Jeri Silverman is a South African born singer-songwriter based in New York City. She writes acoustic soul-stirring melodies with a percussive folk pop edge. In 2014 she released her debut EP Leaflike. She has performed live across the US and South Africa and has lent her skills as an actor, voiceover artist and singer to numerous films, documentaries and international commercials. Her forthcoming album is a collection of inspired songs written over the past three years, exploring the interplay between darkness and light.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I honestly didn’t really consider myself an artist. I always was a dancer. I always did school plays and that kind of stuff but I also did well at maths and science. When I finished school, I got a degree at UCT and had the mentality of, “Get a degree and then you can do whatever you want.” I got a B.Com. I kind of realized that maybe a part of me was doing it because I wanted to prove that I was intelligent and could use my brain in that way. After that I was like, “Oh maybe I’ll go study acting in New York.” I always loved to act. I don’t know initially if there was a specific person or moment that isn’t coming to mind. I started to follow something that was other than what I knew or what I thought. I had no idea of what I really wanted to do. It wasn’t a clear path for me. I just kind of followed some impulse of, “It’s time to get out of Cape Town.” I was in New York for a week and just was like, “I have to be here.”
You studied at the Atlantic Acting School in New York where the training is renowned for being extremely intense. How did you navigate that program?
I really enjoyed school from the immersive point of view. Just doing it 24/7, I had never done that. I had been at University working really hard at school. To just be working hard in an artistic way was really cool. It was challenging for me especially [because] they are very rigorous with timing. I think in some ways I felt very constrained but I didn’t actually know any better at the time. I was just like, “Ok. I’m here. I’m going to finish the program.” When I look back now, maybe I would have enjoyed a school that was a bit more out of the box or a little bit more experimental. But at the time, I didn’t really know or realize that I could actually make different choices.
How did your progression into music happen? Were you originally juggling both acting and music?
No. When I came to New York I didn’t play music. I didn’t play an instrument or sing and I didn’t consider myself a singer. It really was while I was at Atlantic. I wasn’t sleeping well. I sort of had about seven years where I wasn’t sleeping at all. I think I was just going crazy, as one does when you move to a big city. I started writing songs in my head. It is just something that started happening. I started recording voice memos and writing things down and then I had this thought of, “Maybe I should learn guitar?” I bought a guitar and had a teacher for a couple of months who taught me basic cords and then I just started writing. At night when I wasn’t sleeping, I would just write stuff. That’s kind of how it happened. I don’t know if it would ever have happened if I hadn’t moved to New York.
How do you feel your acting training has lent itself to your music?
I think it’s been helpful. I was very uncomfortable being on stage as a musician but I think having some of the skills of being a dancer and being on stage naturally lend themselves. And doing a lot of vocal freeing exercises and just getting used to doing that and performing. I think there is a kind of naturalness in performing a song even though I don’t analyze myself or the songs that I perform, like we would do at school. I intentionally don’t do that. I definitely think it’s been helpful.
Do you ever struggle with confidence issues because it’s something so new?
I did for a long time. In Cape Town, the singing thing started because I got cast as Dorothy in The Wiz in school.
The Wizard of Oz or The Wiz?
The Wiz! But we didn’t know. I had no idea. I was 17 and that’s when I started having singing lessons and thinking, “Maybe I can sing.” I was always scared of my voice. I would always sing along to the radio but I was always very self-conscious. It took about 10 years of on-and-off voice lessons and singing, to actually sing in public. I would actually lose my voice if I was singing in front of my family. While I was nervous, my voice would just completely go. It’s been a very long, very slow process. I also had all of these ideas of what a musician is. I wished I played guitar since I was eight years old and then started again when I was in my 20’s. I think I had all these thoughts of feeling less than. I didn’t know any music theory or any of that stuff. There was a lot of doubt which got in the way from just enjoying.
What is a typical day like for you?
