Boundary-pushing Bluegrass group Nefesh Mountain dreamed up their elegantly wayward sound by melding elements of everything from Americana and Appalachian Bluegrass to Celtic Folk and Jewish music.
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Native New Yorkers with a lifelong affinity for Bluegrass, Doni Zasloff and Eric Lindberg founded Nefesh Mountain in 2014 and through the years, have built a devoted following on the strength of their storytelling and their spirited live shows.
Nefesh Mountain’s third album, Songs for the Sparrows opens on its majestic lead single “Wanderlust”: a gloriously cascading tale of two perpetual travelers setting out on a new voyage, slightly wary but unshakably determined. As the track charges forward at a full-tilt clip, Doni Zasloff and Eric Lindberg warmly impart words of reassurance, gently extolling love as a protective force. At turns radiant and pensive, wide-eyed and wise, “Wanderlust” ultimately embodies the delicate yet powerful sentiment at the heart of Songs for the Sparrows.
In a testament to the unbridled imagination and extraordinary grace of Nefesh Mountain’s musicianship, each track on Songs for the Sparrows ineffably evokes the sensation of roaming through the unknown. True to the album’s spirit of loving inclusivity, Zasloff and Lindberg dreamed up that elegantly wayward sound by melding elements of everything from Americana and Appalachian Bluegrass to Celtic Folk and Eastern European music. Not only a reflection of their vast musical knowledge, that open-hearted embracing of so many eclectic genres also speaks to the joyful curiosity that animates every aspect of their artistry.
The follow-up to their widely beloved Beneath the Open Sky—an album praised by No Depression as “one of the finest, wholly Bluegrass records one will hear in not only 2018 but as a touchstone moving forward”—Songs for the Sparrows came to life at Sound Emporium Studios in Nashville, with Zasloff and Lindberg taking the helm as co-producers. Along with their longtime touring bandmates (violinist Alan Grubner, mandolinist David Goldenberg, and bassist Max Johnson), the couple joined forces with Bluegrass royalty like Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush and Bryan Sutton, whom they consider a formative inspiration on their deliberately free-flowing sound. Lindberg and Zasloff also brought aboard Celtic phenoms John Doyle (guitar/bouzouki) and Mike McGoldrick (whistles) to help achieve their global sound.
One of the most enchanted moments on the album, “A Sparrow’s Song” centers on ethereal textures and spellbinding harmonies hinting at Nefesh Mountain’s Eastern European roots. In crafting the track’s fable-like lyrics (“They say you’re small/Not worth a thing/But I know the truth/I’ve heard you sing”), the duo looked back on a life-changing trip to Poland and Ukraine in 2018. “We tracked down the towns where our families are from, and it was devastating to see the destruction of the Holocaust firsthand, and to know that we’re not so far removed from that time,” says Lindberg. “‘A Sparrow’s Song’ came from that experience, and from thinking about the many groups of people who are horribly discriminated against in the U.S.” Zasloff adds: “To us, sparrows represent a small but mighty voice. That’s why we chose to name the album for them—they’re often overlooked, but they’re beautiful and everywhere.”
All throughout Songs for the Sparrows, Nefesh Mountain illuminate its gift for imbuing old-soul wisdom into songs with a potent sense of urgency. On “Somewhere On This Mountain,” for instance, they deliver a confessional duet that precisely captures the anxiety so endemic to modern times but in the end provides some much-needed solace—thanks in no small part to the track’s softly shimmering tones and soul-soothing harmonies. Meanwhile, “Piece of the Sun” arrives as a bright and epic meditation on the courage of irrepressible hope, reaching a sublime fever pitch at its Celtic-Folk-infused, sing-along-ready crescendo. As Lindberg explains, the song was inspired by the couple’s daughter Millie, and by Anne Frank (to whom “Piece of the Sun” is dedicated). “There was a time when Millie was three and she and Doni were in the car, and out of the blue Millie just said, ‘I think everyone in the world has a piece of the sun inside them,’” he recalls. “The song starts with that exact story, and then goes on to Anne Frank and the beautifully optimistic spirit she was able to hold onto in even the darkest of days.”
In their commitment to exploring new frontiers in their songwriting and sound, Nefesh Mountain also offers up such unexpected tracks as “Suite For A Golden Butterfly”: a nine-minute-long instrumental that musically encapsulates the story of a Jewish family from the Carpathian Mountains who flee to America to escape the Nazis. The exquisitely composed suite unfolds in five movements, closely following the family’s migration from East to West as each piece seamlessly segues into the next. Within that progression, Nefesh Mountain is joined by the distinctly Western sounds of Jerry Douglas, John Doyle and Mike McGoldrick, who together serve as an emblem of safety and hope in troubled times. And as the suite’s final movement, Nefesh Mountain presents “Courage and Grit,” a sweetly boisterous piece subtly expressing that “we still need to be strong and steadfast in America, even in the 21st century,” according to Zasloff.
For the closing track to Songs for the Sparrows, Nefesh Mountain shares “Tree of Life,” a quietly stunning song written in response to the 2018 mass shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue of the same name. With its heavy-hearted yet resolute lyrics (“I’m angry and tired of this great divide/But I sing nonetheless/With love on my side”), “Tree of Life” was first recorded and released by Nefesh Mountain just days after the shooting, and has since been sung at synagogues, churches, and interfaith groups around the world. “That line ‘But I sing nonetheless’ is a real theme to this record,” says Lindberg. “Regardless of everything that’s happened, all the things we’re talking about on the album, there’s nothing we can do but keep singing and keep putting out love.”