A Brooklyn-based Israeli musician contemplates the meaning of ‘home’ in new album


(New York Jewish Week) — Ella Joy Meir, the Brooklyn-based musician who leads the alt-pop group Iris Lune, did not expect to spend the first five months of the pandemic sequestered in her father’s home in Israel. She and her wife, journalist Mikhal Weiner, and their 1-year-old son had gone to visit family in Israel for five weeks in February 2020. When the country locked down, five weeks turned into five months.

Even though both Meir and Weiner grew up in Israel, they had moved to Boston together to attend the Berklee College of Music in 2011. They now live in Brooklyn — where Meir, 35, says she has never felt more at home. During her unanticipated extended stay in Israel, Meir found herself navigating a daily feeling of dissonance: What did it mean to be in one’s home country but not truly feel at home?

To answer this question, Meir turned to her music and her passion for collaborative artwork: For many years, she and Weiner ran Salomé ArtHaus, an arts collaborative that mounted several multidisciplinary art exhibits in Brooklyn out-of-pocket. But this time, Meir’s project had outside funding: a Sprout Fund Award from The Russell J. Efros Foundation, which provides financial support for artists to complete a project within a 12-month period.

The resulting visual album (think Beyonce’s “Lemonade”), titled “Home Is Where,” is a unique combination of mediums. Though each of the nine songs probes the idea of home — namely:  What is home? Is it a sensation, a feeling, a physical place or something else entirely? — each track also weaves together Meir’s haunting lyrics with visual interpretations from nine artists from across the globe.

“Home Is Where” will have its official premiere at DCTV in Manhattan on Thursday, Nov. 10 — Iris Lune’s first event since the pandemic. The album represents its own type of homecoming.

Identifying as culturally Jewish, Meir said her upbringing in northern Israel, in which she was immersed in Israeli music, exerts an inextricable influence on Iris Lune’s sound. “Israel has people from all around the world — it’s a melting pot,” she told the New York Jewish Week. “Even the definition of Israeli music is wonky because it encompasses so much: people bringing music from Morocco, from Poland, from everywhere.”

While Meir experienced certain elements of Israeli culture as very black and white — especially, she said, the division between the “secular” and “religious” communities — Israel’s music scene invited creativity. Meir was inspired to stretch the boundaries of English-language alt-pop, weaving together everything from Jewish liturgy and Middle Eastern sounds to James Blake and Billie Eilish. “I love celebrating diversity and celebrating the variations of the same fundamental ideas,” she said.

Prior to the pandemic, Iris Lune had been a staple of Brooklyn’s alt-music scene. It  began in 2013 as a collaboration between Meir and guitarist/composer Asher Kurtz, expanding to four members and eventually recording one LP and four EPs. Combining an infectious mix of electronic and organic sounds, Iris Lune’s previous songs delved into diverse themes: living with OCD, motherhood, grief and selfie culture, to name a few.

But 2020 and the “Home Is Where” album also mark a major change for Meir: The three other members departed the band on good terms to work on independent projects, and Iris Lune is now a “one-woman show,” as Meir called it.

“It’s both terrifying and freeing,” she said. “It’s really nice that I can just go with my gut and I can just do whatever I feel like, but at the same time, I miss creating music together.”

Then again, as the pandemic accelerated borderless virtual communication, Meir felt like the whole world was open to her. She wanted to know how other artists thought about home. She reached out to family members for artist recommendations and researched creators on Instagram. She was looking for collaborators who had the capability to create their own video to accompany each of the songs on the album. Before the project, she only knew three of the nine artists.

In what became a 12-month process, Meir meticulously interviewed each of her collaborators. “I had a two- or three-hour conversation with each one about their art and what home means to them,” she said. “It honestly felt like therapy sessions for both of us.” She also asked each artist to send her songs and sound samples that reminded them of home. Meir modified and then embedded these samples into the very fabric of the music.

“What I love about sampling are the happy mistakes and exploration — you never really know what you are going to get and no one will have that same sound,” Meir said. “For example, I had one of the participants send me a rooster call and I had to manipulate that in a way that made sense for the piece. It became a unique synthesizer.”

Five months later, Meir sent each of her collaborators a track — her interpretation of the interview and samples. The artist, in turn, had three months to create a visual response. In “Cocoon,” for example, Meir collaborated with Berlin-based dancer Jin Young Won. Where Meir describes the cocoon as a safe but fraught place, where the body literally warps, Won embodies this metamorphosis with haunting articulations from her hair to her finger tips.

Of all the songs on the album, “Grace” most directly addresses Meir’s Jewish/Israeli identity. For this song, Meir interviewed filmmaker Dalia Castel, an Israeli expat now living in Berlin. Castel grew up among the few secular families in the haredi Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim in the ’80s and ’90s. “She has a very complicated relationship with Jerusalem — she’s both very angry and fascinated by it,” Meir said.

The lyrics to “Grace” read like a love letter to a difficult partner — but really, she is singing to Jerusalem. “You are beautiful and mad/ and we were never skin to skin /but you’re still inside me like a holy parasite /Am I coming home now or just caving in?” Meir sings.

Jewish tradition often positions Israel — and Jerusalem, specifically — as the ultimate home of the Jewish people and a balm to centuries of exile. But, paradoxically, for many Israelis, the Diaspora has become home. “Where I live [in Brooklyn], I don’t feel like I have to try — I can be who I want, 100% myself without judgment,” Meir said. “And I am also free to reinvent what ‘myself’ means.”

Meir didn’t always feel as “at home” in the U.S. “When I moved from Israel to Boston to study at Berklee, I was shocked — it was a whole other way of living,” Meir said. “For a while I felt like I had no home, and then I ended up with two. It was a dance between like I’d lost everything and gained everything at the same time.”

Creating “Home Is Where,” however, crystalized some of Meir’s thoughts on the concept home — in fact, Meir said her biggest takeaway from the project was acceptance. “It’s OK to have a complicated relationship with home,” she said.

“Home Is Where” premieres Nov. 10 at DCTV at 87 Lafayette St. Details and tickets here. The album will be available for streaming on Apple Music and Spotify in early 2023.