Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Israeli idol’

Danny Weissfeld shares a moment with Kelly Clarkson during their current US tour. Kelly Clarkson may be in the spotlight, but the winner of the 2002 American Idol contest who has been launched into an overnight pop superstar boasts a …

Danny Weissfeld shares a moment with Kelly Clarkson during their current US tour. Kelly Clarkson may be in the spotlight, but the winner of the 2002 American Idol contest who has been launched into an overnight pop superstar boasts a strong supporting cast.

Her band nightly propels her upbeat pop/rock music far beyond the recorded version of the songs on her blockbuster second CD Breakaway. And no small part of the credit goes to guitarist Danny Weissfeld.

The 28-year-old native of Kfar Sava is realizing his dreams by performing in Clarkson’s band throughout the US this year to sold out arenas filled with fervent fans of all ages, and appearing late last month on the MTV Video Music Awards to a rapturous response.

Slipping out of the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, Maine after the band’s soundcheck two hours before showtime, the unassuming Weiss weaves undetected through the growing throng of fans arriving for the show, and warmly greets his visitors on the sidewalk.

“Let’s go in here,” he says, pointing to one of four custom tour busses lined up at the curb. Settling on a comfortable couch after plucking bottles of mineral water and Coke from the nearby refrigerator, Weissfeld recalls his journey from quiet suburbs of Israel to the bright lights of America’s stages.

“It’s a dream come true, to be doing this,” he tells ISRAEL21c. “I started playing guitar at 14 through a music program at my school in Kfar Sava called Katznelson. The program wasn’t anything extraordinary, but it succeeded in getting together a lot of kids that had an interest in music – so we got to share that experience together.”

Weissfeld credits his interest in music to his parents. “My mom played The Beatles and Motown around the house and my Dad played Mozart and Beethoven – and they both had an attraction to me and always fascinated me.”

Like most Israelis, a three-year stint in the IDF imposed a hiatus on Weissfeld’s musical development. A combat soldier at first, Weiss injured his back and eventually settled into a desk job.

“I thought I’d probably give up guitar playing after the army but I went back to it,” he says. He played as a backing guitarist for a number of artists before joining the Tel Aviv band Boten Matok Bakirkus.

“We had one song that got pretty popular on the radio in Israel – ‘Kol Ma She Nishar’ (All That Remains).”

Eventually growing frustrated with the small size of the Israeli pop music scene and the difficulties of making a living through playing music, Weissfeld decided in 2001 to try his luck in the US, and moved to Los Angeles.

“Every soldier after the army wants to go travel the world – I figured I’d just grab a guitar and see if I can make that work,” he said.

“At first it was horrible in LA – It was really hard showing up not knowing anybody and no friends,” he says. “It’s such a confusing path to choose, and there’s nobody to get tips from either. You’ve got find out on your own how to do this.

Weissfeld worked days in graphic design creating flyers, but pursued his music in the evening, until doors started opening.

“Eventually, things start happening – you meet people, you audition for bands, you go to some sessions. Everyone always knows somebody that’s one level above them, so if you’re good, you get recommended and start climbing the ladder,” Weissfeld says.

The ladder led him to accompaying Australian rapper/singer Jessy Moss on a tour, including dates opening for N.E.R.D. That in turn led to some work with pop diva Anastacia and singer/songwriter Courtney Jaye, as well as writing music for TV and movie soundtracks. But it was a phone call from American Idol judge and veteran musician Randy Jackson that changed his life.

“Randy was putting Kelly’s first band together – he had heard about me from a few different producers, and called me for the audition,” says Weissfeld who adds that he didn’t know who Clarkson was. “I had heard about American Idol, but I had never really watched the show or anything. I had no idea who she was.”

Despite that disadvantage, Weissfeld quickly learned the parts from Clarkson’s debut album Thankful and added a few of his own twists, which impressed Jackson enough to take him on as one of the band’s two guitarists. Their no-pressure debut – On The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in January, 2004, with Weissfeld proudly displaying his Israeli patriotisim by wearing a Hadag Nahash t-shirt.

Since then, it’s been a steady stream of gold albums and sold out shows for Clarkson and the band, which has coalesced into a genuine joint creative venture.

“Sure, I’m just the guitar player, but we definitely have input. Kelly always wants to hear what we think about songs and arrangements. She trusts us – she’s great at what she does with her vocals, but she’d never been in a band before, arranging songs and producing. She wants to learn as much as she can from us,” says Weissfeld.

That includes collaborating with Clarkson on songs for her next album and teaching some private lessons on the guitar.

“Yeah, I was teaching her guitar, but she hasn’t really been practicing lately,” says Weissfeld with a laugh.

Beyond that, Weissfeld isn’t looking too far in the future, because the present is so good.
He’d like to incorporate Israel – which he currently visits about once every nine months -more prominently in his plans.

He’s released his own album Sivuv Hofaot recorded on a laptop system during free time on tour – which he describes as a blend of Israeli/Middle Eastern folk music and alternative rock.

“It’s kind of fasciniating for Americans when they find out I’m Israeli,” says Weissfeld. “I get a lot of questions about the army – and what’s going on in Israel. People watch CNN and they think it’s a war zone. A lot of people have actually gone on trips to Israel because of me – sometimes I feel like an ambassador,” he adds with a smile.

Noticing that he has to get back to the arena for the pre-show rituals, Weissfeld apologizes for not being able to introduce his boss to the visitors.

“I’m sure some other time you could meet her, but her family is traveling with her today, so she’s tied up.”

With that, Weissfeld bounds off the bus, and walks back through the even thicker crowd than before – many staring suspiciously at him as if they should recognize him, but don’t. It’s a good bet that one day they will.