The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has rarely been addressed in American music. But on Ben Fisher’s latest release, the Damien Jurado-produced Does the Land Remember Me?, the Seattle-based folk artist—who spent three years living in Israel—dives headfirst into an entire concept album on the subject, a bloodcurdling and somber meditation that humanizes those on both sides of the divide. Fisher’s metaphorical and literal interpretations are wreathed together in a binding, barbed-wire circle as he tackles a complex and heavy narrative. His skill as a songwriter and storyteller is a big part of what drew the interest of producer Jurado, and it has landed him gigs over the years on bills with groundbreaking artists such as Courtney Marie Andrews, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Animal Collective, The Head and the Heart, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and countless others.
His voice equal parts frayed and sinewy, Fisher spurns complacency with tremendous urgency on Does the Land Remember Me?, his second full-length. He takes great care in his storytelling, especially on standout track “1948,” an evocative duet with Noah Gundersen that features Fisher singing from the perspective of a Jewish child and Gundersen from the perspective of an Arab child at the outset of the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, known by Israelis as the War of Independence and in Palestinian society as the Nakba (catastrophe). “Are you scared of the men, Papa / They don’t want us here / Are you scared of the men, Papa / They’ve been here for years / Are you scared all of this will go,” Fisher sings over a plaintive fingerpicked guitar.
Fisher acts primarily as the record’s narrator, drawing from the three years he spent living in “No Man’s Land,” smack between predominantly Arab East and predominantly Jewish West Jerusalem. But the roots of the album date back to a 2014 excursion to Tokyo. It was there that Does the Land Remember Me?’s opening track “The Shell Lottery”—a musical history lesson on the 1909 founding of Tel Aviv—hit Fisher like a lightning bolt. “I started thinking about the scope of Sufjan Stevens’ records Illinois and Michigan,” he says. “It dawned on me that there was something to this song, and that there could be more.”
Does the Land Remember Me?— scheduled for a September 7 release—is a bleak but honest portrait of the Israeli and Palestinian people, who have been locked in a cycle of violence for the better part of the last century. “One of the biggest issues is that people are no longer interested in what happens there,” Fisher says. “It’s gone on for so long, the peace process is so gridlocked and there have been so many people killed. The world has become numb to it.”
As he searches for the right words, Fisher scours his conscience in search of hope—a hope that people will be moved and inspired to action through the record. “Passivity is much worse than taking a stand, even if I don’t particularly agree with that stand,” he says. “Young Americans, in particular, need to help moderate America’s influence on Israel.”
Born to a bacon-eating Jewish family and eventually majoring in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Washington, Fisher’s sudden obsession with Israel led him to leave his family for the first time, traversing thousands of miles across oceans and time zones. “It got to the point where I was baking pita and reading [Israeli newspaper] Haaretz in the mornings,” he says. “It’s much easier to be obsessed with something when you’re surrounded by it.” Not long after graduating from college, he packed up his entire life and moved to the ancient city, where spent his time bartending, and writing, reporting and traveling for The Jerusalem Post.
Glide is proud to “Brave New World,”(below) one of the few songs drawing on Fisher’s personal experiences, he sings about the foreignness of the Holy City: “Everyone I’ve ever known lives far across a sea / My brave new world can be old and cold but you struck a chord in me.” Fisher brings a purposeful charisma to his thought-provoking lyrics that border anxious vulnerability and sweet idealism. Like Conor Oberst, Fisher doesn’t shy away from political adversity but instead embraces the concealed musical possibilities of a rather unspoken situation.