If there is a tenet central to Neshama Carlebach’s life and career, it is that from brokenness comes strength. It’s a teaching that time and again arises when discussing the singer’s life and work. Whether it’s the tragic circumstances that led to her status as a superstar in the Jewish music world, or the brutal disaster that led to some of her greatest inspiration on her album, Higher & Higher, with the Green Pastures Baptish Choir, Carlebach is no stranger to anguish, nor the opportunities contained therein for unity.
In many ways, there was never another album Carlebach could make, never another destiny she could follow. The daughter of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Neshama was surrounded by music from an early age, given her father’s role as a hugely prolific songwriter, in many ways the father to modern Jewish music. “I don’t think I remember my life without music,” Carlebach explains of her father’s rigorous travel schedule that took her around the world, both uprooting Carlebach and exposing her to cultures and outlooks she would never have experienced. “Between the concerts and the hangs and the singing around the house, I don’t think I ever had life without music.”
As soon as Carlebach was old enough to hold a microphone, she was urged into the spotlight by her doting father. After years of voice and acting lessons, Carlebach would join her father onstage, and for several months preceding his death in October of 1994, Carlebach toured with her father, with no other desire than to simply spend time with him. “I think he was grooming me the whole time,” Carlebach explains of the performances she did with her father. “I think he knew he would die, and I think that’s the worst thing to absorb. After he died I looked back at all these random conversations, and I think he knew.”
At the time of Shlomo Carlebach’s death, months of shows had been booked. Within three days of his death, Neshama had agreed to perform in place of her father, and thirty days later, she was singing her father’s music, and building her own legacy within the world of Jewish music. “I don’t even know why I said OK,” Carlebach laughs in retrospect. "I wasn’t in my right mind. I felt this sincere sense of pressure.” In those performances, Carlebach was able to mourn her father, and in a manner most appropriate: by communing with his fans. After the tour wrapped up, Carlebach continued working with her band, looking at the breadth of the catalog her father left behind, and today her show is comprised predominantly of his material. “His music is my music,” Carlebach explains. From that point, Carlebach took on the role of a working musician, playing shows and writing music, all while booking shows and promoting herself – labor that most musicians outsource to a support staff.
Higher & Higher is the intersection of faith and talent, an album written from the perspective of a particular faith that applies to all. Written by a rabbi, performed by his daughter and a Baptist choir, the songs preach in the least secular way, sharing a message of unity and hope. Other than faith, one of Carlebach’s greatest inspirations on the album was the devastation Hurricane Katrina visited upon New Orleans. Carlebach, who spent time in New Orleans both prior to and following Hurricane Katrina, is holding a benefit in conjunction with the release of the record there. “It’s become one of my personal missions, to help the victims of New Orleans,” Carlebach says. “Ata,” which literally translated from the Hebrew means “without words,” is a hope-infused blues vocalization that conveys the emotion and spirit Carlebach and the choir feel for the fallen city in a manner purer than words. “Higher and Higher,” the album’s namesake, is both mournful and moving, a message of appreciating life’s fleeting nature. What was born out of fear and sadness has become inspiration, from destruction came creation. Carlebach and the Green Pastures Baptist Choir have a salve for some of the suffering they see throughout the world. “People need one piece of hope, one shred of faith to cling to that makes us feel that all we’re doing and all the craziness is worthwhile, that we’re not alone,” says Carlebach. This album is ten pieces of that hope.