She was born in Iran, but it was a clash between her family’s religion and that country’s hard-line revolution which inspired them to emigrate to the United States. Shirley Levi is the kind of woman who has channeled the freedom her family sought into picking up a guitar and create a real, honest and punk-attitude-driven brand of music she simply likes to call “Shirley-RAWk.”
[Cover Photo photo by Johnny Otto]
In addition to being a singer, songwriter and guitarist currently based in Los Angeles, as well as being fluent in four languages, Shirley’s creativity extends from her music to her self-taught artwork, as shown through various abstract paintings that she has made to reflect what her journey to freedom has been about. She’s also an activist and a “Poetic Songwriter of Hope,” as you’ll find out during our recent interview with her.
Among other topics, Shirley also gives us her impressions of what being “pretty” means, and it’s not just about looks. Plus, she tells us about some game-changing singers who influenced her, and how her work with an autistic woman inspired a song she wrote. But, for starters, I asked Shirley about her family’s emigration.
GGM: First, Shirley, many people move to the US in search of freedom and opportunity. Was it the case with your family?
Shirley: Absolutely the case with my family. They moved to the US because they are Jewish and my mom is Israeli and stood potential persecution in Iran had they not escaped out of there during the revolution. It was not easy for them to escape, then arrive to the US as young immigrants, but they managed to succeed in giving us a better life. My parents are both my biggest heroes. I’m so deeply happy and proud to be an American and free to set my dreams into full motion. To have that right to make change and have a strong voice! I never take that for granted, as you will notice from all my social media videos, interviews and songs.
GGM: When did you first learn how to play the guitar?
Shirley: I started in the first grade. I could barely even speak English yet, but I was so obsessed I would pretend to know how to play my uncle’s guitar, and would sing words in English that I memorized from American songs that I loved. Then in third grade my dad finally surprised me and bought me my very first guitar, which was a black electric Gibson Les Paul copy, and a little amp, which I still have! Very ironic since I just recently got endorsed into the Gibson guitar & Marshall amp family! What a giant honor and G-D wink!!! I was so ecstatic I felt like I already knew how to play my very first guitar. I slept with it in my arms for weeks after I first got it! I figured that my parents must have known even when I was only three years old that I was obsessed with guitar because even my birthday cake at three years old was this big white guitar. I knew I loved guitar even before I could speak any language! I took some lessons in elementary school but my teacher at the time was so abusive to me. Even though I walked into the class later than others, I was so eager to learn that within a week I was more advanced than anyone in the class, but since I was an immigrant, my teacher treated me awfully and I had to quit the class and ended up just teaching myself. I couldn’t take her humiliating me in front of everyone anymore. It was pure torment considering just how badly I was wanting to learn and be accepted. I think in some way it triggered me to just teach myself everything musically on my own. I just didn’t have the confidence in learning from teachers anymore since my experience with the racist teacher affected me so deeply and so early on in my life. Who knows? Maybe it was a blessing in disguise to be totally self-sufficient in life!
GGM: What was the first major concert you ever went to, at least since you moved to the US?
Shirley: I was a little kid when my older sister insisted that my dad allow her to take me with our chaperone, my older cousin, to see Duran Duran. My cousin lifted me onto his shoulder and let me see the concert in a grown-up way. Of course, it didn’t stop him from also hitting on every chick in the vicinity and almost dropping me on a few occasions [lol]! I was totally enthralled by the experience. I knew that this was definitely what I was gonna do when I grew up!
GGM: Such classic rock and country stars as Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline and Janis Joplin have been listed to be among your influences. All of them have been gamechangers in their own right, but if you were to describe, in a few words, what each of these famous singers meant to you, what would those be?
Shirley: Each one of them had such a super-distinct voice and style, which seemed to be a total plus back then, unlike today’s music biz where everyone is cloned to sound like the same auto-tuned artists who they already cashed in on over and over again. As you can tell I’m obsessed with music history. Back then, artists’ unique qualities were celebrated, not shunned. Nowadays, it’s like taking a big risk to sign and promote an artist that sounds like nobody else. That’s really unfortunate because it’s stopping the growth process of some very incredible artists. It’s not allowing music to create revolutions anymore by retaining and developing their own natural legendary sound. We don’t have much to compare to since it happens very rarely in a commercial way anymore. I think Kurt Cobain/Nirvana was the last artist/band who was allowed to break any kind of barrier and change music in a powerful and lasting way! These legendary artists which you mentioned had songs with powerful lasting messages, melodies and a manic, raw energy that still influences us and will continue to for lifetimes to come. They opened doors for change! They weren’t expected to choreograph their every move, like today. They unleashed their unique talents against what was expected and paved the way for other legendary artists to rise and embrace their unique styles. They were allowed to stay true to themselves and stay unique with their vocals, music, presence and delivery.
