It is easy to sense that Jeffrey Silverstein is an interesting individual. Even more impressive is how he manages to balance his passion for music and love of life. But who is he? Well, Jeffrey Silverstein is a musician, special education teacher and writer based in Portland, Oregon. Originally from New Jersey and after later working as a community manager for MTV and studying as a teacher in New York City, a sea change brought him out to Portland. It’s fair to say he hasn’t looked back at his decision. Nowadays when he isn’t teaching, he records under his own name (previously he was one half of the bi-coastal duo Nassau with Justin Giles-Wilcox) finding inspiration in what life throws at him.
Interestingly, it is his debut solo EP How On Earth that brought Jeffrey to my attention a few weeks ago. In short, How On Earth is a collection of atmospheric folk songs, so rich in its sonic landscapes, that I felt like I was taken away on a journey of the mind. Impressed in particularly by his guitar work on How On Earth and another new track called Easy Rider, I found myself reaching out to Jeffrey to talk about life and music. Here is some of what we talked about.
The first thing I noticed about your five song EP is its ambient-folk sound? At first I listened to it with headphones but switched to speakers soon after. It really felt like I was taken away to another place as it reverbed between my speakers in my little set up at home. Was that always your intention to give it an otherworldly feel?
So glad to hear it had that effect on you – over the past few years I’ve been heavily drawn to ambient/instrumental/new age sounds. Simple music that can sit at either the foreground or background for a listener. I’ve realized the sound of my EP stems from an active attempt to calm an anxious mind. A defense mechanism of sorts. Hearing something I’ve created provided comfort or took someone to another headspace is the highest compliment.
What is your favourite go-to guitar? What do you love about its sound?
My Fender Stratocaster. Going on ten years with that guitar. I love a polished, clean guitar tone and when run through my Fender Deville amplifier, I can get pretty close to what I’m hearing in my mind. Super easy to play, Kind of wild to think about how many songs I’ve written on it.
I understand that each song on the EP has its own backstory. All Hands Raised is like an ode to youth and I understand you wrote Find You Well for your grandmother. What else can you tell me about the inspiration behind creating your new solo EP?
Last March I had the privilege of being an artist in residence at the Sou’wester Lodge on the coast of Washington. For one week, I lived inside of a vintage Ford motorhome turned recording studio. It was an experience that exemplified the power of having dedicated time/space to work on your craft. As a newcomer to the Pacific Northwest, I knew that if I wanted to continue to make music, I needed to jumpstart the process. Having the residency booked + a performance on my last day gave a healthy sense of urgency. I gave myself the challenge of coming out of the residency with enough material for an EP and for the first time in over a decade I played a solo set for the other folks staying at the lodge. I recorded the set (it’s not great, ha) but it does mark an important moment of me pivoting to being in the driver’s seat as an artist. Making How On Earth also ties to a sense of focus and clarity I’ve been able to tap into since relocating from Brooklyn, NY. Making and moving slower and with more feeling.
Who are some of the musicians who have helped shape the guitarist you are today?
George Harrison, Small Sur, Pops Staples, Hop Along, Angel Olsen, Steve Gunn, Nathan Salsburg, Phil Cook.
Why is music so important to you Jeffrey?
It’s given me everything. It led me to meeting my wife, long-lasting friendships with people all over the world, and a sense of purpose/meaning at times when I’ve doubted there was one. I’m forever indebted to music.
Tell me more about your motivations behind giving a portion of physical sales of the EP to ‘My Voice Music’, a non profit organisation based Portland, Oregon.
There is something very powerful about writing/recording your first song. The list of mental health benefits music can provide is outstanding. It can be a healer of trauma, anxiety or a means to rebuild pathways in the brain. After seeing students in Brooklyn experience this for the first time, I knew I wanted to try and find a way to keep that going for this release. MVM is a nonprofit in Portland, Oregon that engages youth in music and performance to promote self-esteem, social skills, and emotional expression. They are doing super important work here in PDX and I’m thrilled to be able to support them in a small way.
How have you been settling in to your new adoptive home of Portland? I have two friends in Portland. Wonderful place I’m told.
It’s strange, after only approximately two years here, Portland has felt more like home than our six years living in New York. We were recently traveling and realized that as opposed to the dread of a vacationing coming to a close, we were just as, if not more excited be back in Portland. That feeling really solidified our decision to move here. I’m not sure one day has gone by where we don’t find something new to appreciate about this city. It certainly comes with its unique set of issues, but right now I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
Jeffrey, you wear so to speak many hats with ease. Please tell me a little bit about yourself, especially your role as a special education teacher?
I’m a huge advocate of music and education and have spent most of my adult life working and/or being involved in both in one way or another. I’m originally from a sleepy suburban town in New Jersey where I had my first go of being in a band in High School. College took me to Baltimore, MD – a city I hold close to my heart. My first teaching gig was in Baltimore and it is also where I spent many years writing, recording and touring in a psych-rock band called Secret Mountains. Being in that band taught me a lot very quickly. That band dissolved around the time I moved to New York and after working odd jobs I wound up working at MTV, of all places. After the two year mark I knew I missed working with kids and was accepted into the New York City Teaching Fellows program where I attended grad school and taught full time in Brooklyn for two years. During that time I was also playing in Nassau a duo that released an EP and a full-length before moving out to Portland. It’s funny, even as a ‘teacher’ I still wind up feeling like a student most of the time. Working with my students and getting to know them has taught me so much about myself and how I interact with the world. It pushes me to look at things from multiple perspectives and I value that being a part of my day job. It seems to be a natural counter-balance to my other endeavors and I’m always taking stock of how my music, writing, and teaching intersect.