Top US songwriter tunes up for Israel's 60th anniversary

Lawrence Dermer set release new CD titled Israel@60 - We Are Strong.

thrid house rising cd (photo credit: Courtesy)
thrid house rising cd
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dressed in baseball cap and T-shirt, Lawrence Dermer is huddled over a mixing board at Jerusalem's Avi Yaffa studios along with veteran Israeli singer Shlomo Gronich. It's a familiar position for the 46-year-old, Florida-based Dermer, one of America's most successful songwriters and producers. But instead of working on one of his Latin-pop mélanges for Gloria Estefan, Jennifer Lopez or Madonna that have won him Grammy nominations and Gold records, Dermer is arranging the verses for a song that's part of his new CD, Israel@60 - We Are Strong. Due to be released in time for the state's 60th birthday celebrations next month, Israel@60 consists of songs Dermer co-wrote with his BMI award-winning songwriter wife, Robin, and features a collaboration with Gronich, as well as the voices of various groups of Israeli youth whom the Dermers recorded at sites throughout the country on a recent 10-day visit. The finished CD, supported by the Jewish Agency, Israir Airlines and the Daniel Hotels, will be available on iTunes and Amazon, with proceeds earmarked for several Israeli charities. Today, Dermer and Gronich are working out the vocal arrangements for "See Our Voice," a song they composed together, while Robin is ensconced in a side room on her laptop, trying to write last-minute lyrics for another verse for the song. Dermer moves into the soundproof recording booth and lays down a "scratch vocal," meant to be a guide for harmonies and counter vocals, but he gives such a powerful performance on the bubbly, uplifting tune that he threatens to blow the windows out of the room. Gronich barely controls himself by the mixing board, dancing in his seat and adding improvised harmonies to the vocal melody coming through the speakers. "That was great, Lawrence... Do you think I should come in here, and do this line in Hebrew?" asks Gronich when Dermer steps out of the booth, and the two go back to scan the lyric sheet. All the while, every move is being documented by a videographer and still-photographer brought over by the Dermers from Florida for a DVD that will be released on an enhanced CD. "The whole project began when I woke up one morning in December and had this sudden inspiration," explained Robin, as the Dermers took a half-hour break from the recording process. "I felt I wanted to write something to enable children of all backgrounds, regardless of where they're from, to celebrate Israel. Lawrence said, 'What a great idea - Israel is going to be 60, let's write something.' He sat at the piano for an hour, and out came 'We Are Strong,' and I wrote the lyrics just as quickly." The Dermers had the song, and knew they wanted to record it with Israeli children, but they didn't know how to go about it. They turned to a friend, who contacted a Jewish Agency official, who fell in love with the project and pledged his cooperation. "It snowballed from there - it went from one song to now a whole commemorative CD," Robin said, adding that the goal of the record was to raise awareness of and create a positive opinion of Israel. With their pop sensibilities, dancing beats and studio sheen, the songs possess a radio friendliness that Lawrence also sees as meant for another natural goal - airplay. "The songs aren't esoteric, they're accessible to all ages and walks of life," he said. And he should know. For the last three decades, Dermer has written and produced records for a who's who of pop royalty, including Estefan, Lopez, Madonna, Lenny Kravitz and Barry Manilow, as well as producing two "pre-wardrobe malfunction" Super Bowl halftime shows. "I began playing piano at six and joined my first garage band at 11," he recalled. "For me, there was no distinction between a hobby and a career. It was always so much part of me. It was never a designation between a hobby and career - I did it for love. Then when I found out you could make money from it, it just made life so much easier." Dermer's big break was meeting Estefan and her husband, Emilio, when they were still struggling musicians, performing at weddings and bar mitzvas in the early 1980s. Dermer, who was working as a session musician in Miami, played them some of his compositions, and had an integral role on the Miami Sound Machine CDs that launched Estefan's success. "That marriage of the roots of Cuban music and my American pop sensibilities was very successful. Those hits by Gloria opened a lot of doors for me, and I was able to approach other artists," he said. Dermer's been in demand ever since, with Robin easing in over the years to take over writing the lyrics to his infectious melodies. "Music flows out of me naturally, while lyrics are very labor intensive for me, but Robin's words always echo my sentiment. So I can come up with some abstract music, and she'll come up with beautiful lyrics - exactly what I wanted to say, except I can't say it as well," he said. While Dermer's Orthodox father was involved with smuggling weapons from New York to the Irgun during the British Mandate and Robin spent a high school semester in Hod Hasharon, the Jewish/Israeli content of their songs had remained dormant throughout their songwriting career. It was awakened by the rabbi of their congregation in Ft. Meyers, Florida. "We had just returned from our first trip together as a family to Israel in 2006, and our rabbi who knew we were a musical family asked Lawrence to perform at a fund-raiser café night," said Robin. "But we realized we didn't have any Jewish-themed songs." They ended up writing and performing a batch of songs with names like "Neshama," "Souls Live On" and "The Maker" along with their musically inclined teenage sons, Jaxson, 18, and Harrison, 16 - a project that was so well received that the family decided to develop it into Dermer's first solo album, Third House Rising, which was released last year. "We went home and looked at each other and said, we have the talent and the capability and the home recording studio. Let's take this to the next level and let's make a project that's all of our musical styles - Hispanic, American, with Jewish values and roots," said Lawrence, adding with a laugh, "We're the new Partridge Family." That change in the mindset of their songwriting created the atmosphere and inspiration to enable We Are Strong to get off the ground, the Dermers agreed. And the serendipitous manner in which they found things falling into place leads them to believe they're on the right path - like meeting up with Gronich. "We had a friend with many friends in Israel over for Shabbat dinner and played him 'We Are Strong' right after we wrote it, and he said, 'Do you know Shlomo Gronich? He has to be on this song,'" recalled Robin. "And right then and there, he went on the Internet, we listened to his music and he got us his phone number." Gronich, who likewise had never heard of Dermer, was told by his manager that "someone big" from the US had called and was interested in working with him. "First thing I did was look him up on Google, and I was very impressed. And then three weeks ago, we met for the first time, and we had this special connection - we're so much alike," Gronich said. "We sat at my piano and we wrote 'See Our Voice' in a matter of minutes. The whole project is touching my heart, the combination of children, music, and Israel at 60." The day prior to the recording session with Gronich, the Dermers traveled to an absorption center in Mevaseret Zion and recorded young Ethiopian olim for the chorus of "We Are Strong," an exercise they had carried out earlier in the week at such diverse locations as Sderot and Masada. "All the kids were fantastic," said Robin. "For children who don't speak English, they learned so fast." "It's funny, but the journey we've taken since we talked about the song in our living room in December and coming up with one song to where we are today is just incredible. There's something divine about it. Everything we've needed to go on has shown up, as if on schedule, from Shlomo, to the children, to the Jewish Agency. I feel like we're on a mission." With the countdown for the mission resuming, Lawrence and Gronich return to the recording session, and Robin goes goes back to her laptop to finish the last verse of "See Our Voice." As an observer leaves, the notion of hearing it and "We Are Strong" on the radio next month suddenly doesn't seem to be so far-fetched.