Dida Pelled: Telling Stories And Serving Songs

Dan Bilawsky By

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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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