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Q&A: Miri Ben-Ari

The Grammy Award-winning violinist and producer talks Kanye West, Jay-Z, and serving in the IDF

David Samuels
September 05, 2012
(Margarita Korol)
(Margarita Korol)

Miri Ben-Ari’s spooky ability to make her violin talk in a multiplicity of voices, from classical, to jazz, to soul, to hip-hop, has made the classically trained cat-suited Israeli violinist a favorite of artists like Jay Z, Wyclef Jean, and Kanye West (she co-wrote “Jesus Walks” and produced many other songs on West’s debut, The College Drop-Out). Ben Ari’s mastery of technique is more than matched by a drive for emotional and musical openness that declared itself with unusual strength—accompanied by occasional tears, and a cappuccino—during a long lunch at Antica Botega del Vino, a wine bar near Central Park. I liked her combination of hard steel, softness, blatant self-involvement, and crazy. “Dim the Lights,” the first single off her upcoming album, is already out: The video features Ben-Ari flying on a violin, and Ben-Ari and a dog wearing identical sunglasses, and sounds like something you’d hear in a cool late-night club in Paris.

The following is an edited version of portions of our conversation.

When did you first pick up a violin, and what was your relationship to it when you were young?

I was 5. It was a very difficult instrument, and I liked the difficulty. I liked the challenge of being able to play really fast. It’s a little bit of a sport, the violin. It’s an insane instrument.

My brother and I were part of a gifted-kids program put together by Isaac Stern. And almost every single person or kid that was there, they were all like concert masters or soloists. The classical music bubble in Israel was a very intelligent group of people, coming from an intelligent group of parents, very nonviolent, it was a good situation, you know. I don’t get along with institutions. It’s not my forte. So there, I belonged to something. And it gave me confidence, it developed me. And most importantly, it gave me opportunity.

To master an instrument like that especially as a child, it’s got to connect to such basic drives. In you, I feel that intense desire for mastery and that intense drive that blocks out everything else.

Yeah, definitely. I dropped out of school. And my parents just went with the flow. Very modern, really amazing parents. They trusted me. I asked my dad not too long ago, “How did you let me do that, it’s insane.” And he said, “You were so focused as a kid, you knew what you were doing, I didn’t worry about you.” I liked to practice, to do my own thing, and then I was exploring other types of music, and I fell in love with jazz.

Tell me about being this girl from the classical bubble, who didn’t like to follow instructions of any kind and gets thrown out of school, and then goes to serve in the Israeli Army. That sounds like a recipe for disaster.

The army was a life-changing experience for me. Because I was in this bubble and I always was with people that played and knew me because we played. There it was basic training with a group of chicks from everywhere. And they knew me for who I was. And they loved me for who I was, without knowing anything about what I do. I made friends with girls because they thought I was cool. And nobody before thought I was cool.

There is something that the army does where it doesn’t matter who you are, you are all one in the army. They’re training you to be one. You’re all equal. And because of that, it gives you that sensation that everything is possible. It just wipes you out, and then you move forward. Does that make sense to you?

Your prior existence, personality, your assumptions about yourself, your context are all wiped clean, and then you realize, “I could be anyone!”

You can start over again. And my problem was that I was very stuck on classical. I had to stop.

And then you came to New York?

Right after the army. I lived in a Christian dormitory on 14th Street with four college girls, and they kicked me out because I practiced. No matter what I did, I got kicked out. They failed me in music, and then they kicked me out of that Christian dormitory because I practiced music. And I was like, “Oh, my god, I’m homeless, no money, no communication skills, no family! No friends.” I didn’t have anyone to talk to. But always with musicians, we have a language in common, we have music. And there were also men that were after me.

You couldn’t find a boyfriend with a decent apartment?

That came later. I wanted to do things myself.

And so at what point did you start to gain some traction?

Years. My first break was with Betty Carter. She heard me in a jam session. Betty had good ears. I went to every jam session, sometimes a few times a week to get traumatized, and then I would keep practicing. It was in a club next to the Blue Note Underground. I don’t know what’s the name because it kept changing owners. Ms. Carter walked in with her entourage and people said, “Oh, Betty Carter is here.” So, I made sure to play when she walked in. You gonna hate on a blonde chick with a violin on stage? What are you gonna do? And she heard me playing and she walked over, and she said that she wanted me to be part of her group, Jazz Ahead. And the concert that we had, the New York Times mentioned two people—and I was one of them.

