29 October 2009
Interview originally appeared in Country Yossi Magazine.
Interview Conducted & Written by Kol Isha of the JewishMusicReport.com
It’s hard to call Shua Kessin a new artist. It’s true that his debut CD hasn’t hit the stores yet. But how can you call someone a newcomer when they have performed at hundreds of weddings, done shows and kumzitzes all over the world? If you haven’t been privileged to hear Shua’s special brand of magic, prepare to be dazzled by his upcoming album, Lo Lihitya’eish, due out just in time for the Yomim Tovim.
With many years experience in the music business, producer Ozer Babad has teamed up with Shua to put together one of the most anticipated releases of the year, which is sure to take the Jewish music world by storm. The amount of talent on this album is just staggering. Nine out of eleven songs composed by Shua, a prolific composer in his own right. Arrangements by Yisroel Lamm, Yanky Briskman, C. Lanzbom, Ruli Ezrachi. And of course, Shua himself, who was involved in every aspect of this project from day one, as he put his very heart and soul into this CD.
To see Shua perform live is to really see him at his best. Shua doesn’t just sing. He has the unique ability to connect with the audience as he reaches out and becomes one with the crowd, making everyone in the room really feel the emotion in his music. His enthusiasm is infectious as the crowd is drawn in and uplifted by Shua’s energy. He continues to enhance people’s lives through music, one performance at a time.
Perhaps it’s Kessin’s versatility that makes him so unique. He doesn’t just sing. He composes. Plays a number of different instruments. Is as comfortable doing a song in English as he is in either Hebrew or Yiddish, with all the proper nuances and inflections. He can do an intimate kumzitz. A full scale concert. Daven for the Amud. In short, if it’s musical, Shua can do it. And he does it so well.
Despite his hectic schedule, Shua was kind enough to take some time to let us know a little more about who he is, how he got started in the music business and what we can expect from Lo Lihitya’eish.
How did you get started in the music business?
SK: Music has always been part of my life. I started playing around on the piano at age three and composed my first song at age six. I started playing keyboard at simchos at age eleven. By the time I was a teenager I was composing songs, singing in public and davening for the Amud. I also taught myself how to play guitar.
How many years of music lessons did you have?
SK: None. I play keyboard, guitar, drums and harmonica and have never taken a music lesson in my entire life. It’s all self taught. I have a natural ability for anything musical. Some of it I was able to do by ear. Other things I learned from books and by watching people.
How did you start getting more involved in music?
SK: When I was in 10th grade, I became very interested in the music of Shlomo Carlebach. I listened to every album I could find. It didn’t take long before I had devoured all of the well known Carlebach albums and I started looking for some of the more obscure ones. I came across an album called “The Hidden Songs of Shlomo Carlebach” by Yisroel Travis. I listened to the album and it seemed to me that some of the songs were sung a little differently than Reb Shlomo had sung them. I decided to contact Yisroel Travis and tell him what I had noticed. We just hit it off and had a long conversation, where I mentioned to Yisroel that I had written a number of niggunim of my own. I happened to be in Toronto, where Yisroel lives, a few weeks later and I sat down with my guitar and we sang together for a while. Some time later, Yisroel invited me back up to Canada where I sang at a number of different locations. And that was really the starting point of my career.
What happened next?
SK: I sang in so many different places. Florida. Eretz Yisroel. LA. Montreal. Toronto. When I was in Eretz Yisroel as a bochur, I had the opportunity to sing at so many weddings. Some were typical Ashkenazi weddings. Others were Yerushalmi weddings, with just drums. I spent time helping out in recording studios and I got to meet many different people in the music business. One of the people that I met at that time was Eli Slomovitz, who runs E&S tours to Europe with the help of Miriam Schreiber, led by Rabbi Pesach Krohn. My first job with him was about six years ago, where I went along as the entertainment on his Eastern Europe tour. We visited so many Shuls, cemeteries and yeshivos. We saw old villages, even Auschwitz and Birkenau. And everywhere we went, there were songs. Some more upbeat. Some more hartzig and inspirational. It was such an unbelievable experience.
The following year, I joined Eli again on his Central Europe tour. One of the songs on Lo Lihitya’eish, called Aneini, was actually composed in Prague on this tour. It was such a positive experience that I even went on the Eastern Europe tour a second time. Each tour had well over a hundred people from all over the world and was truly memorable. You can actually see me in the video and I am featured
in the book as well.
You said that you never took any music lessons. How about voice lessons?
SK: I started voice lessons as a bochur in Israel, when I was 20 years old. My first vocal coach was Cantor Dan Hendrickson. Over time I have also studied with Cantor Nussen Glick, Cantor Hersh Einhorn and Cantor Yoel Goldstein. The experience I have gained performing over the last five or six years has taught me so much. Knowing my own voice and my own strengths has helped me grow tremendously as a performer.
What was your first big concert?
SK: Shabbos Nachamu 2007 at Monticello Raceway with Yaakov Shwekey, Srully Williger and Michoel Pruzansky. It was the first concert I ever went to.
