The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has rarely been addressed in American music. But on Ben Fisher’s latest release, the Damien Jurado-produced Does the Land Remember Me?, the Seattle-based folk artist—who spent three years living in Israel—dives headfirst into an entire concept album on the subject, a bloodcurdling and somber meditation that humanizes those on both sides of the divide. Fisher’s metaphorical and literal interpretations are wreathed together in a binding, barbed-wire circle as he tackles a complex and heavy narrative. His skill as a songwriter and storyteller is a big part of what drew the interest of producer Jurado, and it has landed him gigs over the years on bills with groundbreaking artists such as Courtney Marie Andrews, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and countless others.
Fisher acts primarily as the record’s narrator, drawing from the three years he spent living in “No Man’s Land,” smack between predominantly Arab East and predominantly Jewish West Jerusalem. But the roots of the album date back to a 2014 excursion to Tokyo. It was there that Does the Land Remember Me?’s opening track “The Shell Lottery”—a musical history lesson on the 1909 founding of Tel Aviv—hit Fisher like a lightning bolt. “I started thinking about the scope of Sufjan Stevens’ records Illinois and Michigan,” he says. “It dawned on me that there was something to this song, and that there could be more.”
As he searches for the right words, Fisher scours his conscience in search of hope—a hope that people will be moved and inspired to action through the record. “Passivity is much worse than taking a stand, even if I don’t particularly agree with that stand,” he says. “Young Americans, in particular, need to help moderate America’s influence on Israel.”
It’s not all conflict songs though; the second half of the record sees Fisher singing about Israeli folk heroes like astronaut Ilan Ramon and singer-songwriter Meir Ariel. “For Petr and Ilan” tells the story of Ramon’s doomed trip into space aboard the Columbia. He took with him copies of a drawing done by a young Czechoslovak boy named Petr Ginz, who was murdered in Auschwitz. With a style and lyrical form that pays homage to the American folk canon, Fisher sings, “The astronaut wore a flag patch on his arm / The little boy wore a yellow star / Got taken away in a cattle car / The astronaut wore a flag patch on his arm.”
He later etches an equally affecting moment with “Abraham’s Song,” the track with the shortest run-time on the record but perhaps the most involved backstory. “This was the hardest song for me to write because I disagree so wholeheartedly with their mindset and political agenda,” says Fisher about writing from the perspective of a Jewish settler in the West Bank. “I wanted to portray this person in a sympathetic, human light,” he continues. “I tried to paint the narrative of the settler movement, which started as an arguably innocent thing, and evolved into something sinister, ugly, dangerous and evil.”
Fisher strikes a fitting balance between emotion and reality on Does the Land Remember Me?. By allowing himself to inhabit these real-life characters, he makes possible a deeper understanding of the dire state of this tiny strip of land and its people. And his experiences only seem to aid his desire for mercy, eerily feeding into each stark moment with enthralling insight. Does the Land Remember Me? is a career-making record, timely and crucial.
Ben shares the following about the album and the track, “The founding of the State of Israel and what has happened subsequently in that tiny strip of land is, regardless of your politics, an endlessly fascinating story. As a songwriter, I was drawn to that, and after writing the first song, “The Shell Lottery,” about the founding of Tel Aviv, I knew there could be more along similar lines. A few years and 15 new songs later (and one that I borrowed from the fantastic Anaïs Mitchell) and I had a concept record about Israel/Palestine on my hands. One of the things I tried to do on this record was to present a wide range of perspectives: a song from a point of view of an Israeli settler, an Israeli soldier, a Palestinian child, etc. If your worldview doesn’t match up with the perspective presented in a song, wait a few minutes and you’ll get a new one. Or, if someone hears a song that they very much identify with, I hope they will continue listening, and be exposed to a viewpoint that they may never have considered.
Damien Jurado turned this record on its head. It wasn’t supposed to be such a piano-centric project. Damien likes to produce in the moment and had never heard any of these songs before. So on day one in the studio, we’re recording the songs, simultaneously tracking vocals and acoustic guitar. And after I’d finish each song, he would nod and make some comments.
Late in the afternoon, as the sun was starting to go down, we had almost finished recording all of the songs. I think there were only 2 or 3 left. After I played “The Shell Lottery,” he says, “Hey, do me a favor, just for my own amusement, go play that song on the piano.” So I play it, and out of the corner of my eye, I see him losing his shit. Bouncing out of his chair, hands on his head, mouth open. And I finish the song, and he says, “Listen dude, I don’t know how to tell you this, but you’re not a folk singer. You’re making the wrong record. This needs to be a piano record.” So we scrapped all the work we’d done and the next day re-recorded the whole thing with most of the tracks on piano. And we kept that recording of “The Shell Lottery” for the album, the first and only time I’ve played it on piano.”
Does the Land Remember Me? will be available on CD, double LP 150 gram milk & honey-colored vinyl and digitally. Pre-order HERE