Julie Geller took lessons in piano (“terrible”), flute (“horrible”) and voice (“abysmal”) as a kid. But an encounter with a C chord in the 10th grade awakened wider possibilities.
“I didn’t realize that my primary talent was being a songwriter until a friend played the C chord,” says Geller, slightly flushed after dropping her children off at school.
“When he showed me other chords, I could hear the progression of melody and realized I could build different melodies on top. It’s all about the chord structure, and the potential for melody.”
This sudden waterfall of sound and form compelled her to play chords for hours and hours, interspersing some of her own music with familiar tunes — especially “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues.”
Asked to describe how a song materializes, the composer-singer shares one of her pervasive, dazzling smiles.
“The first answer is Hashem,” she says. “It’s not from me. I just have to access it. Where do I find it? Often it’s something I’m thinking about, a theme. Then I look for the words.”
Sometimes she notices specific Hebrew words while davening or studying and sets them to music. People also request her to pen songs for a friend or special occasion.
“But what really grabs me is an idea. I’m always working on melodies, so I think of it as a shidduch between the two,” Geller laughs.
“I spend a great deal of time on my music. I have set hours. It’s not like I’m waiting for inspiration. I always have my iPhone with me so I can record a snippet and come back to it and see if it works.”
Compositions that coalesce quickly are usually the best ones. “It’s as if they’re handed to me as a gift.”
Geller says it’s not uncommon for a few weeks to pass without writing anything. “But I always put in the time, with no expectation of results.”
A self-taught guitarist, she picked up the instrument because no one would perform her music.
Now 40, Geller has been writing, singing, strumming and performing for audiences of all affiliations for more than 15 years. In 2003, she recorded her first CD, “This Road,” followed by four more CDs, singles and numerous videos. She also writes a blog.
Those dismal music lessons aside, Geller has mastered the piano and guitar, and her vocal charms have attracted a national Jewish fan base. But songwriting is the treasured jewel in her crown.
In 2008, Geller founded her own label, Beating Heart Music and Records. “Being on a big label isn’t on my radar,” she says. “That’s not what I’m trying to accomplish.”
Geller and her husband Josh have three children: Ilan, 11, Aria, 7, and Tamar, 3. The very mention of her family evinces an even broader smile.
Dressed in a peasant shirt and jeans, her finger-combed hair framing an unadorned face, she epitomizes the concept of being comfortable in one’s skin.
“Thank you,” she says sincerely. “One of my lyrics is, ‘All I want is peace inside,’ and for many years that was all I wanted.”
The remark prefaces something darker. But it’s not time to go there.
Often compared to Joni Mitchell, who was a powerful secular influence, the Orthodox-raised Geller attributes the undeniable Jewish context of her music to her father Dr. Ivan Geller.
“When I was little, Dad was the chaplain at the Allied Jewish Apartments,” she says. “Every Shabbat we would walk three miles to hear him. I grew up with his davening. It’s in me — as is his faith, and the faith of my mother Barbara.”
Geller developed a strong connection to prayer and liturgy, incorporating them into her musical vision.
After graduating RMHA, she attended Midereshet Lindenbaum in Israel for one year. In 1993 she entered Harvard, where she met Josh the first week of her freshman year.
“No, we didn’t fall in love right away,” she laughs. “We started dating four years later, when we were already good friends.” The couple married in 1999.
Geller gave her first public performance in 1996, “shortly after I learned how to play the guitar. I played background music at a small café at Harvard and invited all my friends, so I wasn’t nervous.
“But when I moved from that venue to an actual stage, I was scared out of my wits.”
She gave a number of “very bad performances” when she was so frightened that her voice trembled and she couldn’t play the guitar because her hands shook uncontrollably.
“Eventually I got over it. The urge to write and share my music was stronger than the tons and tons of fear I felt over the years. You experience a lot of failure in this career.”
After graduating Harvard with a BA in visual and environmental studies, Geller went to the New England Conservatory of Music.
“I originally wanted to learn jazz piano and studied with Hankus Netsky, who was my first mentor.
“One day he gave me a Shlomo Carlebach song and we started talking about Jewish music. I decided to stick with that.”
Geller composed constantly but didn’t think of translating talent into a career. She had Josh, her son and a stream of ideas begging for melodies.
