I’m so excited about featuring Yosi Mesbah’s album, Cellar and Sky, on Baha’i Blog. It’s a hauntingly honest, uplifting and moving album where her folksy and jazzy timbered voice beautifully sings about dealing with life’s tests and difficulties in a lyrical but down-to-earth way. I can’t help but feel moved when I hear her album, and I had the pleasure of meeting Yosi at the recent Grand Canyon Baha’i Conference in Arizona a couple of months ago. As you know I love asking artists about their creative process and was glad when Yosi agreed to tell us more about her album and her experiences in putting it together.
Baha’i Blog: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your musical background?
Sure! Long story short, I was born in Moscow, Idaho, grew up in the Pacific Northwest and moved a fair amount. My parents divorced when I was 12 leading me, my mother, and two siblings to settle in Corvallis, Oregon for a time. I was fortunate to be welcomed with open arms into the community there. I picked up my father’s guitar which I was never allowed to play growing up and began writing songs to process the challenges of that period of time. I fell in love and bonded with my instrument. I was a participant in the first Junior Youth Group in Oregon and at the encouragement of my animators began using my musical gifts to uplift spaces in which I found myself. I brought a love for singing and a confidence to the Baha’i community that helped encourage a broad culture of singing as a fundamental aspect of worship and service to form in our communities in Oregon.
I busked on street corners playing Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, and The Beatles songs and tested my own. I considered singing these songs as part of my worship and service and connected to many different folks doing what I love!
Baha’i Blog: Can you tell us a bit about the album and your inspiration behind it?
There is so much in there. Cellar and Sky is about the joys and struggles of life. For a long time my music explored a lot of similar themes around overcoming depression and self-hatred, being gentle with yourself especially when you make mistakes, reflecting on our purpose and the divine, overcoming attachment to outcomes and image, and learning to be happy when you feel alone, knowing that God’s got it. I put pen to paper always with the intention of putting my stories, and those of the people I meet, into perspective so that people can glean wisdom or some solace from them. I find these themes are useful to explore and many of them are universal, such as the marriage of fear and doubt and how it leads to vacillation and stagnancy.
I’m very grateful that Parker McGee took an interest and empowered me to record and distribute this record. I always played these songs live on tour so it is great that they found a home!
Baha’i Blog: Why did you call the album Cellar and Sky? What’s the story behind it?
I generally avoid naming things until the end of a project. I remember sitting in the studio with Parker, my co-producer. Every time he asked me for titles I cracked jokes and struggled to come up with a definitive one. When all was over and recorded I was at a loss for what to call this compendium of music morsels we created. I ended up going with a metaphor which to me calls to mind exactly what the album attempts to unpack about human experience; the highs and lows, and our proximity to our truest purpose. When I’m in a depressive state I often feel like there are sandbags tied to my legs keeping me down in a cellar. When I’m in a state of joy I feel I could jump and end up flying through the sky. I also think of the intoxicating or perhaps seductive nature of the cellar. There is wine therein and though it’s dank and uncomfortable it feels like more effort to climb the steps into an unknown atmosphere than to simply stay there. It calls to mind this quotation:
“Ye are even as the bird which soareth, with the full force of its mighty wings and with complete and joyous confidence, through the immensity of the heavens, until, impelled to satisfy its hunger, it turneth longingly to the water and clay of the earth below it, and, having been entrapped in the mesh of its desire, findeth itself impotent to resume its flight to the realms whence it came. Powerless to shake off the burden weighing on its sullied wings, that bird, hitherto an inmate of the heavens, is now forced to seek a dwelling-place upon the dust. Wherefore, O My servants, defile not your wings with the clay of waywardness and vain desires, and suffer them not to be stained with the dust of envy and hate, that ye may not be hindered from soaring in the heavens of My divine knowledge.” (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 327)
Baha’i Blog: What’s something you’ve really learnt on your musical journey?
Some things I’ve learned:
The best sounding music ever is the kind that you get to be in the core middle of and creator of with friends when it’s going down. There is nothing else quite like it. It can’t be recreated for others most of the time. You have to be in it to win it and feel it for real which is why I always encourage everyone to listen and sing to each other.
Integrity maintenance can be a challenge but is ultimately vital in this work — to stand in complete reliance on God and in your own truth. Being a “woke” creative force requires a lot of consistent reflection and trust in your intuition and of course trusting that even if you are completely wrong; God has got it. It’s a trippy place to be sometimes to constantly try to maintain awareness of your own bias and be the best you can be while channeling what is in the end all from God. The best musicians and writers are like divine instruments. If I’m supposed to be a channel for God’s grace in the world, the last thing I want to do is get in the way.
This last thing seems like a given but I find it is so often strangely difficult for almost all of my fellows. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the sometimes deafening forces at work in the world. It’s important to refill “the well” and to take care of oneself. Sometimes that means “going to the mountains”. Most of the time it means prayer, meditation, exercise, and laughing with your framily (friends who are as close if not closer than actual family). You know the laughs I’m talking about. The ones that roll down like thunder. The gut belly laughs which make you believe everything is going to be alright even in the worst of times.
Nothing beats a good hug from someone who wants nothing from you.
Baha’i Blog: What do you hope listeners walk away with after they’ve heard your album?
I hope this work helps people feel less alone, more hopeful, more honest and authentic in themselves and gentle with themselves when they fall into doubts, depression, or difficulties. I hope it helps inspire a more purposeful and loving image of tests from the Creator. I hope too that it encourages listeners to stand in their vulnerability and see it as powerful and meaningful.
Baha’i Blog: I know that for you, music is spiritual in nature and there is no “Baha’i music” but can we expect some more Baha’i Writings set to music like what you contributed to the Badasht Project?
The short answer is yes. I’m like a sponge for the Creative Word set to music and have for some time been collecting the various musics that come my way through the organic folk nature of the movement of songs in the Baha’i community. I’m highly interested in the movement of this “folk art”, for lack of a better term, and have been on a continuous hunt for those gems that are circulating and their originators. One day soon I hope to gain the permission of those music makers to record just those songs to make them more widely accessible. Sometimes you just have to make stuff.
Baha’i Blog: Thank you so very much, Yosi! Thank you for taking the time to chat with us and to share your experiences putting Cellar and Sky together and I’m sure others will enjoy it as much as I did!