Dida Pelled: Telling Stories And Serving Songs

Dan Bilawsky BY

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[I wanted] to pick my favorite songs and try to make them sound the way I imagine them. Not looking at specific genres, but just doing what’s best for the songs.”
When it comes to music, Dida Pelled doesn't discriminate. This young guitarist-vocalist—a doe-eyed ingénue in appearance, a mature artist in reality—has proven to be an inimitable double-threat who's more concerned with serving a song and doing justice to the music than fitting into a neat little stylistic box. She's equally comfortable playing straight-up jazz at Smalls in Greenwich Village, interpreting pop, jazz, and/or country classics at intimate Manhattan spots like Lelabar or Antibes Bistro, writing her own tuneful material, or joining the Diva Jazz Orchestra for a program of Johnny Mandel tunes at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola.

In 2009, at twenty-one years of age, Pelled moved to New York from her native Israel, and she quickly made her presence known. She attracted the attention of trumpeter Fabio Morgera, who helped to broker her first record deal. He went on to produce Pelled's Plays And Sings (Red Records, 2010)—a debut that focused mostly on standards and songbook favorites, painting Pelled as a cultivated, in-the-tradition guitarist and a one-of-a-kind vocalist, capable of instantly capturing the ear's attention with her dreamy cooing and wooing. For that outing, she teamed up with bassist Tal Ronen, a close friend and musical ally, and drummer Gregory Hutchinson, an A-list jazz drummer if ever there was one. Morgera and trumpeter Roy Hargrove sweetened the deal, each making notable guest appearances and complementing the work of the core trio. But it was Pelled, not the bigger names, who made the biggest impression. She worked her way through gems like Horace Silver's "Calcutta Cutie," Wes Montgomery's "Fried Pies," and George and Ira Gershwin's "Our Love Is Here To Stay" like a seasoned jazz veteran with nothing to prove and lots to offer. Her sophomore release—Modern Love Songs (Self Produced, 2015)—turned out to be something altogether different. It's a concise collection of music that focuses on her singer-songwriter side and pruning skills, with spare readings of songs from the likes of Randy Newman and Willie Nelson mixed in with original material, a rechristened version of Blossom Dearie's namesake blues—now called "Dida's Blues"—and Hoagy Carmichael's "I Get Along Very Well Without You (Except Sometimes)."

Both records speak directly to Pelled's musical interests and influences, yet she readily acknowledges the differences in the way they each present themselves and in the way they came into being: her debut was quickly assembled when an opportunity arose and the follow-up slowly took shape over a long period of time as a DIY labor of love. "[For Plays And Sings], it was one day in the studio, one day of mixing, and that was it," she notes. With Modern Love Songs, it was much different, as the album grew out of Pelled's experiences playing gigs over the course of several years after Plays And Sings was released. "I played a lot with [bassist] Tal Ronen," she remarks, "and together, we continued playing standards like you can hear on the debut album. But we also combined that type of material with some of our other [musical] influences, bringing both to our gigs. We started playing Bob Dylan songs, and Nirvana covers, and whatever else we felt like playing. We just kept learning songs, trying them out, and putting our own little spin on them." In addition, Pelled and Ronen started writing some songs, both individually and as a team, and mixing them into the sets at their gigs. They built up an impressive and diverse repertoire that would ultimately feed into Modern Love Songs, an album that, in contrast to her debut, took a year-and-a-half to make from start to finish.

Part of the reason that Modern Love Songs took so long to come into being had to do with the normal details surrounding the creation of any album, but Pelled's slow walk along the path of discovery as an independent artist also contributed to the lengthy process. "I had to figure out how to do a lot of things by myself. A lot of simple things," she states, "like how to decide if it would be eight songs or fourteen songs, or how to decide who's going to mix it. Every decision took longer than it should have...but it was wonderful. We learned so much and we had the time of our lives. [Co-producer] Yuval [Vilner] and I were like best friends [during the process]. We did everything together, and I guess that's how you learn." In figuring out all of the details, Pelled managed to grow, both as an artist and as a person, coming to fully appreciate the benefits and understand the downside connected to artistic self-sufficiency. "Sometimes it's nice to be spoiled and not have to deal with all the little things. But when you have to deal with them, you learn a lot," she shares. "It's more complicated. But then it feels more like your baby, and it's more exciting in a way to put it out, so there are a lot of good things about it. On bad days, you think, 'I have to do all these things and I don't even like this anymore,' but on good days, when you're doing everything, you're the engine...and it gives back to you. And it gives you an opportunity to be more creative because you have more control." And with that control came opportunities to branch out.

While Modern Love Songs is narrower than its predecessor in some respects, focusing completely on the art of the three-minute, vocal-centered song, it's also broader in many respects. Pelled taps into a larger pooler of instrumental collaborators and colors here, bringing out incredibly small and rich details in the music; she pulls together an incredibly diverse assortment of songs and stories to get her point(s) across; and she branches out into other forms of media, using music videos as another way to express herself. All of it pays off, as Modern Love Songs has tremendous staying power and impact despite its short running time—about twenty-five minutes—and modest sound(s).