Betty Carter said to me something the first day that I got into Jazz Ahead. She said to me, “Miri, you’re white, you’re a girl, and you play violin. You have to be twice as good as anybody else over here.” And I was like, “Oof, that’s kind of a tough welcome,” but I understood what she meant. She was right.

But that’s also why she connected to you. Because she probably felt that way when she was young too. Someone once told her “You’re black, you sing jazz, and you have to be twice as good.”

Wow. You know, nobody ever said that to me. I’m going to start crying right now. Because I really, really liked her. She didn’t have to help me. She sent me, she recommended me to festivals, and her office recommended me after she passed. When she was ill, we kept in touch. Wow, I never understood it like this. Thank you.

I once dated a violinist, and the funny thing used to be watching her dance, because the classical structure was so in her head that she could never get that rhythm right. But I was also aware of the difficulty for her having been trained to hear and feel in this way since she was 3.

See, I feel that beat in me. I was always exposed to classical music, but I played black music like I grew up in Harlem. So, this radio station had an event, and they had an already signed group playing there. And the person who invited me thought I was amazing. And he said the producer of the Apollo is in the house, and I want you to play. And I’m like, with whom? There was no one on stage. And he was like: “By yourself.” I’m like, where is the beat? And there was this DJ on stage, DJ Ace. So, I went over to him and I said to him, “Listen, I’m about to get on stage, you’re gonna flip beats behind me.” And I said to him, “Keep changing records.” And he looked at me. I was like, “Don’t worry.” I was a jazz musician, I can play on any record on any given time, and live, it’s nothing to me. I already recorded Live at the Blue Note.

So, I went on stage, I closed my eyes—back then I didn’t look at the audience yet—and he started flipping hip-hop beats. Probably 99 percent of them I did not know, it was the very first time I was playing. Improvising! Jamming! Now usually when I play, I zone. And then at some point the crowd got very, very loud. It was so loud that I thought that a fight broke in the audience. And I’m seeing they’re cheering for me. I have no idea what I played. The next thing that happened was that the Apollo producer invited me to get on the show to perform.

Also, one of the people who heard me at a jam session brought me to Wyclef, and I started hanging out at the studio with Wyclef, who at the time didn’t even look at me. At the time he used to call me “The Violinist,” wouldn’t call me by my first name. He was really at a fantastic time in his career and he was producing so many artists. And when he used to produce, I used to stand in the hallway and play along with the beats. No shame.

There is a saying in jazz, you know, break open the box—the violin case—so there I was, always in people’s faces, playing. And they started saying, “Oh my god, that sounds so good, can you record that?” So I wound up recording tons of things, some of them came out commercially, like Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’.” I met Michael Jackson. Wyclef, I got to record on one of his albums. And then, Wyclef needed someone to help him with his Carnegie Hall project, someone who understood classical and hip-hop. All the sudden I had a name. From “The Violinist,” it was “Miri.”

I was a good Jew, so I negotiated a feature, and I got screamed at by his people: How dare I negotiate a feature! And as part of the negotiation, I got to work with his DJ. I had two days at the Carnegie Hall and then I had the Apollo. Carnegie Hall didn’t go very well because the feature was way too short, and I didn’t at the time know how to time a 20-something-second feature.

So, when you heard jazz, did you think to yourself immediately, I can do this as a violinist?

The instrument for me is a voice, it’s a way that I express myself. And I can speak any language. I fell in love with jazz through Charlie Parker. It sounded like he was talking with his instrument. And I was like “Ooh, I have to break this down and figure it out.” Now, I’m classically trained, I’m not trained to improvise. So, then came my jazz education, figuring out how to come up with my own melody, understand harmony, permutations of time, how to swing, how to groove. Then I lost my scholarship because I had to work, so they failed me at music. Which I always think is funny because I won a Grammy with Kanye West for College Dropout.

Talk to me talk to me about the 20 seconds and Kanye West. Kanye is the master of 20 seconds. He’s able to create narrative and interesting contrast out of those bits. You did a bunch of production on College Dropout.

Tons, not only with College Dropout. Tons. The best thing about Kanye was his mother, Donda. Today I understand it better than I did back then. She gave him the possibility and the opportunities and the education. She was a smart woman, she helped him, she really did. On his tours I was very homesick all the time, and she took me under her wing. It was great. She used to have a group of neighbors from Chicago, they used to come to some shows, and they loved me. I was the one that they connected to. Out of all the rappers, I was the easiest one to connect with. I used to hang out with them. I went to the funeral too.

