Arts & Culture

Formerly Homeless Anti-Folkie Emilia Cataldo Talks About Her New Album

One-woman band Emilia Cataldo’s e-mail signature says "I want to end up happy like everyone else." You have to wonder if it’s biting irony or an honest sentiment—after all, her music is chock full of both. Sincere, sweet, and sugary-voiced, … Read More

By / February 28, 2008

One-woman band Emilia Cataldo’s e-mail signature says "I want to end up happy like everyone else." You have to wonder if it’s biting irony or an honest sentiment—after all, her music is chock full of both. Sincere, sweet, and sugary-voiced, Cataldo (who plays under the stage name Nehedar) is a product of that same New York singer-songwriter scene that produced Regina Spektor. Actually, she’s a byproduct of that scene and the uptown Washington Heights Jewish scene, having gone to Yeshiva University and been embraced by the Mima’amakim crowd of Orthodox experimental poets.

She was forced to drop out when her mother fell ill. In the years since, she’s lived on the street, cared for her teenage sister, and just happened to record like a maniac. After an uneven demo last year, Pick Your Battles (great songs, but the mixing is off), Nehedar returns with the just-released Dreamlike. It’s at once more mature and more playful, with weird folk-to-metal breakdowns that don’t only work but, astonishingly, soar.

What sort of Jew were you raised? What made you end up at Yeshiva University?

My upbringing was shamanistic/atheistic. I ended up at YU because of an experience at Rainbow Gathering after I ran away from home (with some permission)…I have been a poster child of the [religious] kiruv movement. Since then, I’ve felt a tremendous sense of empowerment over my religiosity.

There's been barely any time at all between the release of your first record and this album, and yet there's a world of thematic difference — production values, lyrics, even the genres you sample from. What motivated the switch?

I had a big year after putting out the last album, and I'm addicted to recording. I went right back into the studio after Dreamlike came out. The style change is mostly based on my own ability to play guitar, which I didn't really have when Dreamlike came out. As far as different songs being in different genres, did I mention that my dad plays sax on ”Conspiratorium?” I was looking for a song to include him, so it had to be jazzy.

You've talked about being homeless and still playing concerts and keeping a steady creative output. What's that like? How do you balance the stuff that you need to do for life, and the stuff you need to do for your soul?

When I didn't really live anywhere I used to go to [guitarist] David Kesey’s on Monday nights and we would write new material on the spot. That was worth living for…”Dino” was a product of that kind of thing. As was "Subway Ratt." Otherwise I don't know how creative I really was. Being homeless is really about surviving.

Your parents are both formally trained musicians — your father plays jazz sax, your mother is a classical pianist. Was music a big part of your household? Was there a period when you "broke away" — stopped playing the music they wanted you to, started rocking out?

Music was a huge part of my house growing up. Since my parents were anti-establishment musicians, I think that my breaking out was a brief time between 13 and 16 when my parents didn't know what I was doing. Part of the fun of rebellion in my family was being a self-absorbed teen that didn't realize that their parents were cool.

You sing about some really depressing things, and yet, you never fail to sound chirpy when you're doing it. The first song on the new album springs to mind — that chorus, "I brought you into this world, and I can take you out"? Where did that come from?

That song was REALLY FREAKING INTENSE. It was inspired by a combination of a friend jumping off of the Empire State Building and another intense experience ending with a family member in an institution in the same week.

Whoa.

That song ended up taking on multiple meanings—G-d talking to us, apologetically, about who He has to take out, and a main personality talking to a subordinate personality and claiming ownership over their body.

The chirpyness is because we are trapped in this reality and optimism translates. If someone spreads a pessimistic message, people will block it out. Negative messages are at least up for discussion.

What goes through your mind when you sing songs?

When I sing, I think about the song. There’s nothing else worth mentioning.