GGM: You’ve also been compared to female punk rock pioneer Patti Smith. I thought I’d ask if you’ve heard of her, and if so, how would you briefly describe what she has meant to you?
Shirley: Have I heard of Patti Smith?! I love her!!!!! Most of the artists I listen to and get my inspiration from were all well before my time. I guess after the ‘90s I lost interest in what was happening. I wish sometimes that I was born in a different time era, because I wonder if what I’m doing will ever have a chance to be commercialized. Regardless, I will never stop what feels right just to blend with what is acceptable. Patti Smith is a big musical hero for me because she truly embraced her own vibration and wasn’t scared to express herself in a dynamic and outrageous musical way! When I say “outrageous” I don’t mean by shocking people through her clothing or personal exploitation. I mean vocally, lyrically, musically and dynamically! Punk music wasn’t a genre that accepted women back then but she forged the way fiercely and gained the respect of artists and the media! Women are expected to express themselves in a very limited way. We are expected to sing about pain as if we are little Mary Poppins flying away with an umbrella…lol. I can’t hold back my raw vocal delivery especially when I’m feeling super passionate or expressing darkness and pain. I respect dancers in a big way but when you’re a singer you want to focus on singing first! The performance should just come naturally out of you when you set your music free. I refuse to sound constantly high pitched and flawlessly “pretty” with little to no emotion while wearing a short skirt and dancing around the stage like some Vegas circus act.
“Pretty” to me means being real. Having true conviction. Expressing real uninterrupted emotion. Embracing my vulnerabilities. Moving to my own rhythm. Why should that only pertain to men? I remember reading somewhere about Tina Turner that she decided to become a rock artist. When she was discovered they were blown away by her vocal delivery because they said that only men belted out their vocals and it was so refreshing to witness a woman who could sing like a man. Even men express their liking to the fact that I belt out my songs on guitar from the heart without holding back or becoming forcefully tamed. I’m trying to reach my audiences’ hearts in a lasting penetrating way, not arouse them sexually! To me, sexuality is natural and will come out flawlessly without forcing or beating it out of the artist. It’s super-sexy to see a woman expressing herself fearlessly. Being strong doesn’t equate to not being feminine. Having something to say doesn’t make you boring or less commercial. Allowing your true self to fiercely and soulfully shake up your listeners and make them cry or laugh with you is such a true gift…like Janis Joplin–who I share the same birthday with, by the way. Even girls with guitars are not really praised if they deliver a raw and fierce performance because it’s not considered feminine for a woman to rock out manically the way men do.
Like Joan Jett said, girls with guitars are just not embraced in this industry the way men with guitars are. I totally love Patti Smith for paving the way for all other female and male rock artists who have had the opportunity to be acquainted with of her music and her fierce time less soul!
GGM: When was your first professional gig?
Shirley: I was playing all over the city when I lived in San Diego as a teenager. I would join forces with street musicians and we would play for beer and fun spontaneously anywhere that would let us, but it wasn’t until I got to L.A. when a promoter I worked for insisted on booking me for a professional gig at a legendary venue that used to be called The Opium Den in Hollywood. He forced me to do it because he said he had a gut feeling about me. He warned me that if I didn’t do well I would never play in L.A. again [lol]. Thank G-D it went great!! Since then, I’ve played at most of the top venues in L.A., and have been growing in the Hollywood scene.
GGM: Since your music is a mix of many genres, is it always good for any musician to take a multi-genre approach, to say nothing of you being also multi-lingual?,
Shirley: I’m definitely extremely multi-genred and multilingual! There’s no way to hold that back in music since singing and playing is the most natural thing I can do next to eating, sleeping etc. I have so much influence from Western and Eastern cultures that it comes out of me in my music, totally weaved together. They belong together and I would never dream of separating them the way I would never separate mankind or strip it of its perfectly shaped diversity. I had problems in the past with executives and music people telling me to stop mixing genres, and that my music will never make it unless I confined myself to one little box–genre–and stick to it in everything that I do. So of course, I realized I had to stop listening to people who know nothing about music, other than the no-risk, giant, greedy profit. I have tested my music with total strangers. I play to people who have never heard of me before and the mixing of genres and languages only enhances the dynamics and unique elements of the music and my vocal tonality and execution.
