An Exclusive Interview with Singing Sensation
Ira Heller

and his reflections on his upcoming release,
‘Shomer Yisrael’
By: Sarah Gold

If you want to know about Ira Heller, just ask the music experts. Nachum Segal, host of Jewish Music’s most popular radio program says, "Ira Heller’s pleasant and dynamic vocal combination is what makes his music personality so enjoyable to the listener." Zev Brenner of WMCA Radio adds, "Ira Heller’s voice stirs the Jewish soul." Roni Raab from South Florida radio describes his recordings as "absolutely addictive." The Jerusalem Post points out that "His message is efficient, the music is heartfelt." And Art Raymond calls Ira Heller, "very, very talented with a great future ahead of him."

Who, really, is this young and gifted recording artist that everyone is praising? What is Ira Heller really like? In an interview with Ira at the offices of Life Style Magazine, one thing is clear. There’s more to this talented young man with the magical voice than meets the eye. Ira is casually attired and relaxed. Gazing out onto the streets of Boro Park, he talks about his remarkable career and his personal life. As he speaks, an intensity and depth shine through. Beneath the casual demeanor, Ira is a very serious person with a lot on his mind. And, like a true artist, the feelings and emotions that are buried inside him gradually come forth.

There was always the performer in me." Ira admits. Although he began singing as a hobby, it quickly became apparent to Ira (and to anyone who happened to be listening) that music was to become his life’s calling. After singing in a hotel lobby ten years ago, he got his first telephone call from Ruach Orchestra, asking him to join their band as a singer. Despite his busy schedule as a doctoral candidate in Psychology, he agreed "for the love of music." He continued as a band singer until he completed graduate school in 1988, at which time, Ira decided it was time to cut his first album, and pursue a music career. Since then he has not looked back, and after producing four successful albums, he is about to release his fifth. Each album is distinctly different, but they all carry Ira’s trademark soft and appealing sound. With characteristic intelligence, Ira explains that "those of us in the music industry are really performing a service. You have to provide what audiences want to hear. But, at the same time, you want to bring something new and refreshing into your work, and you want it to reflect a part of yourself."

Nowhere is this balance more evident than in Ira’s newest album, due to be released in several weeks. "Shomer Yisrael" combines a variety of musical styles. The songs range from majestic to serious, from lively to low key. One could say that the moods and the tempo of Ira’s music reflect the cycles of life itself.

Sometimes optimistic, other times reflective, but always on track. It took Ira almost four years to produce "Shomer Yisrael." That’s a long time to be working on a project, yet the music itself mirrors the experiences that Ira had gone through during this time. Always concerned about world events, he had been particularly upset by developments in Israel (as he expressed in one of the songs on the album "Peace of Mind"), and simultaneously, his daughter became ill. During her hospitalization, he often would come directly from the studio to the hospital and sing for her what he had just produced that day in the studio. "I think it helped us both get through this, and the album reflects this sensitive time" Ira contemplates. He explains that, "I see my albums the way an artist sees a canvas, a myriad of emotions carefully crafted into a work of art. This album evolved over a long period of time, so it has a lot to say."

The events of the time have brought a new level of meaning and maturity to Ira’s work. In his song "Peace of Mind," Ira touches upon the volatile situation in the Land of Israel today. "I don’t want to embroil myself in politics," he says, "But I feel a sense of purpose as a performer. Our community needs a wake-up call. There are too many people who don’t quite grasp the seriousness of what’s going on." The song is soulful and haunting, and clearly communicates the message.

Yet there is a strong sense of optimism resonating throughout this work, and it gives us a sense of hope for the future. One lively song, "L’shana Haba’ah," was a melody composed by a fellow performer, Sandy Shmueli. Ira chuckles as he recalls the evening when Sandy called him and said "Ira, I have a great new song, and it’s perfect for you!" "It’s a beautiful tune," Ira told him, "but it needs Hebrew lyrics." "So write some!" Sandy answered. "Me?" Ira asked, "what about you, Mister Israeli?"

Although he is a lyricist, Ira had never written lyrics in Hebrew before. Still, he decided to give it a try, and in Ira’s words "the lyrics just fell on me from the Heavens above." The song truly is heavenly, and extremely inspiring - sure to be a big hit on the Jewish Music scene.

It is perhaps the song, "A Better World" which evokes the spirit of this album best. With a catchy melody by Yerachmiel Begun, and crisp lyrics by Penina Klaver, this song puts out an optimistic affirmation for the future. The message is subtle, but clear. "One has to read between the lines a bit to understand the message of this song. It’s a universal message for the entire world, packaged with a private message for the Jewish People. The ‘key’ is the Torah, through which it is the responsibility of the Jewish People to unlock this goodness that can make this a better world for everyone."

"You know," Ira adds, "when I first began this project almost four years ago, I was planning to name the album ‘A Better World.’ But as the circumstances changed in my life and in the world, the mood of the album changed as well. I then decided to name it ‘Shomer Yisrael,’ Guardian of Israel, because what we need now more than anything is G-d’s protection. We’re living in very dangerous times."

A wide range of talented composers have worked on this album. Composer extraordinaire Yossi Green contributed "M’heira," a delightfully engaging wedding melody. "Yossi is a dear friend of mine," Ira Says. "The song was a wedding gift from Yossi. I performed it for the first time at my wedding, in honor of my wife, Alysia."

In fact, it seems that many of the industry’s superstars have taken a part in developing "Shomer Yisrael." Arranged by the one and only Yisroel Lamm and produced by master music maven Sheya Mendlowitz, it combines the best of the best. Sheya comments that, "a lot of interest is being shown, even before this album’s release. The song, "L’shana Haba’ah," already circulating at simchas. In fact, Sheya himself and Chaim Halbfinger worked together to compose the song "Yiboneh," and Dov Levine wrote the beautiful "Barchi Nafshi." Background vocalists Jonathan Rimberg, Avrumi Weisberger, and Lenny Solomon enhance the music with their smooth, melodious sound, and the most talented musicians in the industry come together to bring forth a polished, professional master work.

Aside from Ira Heller’s recordings, he is constantly performing live. From the far reaches of the globe, to New York’s great Concert Halls, Ira has sung on hundreds of stages throughout the world. He takes this aspect of his work quite seriously. "My goal and responsibility as a performer is that when I’m finished, I’d like to leave my audience with something which they didn’t have before - and gain something from my audience as well. My performing is a communication - I want to be entertaining, but it must be individual and personal in order to be truly worthwhile."

Ira finds his performances invigorating. "Every audience has a dynamic. It is essential to be tuned into my audience, otherwise we can’t develop that performer-audience relationship that is so necessary for a successful show."

It is this ability to reach out to audiences and share the feelings within his soul that have given Ira icon status in Jewish music. His intellectual honesty, and genuine motivation to reach his audiences coupled with an extraordinary ability and electrifying stage presence are what make him unique. This certainly shines through on his new album, ‘Shomer Yisrael’, and is ultimately why Ira Heller will continue to be a vibrant voice in Jewish Music for many years to come!