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Watching an artist hone their craft on stage varies especially if you seek pure and unfiltered entertainment. No one can predict whether said-musician will dazzle or amaze. You hope that the artist won’t just stand there and play a song. That is so plain vanilla yogurt. What you do hope for is a performer who establishes a connection with the audience and slays them with talent. This is what Shirley Levi brings to the people. She is here for one thing and one thing only: to Entertain.
Writer, composer, painter, Youtube sensation and self-made artist barely scratch the surface when describing Shirley Levi’s work. She’s an activist for autism, a multi-linguist and has a goal to give Indie Artists a voice. One thing is for sure; Shirley is a unique individual who speaks truths about the record industry, mainstream media and the price of making it in Hollywood. Through the struggles and the hardships, she has found a way to survive and outlast her competition because she is honest and refuses to fall in line. And in the end, isn’t that what we want from an artist?
We caught up with Shirley Levi to discuss growing up in political upheaval during the Iranian Revolution, living in Los Angeles and the one thing all touring artists must know.
LASF Magazine: For the readers that don’t know your background, can you please bring us up to speed on how your career began?
Shirley Levi: I always tell people that I came out of my mom knowing right away that I was meant to sing and make music. My parents came here from Iran, my mom’s Israeli, my father’s Iranian, and they escaped Iran for freedom and we actually came to California first and I grew up in San Diego. I started out in San Diego but it wasn’t until I came to Los Angeles where I started to get myself moving and really perfecting my music and fighting hard with all my might. It started out with me playing live shows then I recorded my album, this was probably about 5 years ago. I’ve been fighting hard for a long time but I really take the last 10 years as being the fiercest while being in Los Angeles.
LASF: Oh really, what part of San Diego?
SL: I grew up in different area but mostly in the La Jolla area. I have a very strong love for the Latinos. They’ve always stood by me.
LASF: Your background is Jewish-Iranian. Has the current political tensions between the United States, Israel and Iran affected the way you write? Do you feel you have to choose one side or the other?
SL: Very good question. My mother is Israeli-Jewish and my father is Iranian-Jewish and he’s very loyal to his country. And it’s a shame because Iran was not the way people see it. It was very metropolitan and free and very open to cultures and different religions and it wasn’t until the Ayatollah came where everything ended and it was the beginning again of tyrants and dictatorships. It was really sad for my father. When I first came to this country, I was a kid, the revolution had already been going on for a while and we finally escaped. It was so difficult for me because on one hand I’m a Jew and right after Iran we go to Israel and I’m a kid, I don’t speak Farsi yet, then we escape go to Israel and I don’t speak Hebrew. Then we come to the United States, where I always dreamt about even as a little kid, I remember being 3 years old and going ‘Oh my God, I want to go to the land of opportunity’, I thought everything was Disneyland. So when I came here it was really confusing because kids don’t know what’s really going on. Right away just having Iran on your record does not help because here, I’m a Jew, and I’m not part of anything that’s going on. I got tormented so much in school, bullied and beaten up and misunderstood for so many years. I think we all go through it in some way or another. I think it really turned out to be a blessing for me because it made me really strong. I faced adversity so much in my life. I never felt like I belonged really until I moved to L.A. where there’s so many different cultures and everybody’s used to it. It shaped me because it made me stand up for people in this world. I love Israel. I love every country and of course, the United States. I’m American. My first loyalty goes to the United States. If anything, it made me understand so many cultures and their ignorance’s and their beauty and it help me bring it all into my music with my messages. I’m playing rock ‘n roll and I will switch back and forth on you. I’ll start singing in Spanish, Hebrew and Farsi and mixing it all up because I really feel strongly about us uniting. It’s such a sad feeling with you’re connecting with someone and then they find out, ‘What, you’re Jewish? You came from Iran?’ Or I’ll go to Europe and they’ll go ‘What, you’re American?’ It made me realize how politics can create ignorance.
LASF: You have a campaign that raises awareness for Autism. How did this come about?
SL: I first moved to Hollywood and I had this neighbor downstairs and she was a head of an organization for Autism and I’d have coffee with her and there’d always be kids running around and people with Autism and I just always connected with them and I was saying to myself, ‘these people are so special’. I never knew anything about it. Then I was actually in between jobs and I had this strong feeling that this was meant for me on my path. I didn’t know why. So I went in and begged for a job and they did. They trained me and the first person I worked with was Anne Marie, which I have a song that’s an anthem from Autism Awareness called “Anne Marie”. It’s was inspired by here and I started working with her and she just changed my life. Everybody is so misinformed out there, just like I was. So I need to be taking this to the next level and instead of working with one person, I need to join forces, put it my music, put it in my art and get out there and express their message and be a voice for them. I’ve been doing that for many years and now, thanks to God, it’s a lot easier with the media being a lot more open.
LASF: How many years have you been living in Los Angeles?
SL: About 12 years now. My musical journey has taken off within the past 12 years.
LASF: Has living here affected your songwriting?