I have many jobs as well, most artists in New York have. I try to make time every day. My motto at the moment is “Less is more.” If I can do a 10 minute vocal warmup and 15 minutes on the guitar, that’s good. It’s not obviously amazing but I have a few other jobs. I work for a startup company. I work for myself as a face painter on the weekends. I do voiceover work and the occasional acting. It’s been quite challenging to fit in. Ideally I’d love to have an hour in the morning where I just write and another hour where I have a vocal warmup and that kind of thing but it’s just not always possible because it’s life. I make time for it. I was at work the other day. We have a big communal kitchen and there was a fan that was very noisy. I had a show the next day and I knew I wasn’t going to get time to do my voice warmup because I had to go straight into rehearsal. I’m in the kitchen and I put on my headphones and start singing loudly, because I had been working on not holding back when I am singing. When I finished my friend, that I work with, walked in and she was like, “Are you singing?” Apparently they could hear me because the sound was traveling under the door. I got through the whole warmup. That’s kind of how I roll. If I have 15 minutes in the day, I’ll hire a studio or rehearse at work.
What do you feel you, as a South African artist, have to contribute to the artistic landscape in New York?
It’s a really good question but also a hard question too. I think just naturally being from a different country, especially from South Africa, I feel like I do have a different perspective just by virtue of being from somewhere else. I always wish my music was more inherently South Africa. I have a new album coming out which is going to be so different to my first EP that I released. I don’t think my music is necessarily South African but there is a beat, a percussiveness, especially in my new stuff that maybe that comes from my upbringing. It’s nothing that I am consciously doing but I love very rhythmic, very percussive kind of stuff. That will definitely be present in this new album.
How do you feel your sound has evolved during your career?
I think it’s changed a lot. I’d say it’s bolder. When I did the EP, that was my first real experience in a studio and I was very nervous. I had all these habits of really trying to hold back. It was just so ingrained in me. I was holding back all the time, consciously or unconsciously. That is something that I’ve really been working on, finding freedom in how I’m singing. I’m hoping this album is going to be a lot bolder and louder. When I did the EP, I was intimidated in so many ways. That comes out in the music. It is what it is. I don’t think it’s a bad or good thing. I just feel ready for a much bigger sound and something that is really saying and owning, “I am here and I am using my voice.” It has a little bit more rock to it and I’ve been working on simplifying it a little bit. I had these ideas that you needed to be really complicated to be considered a good musician. Simplicity has been a learning curve.
I was wondering if you could quickly touch on your process? How does a song come to fruition?
It’s interesting because I feel like it might be changing. Because I’ve been so focused on this album happening, I haven’t been writing that much in the last few months. Usually it starts with an emotion or words and then I write them down when I’m on the train or when I’m walking. Then I pick up my guitar and maybe play around until I find something that I like playing and then maybe I would pick up those lyrics that I wrote in that book or in my phone. It becomes a bit of a collage. Other times, where it is one experience or one emotion of really feeling something strongly, I have to sit down and write it out. Then the whole song comes together. That doesn’t happen as often. My process is very all over the place. In the past, I was very resistant. I think because my songs were so close to my heart and so close to my neurosis, it was hard for me to take feedback because they were so close and I didn’t know what I was doing. Now, as I’ve been doing it more, it’s easier to take feedback and I am learning that there is a standard way that people write songs and there is a reason for that and to explore what is the strength in that and how can I merge my own exploratory process with what resonates with people. Because ultimately, if you are just writing stuff and people can’t relate or resonate, is that good enough for you? I want people to enjoy my songs but I’ve been very clear that I am not just writing for other people to like my work. That wasn’t how it started. I was very careful to not just take what everyone was saying about, “write a pop song.” I didn’t want to be like that. That wasn’t why I was writing.
Tell us about your decision to go back to studying?
It’s called the Riverside Initiative for the Alexander Technique. It’s a three-year program. I didn’t think I would be going back to school after Atlantic, let alone for three years. That is also what I’ve been doing as well as working and doing music and performing. It’s absolutely changed my life.
What are you looking forward to for the rest of your career?
I am looking forward to going on tour and my first full length album. There are amazing venues in New York that I would love to play. I have my sights set on specific venues that I see myself playing. I’m also looking forward to having a band. I have a couple of people who I am playing with right now but I’d like to keep growing that so we have a full band and we can just jam and have fun together. I’m just excited to get my music out there.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
I’ve been very disconnected from South Africa, physically disconnected. Charlize Theron is amazing. Alice Phoebe Lou is awesome. She’s killing it out there. Theres a lot of great female musicians in South Africa and musicians, not just female. Do you remember Henry Ate? There was cool music. There were these cool places that we would go when we were underage and hear cool music like Just Jinjer.
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