And talk about his ear and how he hears stuff and the way he’s able to take the bits and pieces and—

I think the most important thing about Kanye’s talent is he’s open-minded, and his ability to surround himself with very, very talented people. When I started working with him, I was extremely open-minded because I didn’t know him yet. I used to compose and arrange entire strings for him, with one violin. It used to take me hours. He used to sit through the entire time, for hours. That’s his talent. He understood I brought something to his production that he didn’t know, and I was his way to get that. For College Dropout, he had a small group of people like John Legend, who’s extremely talented and smart, and myself. And we were the core. We’re the people who went with him on stage.

He used to watch me, and I used to watch him. I remember when we started working together, he had an apartment in Hoboken, he didn’t even have a recording studio. I used to play and wear this headset that was too short. And I have the violin bow, and I’m here and Kanye is right there, and I’m supposed to play without poking his eye. And I remember stepping on him so I didn’t stab him.

Kanye is a smart man, very complicated. I wish his mother was alive. She was his core. I can tell you that because I know. We’re talking about a very well-educated person. He didn’t need any “’hood.” He didn’t need any of that. Was he musically educated? Not really. But like I said, he always surrounded himself with amazing people, and he’s extremely musical, so he figured things out. He’s not afraid of anything, and he likes to recreate himself and recreate stuff. He’s been exposed to a lot of things, and he’s taken his influences wherever he finds them.

I love him, and I wish him the best. As successful as he is, he didn’t have it easy. And out of all the people I have worked with, I can tell you that he really got to me. I just hope that he finds happiness.

Were you involved with him?

No, no, no.

Explain what you do with 20 seconds, how you have to think in order to project a full personality in that span of time.

I’ll explain to you what I didn’t understand back then at Carnegie Hall. As a classical musician you never think. You just perform. As jazz musician, when you’re on stage, first of all, you listen to the groove. You take your time before you take your solo because you want to make sure the drums and bass are together and grooving and they’re not too excited, that they chill. You also want to make sure that they are in good groove for you to start a solo that will give you enough leeway to develop. Jazz solos could be from five minutes to 20 minutes. 20 seconds? It’s not even one note! What do you do with 20 seconds?

Today as a producer, I can go to the studio and produce 20 seconds that would have a beginning, middle, and end, that would showcase me and tell a story. I didn’t know how to do it then. However at the Apollo I had five minutes. I had enough time to tell a story. And the Apollo got televised. It captured my talent on national TV, and it was so successful that had me back for next week. There was like three televised shows, everyone saw, and all the industry was talking about me, I had thousands of people bombarding me. No manager, nothing! My brother lived in L.A., and I said to him, “Honey, come help me.” Jay-Z approached me, Kanye West approached me. Everyone approached me.

To feel the attention of Jay-Z on you, wanting your music, what did that feel like?

Oh, you’re talking to a completely ignorant person who did not grow up in the United States, who did not grow up admiring Jay-Z. It was never a part of my Israeli culture. Because hip-hop did not exist in Israel when I was a kid. And that ignorance helped me so much! You know what it is to get on a stage with Jay-Z, completely oblivious to the opportunity?

It’s a blessing that it happened that way.

Absolutely. Jamming with jazz artists probably intimidated me more, because they’re playing all of this crazy harmony and rhythms. Jay-Z was simple! You know, it’s hysterical. He had Summer Jam, which featured me. And then he had a big televised show.

When you met him, what did he transmit, what did he want, what did you feel from him?

He told me to do my thing. He said, “I’m not a good performer, the stage is not my thing.” He said, “I need people, I need good performances to make my show real good.” He’s amazing person, very humble. He sat through my entire performance with his DJ, you know, and we came up with something, me and his DJ, and that was it! Next thing was the show. And in the second show, I played with him “Big Pimpin’.” It’s insane!

That’s hilarious.

It’s insane! I can always say that I did that. It’s one of my favorite songs. At the time “Big Pimpin’ ” was a huge hit. Incredible. And you gotta understand, I came up with that concept using strings that way first. It was so fresh 10 years ago.

The first time I saw the classical-hip-hop fusion thing was probably before you came to New York. LL Cool J did this amazing show for MTV Unplugged where he did his album “Mama Said Knock You Out” backed by a 30-piece orchestra with strings, and it was just him, no shirt, 400 people.

