Winging it with style: An interview with Peter Himmelman

Rock musician, acoustic singer/songwriter and children’s entertainer Peter Himmelman takes the stage at the WNC Jewish Federation’s second annual fundraising concert. Slated for Sunday, Dec. 19, at The Orange Peel, proceeds from Himmelman’s upcoming performance will support the Federation’s mission to serve the needs of the Jewish community in Western North Carolina. Asheville’s own Skinny Legs and All, a blues, funk and soul band fronted by talented teenagers, will open with their self-described “lip-smacking, dance-inspiring R&B music.”

Before hearing more about from the event’s headliner, however, it’s worth noting that the WNC Jewish Federation has another fundraising event in store this weekend: “Jews, Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a presentation featuring author Scott Benarde. Benarde will read from and discuss his book Stars of David — Jewish Rock ‘n’ Roll Stories at the Doubletree Biltmore Hotel on Saturday, Dec. 18 (see the info box below for all event details).

Himmelman has cultivated a reputation as a both a highly imaginative musician and as a dynamic, out-of-the-box performer, revealing his talents in 1986 with the release of his first album, This Father’s Day. In two decades Himmelman has produced 11 solo albums and five kids’ albums (My Green Kite, 2007, earned a Grammy nomination). In addition, Himmelman has composed more than two-dozen musical scores for film and television (in 2002, he received an Emmy nomination for the song “The Best Kind Of Answer,” featured on the T.V. series Judging Amy). Currently, Himmelman airs a weekly webcast, Peter Himmelman’s Furious World, which he films live from in his studio in Santa Monica.

What makes Himmelman a particularly poignant headliner for this fundraiser is that he is as an Orthodox Jew that, throughout his career as a musician, has kept the Sabbath —  which means that Friday-night gigs are out. In an Xpress interview, Himmelman talks about his creative process, the challenges and inspiration of keeping the traditions of his faith and his “wing-it” performance style.

Xpress: On your website it says that your most recent release, The Mystery and the Hum, just “tumbled out … with no planning or preparation.” Songs were composed in two weeks and recorded in three days. Is this typical of your creative process?

Himmelman: Well, it kind of is, but understand it’s taken me 30 years or so to be able to do that. I was not starting at zero. Even now, I’m thinking, should I start a new record? The onerous idea of starting a new record just came to me and it won’t take hold until I have a definitive shape for how it will go. How will I make those songs come about? There has to be some kind of structure. [When that] vision is solid, it’s just about marking out time — it doesn’t have to be a long time — just dedicated time. 

One of the best ways to work is when you don’t have any preconceived idea — like what each song might be about or what the record is about — it’s more of a vague thing. It’s going to have a certain amorphous shape — I hate to use the word color in an application to music— but it’s going to be a certain color. More of a general guiding light is best. 

You have released 11 solo albums between 1986 and 2010 (not including your children’s albums). Which — if you had to choose — are you the most proud of and why?

You know there’s this record called This Father’s Day, which means a lot to me cause I wrote it for my dad when he died. And a record called From Strength to Strength has got a lot of songs that I still play a lot. I have an affinity for that [album]. I think this newest one, Mystery and the Hum — and believe me, I’m not trying to sell anything, I’ve long since given up on that — I think there are a few enduring songs that [will] make me connected to this record for a long time. I love the song, “Don’t Give a Damn,” “Georgia Clay” and “Ever So Slightly.”

Is the process of recording/writing rock music different from writing songs for children? Do you feel that you’re in two completely different mind frames recording between such different musical styles?

Essentially they’re the same, but they’re actually totally different. That’s a terrible answer — I’m trying to feel out how I feel about it. For a kid’s song, anything works, musically, except that I have to feel somehow, viscerally, that it works within the preview of a child’s experience. Some angtsty song about a relationship or [a song about] fears of one’s own mortality — I wouldn’t preclude either of these things, now that I think about it. You could write a song about a fight you had with a friend — the idea in that relationship song would have to be redacted into something that would not be out of a child’s experience. Even a song about death or mortality — it could be [about a] goldfish that died [and about the question] where did it go? There are no themes that wouldn’t work for a kid; it’s just the way that you express them.

