Bordenaro found her voice; others now finding it, too
By ANDREW McGINN
You can tell a lot about a musical act by the gigs they play.
The Levins have appeared at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, but you’re more apt to catch the East Coast-based contemporary folk duo playing temples, churches, even yoga studios, and at events that have names like the Repairing the World Concert, the Soul of Love Retreat and the Rally for Love.
On July 21, the duo will play History Boy Theatre in Jefferson.
So what does it all mean?
Well, it obviously means that the Levins are trying to be the change they want to see in the world — and that one of them is originally from Jefferson.
Julia Bordenaro, a 1985 graduate of Jefferson Community High School, is returning home with husband and musical partner Ira Levin to play for the first time locally as the Levins.
“It’s always a place of rest when we come home,” Bordenaro said of Jefferson. “This time, I wanted to do something different.”
The couple’s new album, “Caravan of Dawn,” is a showcase for their sunny harmonizing at a time in history when anger is pulsing through everything from our politics to our climate.
That’s the thing — the more toxic society becomes, the more people seek refuge in the Levins’ music.
“We’re sad to see what’s happening in the world,” Bordenaro said recently, “but we’re grateful our music is finding its place.”
Since hitting the road together full-time in 2010, the Levins haven’t pointed a single finger at anyone, and calls for new protest songs have gone unheeded.
They want a dialogue, not a statement.
“It was Mother Teresa,” Bordenaro explained, “who said, ‘I won’t go protest, but if you have a gathering for peace, I’ll be there.’ We’ve always been on that path.”
As an interfaith couple — he’s Jewish and hails from North Miami Beach; she grew up Catholic in rural Iowa — they seem to be more interested in celebrating the fact that human beings are more alike than different.
As if to prove that point, the Levins performed last November in Toronto at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and followed that with a collaborative concert/circus at the Dance Mission Theatre in San Francisco based on their album “My Friend Hafiz.” The album, in turn, had been inspired by the humanistic lyric poetry of Hafiz, a 14th century Persian poet.
“We have a tendency to write for the positive,” Bordenaro said.
That led to them being tagged early on as the “happy folk people.”
The truth is, they instinctively began writing happier, more positive songs as an alternative to what they were hearing at the open mic nights where they honed their craft as a duo in the San Francisco Bay Area.
As Bordenaro observed, singer-songwriters tend to be morose, using their songs to work through issues.
“We need to give them a reason to go home,” Bordenaro said.
She couldn’t fathom singing night after night about Ira’s old girlfriend or her old boyfriend.
“If you think about the power of words,” she said, “you want what comes up out of you, and through you, to be something that enriches you.”
But now, it seems, the whole country is working through issues.
After all, did you ever think you’d hear the words “rage tweeting” and “White House” in the same sentence?
“We just keep moving forward,” Bordenaro said. “Period.”
Bordenaro’s musical journey began at age 5 with her first piano lessons in Jefferson with Monica McGregor. She later played piano in Jack Oatts’ jazz band in high school.
It wasn’t until the late 1990s — an era in which Sarah McLachlan and other women singer-songwriters were enjoying the spotlight — that Bordenaro literally found her voice.
“I didn’t even know I could sing,” she joked, “because I was always behind the piano.”
She ended up in the Bay Area singing with a Jewish women’s a cappella group that sang about social justice (and often in Hebrew and Yiddish). Future husband Ira was out there playing in a “vaudevillian rock band.”
They were married in 2002. Gradually, two musical paths became one.
“It’s playing, it’s practice, it’s writing. It’s a real blessing to be able to look at each other and go, ‘Wow.’ It’s been a blessing to know we can work so well together,” Bordenaro said.
That also meant trading the West Coast for the East Coast — specifically, the town of Valley Cottage, N.Y., about 45 minutes northwest of Manhattan — where they found an environment more welcoming to musicians.
“The East Coast is much more supportive,” Bordenaro said. “It’s got a built-in network of people who want to see music, hear music ... and pay for music.”
“No, don’t write that,” she chuckled. “Want to support live music. Let me put it like that.”
The duo has since won praise from the revered Americana magazine No Depression. In reviewing “Caravan of Dawn,” Goldmine magazine likened the Levins to an act that “might have sprung from the seminal sounds of the Laurel Canyon scene during its heyday in the late ’60s.”
“The value of what we do,” Bordenaro said, “is starting to be recognized.”
How to go
Who: The Levins (the husband-wife folk duo of Ira Levin and Jefferson native Julia Bordenaro)
When: 4 p.m. July 21
Where: History Boy Theatre, 115 S. Wilson Ave.