If there is a tenet central to Neshama Carlebach’s life and career, it is that from brokenness comes strength. It’s a teaching that time and again arises when discussing the singer’s life and work. Whether it’s the tragic circumstances that led to her status as a superstar in the Jewish music world, or the brutal disaster that led to some of her greatest inspiration on her album, Higher & Higher, with the Green Pastures Baptist Choir, Carlebach is no stranger to anguish, nor the opportunities contained therein for unity.
In many ways, there was never another album Carlebach could make, never another destiny she could follow. The daughter of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Neshama was surrounded by music from an early age, given her father’s role as a hugely prolific songwriter, in many ways the father to modern Jewish music. “I don’t think I remember my life without music,” Carlebach explains of her father’s rigorous travel schedule that took her around the world, both uprooting Carlebach and exposing her to cultures and outlooks she would never have experienced. “Between the concerts and the hangs and the singing around the house, I don’t think I ever had life without music.”
As soon as Carlebach was old enough to hold a microphone, she was urged into the spotlight by her doting father. After years of voice and acting lessons, Carlebach would join her father onstage, and for several months preceding his death in October of 1994, Carlebach toured with her father, with no other desire than to simply spend time with him. “I think he was grooming me the whole time,” Carlebach explains of the performances she did with her father. “I think he knew he would die, and I think that’s the worst thing to absorb. After he died I looked back at all these random conversations, and I think he knew.”
At the time of Shlomo Carlebach’s death, months of shows had been booked. Within three days of his death, Neshama had agreed to perform in place of her father, and thirty days later, she was singing her father’s music, and building her own legacy within the world of Jewish music. “I don’t even know why I said OK,” Carlebach laughs in retrospect. "I wasn’t in my right mind. I felt this sincere sense of pressure.” In those performances, Carlebach was able to mourn her father, and in a manner most appropriate: by communing with his fans. After the tour wrapped up, Carlebach continued working with her band, looking at the breadth of the catalog her father left behind, and today her show is comprised predominantly of his material. “His music is my music,” Carlebach explains. From that point, Carlebach took on the role of a working musician, playing shows and writing music, all while booking shows and promoting herself – labor that most musicians outsource to a support staff.
Higher & Higher is the intersection of faith and talent, an album written from the perspective of a particular faith that applies to all. Written by a rabbi, performed by his daughter and a Baptist choir, the songs preach in the least secular way, sharing a message of unity and hope. Other than faith, one of Carlebach’s greatest inspirations on the album was the devastation Hurricane Katrina visited upon New Orleans. Carlebach, who spent time in New Orleans both prior to and following Hurricane Katrina, is holding a benefit in conjunction with the release of the record there. “It’s become one of my personal missions, to help the victims of New Orleans,” Carlebach says. “Ata,” which literally translated from the Hebrew means “without words,” is a hope-infused blues vocalization that conveys the emotion and spirit Carlebach and the choir feel for the fallen city in a manner purer than words. “Higher and Higher,” the album’s namesake, is both mournful and moving, a message of appreciating life’s fleeting nature. What was born out of fear and sadness has become inspiration, from destruction came creation. Carlebach and the Green Pastures Baptist Choir have a salve for some of the suffering they see throughout the world. “People need one piece of hope, one shred of faith to cling to that makes us feel that all we’re doing and all the craziness is worthwhile, that we’re not alone,” says Carlebach. This album is ten pieces of that hope.