Then the unexpected brought her to a standstill.
Although she would never be the same, the songwriter emerged with the desire to inspire the world “one song at a time.”
In 2005, when Geller was 31, she gave birth to a stillborn child at 20 weeks. “I Miss You” (A Song About Prenatal Loss/Perinatal Loss ) is an intimate ode to grief and renewal.
When she speaks of her loss, that perpetual smile softens under brief shadows. Pauses leave slight gaps in the conversation. It’s painful.
“We marked the end of the shloshim on the fast of Tisha b’Av,” Geller says. “We broke the fast with friends and family.”
Watch her perform “I Miss You” on YouTube or in person, however, and strength defines the music. That’s the lesson learned once grief bows to hope.
Geller refers to her two-year withdrawal as a hiatus. She had to dig deep and face her fear of playing in public and musical self-doubts. “I had to figure out so many things in my life, but performing was a huge part of it,” she says.
“The main thing I learned was that it couldn’t be about me. It has to be about the audience. The stress came from wanting everyone to admire me and think I was terrific. I realized I had to give something to the audience.
“Suddenly all the stress blew away. I just have to be myself and give what I can give — no more or less than that.”
Most importantly, she wanted her baby’s death to inspire others, almost like a call to action. Nothing is beyond our grasp — but Geller knew it had to start with her.
“I translated this into working on becoming a better person, which entailed getting rid of the blocks that were stopping me from contributing to the world.”
Ultimately, Geller realized that her urge to write and share music could overpower paralysis. The seesaw tipped toward a position of resolute courage —“until performing was fun and I could ride the failures.
“I am G-d’s servant,” she says (and sings in “Ana Avda”). “We are all here to serve each other and G-d. Whatever we do can be of service, whether it’s a career or hobby.”
Another aspect of the hiatus was her focus on uplifting the most troubled soul. “It’s not that everything I do is happy,” she concedes. “ ‘I Miss You’ is very sad. But I am dedicated to helping others through my music.
“It’s about the struggle to stay positive in a world that is so troubled; acknowledging how difficult it is to be alive, but still trying our best to be good people.”
Grief is a tough yet extraordinary teacher who never takes a sick day. But the fears and lack of confidence are vanquished.
Performance is a source of pure joy for Geller, who also teaches classes in overcoming adversity and extends compassion to friend and stranger alike. And don’t forget the smile. It’s an elixir in its own right.
“Elokia,” “I Believe in Miracles,” Shabbat prayers, Chanukah melodies and the Colorado-themed “I’m Camping Out at Trader Joe’s” represent a mere sampling of her expanding repertoire. Her beat can make you sway and bounce. Emotive piano chords can elicit tears.
The magic of Geller’s work is that her music forms a cohesive unit of human experience, although tapping toes outnumber wet eyes.
Geller, whose roots are Orthodox, and Josh, who is Conservative, “respect tradition, value a Shabbat-observant community and attend the DAT Minyan and the progressive-leaning Na’aleh Minyan,
“We’re all over the place,” she says.
Perhaps that’s why Geller appeals to audiences composed of women wearing sheitels, liberal communities, for the children and the elderly. “And I value them all,” she says.
“I have all sorts of sensibilities, which is why I fit in everywhere.”
She loves Matisyahu, Yonatan Razel, Eitan Katz and Shlomo Carlebach, as well as Joni Mitchell, Jack Johnson, Paul Simon and Woody Guthrie. Geller is an eclectic woman with the power of faith in her voice.
What if she suddenly lost that voice and the ability to write music?
“I think that’s why I do so much, because I never know how long it’s going to last,” Geller says without skipping a note. “Everything can be taken away, which is why I try to be so grateful for what I have and use it and appreciate it.”
She qualifies that this is not a depressive perspective.
“It’s realistic,” Geller says. “We know that the one constant in life is change. We can’t count on status, stature, money or good health. Maybe people will stop caring about my music,” she shrugs slightly. “I can’t count on any of these things. It’s just what it is.”
Geller has been told that she is blessed, that her talent is a gift from G-d.
She shakes her head.
“What we all have is a gift from G-d,” Geller says. “My hope is that we discover our gifts — every single one of us.”
Andrea Jacobs may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News