You had never been to a concert before?
SK: No. I have so many friends in the music business and always had people offering me concert tickets. But I promised myself that the first time I went to a concert I was going to be onstage, not in the audience. I only sang for about ten or fifteen minutes at that concert but the reviews were amazing. Since then I’ve sung in many concerts with so many of the big names in Jewish music including MBD, Avraham Fried, Ohad, Yeedle, Piamenta and Miami Boys Choir.
What other memorable performances can you tell us about?
SK: There have been so many. I have done hundreds of weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. I’ve headlined at Gateways and done quite a few Pesach and Succos programs at hotels all over the world. I’ve done dinners, kumzitzes, shows and even a Shalom Zachor. Sung for both HASC and Mekimi. This summer alone I performed at several bungalow colonies and most recently sang at the Music on the Bay Cruise. Maybe the most memorable show I did was an online kumzitz on Reb Shlomo’s yahrtzeit this past November.
An online kumzitz?
SK: It’s something that had never been done before. The 2 and a half hour long concert was broadcast live on matzav.com, a very popular innovative Jewish news website and was produced by Ozer Babad and Yossi Zweig, with music by Yanky Briskman, Yonatan and others well known musicians. Over 40,000 people logged in to hear the concert!
That is truly amazing. Let’s go back to HASC and Mekimi. What do you do for them?
SK: Let me backtrack a little. My father, R’ Mendel Kessin, is a renowned speaker and has touched the lives of thousands of people. I saw, firsthand, the way he affected so many people’s lives. I hope that with my musical abilities, I can connect with people and affect their lives as well. I have spent countless hours volunteering my time with many organizations, including HASC and OHEL.
Not only did I sing in Camp HASC this past summer, but last summer, when Avraham Fried had to cancel an appearance at Camp HASC, I stepped in and filled in for him.
This past Lag B’Omer I sang for over 700 people at a HASC concert. I have sung for people in hospitals, nursing homes, private homes, doing whatever I can to bring simcha into people’s lives. Refoeinu, one of the songs on my album was composed in memory of the people I used to visit on a regular basis.
And now you’re almost ready to release your first CD?
SK: Not quite. It may be the first full length CD that I am releasing but I composed a song for my wedding in 2006 called Im Ata Maamin which I recorded and gave out at the wedding. I wanted our guests to have something to take home with them. The song has actually been renamed Maamin and was rearranged for Lo Lihitya’eish.
We’ve already heard an a capella version of your song Nishmas, which was the first of four a capella releases this past summer, during the three weeks.
SK: I wanted to give people a taste of my album and during these difficult times, I wanted to remind people that Hashem is always there for us. Obviously the version of Nishmas on Lo Lihitya’eish will have full musical arrangements and will sound absolutely amazing.
Let’s talk a little more about Lo Lihitya’eish.
SK: Sure. Lo Lihitya’eish will feature eleven songs, nine of which are my compositions, carefully selected from the over 300 songs that I have written. While many singers just do the vocals and hand the song over to whoever is doing the arrangements, I was intimately involved in the arrangements. And I worked with some of the best in the business. Yanky Briskman, Ruli Ezrachi, C. Lanzbom. And, of course, Yisroel Lamm.
Who wrote the other two songs?
SK: One of the songs was written by the one and only Country Yossi, who happens to be one of my very good friends. I actually did a show for him up in the mountains this past summer. The song is an English song, a classic style, very emotional and I’m sure people will have very strong feelings about it. The other song, composed by David Kaufman is an electronic style song, kind of like something you’d hear from the Chevra. The words come from Brich Shmey, and it really ended up being something special.
What can we expect from this album?
SK: Everything. I don’t just limit myself to one musical style. Whatever I do, I do with a full heart and I want it to be authentic. There are no filler songs on this album. Before I decided to use a song I asked many people for their opinions. I asked Yisroel Lamm what he thought. Yossi Green. My friends. Even people on the street. I wanted to make sure every song was a quality song that people would love and be able to sing for themselves. I was intimately involved in every single step of this album, from the music, to the lyrics, to graphics to the arrangements. This album is all about Shua Kessin and my being able to connect with the listener. This is an album you’re going to want to listen to over and over and over again.
Clearly, Shua is a guy who realizes just how powerful music is. It gives him the ability to connect with people, to convey emotion through his music. Just visiting his website, shuakessin.com, gives you a taste of who Shua is and how much he has already accomplished in the world of music. There are dozens of pictures of Shua performing at varied events: Hachnossas Sifrei Torah, Pesach, Succos and Shavuos hotels, Lag B’Omer and Chanukah concerts, the list goes on and on. In just a few years he has established himself as a formidable talent in the Jewish music business and there is no question that music lovers everywhere are eagerly awaiting the release of his debut CD.
A new artist? Not Shua Kessin. With a fan base so big and a following so strong, I’d say Shua Kessin has already made it to the big leagues. One thing is for sure. Shua Kessin is here to stay. JMR