Philadelphia songwriter Avi Wisnia is a force to be reckoned with. ‘Catching Leaves,’ his first full-length album in more than a decade, was written following the passing of his brother, who first introduced him to the joy of music, and grandfather, a singer and Holocaust survivor who helped him rediscover its communal power. Wisnia writes with a gentle touch, reflecting on love and loss as he crafts a tender ode to living in the moment, to surrendering to forces beyond our control and finding peace in growth, change, and acceptance. The arrangements are similarly honest and intimate, mixing hints of jazz, roots, and the Great American Songbook together into an organic swirl that’s at once beautiful and bittersweet.
We spoke with Wisnia about his new album, how he feels music and the music industry have changed since his last release, and how his Grandfather and his Jewish heritage have informed his songwriting. Read on below, and be sure to keep an eye on this Artist to Watch this year!
Avi, it’s been more than ten years since your last release. How have you seen the music industry change over the last decade?
There has been such a shift in how music is delivered and consumed. We’re all feeding off the Cloud - instead of owning music, we subscribe to it. I’m a bit old-school in that I still like to hold something tangible from an artist in my hands, I still like having albums at home. I even have a tape deck in my car, so I can still listen to all those cassette mixtapes I made in middle school. But I’ve adapted and I will tell you that those mixtapes I made years ago translate really well into streaming playlists. It has been interesting to see the way listening to music has gotten splintered and segmented, but as an artist there’s also more avenues now to get your music heard and to find your audience. As long as it’s more and more possible for me to connect with my audience, I’m glad about that.
How have you and your music changed over the past decade?
I have become more excited about living in a space between genres and exploring the qualities that make a song timeless. I’ve always liked blending moods and rhythms, and straddling the lines between jazz and pop, and there’s quite a bit of that on this new album. I have also become a lot more confident, as a person and as an artist. I lost a lot of people close to me over the past few years and it has really made me evaluate my place in the world. We can get really lost in grief and sadness, but on the other side of that is a new appreciation for who you are and what you have. All of this experience has made me want to dive deeper and get even more vulnerable in my songs. It has taught me how to better express myself.
We were fascinated to hear about the relationship with your grandfather. Tell us about how he influenced you as a songwriter and an artist? How did touring with him reawaken you to the power of music?
My grandfather was a singer and Holocaust survivor, and part of how he survived in the Nazi concentration camp was by singing. So I learned from him the importance that one voice can have, and how powerful music can be. Our musical styles were so completely different, but being able to collaborate with him and perform with him also taught me how music can bring you close to someone, and help you connect with someone in a way that can’t be articulated. I also witnessed the impact that his powerful voice had on every audience we interacted with. Music has the ability to transcend language and all these other differences and cultural barriers, and it allows us to see the humanity in each other. Even now that my grandfather is gone, having passed away just a few months ago, I will always take that lesson with me - how music keeps us all connected.
How has your Jewish heritage and your father and grandfather’s roles in the temple influenced you as an artist?
There is a big emphasis on community in the temple. And growing up, I was drawn to the way the community came together around music, celebrating with music, telling our stories through music. My father is a rabbi and my grandfather was a cantor, so from a young age I saw them regularly standing in front of large congregations with such command and presence, but in a way that they were helping facilitate a meaningful communal experience. I think that contributed to me feeling comfortable on stage, and wanting to do that with my music performances - to create a meaningful communal experience.
‘Catching Leaves’ feels like the perfect album title for this time of year. What does fall and the changing of the seasons mean to you? Did you try to capture the feeling of fall in the new material?
I did not set out to make an autumn record, not consciously anyway, but when I stepped back after the recording process and considered the way it felt and sounded, it made sense. There’s a lot of natural imagery in the lyrics and even the arrangements are kind of sparse but also intimate. The place where I wrote many of the songs on the album was a local park in Philadelphia with this gorgeous mural, which I later found out is called Autumn Revisited - and it became the cover image of the album. It just all came together. Autumn makes me think about change and acceptance; the season signals transition like the subtly changing colors of the leaves. The themes of this album have to do with finding your place in the world and dealing with the inevitable passage of time that ushers us along. There’s a beautiful melancholy to the season, and that’s the space where this album lives.
There’s such a range of sounds on the album. Was that intentional?
Absolutely. i did not approach the album with one sound in mind, I just wanted to service each song, and that meant figuring out what was the best arrangement for each emotion, or what was going to be the sonic backdrop to tell each story. Whether it was a buoyant pop sound, or sweet and tender Americana, or a slow-burn kind of jazz, i didn’t want to limit myself to where each song would live. And when you step back, it all hangs together. Each song takes you someplace new, but they’re all orbiting in the same universe. I also like to bring something different and unexpected with each track, so as you listen through you don’t know what’s going to come next.
You are based in Philadelphia. How has the city and it’s music scene influenced you?
This album is very much a product of where I live. There’s such a great sense of community and camaraderie in the Philly music scene, especially among the independent songwriters that call Philly home. Many of the songs on the album were refined with the help of the Philly Songwriters Circle, a music collective I started several years ago in my living room. We now have hundreds of members from all over the area and we still meet regularly to workshop new works for each other. The artwork of the album also represents the city, portraits taken in different locations around Philadelphia. It’s a colorful city, and it all seeps into the album in lots of different ways.
What’s coming up for you next year?
I’m excited to put these new songs out in the world and I plan to travel and tour more in 2022. One of the best parts of being a performing artist is getting to visit different cities and meet new people and eat all the food. Because of the pandemic, I haven’t gone much of anywhere in quite a while, and most of my concerts have been live-streams from home. I’m looking forward to getting on stage again. I can’t wait to bring my music to the people. Tell me where you are, I’ll be there.