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INTERVIEW: Lee Penn Sky

Hi Lee, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?

Hi,  Thanks for having me! I’ve been good,… and busy getting ready for the upcoming release of my new album.

Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Worry About Gomorrah”?

Sure!   The idea behind Worry about Gomorrah first came to me on a plane flying back from Israel to the United States.  I was just returning from a trip which my new album focuses on. While there I had spent some time exploring the various holy sites and thinking about religion as a whole. First off, I am not a religious person. I am however a person who thinks there is great potential and goodness in people.  The song confronts our human failures that we allow to isolate us, and serves as a reminder that being flawed is the one shared thread binding us to one another. In it I am seeking to make sense of the contradictions I find in the various religious doctrines. It seems they share a core message of peace and good will, while so many of the most devout wage continual war with each other.

Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?

I wouldn’t say a particular event inspired Worry about Gomorrah but rather the entire experience that led to the album. If I was to point to a specific experience that most influence the song I would say it would be this;  on my journey I did have the opportunity to visit various holy sites from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Baha’i faiths. Again, not being a religious person, I found myself thinking about the constructs of religion which eventually brought me to my thoughts about Worry about Gomorrah.

Any plans to release a video for the track?

There is a video for Worry about Gomorroh.  It can be seen on here: https://youtu.be/XsG7XJ244Ow 

The single comes off your new album Lean Into The Letter – what’s the story behind the title?

My new album Lean into the Letter chronicles an amazing journey that started with the discovery of a letter sent in 1958. In 1914 when my Great Grandmother Sadie Friedman was 13, she was put on a ship to the United States alone to live with distant relatives in New York. She left 12 siblings in Poland and, as far as we knew, her entire family was murdered by Nazis in the Holocaust. A few years ago, we discovered a purse in the back of a drawer that belonged to Sadie; it had been there since her death in 1975. In the purse was an envelope postmarked 1958- sent from Israel . It was written in Yiddish and after having it translated we discovered that it was from Sadie’s nephew, Jakob Nistel. Jakob described leaving his village in Poland one morning for work and when he returned in the evening, his whole village, extended family, wife and three children had been rounded up by the Nazis and sent to an extermination camp. He never saw them again. Jakob was able to evade the Nazis by hiding in a barn and eventually living underground until the end of the war. In his letters he writes of his devastation, loneliness, anger, faith and longing for his family. 

Finding that we had a relative who survived the Holocaust was mindboggling, but even more lifechanging was, through the magic of the internet we were able to locate Jakob’s family in Israel. We learned that after Jakob’s devastating loss in Poland,he met and married a woman while in hiding , with whom he immigrated to Israel. The couple had three sons, and we were able to contact Jakob’s youngest granddaughter of his youngest son. My mother, brother, cousins and I soon travelled to meet our newly discovered family in Israel and spend some time exploring this historic, religiously and politically tense country. 

The songs that compose Lean into the Letter thread together my thoughts and emotions regarding Jakob, his survival in the face of horrific loss, his ongoing and unshakable faith, our discovery of and joy for new family, and ideas of resistance, depression, loss and anger in the context of historic and volatile conflicts that permeate the Holy Land.

It was the discovery of the Jakob’s letter that kicked off the events that  became this album. The title is a comment on the effort I put into these difficult themes which this journey allowed me to confront, like putting your back into something hard. 

How was the recording and writing process?

I recorded at Luxetone Studios in Boise Idaho.  Brandon Wallace engineered and produced the album.  I approached him with the concept and most of the songs written. He was really able to understand and embrace my vision and became an amazing partner in the creative process.  We developed a great sense of trust with each other. Though recording can be a difficult process it seemed effortless with Brandon. That great chemistry allowed me to explore some sonic ground I might have steered clear of. 

What role does Michigan play in your music?

I moved from Ann Arbor Michigan to Idaho about 20 years ago.  That transition was very thematic in my first solo release Prelude to Hindsight.  I would say since that move the rugged landscape of Idaho weighs heavily in my writing.  Idaho characters, the wide open spaces of the high plains desert and the vast mountain vistas are entwined in my second release 29 Left Down. After returning from Israel I spent some time alone writing songs for Lean into the Letter in Stanley Idaho, an amazingly picturesque but equally harsh high mountain town in the Sawtooth Mountain Range.  

What aspect of loss and defiance did you get to explore on this record?

Obviously when you are writing about themes related to the Holocaust it will be naturally filled with loss and anger.  Much of this album relates to the survival of Jakob. But in exploring those themes of survival you then come up against all those that were lost, taken from him- and in the end from all of us by the Nazis.   One of the songs on the album Jumped from the Train deals head on with the theme of defiance.  Jakob describes his uncle dying when he jumped from the Nazi train taking him to an extermination camp.  I see this as his defiance of the Nazi regime. Risking his life in an effort to escape becomes his own act of resistance, rather than allowing the Nazis to control him.  This inspired a song that is filled with historic acts of defiance and heroism which are often overlooked. I see this song as a celebration of survival in the face of terrible loss.  That survival of the Jewish people in the face of such atrocities is the ultimate act of defiance. 

What made you want to touch on these dark themes?

Over the years I have found myself increasingly writing protest songs.  This album is filled with songs of protest. When we found the letter that related the horrors that the Nazis perpetrated on Jakob, the Jewish people and the world, how could I not be so heavily influenced by that darkness.  In traveling to Israel and exploring those religious, historic and political sites how could I not write about the palpable tensions that were so evident to me.   

How did you go on balancing the darkness with the much uplifting message?

In the end Jakob did survive and have another family. The title track Lean into the Letter is the expression of Jakob’s enduring triumph over the terrible emotional  injuries inflicted on him. Though this album deals with dark and conflicting themes that not only deal with the past but reflect on today’s problems and conflicts, it is written for those who would see the good in ourselves. 

Where else did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?

Inspiration is where you look for it.   I found it in a broken down cowboy mending fence out in a field and in the tragic death of a hero.  I found it in the aging face of my father and an ocean that separated me from my wife. 

Any plans to hit the road?

Supporting my new album I will be working the Pacific Northwest initially, but you will find me where opportunity presents itself . 

What else is happening next in Lee Penn Sky’s world?

As with all songwriters, I am eager to get back into the studio and work on new material.  As I mentioned I have an affinity for writing protest songs and if you can’t find something to protest about these days you might be unconscious!

Listen to “Worry About Gomorrah” here.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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