I did a tour with LL. But this is very different from what I do. I’m not a part of the orchestra. I’m like the LL. I wanted to be treated like an artist, not like someone who backs someone up. That was the hard part. Because strings in commercial music are being treated as behind the singer.

There has to be a crazy amount of steel in you to push that idea through. That’s a crazy level of focus and purpose.

Absolutely. And craziness too. You have to be crazy.

You’re releasing an album in the fall, and it’s going to be more of a soul R&B album?

It’s an original sound that’s influenced by everything that I know and bring to the table. You already heard two compositions, Symphony of Brotherhood and the 10 Commandments, and it’s commercially very musical. I tell the story with the music, you know, since I don’t use words. Nothing changed since I fell in love with Charlie Parker. I’m about to release a single called “Dim the Lights.” It has this soul feel, like feel-good type of music with a crazy solo violin in the middle. Only in rock do they do stuff like that. And we just shot a music video for that in Israel. If you told me you were there I would have invited you to my set because I just got back.

The way you’re talking about the songs, you’re talking like a producer.

I am the producer, and the only one. I programmed everything, I performed all instruments, and I’m doing some vocals too. A-Z. And it was important for me to produce a song like that because I take pride in a being female producer, and being able to sit in the studio and program and play all the instruments and engineer.

“Dim the Lights,” my single, also features fashion. I produced the music in a fashion show for Zac Posen last year, I performed at Ms. Universe, I did a few shows for Donna Karan, so when I wrote it, I kind of imagined the runway. It’s very feel-good kind of fancy fabulous. But still with a lot of backbone in my solo. And I’m wearing the craziest wardrobe in the video. You have to understand I grew up in Israel wearing jeans and a wife beater. I mean, people wear Crocs to work. Do you see anyone here on the street wearing Crocs?

All the little kids in Brooklyn wear them.

It’s all good, it’s beautiful—because it makes me the down to earth person that I am. A lot of things, like discovering the whole fashion world, were very fresh for me. Like, you know, everything discovering everything in my career was like it was the first time. It was so new. And it was so much fun.

Yes, it’s great to grow up listening to Stevie Wonder. Now imagine what it’s like to listen to Stevie Wonder for the first time when you’re 20 years old, after you know music enough to appreciate it. You’re like “Oh my god, what’s that genius?”

Israelis now have a different relation to American culture than they did 20 years ago. The cultures have come closer together in part because Israel has changed, in part because more people have been going back and forth. And I feel that there is this way in which Israelis are sort of becoming the new Jews in America. They are the people who are coming with the outsider perspective and yet who are able to hear and see things in the culture that people who are in it can’t see or hear. You see Israeli TV shows being picked up and redone as American shows. And you see Israeli technology businesses being very quickly picked up by American companies. You’re a representative of that, too.

You are what people say you are. So it’s good to hear when listening to you, I’m like, OK, being Israeli, that means cool.

If you’re too distant, you can’t see it and feel it. If you’re too close, you’re part of that thing and you don’t have that extra leverage. Jews in America once had that perfect amount of distance to achieve that cultural leverage, but now they’ve become part of the elite. Where an Israeli can not believe in any of the bullshit because I’m not one of them, and yet I understand enough to get them, and what do I have to lose anyway?

One thing I can say is that people always thought it was cool I was from Israel. They know that Israel comes from struggle. It fascinated them that I went through the army, that my people been struggling always. It’s very interesting being an Israeli in America. And you’re right, it’s definitely a different experience than being a Jewish American. I understand racism in a different way. My entire family from my dad’s side, actually both sides, were shot and shoved into a hole. Their murder story is probably one of the worst stories I’ve heard in my life. And you know, I’ve been carrying this. And it took me a very long time to even deal with it. With struggle I guess comes a certain amount of maturity.

That’s been one of the main emotional roots of black music in America, has been coming from struggle, and to be able to feel that immediacy.

This is why I felt I had the, the—I don’t have a better word—right to put out a commercial song featuring the audio and video of Martin Luther King Jr., even though I’m not a black American. Because I understand that struggle, you know?


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David Samuels is most recently the author of Seul l’Amour Peut Te Briser le Coeur, a collection of his writing about America, to be published in September by Seuil.

David Samuels is the editor of County Highway, a new American magazine in the form of a 19th-century newspaper. He is Tablet’s literary editor.