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8 Questions for David Safran: cult singer-songwriter, wordsmith, literature-lover

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8 Questions for David Safran photo

Attempting to describe David Safran's musical style and influences requires an extensive vocabulary and imagination. His distinct voice has been called "velvety," his catchy tunes deemed "provocative" and his sharp and often ironic lyrics described as "smoke-tinged." One track on his debut album, Delicate Parts, has been hailed "erotic lounge pop at its best," while another is a "country-flavored waltz." Safran's own official Facebook page lists his genre as "stylish chaos."

Safran, 29, grew up with a love of music in the Chicago suburbs, though he majored in English at DePaul University and even planned to move to England to receive an MFA in Restoration Literature. But some of his professors heard his demos and were impressed by his musical talent and lyrical prowess. He decided to pursue music "because I'd never forgive myself for not trying – for ending up a bitter assistant professor teaching Beowulf to college freshman."

For the last seven years, Safran, whose sense of humor is as wry and witty as his music, has earned a certain cult status, amassing a solid local following but also finding surprising success internationally. He was asked to do an Adidas ad campaign in Argentina in Argentina earlier this year because a few of his songs were playing well there. The ad has put him on the larger map, and now, he says, things are getting "bigger … and weirder."

You should probably listen for yourself before coming up with your own compound adjectives, but David Safran is definitely a Jew you should know.

1. Your music draws on so many different styles. What would you describe as your influences and what inspires you as a songwriter?
I've always loved a baffling variety of musical styles. A good tune is a good tune. However, as a songwriter, I'm very rarely inspired – inspiration is a messy, passive, inscrutable thing. My process: I try to read as much as I can, I try to think like a cultured chimpanzee, and I try to write every day. And if I can't write, I just plagiarize.

2. Do you have any Jewish influences or genres that you like to dabble with or listen to (and why or why not)?
I'm buried up to my neck in Jewish influences. I love Judaism even though I disagree with it entirely. It's worth noting that although I was raised in the Midwest, my entire family comes from New York. There's genetic evidence that Safrans have populated Brooklyn for something like 350,000 years. So, I was given a serious Jewish education: Yiddish theatre, Borscht Belt jokes, Galician shtetl history – real Isaac Bashevis Singer stuff – a tiny bit of Hebrew, and an enormous terror of anything that takes places outdoors. My family has personal connections to both Gloria Steinem and Gurrah Shapiro. Feminism and organized crime were also part of my early education.

3. What is it about the Chicago music scene that convinced you to launch your career here?
Profound laziness. I'm from Chicago; the music scene was within easy reach. I'm often asked why I stay in this city – making music in Chicago is a bit like rolling naked in the snow. But I feel a sincere connection to this town. To quote that brilliant line in Sabbath's Theater: "How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here."

4. If you could choose a popular artist to do a cover of one of your songs, who would it be and which song (and why)?
Great question. I'm very fortunate: my songs seem to attract artists looking for cover material. Usually someone will approach me, but I have openly and passionately wanted Marianne Faithfull to record a David Safran song. Any song would work, but I think a tune called "Adult Things" might be best. Marianne has an astonishing ability to transform every song she touches. She could do "Adult Things" with such vehemence and clarity and experience. I'm certain her version would be un-ignorable – it would knock listeners to the ground. She often works with the guitarist Marc Ribot. Marc heard "Adult Things" at a show we both performed at. He liked the song enough to play it back to me on his guitar. He also informed me that Marianne would "make it completely her own." That's exactly what a great cover should achieve.

5. If you could put on your dream concert, what would it look like and who might it benefit (and why)? 
Difficult to answer. I can't think about anything too dreamy. But, if not exactly a dream concert, a noteworthy show actually just happened: In late July, I supported Keren Ann at City Winery. It was a beautiful night. The audience was warm, receptive and very enthusiastic. I created a flutter in several women over the age of 65. The newest addition to my band, Kate Adams, performed with me. Kate is impossibly glamorous and talented. And, as a result, she knows perfectly well what's going on around her. At one point, I walked to the side of the stage and Kate did a fiery version of my song "Nothing Beyond the Kisses" completely solo. It was an extraordinary version. She created a flutter in a man under 30.

6. What do you love most about what you do?
Occasionally I make a virtue of my deficiencies.

7. In an alternate universe where you couldn't be a musician, what would you do (and why)?
Many people have suggested I already live in an alternate universe. I also don't consider myself a musician. I'm more like a fraudulent journalist. But I should answer this question correctly: I had a college girlfriend who repaired rare books in the library's Special Collections & Archives department. She found the work tedious, but I thought it was perfect. In an alternate universe, I'd love that job – just a man in a well-tailored suit restoring old books in the back of a library.

8. What's your favorite Jewish thing to do (or how do you Jew?) in Chicago?
What's my favorite Jewish thing to do in Chicago? Complain that no one in Chicago listens to my music. 

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