Amid coronavirus, Peter Himmelman presses on with new album

On his new album, the world’s second-best Jewish singer/songwriter finds cracks of light and hope amid the pandemic’s cloud.

PETER HIMMELMAN: ‘I try to be force myself to see the cup half full.’ (photo credit: JIM VASQUEZ)
PETER HIMMELMAN: ‘I try to be force myself to see the cup half full.’
(photo credit: JIM VASQUEZ)
If you find yourself in the middle of worldwide pandemic, it’s always reassuring to have someone like Peter Himmelman along for the ride.
The acclaimed American singer/songwriter, whose literate prose and passionate delivery have received favorable comparisons to heavyweights like Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen and even to his father-in-law Bob Dylan, has dropped a new album – Press On – that manages to provide comfort and solace during unsettling times while at the same time eliciting involuntary hip shaking.
“I try to be force myself to see the cup half full. What the pandemic did for me in a positive sense, and I guess this relates to creativity in general, was it made me uncertain and unsure, and made me step out of the rigid confines of how I act and all the routines I follow,” said the 60-year-old Himmelman this week in a phone conversation from New York City, where he’s been living for the last year, after relocating from California with his wife, Maria.
“In that sense of not having a road map, it’s ideal if you can handle the pressure, because it’s borne a lot of fruit. This unseen bedrock of uncertainty can make you full of anxiety and very tired, but at the same time it can also inspire. That’s the two sides of the coin you have to wrestle with.”
Although it was recorded last year, when the word coronavirus had never been uttered, Press On expertly mines themes such as faith, commitment, perseverance, mortality and life’s paradoxes that Himmelman has explored throughout his illustrious career but that uncannily fit these uncharted times.
With his fervent vocals, guitar and piano fronting a crack band adept at both rootsy blues and stark balladry, the religiously observant Himmelman sparkles on tracks like the stirring, gospel-tinged title track, the accessible first single “This Is How It Ends,” the Bo Diddley-meet-Book of Ruth mashup “Whither You Go” (“I don’t even know if I got the quote right, I just liked the sound of it and it inspired another sound”), and the earnest “A Place in Your Heart” and “This is My Offering,” both of which sound like plaintive prayers.
“It’s hard to say if you’re opening up channels of blessing or anything like that through prayer, but you never know. However, it definitely does sort of put you in a mood where you can keep going,” he said. “Falling into a useless quagmire of stasis is a very damaging quality in a human being. It’s in our nature to keep moving.
“Davening [praying] is something you can do completely by rote, and it still might have some effect. You can be married and do that by rote, or you can be a musician and do that by rote. But even if you find a small moment, just to move the dial incrementally that enables you to develop some cognizance that God is with you, is helpful in very practical ways.”
Due to corona restrictions, Himmelman has been finding himself limited to practicing his Judaism mostly in isolation, which he admitted is a challenge but one that’s relevant whether one considers themselves religious or secular.
“We moved from Santa Monica to New York exactly a year ago in order to be closer to our children who are all out here. And one of the things I wanted to achieve was to be part of a flourishing community,” said Himmelman. “I made a lot of good friends and enjoyed the people I was meeting, but these days I rarely go to a minyan [prayer quorum]... it’s just not comfortable for me. So I mostly daven on my own, which isn’t as good.
“I see people losing their grasp of their emuna [faith] whether they’re religious or not – a term that I find a silly distinction. Everyone is steeped in their own mysteries and mystical nature, if only for the fact we’re asleep a third of our lives and ensconced in the dream world. You can say ‘I’m a practical person’ but in fact, you’re not. Don’t kid yourself. Last night you were flying with seagulls.”
HIMMELMAN HAS done his share of metaphorical and literal flying over the course of his Renaissance Man-like career, including the release some dozen acclaimed albums since 1986, steady touring with shows full of improvisation, humor and spirit, an Emmy Award in 2002 for his song “Best Kind of Answer” in the series Judging Amy, and a Grammy nomination in 2007 for his children’s album My Green Kite.
In addition, since 2011, Himmelman has been presenting a communications and leadership methodology that he developed using songwriting as a framework for major corporations and organizations that was outlined in his 2016 book, Let Me Out: Unlock Your Creative Mind and Bring Your Ideas to Life.
“We’ve been doing a little on Zoom, but that whole project is mostly on hold. With COVID, people are dealing with emergences, and sometimes they think of the work they do with me as ancillary. I happen to think that it’s fundamental,” he said.
“I have a second book I’m really excited about called GLOW – Ignite Your Creativity through Gratitude, Love, Openness and Wonder. It touches on some of the ideas in Let Me Out but goes deeper and is closer to my heart.”
But it’s his music that Himmelman invariably returns to, like oxygen. Even though it was clear there would be no opportunity to tour and perform the new songs on Press On, and the whole “album release” concept has become an anachronism in the download age, he never gave a second thought of holding off sharing his songs with the world. Yet he’s brutally aware that the live music industry that he’s been part of for four decades has undergone a cataclysmic change, just like the record industry experienced a decade ago.
“It’s like when an egg is boiled and the albumen turns white, it changes the cellular structure. It can never go back to the way it was. That’s the way I look at the live performance industry,” he said
“Not playing live and not playing with other musicians has not been a real happy part of my experience during this period. It’s something I would sometimes take for granted. But when’s the next time you’re going to feel comfortable in a sweaty, close-quartered club? Not for a while.”
Himmelman has been performing regular live Facebook performances from his Manhattan studio/bedroom during the pandemic, and will likely do some more now that Press On is available on all the usual streaming and download platforms. But for him, the pinnacle of putting out a new album goes back to making the music in the first place.
“It’s always the case whenever I would release something on Sony or Island Records. There was always this great anticipation, but what I thought would be this crescendo always ended up something far less satisfying than the writing and recording and performing of the songs.
“When I made this record, I understood that as we were laying it down, which we did live – the most exciting way to record – that this was going to be the apex of my joy. Now, it’s just putting it into the world, just like the song says, ‘This is my offering.’ This is what I have this year, the absolute best I could do with the time and resources I had. And I’m very proud of it.
“And I’m already thinking about the next one, because that’s what I do. It’s a really difficult time for musicians, both emotionally and from a livelihood aspect. But I encourage musicians to use this time to deepen their attachment to their craft, learn something new, write new things. It’s a propitious time for that. If you can manage the stress, it could be a rich time.”

Tags music