes me different is what drives my deepest thoughts and feelings, so why don't I write about that?"
Initially, Heifetz attempted to avoid his fate, hoping to step outside of the family business of music-making. But after an internship at Stereogum, he realized he wanted to make music rather than write about it. A playwright friend of his enlisted him to write songs for her musical. Following his interest in old time music, the pair wrote a folk musical about the Dust Bowl, called Dust Can't Kill Me, which was staged at New York's prestigious Fringe Festival and again at the New York Musical Theater Festival.
Heifetz is currently working on a "country rock Western" about a "lady bounty hunter" who is trying to free herself from a contract with the local sheriff. The musical, Death of Desert Rose, is currently being optioned for production.