Noam Weinstein is a New York-based singer-songwriter whose songs are, by turns, deeply human, bitingly cynical, laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes even haunting. Comparisons to Randy Newman quickly sprang to mind when I first discovered him a few years ago, but I quickly came to realize that was vastly oversimplifying his music.
If you're a longtime listener to The Mental Nomad Podcast, chances are good you've heard Noam's music on the show before, and you've even heard him covered before. He'll also certainly appear in Pod Across America when the show's focus shifts to New York State.
Noam consented to an e-mail interview, presented here with my thanks. He also has the distinction of mentioning the highest percentage of artists I've yet to discover of anyone interviewed so far, if memory serves.
How long have you been playing music, and what was your first instrument? I started playing guitar when I was 8, which was 24 years ago. (Some math genius is probably going to use this information to figure out my age, but that's the cost of scientific progress.)
Who are some of your major artistic influences? I have a bunch of heroes, but since you asked about my first instrument, I'll share with you my favorite guitarist, who is the great B.B. King. I've been listening to him for most of my life, and there are few sounds I prefer to the shouts and moans of his guitar.
Are you a native New Yorker, or did you move there from some other part of the country? I was born in Cambridge, Mass., and first came to New York City 10 years ago.
What's the first album you ever bought? I think it was a 2-CD compilation of artists released by Alligator Records.
What was the first concert you ever attended? It was one of my sister Rachel's violin recitals. Amazing sister, competent violinist. That was the title of my review.
What have you enjoyed listening to lately? Hmm -- Lately I've been jumping around checking out songs recommended by different friends, all of which have been great; some recent ones were by Tim Fite, Bishop Allen, and Bebo Valdes.
What was the last concert you attended? I went recently to hear Greta Gertler play at a new club in Brooklyn. She is incredible!
As I told you when we first met at MySpace, I found your music because B.J. Novak included "When I Get My" in an iTunes Mix supposedly created by his character from The Office. How was it you knew him, again? Are you still in touch? It was so nice of B.J. to do that. We went to college together.
Unfortunately, I've only seen him a couple times since, but I think the work he's done with the show is fantastic! It's no small feat that those guys took a unique British comedy and made an American version that is just as hilarious.
Do you support any specific charities, and how do you give back as an artist? (Feel free to include links if applicable.) I don't do nearly enough. Here are a few that I think are great: LIFEbeat, Musicians on Call and Nuci's Space.
What news story have you been following lately? Well, I can't get enough of stories about our new president, but when I'm feeling brave I try to pay attention to what's falling apart elsewhere.
Looking ahead at your musical career, is there any artist whose path you find yourself wanting to follow? Are there particular cautionary tales you try to avoid repeating? No one artist in particular; I think my main goal at this point is just to keep writing and playing without getting too distracted by whether or not I manage to share my songs with a wider audience.
How did you come to record "I Could Lie to You" with Norah Jones? Norah and I both used to hang out a lot at The Living Room, a great club in Manhattan; we were always mutual fans, and she was kind enough to lend her talents to that song and a few others back in 2002.
To my recollection, all the songs I've heard from you have been originals. Do you perform any cover songs in your live set? Occasionally, but it's something I want to do more of!
I think when I started performing I was fighting the urge to rely on a Dylan masterpiece or an old blues song that conveyed an emotion I hadn't yet explored in my own writing. But I never quite grew out of that, and there are so many incredible songs to cover!
(Another problem is that a lot of the ones I want to sing are by friends of mine -- people like Naomi Sommers, Jess Tardy, and Mieka Pauley -- and I'm intimidated by the fact that I could never sing them as well as they do!)
How does it feel to hear a cover of one of your songs? It feels great. Mostly I just love knowing that an artist found something in one of my songs that seemed worth passing on. But it's also fun to hear what they do with it!
If you could create a music festival with any musicians living or dead, who would be your top six headliners? Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Louis Armstrong, and Anita Suhanin would be pretty good.
Suppose you're hungry but down to your last five bucks. What do you eat? The five bucks.
What's the last good book you read? (Michael Chabon's) The Yiddish Policemen's Union, given to me by the one and only Frank Tedesso.
Do you have a favorite magazine? Kinda redundant for a New Yorker, but I find The New Yorker not only accurately describes my regional title, but tells some damn interesting stories.
What is the quintessential New York City experience? It's hard to beat the beautiful, repugnant mess of humanity that can be found riding the subway at all hours.
Finally, a burning question for our times: Tom Waits or Randy Newman? Depends if I need someone to greet children at my door on Halloween or to greet them on Passover.
If the interview wasn't enough to convince you that you have a Noam Weinstein-shaped hole in your music collection, visit his Web site and download the last three singles for free. When you're ready to buy, you can purchase his music from his Web site, at Amazon, on iTunes -- which doesn't have his 2001 album "Enough About You" -- and at CD Baby. Plus Rhapsody, Napster and eMusic, too.
Noam Weinstein - We're All Going There (2006)
Noam Weinstein - Probably Human (2004)
Noam Weinstein - Above the Music (2002)
(Photo credits: Ladder photo by Christopher M. Lynch; black and white photo by Rachel Weinstein; "We're All Going There" album cover by Jennifer Krumholz.)