SL: I think anytime you’re anywhere, you start to blend and feel the energy. I have a song called “Hollywood” on my next album and I think that song says it all because you come here, and don’t get me wrong, if you’re not going to hold on tight to your soul, you can lose it. It is not an easy city and the people are not as open-minded. It is very hard to do shows and keep people’s attention. Because of all the superficiality of the media and everything that goes on here, it’s made me fight harder and realize how hard it is to hold on to your dreams and not sell out. I’ve become such a big advocate for just staying true to yourself and not selling out. You’ll see that in a lot of my activism videos and interviews. I see people giving up. If the tides change, they change their music. They’ll sell their souls, they’ll change their sound, they’ll change their entire image, everything, just to blend in and make it. I feel like I’m supposed to be here to shine a light on that. When you do something in L.A., it sparkles all over the United States and all over the world. The energy is so strong here for not selling out because it’s so easy to sell out. I’m standing up and facing it. I don’t know if you saw my Oprah video--
LASF: I did and I wanted to talk to you about that.
SL: Oh, awesome. It’s called ‘Music Can Change the World’. That’s a great example of something I’ve been doing. I’ll stand up in front of the media, I don’t care. Respectfully. I definitely don’t want to send a message to be destructive but I do want to send a message saying stand up for what you believe. No matter where you are or what it entails. The Lord will support you and the people will follow. I think in that way, L.A. has made me fiercer. I don’t let it jade me and hate the city. I love Hollywood. It’s a city of dreams but I’m standing up for the ignorance’s that we as artists have to face in the music business. That has shaped me in a very big way.
LASF: Regarding the video where you’re standing on the Miracle Mile in front of the Oprah Winfrey Network. Is there any update on this?
SL: The video went viral, thanks to God. I went out there not knowing at all if anybody was going to support me. It’s kind of a big deal. You’re standing in front of all these networks and you’re taking a chance. I just said my prayers and called out to people and realize that nobody was going to show up. But I went out, I did it and people came. I collected the entire street with my megaphone and thanks to God, as I said, every one of us is going to reach a million people. And people may laugh at you but they will support this because we’re standing up for ourselves. I’m really proud of it. I’ve been getting a lot of positive attention. I never want to be exploited or use the media for the wrong reason. But this was something that I felt like I really had to grow some balls, excuse me, and be a true warrior and just make it happen. The cool thing about it is-- I don’t know if you noticed from the video but I got a lot of support from the Oprah Winfrey Network. As we were circling around it, and going inside, everybody’s fists were up in the air. You can tell that they could understand that I wasn’t there to antagonize them. I was there to support them and to raise voice and awareness to what I was doing. I’m not afraid to stand in front of the same network that I’m asking to work with to express my views and what I believe in. I’m here because I want to bring light and attention back in the media to important causes like Autism Awareness, equality for all, hunger; the importance of letting everybody know that they have a voice. You may not be famous, but that does not mean your voice cannot reach millions of people. I stand up for all artists. Thanks to God, it’s been going really great and I’m very eager for it to reach 2 million and continue to grow.
LASF: The album ‘Break Free’ crosses multiple genres and styles of music. When you compose a song, do you have a genre in mind? Do your songs evolve from one genre to another?
SL: That’s a very good question because I’m very notorious for being a chameleon. If you notice, a lot of artists, a lot of their songs sound very similar. I’m not that kind of person. I’ve been from country to country and I have just a love for music. With me, I can’t help it. It just comes out of me that way. For Break Free, it’s really a Rock album, Pop. I have a real love for Synth. Really, I don’t plan it. I’m one of those artists who’s very spontaneous and I allow things to just come out of me. A lot of times when I write the lyrics, I sit down on guitar or keyboard and the entire melody literally will come out the way its meant to come out. And you can tell that it’s a mixture of so many different genres, but what’s the problem? When someone tries to hard to experiment you can kind of feel it. But you feel it that I’m not trying. It seamlessly coming out of me because it’s who I am. For that album you’re hearing so many mixtures of World, Middle Eastern sounds. Rock. Pop. A little bit of Electro. I’d like to say that it has nothing to do with Techno. A lot of people think that you have a little bit of elements of Synth. That’s not Techno. I have nothing against Techno but that’s not my music. On that album, I took a one version of my song “Daddy Boy” and I did a remix called “Grandma Jerusalem” version. And without letting my Grandma in Jerusalem, I sampled her while she’s doing the dishes and her voice and went to the old city and sampled real sounds of people and chaos and everything and took it back and mixed this very awesome track. The music dictates me, I don’t dictate it. It is very important to me that the production does not dictate my music but the melodies dictate the production. I can’t help to have all these genres in there. It’s just the way I am. I’m number 2 on iHeartRadio. I’m number 1 on Akon’s Hitlab. I’m not meaning to toot my own horn, I just want people to have confidence. If you feel something, you don’t need to change it because one or two executives tells you to change it. I don’t want to make music just to make money. So definitely, you can hear a lot of genres weaved into Break Free and the same with my next album coming up.
LASF: So what can we expect from this next album?
