For most people, music provides an escape so they don’t feel crushed by the strife of the real world. But Seattle singer-songwriter Ben Fisher manages to bridge the gap between escapism and reality on his 2018 concept album, Does the Land Remember Me?, by exploring Israeli history over the course of 17 introspective songs.
Fisher became obsessed with Israel after graduating from the University of Washington with a degree in Near Eastern languages and civilizations in 2013. While he was fascinated by the region, he felt that the program lacked coverage of Israel (which fell under the Jewish Studies program),
and he began seeking out more information on the history of his cultural homeland.
“I finished four years of college there with all this knowledge about Lebanon, Iraq, Islam, and all this stuff, but I sort of had a black hole when it came to knowing about Israel,” Fisher says. “I just picked up every book I could find, started reading Israeli newspapers, watching Israeli movies, and listening to Israeli folk music. I just became completely obsessed.” He started making pita, Israeli salad, and squeezing his own orange juice, before eventually moving to Jerusalem for a few years. “I realized it was just going to be easier for me to be surrounded by that if I just up and left,” he says. “They make it very easy for Jewish people to move there. I got citizenship when I landed at the airport.”
Fisher actually wrote the first song for the album, “The Shell Lottery,” years earlier, in Tokyo of all places. Over melancholy piano chords and distant sliding guitar wails, Fisher’s lyrics detail the 1909 founding of Tel Aviv, which was done by assigning plots of land to families by drawing sea shells. (“There were dunes / Dunes in the sand / Turned into buildings / By hard working hands. Sixty shells / Numbered and named / Laid in the sand / For families to claim.”)
“I finished it, and I realized it could be a jumping-off point to a larger record with more songs like that, which take historical events and condense them into three-and-a-half-minute folk songs,” he says.
From the “The Shell Lottery,” the album moves in a variety of musical directions while maintaining a straightforward, mostly piano-driven backing to bolster Fisher’s knack for crafty songwriting. (The CD and LP versions come with extensive liner notes where Fisher explains the history behind each tune.) “Exodus” serves as a jaunty ode to a past-its-prime boat used during Aliyah Bet, the World War II–era clandestine immigration of Jews to Mandatory Palestine. (“Come ’44 they didn’t want her no more / They sold her and shipped her away / To the wild Middle East / She had work there at least / Bringing a new group every few days / Taking them home to stay.”) There’s the rough folk guitar edge of “Horses and Helpers,” which captures the near-constant tension of Fisher’s time living on the Green Line. And on “1948,” Fisher and fellow Seattle singer-songwriter Noah Gundersen trade verses from the perspectives of Jewish and Arab children singing to their fathers caught up in the war.
Other historical events covered range from the famed eulogy by Moshe Dayan of Roi Rotberg (“Heavy Gates of Gaza”) to the mass suicide at Masada (“Ship of Stone”), the death of the first Israeli astronaut in the Columbia explosion (“For Petr and Ilan”) to personal reflections built on Fisher’s time in Israel. There are also subtle sonic shifts, like the old-school 1960s backbeat employed on “Day Is Done,” and the guest guitar work by Gundersen on “Take a Look Around,” which gives the finale a meditative feeling after the bombardment of perspectives that precedes it.
The feel of the album can be attributed to producer Damien Jurado, godfather of the Seattle folk singer-songwriter scene, and one of Fisher’s idols. While Fisher planned for standard strummy guitar-based folk tunes, Jurado convinced him the songs would work better on the piano — less Bob Dylan folk singer, more Randy Newman musical storyteller.
Major points of reference for Fisher were Sufjan Stevens’s breakout indie folk concept albums, Michigan and Illinois. “They seem to be about very, very specific things in those states that maybe only people in those states really ever think about or hear about,” Fisher says. “But they sort of address broader human themes that make them accessible to people that have no connection to Flint or Lansing or Skokie or any of the places in those songs.”
While the Stevens parallel might be obvious for folk music fans, a less obvious influence on this collection of stripped-down storytelling was Broadway. Specifically, a little production called Hamilton.
“Last time I was in New York, I saw these middle school girls who were in the graveyard where Alexander Hamilton was buried,” Fisher says. “That would be a dream for a social studies teacher in 2000. And it happened because of that piece of musical theater.”
Fisher thinks Jews could be energized the same way. “There are a lot of American Jews, and Jews worldwide, who have no connection really to Israel,” he says. “They don’t care about what’s going on there. And that has a lot to do with the way the country is going at this point. But it’s theirs just as much as anyone who lives there. So I think it’s really important for American Jews, and Jews worldwide, to have a stake, to have an opinion. And even if I don’t agree with that opinion, it’s much better than just being passive and not having one.”
Fisher himself is a bit pessimistic about the future of Israel, and those concerns parallel his feelings about the United States. “The theme of fear shows up a lot on the record, and I think that’s a pretty universal theme,” he says. “Fear of the other, fear of the enemy, fear of who’s living across the street, or across the border, or across the wall from you. And then walls are another theme.”
In order not to skew controversial historical events while translating them into short sonic bites, Fisher attempts to tell more than one side of each story. “I tried to sing from a variety of different perspectives. I think that art, and music specifically, has a way to open up hearts and minds that a book about the 1948 war in Israel and Palestine doesn’t.”