The freeing sounds of Ruth Dolores Weiss

Whether singing in Hebrew or English, the acclaimed songbird from Ashkelon with a world-wise bluesy style can transform songs by everyone from Billie Holiday to Tom Waits into her own.

Weiss 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Weiss 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
You wouldn’t expect the coastal city of Ashkelon to be a breeding ground for the earthy blues and Thejazz singing and piano playing that Ruth Dolores Weiss provides. But then, Weiss was never your average Ashkelon resident… at least not after her brother gave her a very unique 15th birthday present 17 years ago.
“He bought me the Tom Waits album Bone Machine, and I was totally intrigued by it,” said Weiss, who began playing the piano at the age of eight. “It sounded like nothing I had heard before, and it opened my mind to the possibility of making music that didn’t sound pop or mainstream.”
The influence of Waits weighed so heavily on Weiss that nine years later in 2004, when she recorded her debut album of songs in English called Come See, she sent Waits a copy. However the address proved to be incorrect and the album was returned to her unopened.
But as anyone who has heard the album or its 2008 all-Hebrew follow up Be’Ivrit can attest, Weiss doesn’t need the blessing of Waits or anybody else. Her talent shines through on both records, whether invoking a Mediterranean Billie Holiday on her scintillating original material or creating striking renditions of songs by the likes of Waits, Nick Cave, and an powerfully moving version of Chava Alberstein’s “Mshiri Eretz Ahavti”).
Ahead of the recording of her next album, Weiss and longtime collaborator, Yehu Yaron on double bass, have recruited some top musicians for a series of shows with the goal of fine tuning the material before heading into the studio. After one album in English and one in Hebrew, If I’m Not Free Now will feature all cover versions of some of her favorite songs.
“Since I started performing, I’ve loved playing covers,” said Weiss. “But my feeling about them is that there’s no point in doing it unless you bring something new to the songs, uncover something or show them in a new light.
“Over the years, I’ve gathered a decent number of songs that I thought I covered in that fashion, and I really felt like putting them all together and giving them richer arrangements. Our goal was to make an album but we knew that the songs we were hearing in our heads were being made for live music, and they would need to be played together for a while to enable to have time to mature.
“Every song has a different story behind it,” said Weiss. “Robert Wyatt’s ‘Shipbuilding’ came about because I got requested to do it. A couple of years ago, I was being interviewed by Quami from the show Army Radio show “Hakatzeh,” and he asked me if I would do him a favor and play the song in the studio. I immediately fell in love with it. It was just Yehu and myself and it was really beautiful and sensitive.
“Billie Holiday’s ‘One For My Baby’ was also a song I fell in love with the first time I ever heard it when I was 19. I listened to it a few times a day for the first few months, and it has a sentimental place in my heart.”
SHE’S ALSO back in her sentimental home, Israel, after spending four-and-a-half years living in the US with her husband and two children, where she continued to perform.
“Surprisingly, at first it was easy to make inroads.
We were living in New Jersey, and I found a small place in New York in the Lower East Side that loved my music and I started playing there regularly,” she said.
“Then we moved to Austin, Texas, where I found it harder going. My music wasn’t part of any genre that was popular there. In New York, there’s a place for everything. But in Austin, which is a great place and is rightfully called the live music capital of the US, my music wasn’t close to anything else that was going on.”
Despite her return to Israel last year, Weiss has decided to continue writing the bulk of her material in English – because she find composing in her native tongue to be actually more complex than writing in English.
“I’m really connected to Hebrew and feel an attachment to it as a language, not only the meaning, but the sound and the rhythm,” she said.
“As a result, every time I started composing lyrics in Hebrew, it would take months. I got really obsessed with the idea that every word and sound had to fit perfectly, it was like building a crossword puzzle every time. It was too much of an effort for me.”
“Writing in English, while really being a detachment, is something lighter. It’s not having that feeling of the whole weight of every word ringing a thousand ways in my mind. Writing in English was easier, it had more of a flow, and it was almost fun." Whether it’s in English, Hebrew or just the universal language of music, Ruth Dolores Weiss makes herself clearly understood. Catch Weiss, Yaron and their fivepiece band on Thursday night, July 15, at the Einav Cultural Center in Tel Aviv and on July 24 at the Yellow Submarine in Jerusalem.