People can feel all sorts of things from just a melody or expression. Record labels and execs underestimate our true, GD-given instincts in good energy and music, that hits home in our hearts. It’s been proven over and over again. Most great legendary artists were misunderstood and completely rejected until the support of the audience was so undeniable they couldn’t be stopped anymore! In my last video of my recent performance at Hemingway’s in Hollywood, I performed my song “Lyon of JerUSAlem” off my last album Break Free, for the first time. The song is in Hebrew and English. I stripped it down from all the production and belted it from the heart, along with Tom Gonzalez keeping me company on drums, and it ended up being the highlight of my set that night!! Everyone was dancing and feeling it so much I felt like I was flying while I was performing it! Nobody even knew what language I was singing in, it kept changing from English to Hebrew, but they remembered certain phrases, which they sang to me after the show! It gave me even more hope that peace and the uniting of all mankind is extremely possible through music!
GGM: Every musician has had an unusual moment or two during their live shows. What one or two of those stood out for you?
Shirley: “Unusual moments” are always expected in live shows especially when you don’t have a big team who has your back, but experience can help to prevent them from ruining the entire show. Even with a big team there’s no real way to completely eliminate the chances of “unusual moments.” They can sometimes even magically work to your advantage if your instincts kick in. On my first gig in L.A. at The Opium Den, I started my show and immediately realized there was a major sound flaw happening. The guitars and mics starting ringing with horrific feedback. Most people don’t really understand that the sound quality of the venue has very little to do with the artist. It can really become the downfall of the night after so much preparation if you’re not prepared for it or don’t learn how to resolve it fast without losing your audience’s attention and respect. It’s hard because it’s all happening live and, unlike TV, you can’t just edit it out or “TAKE 2“. So I just flung my arm in the air and said “Stop!!! Stop!! Sorry guys…we are experiencing some technical sound difficulties” in an entertaining and humorous way! Then, I started the set with a big victorious smile again, with everything sounding grea.! The audience went nuts, and it almost became the highlight of the night!
GGM: What inspired the superhero connotation of your nickname “Miss Muzik”?
Shirley: Well, to begin with, my full name, Shirley Levi, in Hebrew coincidentally means, “sing to me from the heart. My parents loved the American name Shirley, so they named me without realizing that “Shir” in Hebrew actually means “song” and “li” means “to me.” “Lev” from my last name “Levi,” means heart. So, my full name literally means “Sing to me from the heart” and that’s exactly what I do! I feel like my soul’s vibration is music.
Everything about me is like a song. When I was a teenager I used to hang out with these groups of artists, DJs and musicians who used to take yoga classes from this guru. When he met me, I asked him once, “Do you really believe that I have a chance at music if I go after it with all my might?” He answered, “You are music! Music picked you, before you picked it. It’s evident about you. You’re Miss Muzik!” He was right! Til today my nickname is still either Miss Muzik or Van Gogh which you will notice from my song “Break Free”. “They call you Van Gogh…”
We all have our unique gifts, which help to set ourselves and others free. For me, I feel that through music I am able to reach people and inspire their hearts and souls to believe in their own unique gifts so that they too can help set themselves and others free! I also feel that my purpose is to be a muse to others and help them to set their own music free!
GGM: You’ve also remixed some songs under your “DJ SFL” name. Since today’s electronic dance music [EDM] has created a new market for touring DJs, have you done, or do you plan on doing, any live gigs as a DJ in addition to your live Shirley RAWk performances?
Shirley: What a great question, Steve! I started remixing my own music simply because I couldn’t find a DJ who would give up on their own vision to remix my songs the way I envisioned dancing to them at a nightclub or performing to them, so I decided to learn Ableton Live and bring my own visions to life in all my music. I had to take my entire studio album, Break Free, with its epic instrumentation, and learn how to completely remix the entire album on my own so that it could encompass my own rhythm and dynamics. Thank G-D for my Apple laptop! I learned so much on my own through years of trial and error and major experimentation that I ended up breaking the limits that are placed on artists who don’t go past what they are taught. I have many remixes of songs not yet released that I hope to release after I produce and set forth my next album.
