"I always had a bad association with the guitar and guys with long hair and leather pants," says musician Noah Lubin. "I actually felt slightly embarrassed when I would walk around with a guitar (and I still do some days) because I feel like some 80's rocker. Damn those associations!"
Somehow Lubin has gotten over his fear of becoming a C.C.Deville clone for the most part and in doing so has become something that eluded many of the 80's shredders: a guitarist who can play authentic Delta blues before surging into awe-inspiring flamenco runs all within a unique style that emphasizes soul and phrasing over technical prowess.
Tall with tight curls and an ever-present hat, Lubin resembles a serious puppet in a Jim Henson production. He sticks out like laughter at a crime scene. He dresses in attire that knows no fashion sense, all dusty sweaters and shoes whose maker no one can track down. The musician looks like he could have been standing alongside Dylan on the cover of John Wesley Harding. Yet Lubin is a gentle giant and with his beloved classical guitar in his hands, one can sense the true love, the kind that is deep in the marrow, which he has for music, art and life.
The singer/songwriter has released a debut album, "Leaving Egypt" that features all the hallmarks of his natural style from penetrating bluesy licks that resonate with authority to sweet and sensitive runs that incorporate flashes of jazz, flamenco and rock in a stew that leaves the listener with ears wide open. The ethereal tomb that is "Leaving Egypt" is a first-class debut from an artist who seeks purity in his vision above all else. How Lubin arrived at this point is a long twisted tale that involves frequent flyer miles akin to a corporate CEO, a true nomadic existence in this ever-social networked world and a desire to do things his way regardless of commercial appeal and suit and tie record industry politics. Oh, he also sings about half his songs in Hebrew, but we will get to that in a bit.
First let's go back to where it all started before the travels across the world to follow his muse threaded the past to the present and future. Let's return to Roger Park, a neighborhood on the northern tip of Chicago where Noah Lubin started his musical journey.
"One of our neighbors would tear her hair out when Noah started playing," Zoe Lubin, Noah's twin sister who lives in Panama recalls. "But within two months she was astonished at how good he got."
"I started playing guitar when I was 17," Lubin says. But he wasn't interested in thrashing out power chords or solos that sounded like bees on speed. "I would seek tips, lessons, from whoever I came across. I once saw some fancy old classical guitarist with what looked like two bodyguards come in and play at a guitar shop. I feel out of my chair. I think it was Segovia resurrected from the grave with two Spanish angels escorting him. I had never really heard classical guitar before. I don't think most people have. It's not really on the radio and those recluses never rock out on some park bench like other players so you can't get a glimpse."
The 32 year-old musician prefers to play without a pick like many of his classical and flamenco influences but the choice was based on dealing with his first heartbreak over a failed relationship. "I needed to fill the void. I felt a need to pluck and pull, and strum, and hug something...and for it to answer back. I felt intuitively that I needed to replace my girlfriend with a guitar."
As he grew up in Rogers Park, Noah showed that he was a bit different than the other kids his age. Zoe's fondest memory of her brother while growing up is when he found a rooster wandering around Indian Boundary Park near their home and rescued it. "The rooster somehow escaped from the butcher shops on Devon Avenue where it was most likely going to be slaughtered," says Zoe. "Noah took it in and the rooster would sit on top of Salsa (Lubin's dog) and watch intently as he would play guitar for hours on end. Another of my favorite memories of him growing up is when he was given $2 to drink an entire bottle of Tabasco sauce in summer camp."
Lubin's father, Gene, played a vital role in the developing musician. "My father had a big record collection. He would play Zeppelin, Captain Beefheart, some Blues records. He did some recordings himself in the 60's as a drummer and also some 70's rock in which he sang. We loved to hear it out loud. "That's Dad!". I think there was much influence from all this, and especially the encouragement to explore and pursue music and art."
