Israel Nebeker is a songwriter from the Oregon Coast. His intricate folk-driven songs create an intimate space akin to the rainy, wild, sandy landscapes of his home and to the people whose stories belong to it. Nebeker’s songs have achieved connection to a worldwide audience through his singing of the profoundly personal.
His greatest successes have come through his role as songwriter/band leader/producer of Blind Pilot. His strong lyricism and colorful melodies have been at the center of the critically acclaimed band and the albums they have recorded. He has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition, World Cafe, Late Night with David Letterman, and The Ellen Degeneres Show.
As well as his own albums, Nebeker has recorded songs for numerous tribute compilations of pop/folk singers such as Townes Van Zandt, John Denver, and Jackson Browne, the most recent being a collaboration with Don Henley of The Eagles. Currently he and his band are recording their fourth album.
We were fortunate to catch up with Israel and the band before they performed to a packed house at Portland’s prestigious Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, where the band played with the backing of the Oregon Symphony. In the video Israel is playing the new Oregon Concertina E Myrtlewood - Myrtlewood guitar.
Breedlove: Let’s go back to the early days. When did you start playing guitar?
Israel: I took piano lessons, that was my first instrument. I begged my parents to get me piano lessons, and then after some years, I begged them to let me quit. And my mom was said, "Only if you pick up another instrument." The next instrument was guitar, and I got really lucky with my first guitar teacher. He's a guy from Liverpool, and his style was to have his students bring in a mix CD of favorite music. Then, learn a song.
I always loved music from an early age and piano was great but once I could play all the songs that I was listening to on the radio and back home, that blew my mind.
Breedlove: Do you remember a couple of the songs that were on the original mixtape?
Israel: Totally. Some Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Jimi Hendrix. The first song we did was “Hey Joe.”
Breedlove: Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, did the grunge scene and that sound have a lot of influence on you as a musician?
Israel: I think so, yeah. That was all I was listening to in grade school and middle school ... well, not all. I was pretty into hip-hop and grunge, then went into classic rock. The Grateful Dead was my first concert, when Jerry Garcia was still alive, and that changed my thoughts of what music can be and what it can do.
Breedlove: How did the band form and how did you guys get to where you are today?
Israel: I met Ryan, our drummer at University of Oregon. I was going to school for music. Some years later, after school in Portland, we met up, and we were both playing in other projects around town. Blind Pilot was meant to be a summer project. We both wanted to do a bike trip from Canada to Mexico. Neither of us had saved up enough money to do it. He and I had busked on the street in England before on a different trip, so we were like, "Well, we could take a little-modified drum kit and a guitar, and we could just see how far south we can get." That was the beginning of Blind Pilot. We really liked what was happening with the music, and we started to invite in the rest of this band on recording our first album.
Kati worked at a coffee shop with Ryan. Ian was a friend of the guy recording, and Dave too. Luke, I knew from Astoria and I saw him at a bus stop. I ran into him randomly, and he had his bass on his back. I was like, "We're looking for a bass player. I didn't know you played bass!"
Breedlove: What's it like playing in this kind of venue, with all these different instruments behind you. What does it feel like?
Israel: It's hard to describe the feeling of playing with this many people. There are all these parts and all these textures. To know the sounds are coming from all these individual masters at their instruments... I have a hard time not stopping playing and turning around, and just listening to them. Gotta remind myself, "Keep playing." It's wonderful. This is the second time we've played here and it's pretty great.
Breedlove: What's next?
Israel: This show is kind of like the very end of this album's cycle (And Then Like Lions). We've toured on it for about a year and a half. I'm writing new songs, and we'll go back in the studio soon whenever the writing is done. It's back to hibernation, writing mode.
Breedlove: What does your writing process look like? Hibernating, do you kind of retreat and come back with new songs?
Israel: Writing ... I've never found an exact process that works for me. Every time that I think, "Oh this is great. I know exactly what to do. Now I can write songs forever." Then it gets stale, or something changes and I have to learn a different way, which I think is pretty common. It's always different. I'll constantly be hitting walls and getting frozen on where a song needs to go. What I've been into lately is giving myself assignments. I'm gonna set a timer for 45 minutes and finish it. It's gonna be bad, but then I can come back later and edit.
I'll get really excited about a song, and I'll be writing on it, and I'll get really in it... and then I'll start imagining, "this is gonna sound really great with the rest of the band." Or, "Imagine how this might communicate on a stage or how this'll be on an album." I get way too far ahead of myself. Then I have to be like, "Okay, I'm gonna take a break. Go for a hike and then come back to it when I'm present in it."
Breedlove: A lot of musicians talk about finding their sound or their voice. Do you remember when you found your voice?
Israel: I remember the first time I wrote a song, and it was kind of a strange experience. I was just messing around and noodling on the guitar and humming along. I had a scratch pad next to me and was writing down some words, and then I realized I had kind of written a song. I woke up to that, in a way. I was like, "Did I just write a song? Is that okay? Can I do that? Am I allowed?" I think people have their own sound that they come with. I can try to make songs in other people's styles, which is fun but it usually just ends up sounding like me.