Back to your question, I haven’t toured as a DJ simply because I embrace my singing and organic playing on the guitar as my first and most important calling musically, but I’ve been pondering the idea of mixing it up one day and including the remixes I’ve created in my live RAWk performances, especially remixes like my “Daddy Boy” (JerUSAlem Grandma Remix) where I mix my grandma’s real spontaneous vocals with real sounds I sampled in the old city in Jerusalem. I feel really sentimental about that track. I recreated all the percussion work by hand to compliment my grandma’s diverse cultural background, weaving it into my generation of Western influences. I would really like to bring my remixes to life on stage with real musicians, including myself, playing along to the samples and my production in the remix. I may even end up booking separate shows where I just spin all my remixes live in a theatrical way.
GGM: Back at the height of the Vietnam War in the late 1960’s, the rock music of its day had enough of an impact to change the world. Since you’ve made your own YouTube video along those same lines, do you think many of today’s top artists don’t involve themselves as much in trying to change the world through their music?
Shirley: Wow, Steve! Another really, really great question! I definitely think that many of today’s top artists don’t involve themselves as much anymore in trying to change the world through their music, which is why I turn up the heat in a big way in my own social media videos. Watch my videos “Music Can Change The World!” and “We Are The World Remake/I Want to Sing for Haiti!” and you will witness me trying to wake up the media, big artists and people from all walks of life. I’m also trying to say that not only does everyone deserve to have a voice but that more people need to take action and believe that their voice is important and can potentially reach millions! I’m not just some rebel trying to overthrow people in power, lol!. I guess I’m a rebel with a true cause that cannot be silenced or overlooked. I make my own opportunities and find ways to display support for many causes that affect us deeply but remain unseen or unchanged.
When you are a big artist you can really affect your audience in a positive or negative way. I’m trying desperately to wake up these artists and remind them to not take that opportunity for granted. To use their time in the spotlight effectively and help to rid this world of unnecessary suffering, through music! There are artists out there that are being exploited themselves and are allowing their audience to think that their exploitation is not only okay, but something to be looked up to. It is confusing young kids and falsely motivating them to walk down the wrong path. It really gets to me. We really need to give artists with something to say a chance so that they can influence the younger generation in a more positive and lasting way! I will never stop trying to change things in the media and or stop trying to bringing light to causes that really matter! I’m just getting started!!! We need to all unite and help one another battle the ignorance that society sets on us and emancipate each other from unnecessary suffering and injustices!
GGM: You’ve also extended the idea of changing the world through your non-profit organization Music On My Shoulder, by helping raise awareness of autism. How did you get to meet the person who inspired you to write your song “Anne Marie”?
Shirley: I first moved to Hollywood, and I had this neighbor downstairs and she was the head of an organization for autism. I’d have coffee with her and there’d always be kids running around and people with autism. I just always connected with them and I was saying to myself, “these people are so special”! I never knew anything about it.
Then I was actually in between jobs and I had this strong feeling that this was meant for me on my path. I didn’t know why. So I went in and begged for a job and they agreed to give me a shot. They trained me and the first person I worked with was Anne Marie, who my anthem for autism awareness, “Anne Marie,” is named after. It was inspired by her spirit. I started working with her and she just changed my life. Everybody is so misinformed out there, just like I was. So, I decided that I need to be taking everything I witnessed to the next level and instead of working with one person, I need to join forces, put it in my music, put it in my art and get out there and express their message and be a strong voice and advocate for them! I’ve been doing that for many years and now, thanks to G-D, it’s a lot easier with the media being a lot more open. I also have a very special place in my heart for those with autism because I know what it’s like to be so misunderstood and unable to express it all. It’s our perspective that needs to change. Not them. They have so many unique gifts to contribute to the world and should have that G-D-given right to be celebrated! They deserve to be loved and appreciated for who they are! Each one of them has a very unique talent that would blow anyone away if they just looked closer and paid attention the way you would with a relative you care deeply about.
I really hope my song ”Anne Marie” helps everyone who’s never heard of Autism to know someone with autism for the first time, through the heart, the way I did. My song is really just a friendship ballad. It’s us who will be rewarded by taking that step. I’m a better person and artist since I’ve had the gift of knowing those with autism. I will never stop supporting autism awareness in my creative works! I will just get louder and louder in speaking for them and continuing to contribute to the autism community’s effort in helping them to get heard!
