It’s hard to imagine that Michael Greilsammer, an edgy Israeli violinist and rock star who sports dreadlocks, earrings and a David Bowie T-shirt, at one time donned the clean-cut Israel Defence Forces uniform. But Greilsammer, 35 and a native of Jerusalem, is proud to represent his home when he performs outside of Israel, and spread a message of unity.
“For me, it’s about reaching out in whatever I do and saying, ‘We are all human beings,’” Greilsammer says, noting that wherever he performs, he speaks with audiences about their conceptions and misconceptions of Israel.
“We don’t seem like the soldiers they see on TV, even though we were soldiers,” he says. “Sometimes there’s hard questions about Israel and there’s not good answers about everything, but the thing is we’re just people… For young people, it’s about seeing other young people from Israel and understanding we’re living the same life as they are and not as the media pictures it.”
With the upcoming release of his third album, Nature of Me, the classically trained violinist is planning shows in Montreal, Ottawa, Kingston, Toronto and Vancouver for November.
Since serving as an artist in residence in Ottawa for a few months in 2013, thanks to a grant from the Schusterman Foundation, Greilsammer has returned to Canada several times to promote his other albums, Wake Up and In Paris, and to perform at the Ottawa Jazz Festival in 2014 with his wife and fellow singer-songwriter, Shimrit Dror Greilsammer.
“Canada has been very kind to me,” he says. “So many friendly people.”
During his fellowship with Schusterman, Greilsammer and his wife performed frequently, including at synagogues from across the spectrum, a first for the duo. The two attend Zion, a Masorti shul in Jerusalem, along with their three children.
“It was really interesting to see the whole rainbow of congregations,” Greilsammer says, adding that they felt welcomed at all of them, including among the Orthodox.
One Orthodox synagogue requested that Dror Greilsammer not sing, though she could still play guitar and other instruments. Despite this, Greilsammer says they still felt accepted, and relished the opportunity to build a relationship with the local Jewish community.
Unlike what he has experienced performing in Europe, Greilsammer says Canadians seem more open-minded and less intent on boycotting Israeli artists.
During his residency, Greilsammer taught violin and gave practical classes on album production, playing in a band and touring at Carleton University in Ottawa. His family loved living in Ottawa, too, he says, with his older son learning to swim at the JCC. With a following in Canada now, Greilsammer looks forward to returning and sharing his eclectic sound and new album.
Writing mostly in English, though also in Hebrew and French on Nature of Me, he intends this album to offer something different from his previous albums.
“I’m very complicated musically, and I’m trying to find my way to the hearts of people,” he says.
But Jerusalem, in its cultural and musical diversity, remains an anchor of inspiration.
“I really see myself as an artist evolving from Jerusalem,” he says.
As the child of French immigrants and an avid listener of American music, including Bowie, REM, the Velvet Underground and Michael Jackson, Greilsammer sings in Hebrew, French and English. Often called in Israel a “reggae-violinist” after the release of Wake Up, Greilsammer shifted gears with In Paris, an album he co-created with his wife that reflects their diverse musical range, including folk and Irish influences. The two met through their involvement in Black Velvet, an Israeli-Irish band, and started collaborating musically in 2001 when he began playing violin for Fionola, a band in which Dror Greilsammer sang and wrote songs.
Greilsammer wrote the gorgeous title track of Nature of Me when their first son, Lavi, now 8, was born. “The song really talks about living as a young couple, with all of the obstacles… Even though a lot of people come to our shows and think we are a perfect couple, we are a couple like any other,” he says.
Calling their life a “joint journey,” Greilsammer admits it’s not easy to balance their careers with their home life, as parents also to Eyal, 4, and Shir, who was born in September.
While they collaborate to a great extent, they also nurture their solo careers. “It’s very important to me that she will feel accomplished,” says Greilsammer of his wife who released her first album, Songs from Home, in March, an exquisite and deeply personal folk journey into her life as a sister, daughter, wife and mother. “There’s not enough ‘Shimrit’ singers who get the right credit,” he says.
Though Greilsammer looks forward to promoting Nature of Me in Canada, he also hopes to be inspired by the music there and to receive more than he gives. Most of all, he looks forward to sharing Israeli culture with audiences.
“I like being an Israeli outside of Israel, talking, representing Israel, to change the mood a little bit and plant a flag in another place… I don’t have to go to the moon to plant a flag.”
For information on Greilsammer’s album and tour dates visit his website.