As an Observant Jew keeping the Shabbath you’ve refused to perform on Friday nights (and have even turned down multiple invitations as a guest on The Tonight Show). Can you tell me how this has both challenged and inspired your musical career?

I wouldn’t say so much that it was not playing on Friday night that made my career small. Maybe I never wrote a hit song. I think that my unwillingness or inability to find the pulse of what’s happening had much more to do with it. … I would never really go out on the road for very long. A two-week thing for me, after having my kids and getting married, would be like, “Wow, that’s so long.” It wasn’t really a challenge because it was never really a choice. How much money would it take to smack your mom in the face? There really is no money! Some things just aren’t about money.

In addition to writing, recording and performing songs from your records, you’ve also launched the online webcast Furious World — (broadcast live from your home on Tuesday nights), which is lighthearted, funny and features guest musicians and jam sessions. How did this idea come about?  Has it lived up to your expectations?

It was just a fluke. This guy that works for me, Mark Jacobs, he said, “Hey, there’s this thing where you can broadcast live.” So we set up this camera and thought, “Wow, this really looks good.”

It hasn’t lived up to where I want it to be right now. It’s not paying for itself, which is a huge problem, and I don’t know if it ever will or not. It’s a really great thing, it’s a cool idea, but without any money coming in — and I’ve done it for two years — I have to constantly say to myself, “What it’s for?”

But I always get letters and a lot of encouragement. Yesterday I met with a guy who was trying to help me with the show and he said (he’s from Israel), “Look, you have to remember what the president of General Electric said: Either fix it, sell it or close it. This is what I’m trying to help you with. Either we’ll fix it, or sell it or we shut it down.”

Do you have a set list in mind for your upcoming show at the Orange Peel? Will you be drawing from older or more recent works?

I don’t really have a set list. I’ll be playing [for the] crowd. I have this collection of short stories called Shovel, and I may or may not be reading from those stories. I’m just going to wing it.

Over the course of two decades, what keeps you motivated?

There is a mixture of fear and joy in the thing. Like, I’m doing something today (cause I’m looking for another scoring job [and] have my agent out). And when that’s happening — when you’re scoring a TV show, which I have done many times — your time is used up. So, [today] I wrote this piece of score, this strange piece of music, and then I [wrote] something to it, and created some film [to go] around it — I’ll be like a minute and 30 seconds. And [I ask myself] why did I do that? I don’t know. It’s called The Egg Sermon, it’s absurdist. It’s supposed to be very pretty and weird.

Info & ticket information:

Peters Himmelman’s concert will be held on Sunday, Dec. 19, at 8 p.m., at the Orange Peel. $18/$36 patrons. Tickets:

“Jews, Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll,” with Scott Benarde will be held at the Doubletree Biltmore Hotel on Saturday, Dec. 18, at 8 p.m.$10/$6 students. Info:


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About Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt
Aiyanna grew up on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. She was educated at The Cambridge School of Weston, Sarah Lawrence College, and Oxford University. Aiyanna lives in Asheville, North Carolina where she proudly works for Mountain Xpress, the city’s independent local newspaper.

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6 thoughts on “Winging it with style: An interview with Peter Himmelman

  1. dpewen

    Skinny legs and all have very little talent … they are just loud! Peter I like but will not go to the show because of the opener.

  2. Dionysis

    Hmmm, I have a couple of Peter Himmelman’s albums (including the very good ‘Flown This Acid World’) and never knew he was Jewish (not that it matters). He’ll probably put on a good show.

  3. Dionysis

    “Seriously? With a name like Himmelman???”

    I never thought about it. Sure, Himmelman sounds Jewish, but then again, plenty of people have a last name ending in ‘man’ or ‘mann’ who aren’t Jewish. In fact, some of the most ardent Nazis had names that seemed Jewish. Adolph Eichmann, to name just one of many.

  4. dawn

    His music is great. Salt and Ashes still makes me cry. What a beautiful song. That and 10 thousand years. Jewish or not, really? Who cares? I don’t. I am dawn (whitebread) rammer. I love his music and always will. Not sure why people are still afraid. Since I last saw you, been so long, been so long. You are like frost, I could never thaw you. Been so long.

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