[To learn more about Music on My Shoulder to read Shirley’s mission statement and to take a deeper look at her activism, click HERE.]
GGM: As sure as you want to remain an independent artist, have any major labels offered you any recording contracts yet? And if one were to come your way, would you turn it down?
Shirley: I’m very much known for staying true to myself and never selling out. I’ve done more for myself anyway than any label could have done for me. I write, produce, and remix all my own music. I also produce, edit and direct all my own videos. I brand myself and have created my own image. I’ve strengthened my voice, music and conviction so much more by being a totally independent artist. Being an indie artist is actually a huge blessing because I get to decide who the world will see and what I release. I can be myself and express what means the most to me. I don’t want to become someone I’m not and have to repeat that my entire career. I write because it’s urgent. Not because I want to be famous. I will never allow my music to be a sellout. I will never take the easy road. I’ve raised my creations as if they are my most precious little babies and even though I’m struggling financially, I’ll never just give them away to the wrong source. They are my gift from THE LORD and I almost feel like I’m protecting them for HIM: For a bigger cause than just my own personal success.
My songs are aimed towards change and hope! They are geared towards loving myself and my brothers and sisters out there and are meant to unite us all and set us free from ignorance and suffering. Nowadays all you hear about is the exploitation of mainstream singers. Nothing about their actual musical talent or works. The more they exploit themselves, the more they rise, while real artists that stay true to themselves, their music and to their audience are totally dismissed and kicked to the indie curb. I’m so glad I’m being recognized for my real voice! My singing voice and my activist voice. I want to help all other deserving indie artists out there including myself to rise and get heard on commercial radio: To be a part of the mainstream! There’s a giant audience for all sorts of music that are just not being catered to! If the right deal came my way, I wouldn’t hesitate jumping on board. It would be nice to gracefully enter the next level by continuing my work in the same spirit which I nurtured my works to begin with. There’s no reason why what I’m doing can’t be commercialized without being stripped of its soul and unique essence. I’ve had very big potential deals that I had to painfully walk away from because I knew that they would take me in such a wrong direction that it just wouldn’t be worth it. I still have hope that, since I’ve developed everything myself, and my fan base is growing fast, that I will have the opportunity to continue it all on a bigger level in the same spirit that I started it with but with more support from a major label. Hopefully joining forces with a major label will not dilute my work of its power and its ability to help change the world in a lasting way. I’d really like to also inspire the music biz to take a few risks that can eventually pay off for everyone, in not just dollar bills but also in terms of enhancing the listener’s experience by not just force-feeding them the same generic soul-less music over and over.
GGM: Finally, Shirley, do you have any future projects we would look forward to?
Shirley: Absolutely, Steve! I’m so inspired right now because my new sound, Shirley RAWk, feels so right!!! I’m testing out all my new material live, before recording the album. I hope to be touring and also to continue my activism, through music, on a much larger scale…perhaps even a music show on TV that can do what I’m already doing, but in front of millions more! I will not only be able to raise a ton more awareness, but also be in a position to raise millions of dollars overnight for some really important causes, with my music. Hopefully to also inspire TV programming to have more integrity by witnessing a more unique approach to entertainment, which will really take off. I also just performed at the Rockin’ A Cure 5, a benefit for Cystic Fibrosis, at The Garden Grove Amphitheater, which was sponsored by Guitar Center. I’ll RAWk out on my new amp (courtesy of Marshall) for the first time, and Gibson Guitars lent me a special guitar especially for the event!
Thanks deeply for the profound interview and the honor of being featured in your awesome magazine! I’m definitely a hopeless guitar girl!!! I even have a bullet strap on my guitar, since my guitar is like my weapon, but instead of shooting bullets and killing people, it RAWks them out and hopefully helps them to LIVE MORE! NOT DIE! RAWk on!
Yes, that’s how Shirley RAWks, and how she rolls, in her own, heartfelt way.
You can check out Shirley’s most recent album Break Free on her website, www.shirleylevi.com, where you can also order merchandise from her store, T-Shirley, as well as take a look at some of her paintings. Shirley’s videos are on YouTube at www.youtube.com/shirleylevi. Also, you can like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pages/Shirley-Levi/113226045414739, as well as follow her on Twitter @shirleylevi26.