Ever wonder what would happen if three veterans of the Jewish music scene got together to form a folk-pop-indie trio? Look no further than Distant Cousins, a.k.a. Dov Rosenblatt, Duvid Swirsky, and Ami Kozak.
Swirsky and Rosenblatt, the founders of popular Jewish bands Moshav and Blue Fringe respectively, started collaborating with Kozak in 2012 to explore a different side of their musical identities. It proved to be a good choice: the band’s music, often characterized by rich harmonies and feel-good beats, has recently had several major successes. Their song “Everybody Feels It” was featured in a German soda commercial, “On My Way” was in a Macy’s Labor Day ad, and “Are You Ready (On Your Own)” has a staring role in the soundtrack of This is Where I Leave You, the new film starring Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, and Jane Fonda.
I spoke with Dov, Duvid, and Ami recently about how Judaism influences their work, whether they’re actually distant cousins (they’re not), and what makes this newest musical venture unique. Their new self-titled EP is out this week.
How did you guys first meet?
Duvid: We were all playing the same Jewish music scene. I’m in a band called Moshav, Dov is in a band called Blue Fringe, Ami was in and out of bands. Dov and I played shows together on the East Coast.
Ami: I was a little younger. So I was watching their bands.
Duvid: I think we were always fans of each other. I was living in L.A. and Dov moved out a couple years ago, and I think from a distance we all wanted to work together since the first time our bands connected. Then Dov and I got together and wrote a song. Dov was like hey, this guy Ami is in town, he’s great, he’s talented, we should get him to help out with the song. The next thing we knew we turned into a band.
Ami: There’s this really nice collaborative scene in L.A. Everybody’s always collaborating on random projects here and there.
What inspired you guys to drift from your Jewish music roots?
Dov: I think that each project serves its own purpose, and that as songwriters, you just have a lot in you that needs different outlets. So it’s less about graduating from a certain scene and more about just having a different outlet… I have this mainstream pop song that we want to work on, and this is the perfect outlet for that.
Ami: And the community that we came from was very supportive of the music we were doing in separate projects. And also there’s sort of the career element… as you get more into songwriting that isn’t necessarily Jewish-themed but is more general, it has more reach.
Dov: One thing that also stems from that is this exciting sort of challenge of trying to get people to your shows… in the Jewish music scene, a lot of the time there’s already an event taking place, and people are going to be there, to meet, to eat, and there’s a band there, you know? Now we’re going out to these venues and really challenging ourselves to build the fan base around the music as the main attraction.
Duvid: Just to make it clear, we are so grateful and thankful and respectful of the audiences we have, be they Jewish or gentile, and don’t look down at all on where we come from.
Right. But it’s a bit more difficult without having that built-in community.
Ami: I think they’re coming along for the ride, though. Those same people from our community are coming out to shows now. We’re just sort of adding to the mix with people from outside the community, I think, because the music has that appeal more broadly.
Do you see influences from your experiences in the Jewish music world in Distant Cousins’ music?
Ami: I think we are always a product of our influences. It can’t help but find its way in, in the sense of just how we relate to each other as a band. It’s a nice, sort of profound way that we can have an understanding, even though we all come from different backgrounds. There’s something about the Jewish values and that commonality that helps us, in the creative process, to understand each other. When you’re co-writing songs and talking about deeper ideas and trying to get something meaningful across, it’s helpful to have that background to inform our opinions on all sorts of things.
Duvid: I think the Jewish music scene, whatever that is, has really expanded today. Artists like Matisyahu and even the bands that we’re in, Moshav and Blue Fringe, push the boundaries of what that means. I’ve always wondered what Jewish music is. I think anything I’ve been involved in, and definitely Distant Cousins, we’re just trying to do the best work we can. This project specifically is really song-based. We want the songs to stand up by themselves without any support from any world. The fact that we’re Jewish seeps into it just because we are… We’re just writing the best possible songs we can, something that’s going to make us feel good and then we hope that it’ll make other people feel good.
How did the name Distant Cousins come about?
Dov: Well, it obviously evokes a familial vibe, and that’s how we all met, through our other bands, and it really did feel like this large extended family. Coming up with a name happened out of a demand, because one of our earlier songs was being used in this other movie, Coffee Town, and we didn’t want to be credited as ‘Swirsky, Rosenblatt, and Kozak,’ so we needed a cooler name.
What are some of your musical influences?
Ami: Mine are Dov Rosenblatt and Duvid Swirksy.
Duvid: They range, and that’s one of the exciting things about this band, too. I feel like each guy comes with his own bag of influences and abilities… I grew up in Israel with a lot of my parents’ records from the 60s—people like Dylan and Neil Young. I feel like Ami is way more into pop music.
Dov: He introduces us to a lot of stuff.
Ami: It keeps the music always pushing, keeps it going forward and feeling fresh. And it helps keep the production current, too.
Dov: I’m a big Elliott Smith fan, but his stuff is usually really dark, and then I also love old Motown, which is all this fun, good pop music, so I think that’s something that we are constantly trying to do for ourselves in our songs: make it really fun and positive and yet not too shiny and shimmery, and still hold on to some of those more mysterious, dark elements.
Ami: The challenge is authenticity. We want everything to be authentic and honest, and if that means we’re going just a little darker, that’s totally fine. That’s still within our wheelhouse. We just want to do what feels natural and authentic and honest for all of us. Duvid keeps us in check about being too cheesy.
Duvid: I’m like the cheese-o-meter.
What genre would you guys classify yourselves as?
Ami: When people ask me that, I say some combination of indie, folk, and pop. Folk because there’s a lot of harmony, a lot of acoustic stuff sometimes, pop because we have fun, light tunes as well, and then indie just to cover the bases. We get experimental with production and homemade sounds and stuff like that.
What makes Distant Cousins unique compared to the other bands you guys have been in?
Dov: Something I love about this band is that each one of us has all of these different skills. We’re very self-sufficient which is kind of refreshing, because the three of us all write, sing, perform, and produce. Ami does the real engineering, producing, mixing and all that… I think nowadays especially, it’s so crucial that we don’t have to go to a big studio, we don’t have to rely on other people even as far as getting the music out. We’re appreciative and grateful that we’re in this situation, where the three of us can just take it from A to Z together.
Ami: There’s a certain trust, I think, of each other’s instincts, which makes collaborating really smooth. And egos are out the door.
Dov: I think some of these things are just so ingrained in us, but that is to me such a Jewish value. You’re encouraged to debate and to challenge and it’s not about ego. It’s about getting to the bottom of it, getting to the truth, trying to get the best song possible. So we keep each other in line and say, “that lyric is cheesy, we can do better.” So hopefully we can all hold on to that as a band.
(Images courtesy of Distant Cousins.)