Jewish 'it' girl in the US

Singer Michelle Citrin did not always consider herself a "Jewish" singer.

Michelle Citrin 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Michelle Citrin 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The first thing that strikes you about Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Michelle Citrin isn't her tiny 5'1" frame, her trademark dreadlocks or the huge sound that pours out of her mouth when she sings. Rather, it's how incredibly warm, welcoming and effusive she is, even when approached by complete strangers. She has an engaging smile, a ready hug and an openness about her that is instantly reflected in her music. Citrin has an unusual husky, whisky-and-cigarettes timbre to her voice, but it's definitely not the result of indulging in vices. Despite a performance the night before, she happily agreed to an early-morning meeting at a café. She removes her sunglasses and sips freshly squeezed orange juice, confessing she's already had a cup of coffee and doesn't want to overdo it. Unless you've been living under a rock recently, Citrin has two of her songs - "I've Got to Love You Rosh Hashanah"(a parody on I've got a crush on Obama) and "20 Things To Do With Matza" - making the YouTube rounds, with "Matza" garnering over a million in the past couple of months. "The lil grrrl with the big sound," as she has been dubbed and as her business card proclaims, is all over the map these days. "People come up to me on the subway and say 'You're Rosh Hashana girl!'" she exclaims. Here's a singer who is on the cusp of making it big, really big. Some time in the very near future, it's unlikely you'll be able to pull up a chair and interview Citrin without going through a slew of publicists, agents and managers first. Citrin laughs at the idea and assures me she'll still take my phone calls. She even agrees to be photographed sans makeup, despite protestations that she looks "terrible." Recently in Los Angeles for Israel's "60 at 60" celebrations, she popped up unannounced and uncredited at the Kodak Theatre's Israel at 60 Gala Celebration and took the stage with Rami Kleinstein, Rita, Idan Raichel and Habanot Nechama during the closing moments of the show, where she sang a verse of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." At the after-party, when asked how she suddenly appeared on stage as part of the gala, she shrugged and said "Craig [Taubman, a local musician who helped coordinate the evening and the whole '60 at 60' event] asked me the night before." CITRIN'S THAT kind of woman, willing to pitch in at the last minute, happy to perform at the drop of a hat. It's that openness, tenacity and drive that has seen her spend a decade touring the country to get her music out there. To date, she's only released four songs, but she's currently putting the finishing touches on her first full album. She's spent years in the trenches garnering support on college campuses around the country, kick-started by an opening slot for Michelle Branch. She then fell in with a troupe of women called Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad, a quirky part-improv, part-stand-up, part-variety show that traveled the US addressing what it was like to be a Jewish woman. So it's no surprise that she has somehow become the national Jewish "it" girl, and that Birthright approached both her and cartoonist William Levin (her cowriter on the Obama girl parody) to create a Rosh Hashana video card for them. With the success of "I've Got to Love you Rosh Hashanah," Streit's Matzos then approached her to create a song for Pessah in the same vein. Yet Citrin did not always consider herself a "Jewish" singer. Check out her MySpace page and you'll find some dark, moody songs - the antithesis of the funny, bubbly YouTube videos. Citrin says it took her "a while" to figure out that she didn't have to lead two separate musical lives: There was, in fact, a way for her to merge her indie folk singing with her Jewish identity, and it's now a niche she's comfortable with. Indeed, her song "Dark Refrain," about searching for peace in the midst of war, came about as a result of her Birthright trip when she was 20. "Birthright was a really great starting point for me," she says. "It was just serendipitous that I happened to be in Israel. I was in the middle of the desert and as I became aware of my surroundings, I incorporated that into [Dark Refrain]." BORN IN Fair Lawn, New Jersey to an Israeli mother, Citrin grew up on a diet of Israeli folk music, listening to the likes of Ofra Haza, eating Israeli food and doing Israeli folk dances. "It was a very cultural household," she says. Her grandparents were Holocaust survivors and Citrin recalls that it "was my grandmother who taught me to play 'Hag Purim' on the piano." But it wasn't until Citrin picked up a guitar (that she taught herself to play - to this day she's never taken a guitar lesson, nor a singing lesson) that she says she really found her voice. She was a pre-med student at Rutgers University, "but I changed my mind after I found myself writing songs in human anatomy class," she recalls. "But I loved the healing aspect of medicine and connecting with people, and when I did my junior year abroad in Melbourne [Australia], that's when things happened [musically]. I entered a contest, won it and that led to gigs and people started to come and see me perform." She says all this with an air of incredulity, but adds that was the moment when she realized that she could potentially make a living out of music. Citrin says she sees no inherent contradictions in utilizing both her serious and funny sides when it comes to her music. "I get bored doing the same thing all the time," she says. "I appreciate diversity." Which is why the fact that she currently has a trance song called "Turn it On" climbing the charts in Europe shouldn't come as a surprise. "I'm a goofball and a serious person," she says. "I'm logic-based, but my idol growing up was Carol Burnett." It's also why she's happy that her music can't be pigeonholed. She cites her influences as Israeli folk, The Indigo Girls, Joni Mitchell and classic rock, particularly Queen. Even the dreadlocks reflect her quirky, offbeat personality. "Actually, I was just tired of my curly hair," she confesses. "My hair and I didn't have a good relationship, we didn't accept one another. "Anyway," she adds, "I enjoy being artistic about my hair." After "10 years of traveling and making phone calls," Citrin is now both comfortable and prepared for what will come next. "I want to be a positive Jewish female role model and find a way to make Jewish wisdom accessible to everyone through my music," she says. Indeed, she is currently working on a song entitled "Im Lo Achshav, Az Matai?" (Rabbi Hillel's words "If not now, then when?). "There's a lot of Jewish wisdom and tolerance that can be taught," she says. "But you don't have to be Jewish to understand it or learn from it." As she heads back to New York to shop around her album, the future for Citrin looks bright indeed. When asked if she has her sights set on a Grammy some day, Citrin hesitates, then smiles. "I'd certainly welcome it," she says, breaking into one of her trademark open grins. "I mean, I'm not going to say no to a Grammy!" Nonetheless, she adds what she really wants to do "is just write great songs that people can relate to - and hopefully heal people, because I'm not going to be a doctor now." With that, she apologizes that she must leave because she's promised to drop off her friend at the airport and she doesn't want to be late. Because Michelle Citrin, the "lil grrl with the big sound," is also the "lil grrl with the big heart."