The album opens with "Apology"—one of two selections on the record with music and lyrics by Ronen. It's a piece that's somewhat grim and heavy, as life and death hang in the balance in the lyrics, but sensitive string quartet backing and Pelled's weightless vocals keep things from getting too gloomy. "The original title," notes Pelled, "was 'Apology To A Mouse In A Glue Trap,'" but it was shortened so listeners could draw their own conclusions and meaning from the song without excessive direction. "I called it "Apology" on the album because I wanted it to be more open," she explains. "It's actually a song about a mouse that died...but it's a song about many other things as well. [It's also about] being the mouse yourself [and] being trapped in a glue trap. I think the most important phrase or sentence is, 'You know I'm just like you / For all my thoughts of freedom / My feet are trapped in glue.'" It's that openness to a dual viewpoint, the empathy that comes with it, and the possibility of other personalized takeaways that makes the song interesting on so many different levels.

From there, Modern Love Songs moves on to the Dylan-esque "Jack Knife"—a number that Pelled co-wrote with Ronen and classifies as "a little Spaghetti Western song"—and the aforementioned "I Get Along Very Well Without You (Except Sometimes)," a Hoagy Carmichael number dressed here with a Harry Nilsson-type veneer. The latter proves to be one of the places where it's tempting to try to suss out an explicit jazz connection, but Pelled doesn't provide that expected link. "I really don't look at it like, 'now we're doing a jazz song.' I think you can hear that on 'I Get Along Very Well Without You (Except Sometimes),'" she explains. "We don't play it, arrange it, or produce it in a 'jazz standard' way. We look at it as a song, as much as we looked at 'Apology' and 'Jack Nice' [as songs]. We treated this one the same way." Ultimately, it's that style-blind sense of open-mindedness, where the personalization of a song trumps the perceived need to kowtow to the genre police, that comes to define Modern Love Songs. Pelled echoes that notion in concisely explaining the vision of the album: "[I wanted] to pick my favorite songs and try to make them sound the way I imagine them. Not looking at specific genres, but just doing what's best for the songs." She lives up to that ideal on numbers like Ronen's Paul Simon-ish "Love Song (Gone Wrong)," Willie Nelson's "Healing Hands Of Time," Randy Newman's "Losing You," and the kittenish "Dida's Blues."

On virtually every number on Modern Love Songs, Pelled's guitar work is downplayed while her vocals are front and center. It's a change of pace and an evolutionary step in her artistry that shouldn't really seem odd, but it might be surprising to some, given the fact that she was a late bloomer as a vocalist. As a teenager attending Israel's prestigious Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, Pelled was an instrumentalist only, focused on playing as many gigs as she could, improving as a guitarist, and getting a firm grasp on bebop. But that was all to change as she slowly moved toward the microphone in the next stage of her life: the period of time she spent in the Israeli Army. "I played in an army band," she notes, "and that's actually when I started to sing a little bit. My band had two classical singers, but you don't really play classical music or jazz in the army. You play popular Israeli songs, because that's what the soldiers want to hear. So we traveled all around Israel and played popular music. And I sang a little background, and then there was one song I was featured on. I really, really enjoyed it, and that's how I started singing," she fondly recalls.

Unfortunately, insecurity and a sense of comfort in her role as an instrumentalist kept Pelled from doggedly pursuing singing while she remained in Israel. She needed to wipe the slate clean in order to really pursue that course and, in a way, reinvent herself. "I had to move to New York to start singing at gigs because I felt weird [doing it in Israel]," she explains. "When you work with people all the time, and they know you [solely] as a guitarist, it's a little weird to say, 'hey, I'm going to sing the next song.' I also felt like I wasn't good enough [back] then, but [I knew that] you can't get good unless you start doing it. So New York was a nice place to start. It was easier. I could call a bassist who doesn't know me and say, 'Ok, we're going to play a song, and I'm singing.'" And Pelled did just that once she arrived. She began to find some steady work at various venues throughout the city, allowing her to put her guitar skills to good use while also giving her a chance to explore her newfound passion for singing. At the same time, she was also furthering herself through her studies at The New School. In that respect, she followed in the footsteps of the many other Thelma Yellin graduates who carved out a similar Israel-to-NYC, student-to-professional musician path for her.

Israel remains a land of inspiration and rejuvenation for Pelled, who's gone back to visit on several occasions every year since moving to The Big Apple, but she's put down musical roots in New York and she doesn't plan on leaving. Her two albums serve as attractive calling cards of different sorts, her gigging calendar is slowly but surely getting full(er), and the promise of more recorded music has been confirmed. She already recorded another date for Red Records—an organ trio album that finds her playing (and singing, on one track) with drummer Rodney Green and organist Luke Carlos O'Reilly—and she hopes to put together another record on her own, finding the perfect balance between her instrumental and vocal sides. In the meantime, Dida Pelled is content to simply practice guitar, write some music, and "find a song and tell the story that it wants to tell."

Photo Credit: Ziv Sade

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