SL: So far, my sound has change and kind of come back to the core of me. I’ve come up with a new sound I call ‘Shirley Rawk’. I really wanted to bring back to my true form of singing and writing more freestyle but still filled with strong melodic hooks and important messages. It’s beyond simple. It’s me and my acoustic Epiphone guitar plugged into my Marshall amp. Its Rock but spelled R-A-W-K. It’s raw to the core. I want to capture that powerful energy of an exciting live performance with real dynamics. I wanted my vocals and the emotions behind it to stand out and to be the emphasis of the production. I’m fusing Rock with Punk, Folk, Country, Blues like Rockabilly with a hint of Mediterranean and Hispanic and Middle Eastern melodies. I decided with this album I’m just going to out to complete strangers, I’m not going to invite my fans or my friends, and just test it out. It’s the truest kind of music and even though I’m a chameleon, it’s really hard to separate me from my guitar. I’ve been out there performing and I got such an outrageous response and reviews that I realize that this is going to be what I’m going to do on my next album. What I’m doing right now is recording one-take wonders with just the guitar and putting it up on my Soundcloud, which you can see on my website www.shirleylevi.com, for my fans to hear that and in the mean time, I’m shopping around for the right studio, manager and label. I’ve been signed before and I had to walk away from it. People don’t realize that if you sell out and you’re not putting out what you really want to put out, you’re going to have to repeat that for the rest of your career. I really don’t want to do that. The audience feels you and when you go out and sing, it’s about your audience. It’s not about becoming famous. That’s what happens in L.A. Everybody is so focused on being famous before the love of music and the love of their audience that they make it and you never hear from them again because they’re miserable and they’re on drugs. I’d rather continue being humble and work independently and let it grow and get to do what I really love. People are not dumb but the labels treat us as if we’re dumb. They force-feed you artists who all sound exactly like the first artist who made a lot of money for them. Everybody else is being formulated and no one has their own true voice. Nobody sounds unique anymore. What I love about my album is that it’s so raw to the core. You hear the real dynamics of my vocals and because of it, I landed the cover The Vocalist Magazine, which made me so proud because I get to be myself. I love my album Break Free but I feel like its time for me to move to the most potent core of me, which is really Rock.
LASF: How has touring been for you? Do you have any horror stories while on the road?
SL: I’ll tell you the biggest problem you have when you’re doing really big venues is the sound. It really comes down to the one thing no one thinks about. You rehearse and you kill yourself and you’re trying so hard to sound right and you get up in front of an audience and the sound guy, maybe he’s never heard of you before, and you have the most horrific things happen to you. Your voice is cut out. The guitar is sounding bad. You have so many problems with sound and a lot of times your audience doesn’t understand “This is not me.” I promise you I did a sound check! I think the most important thing I can tell other artists that are about to tour or have a big showcase is demand that you have a sound rehearsal before. A lot of times you show up and no one cares about you even though you sold out and the place is packed, you’re just another name for them. Some places do care. The House of Blues, “Oh my God, I love them!” They’re incredible. They’ll give you the best sound you can imagine. A lot of other places are not.
LASF: Do you have Rock Idol? Who inspires you to write a good song?
SL: First and foremost, The Lord. My parents who’ve been listening to Rock ‘n Roll since I was a kid. There’s a lot of great artists but I’ll just mention a few. First I’d like to mention Mr. Lou Reed who just passed away. May he rest in peace. Love that guy. Very poetic and artful in his delivery. A true visionary filled with raw emotions and not afraid to express his vulnerable side. I love artists like Bob Marley, John Lennon, The Rolling Stones, The White Stripes, The Doors, R.E.M., Patti Smith, Janis Joplin, Neil Young, U2, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, The Kinks, The Pretenders, Ray Charles. I just discovered, if you can believe, Townes Van Zandt. Elvis Presley, Fleetwood Mac, Iggy Pop… I can go on and on. I look up to these legendary artists who really sounded unique. Bob Marley to me is like a musical prophet. This guy is so connected to the right that I literally feel like I’m in the right with him when I listen to his stuff. His music is timeless and it will never go out of style. Those would be, pretty much, my biggest influences.
LASF: If someone is coming to see a Shirley Levi show, what can they expect?
SL: For one thing, you’re not going to get a typically chick up on stage. I think a lot of women hold back because the industry tells you, “You gotta be all flowery and sweet”. When you come out to see me… I will rock you out. I will talk to my audience and tell them what my song’s about. It’s very unpredictable. I almost set up the show where it’s almost like a DJ set where I’ll have really cool intros and endings and surprise ending that I’ll attach to songs. A lot of times people will tell me, “No offense, but I’m not really crazy about a lot female vocalist and artists because I go out and they don’t rock out.” When you come see me, I will take you on a journey of dynamics and emotions and when you walk out of there hopefully feeling super-empowered from all the messages and the personal stuff that I share at my shows. I’m not afraid to get really close to my audience. People will always tell me you don’t sound like anyone in particular. I always tell people, “I may not be the prettiest, I may not be the most talented, but I’m definitely very good at being very unique.” I love my audience and I give them my absolute best when I’m ready to perform.