What the Critics Say
During a recent gig at Manhattan Showcase club The Bottom Line, Carlebach's dark hued spiritually evocative soprano drew comparisons to the likes of Sheryl Crow and Linda Ronstadt, while the haunting melodies, glistening pop sophistication of her band's arrangements, and religious nature of her material were reminiscent of Amy Grant. Jim Bessman - Billboard Magazine
For audiences around the world, Neshama Carlebach is not only a great singer in her own right, but the reincarnation of a legend... Her concerts have the flavor of a spiritualist revival somewhere between Woodstock and the Western Wall. The Globe and Mail, Toronto
Over the course of her five-CD career, Neshama Carlebach has emerged as one of the premier female singers in the genre of jazz/pop Jewish soul music. If that sounds like a big fish in a small pond, it is. But the daughter of the late Jewish mystic and music legend Shlomo Carlebach certainly inherited both the DNA and the pipes to dominate the field. Indeed, one need not even be Jewish to love the music of Neshama Carlebach, though after hearing her sing, one might want to be. The San Francisco Jewish News
There is perhaps no figure in modern Jewish music as influential and beloved as the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. This presents his singer-songwriter daughter, Neshama, with a stark choice: embrace his legacy or shun it. Rather than turn her back on her musical inheritance, Neshama has chosen to don his mantle and personalize it. As popular as her father was, his music rarely ventured beyond the bounds of the Jewish community. On Journey, without sacrificing any of his music's integrity or authenticity, Carlebach has found a way to make it appeal to audiences potentially far greater than those her father ever dreamed of reaching. The Jewish Forward
These are songs of the spirit, freewheeling jazz and rhythms evocative of eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East . Neshama's got the needed vocal blend of chanteuse and cantor that both honors her father's legacy and puts her own stamp on the proceedings. Singing almost entirely in Hebrew (apart from switching to English on "Return Again" and intoning wordlessly on "Niggun Neshama"), Carlebach the younger embodies the ancient and modern resiliency of God's chosen with grace and power. Even so, she's not pointing fingers from any pulpit. Rather, the strength of these songs lies in their message of adherence to spirituality in the face of forces that would seek to shatter it. A work of grace and tranquility, very much welcome in a world with far too many axes to grind. World Music Central
Rabbi Carlebach said 'singing is like praying twice', and his daughter proves this statement with her fifth album. Her voice is heavenly, and even when she's singing in Hebrew, an undeniable feeling of positive love floats out of the speakers. We are a generation of cynics and doubters. For every twelve records you own by morally bankrupt artists, you deserve at least one Neshama Carlebach disc. Splendid
Neshama is a miracle - because she is outside of the realm of the ordinary. She brings more light into the world whenever she sings. Like pulling down a little bit of heaven, to enjoy so sweetly here on earth. It doesn't matter how observant you are - it doesn't even matter if you are Jewish - what matters is that you open your heart when you listen to her music and her fathers music, and allow yourself to be blessed by it. Jewish Book Mall
Neshama Carlebach is an artist of remarkable talent. Neshama's voice is as lovely as she, exotic and earthy, yet sophisticated and urbane. Journey serves as a testament to her enduring love for her father of blessed memory, affirming as well her rightful stature among the top echelon of Jewish performers. Global Rhythm
Neshama Carlebach - "Journey": Neshama Carlebach returns with her
fifth, and most mature album, to date. "Journey" is a striking album to
say the least. The album is comprised of 11 of her father's, Rabbi
Shlomo Carlebach, original songs freshened up a bit by Neshama. It also
contains 2 original compositions, written by Neshama and her pianist
partner, David Morgan. Performed almost entirely in Hebrew it is
tempting to think that those of us who do not speak Hebrew will be lost.
Neshama with The Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir
Neshama demonstrated that she had much of her father's charisma, confidence, and musical abilities. Before long the audience was on its feet dancing. Ari Goldman - The New York Times
(The audience), hungry for a taste of Carlebach were rewarded with a feast.There can be no doubt that she was born to perform. Ari Noonan - Heritage Southwest (San Francisco)
When Neshama Carlebach sings, she brings a bit of heaven down to earth. Lisa Traiger - Washington Jewish Week
Standing in the midst of an almost barren stage, Neshama Carlebach's powerful presence opens its arms widely, and envelopes her captivated audience in a warm embrace. Sarah Zelcer - Afterward (Toronto)
Those who came.were not disappointed. Ms. Carlebach reached into her father's soul of musical magic and gave her audience pure gold. Susan L. Rosenbluth - Jewish Voice And Opinion
She is a vision of verve and spirit on stage.it is a heavenly performance that Neshama Carlebach stages, an appropriate and triumphant tribute to her father. Michael Elkin - Jewish Exponent