After graduating college with a degree in philosophy (so he could "philosophize while working at Burger King" as Lubin so eloquently put it), Lubin accompanied his brother Zack, a DJ, to Spain where Zack was set to play some gigs. It was in Spain where Lubin became enthralled with flamenco music. "I loved it. I decided to save up and return myself to study flamenco guitar. Like gospel, and blues, I feel in love with flamenco music. It was also roots, gospel. The energy and rawness fed me. The guitarists have 17 tentacles. And who can argue with that... "
While most musicians want to follow in the stomp box footprints of ax slingers like Jimmy Page and Kurt Cobain, Lubin bypassed much of that in favor of flamenco, classical, soul and blues. When asked why he found Mississippi John Hurt more thrilling than Slash, Lubin explains that "as cliché as it sounds, this music is pure to me. It's raw, unfiltered and primarily noncommercial. It's more concerned with being a vehicle for the human spirit. I guess all music becomes this in some way or another, in which case, this side of that spirit moves me. It's more ancient, primordial at times. The Lomax field recordings did this to me especially."
After spending months in Spain taking in the culture and immersing himself in flamenco guitar, Lubin decided it was time for a change and a new location. "One thing about Noah, he just goes," says longtime friend Natalie Stopka. "He's this big intimidating looking dude, but then you hear him laugh, see him smile and he is a sweetheart. But he is always off and running somewhere. The guy gets around more than a high-class escort."
Lubin's next stop on his musical journey without as much as a round-trip ticket or a place to rest his head was Israel.
But why schlep all the way to Israel?
"I want to be on the front lines. I hate the bleachers. I also carry religious and cultural sentiments as well. It's a longing to be part of a bigger story. Whether I'm right or I'm wrong in my philosophies, I can at least say that I was part of a bigger story, fact or fiction. Israel is part of the story I jumped into."
It was his time spent in Israel where Lubin began writing songs in Hebrew, many of which found their place on "Leaving Egypt". Religion plays a prominent role in Lubin's life and music. "The truth is," Lubin says, "in my strange mind's eye, I see myself as a gospel singer. Gospel to me means roots, even if it's a peasant from the Italian mountains. Bob Dylan is this as well. The things we love and live amongst become our religion and in song and story they become our gospel. Judaism was something I love, a story I chose."
Jumping into that story plays a major role in Lubin's music. As stated earlier he began singing in Hebrew which is not an easy sell when it comes to mainstream commercial appeal. So has singing in Hebrew opened or closed doors for the musician?
"It's left me in the hallways a little to be honest. It's too different to be accepted in the Jewish or world music scene, and the other side sees it as religious nonsense. I understand both sides. But I chose to record what was true and interesting to me at the time. I'm not a businessman. I don't care about marketing or audience. Three fans are as good as a thousand. Well... unless they're paying for the tickets."
Singing in Hebrew has helped a bit though. While returning to Israel on holiday, Lubin got became friends with Matisyahu. "He was talking with an acquaintance of mine, Ronny Vance, who was a top guy at Interscope and Geffen. I insisted on being introduced. Ronny urged me not to be too much of a groupie, but introduced me. I then insisted Ronny pass on my album (Leaving Egypt) to Matis. He did. Matisyahu liked my music enough to take the initiative to set up a meeting between me and some people at Sony. The meeting was about 10 minutes. A quick chat and a song in front of 3-4 people. The head said good job and gave me his card. He said to contact him when I'm doing a show in NY and he would send someone out to see me perform. That's where I left off. We'll see what happens, though perhaps I'll just remain someone who was almost famous."
Famous, almost famous or never to be heard from again, the recently married musician has carved his own unique musical vision. If it is true that we are nothing more than our experiences, then Lubin has a lifetime of music to create and share just based on his formative years. His journey has taken him from Chicago to Spain to Israel and many points in between and beyond. In a world that continually becomes more singular and stiff, Lubin is a troubadour traveling the land using passion and music as his compass.
"He is the most unpredictable, indecisive larger than life Jew I have ever come across," explains Ernst Butiu, another longtime friend of Lubin. "He won't compromise his artistic output if it means it is not perfect in his eyes, ears, mouth or hand."
When asked what he would choose as his last meal, last song to listen to and last piece of art to view if he was waiting to die in the electric chair, Lubin's responses illustrate the influences that make up the seasoned stew that is his art.
"Indian buffet, Desolation Row by Bob Dylan and Picasso's Guernica."
Eclectic, passionate, beautiful and ballsy, or in other words, quintessential Noah Lubin.
Story by Eric Kaplan