by David Chiu
Originally published in Spinner, September 8, 2010
Singer Clare Burson had always wanted to know about the early life of her Jewish grandmother, Helga Rabinowitsch. Yet Rabinowitsch was reluctant to talk about it with her granddaughter and for good reason: Helga, then 19, and her younger brother Axel left Germany on Nov. 9, 1938. Later that night, a pogrom occurred in which 91 Jews were killed and over 7,000 Jewish businesses were destroyed, an event now known as Kristallnacht. Both Rabinowitsch and her brother ended up in America and never saw their parents again.
It was this desire to know more about Helga’s life that led Burson, who is originally from Memphis, to become a history major in college. It also inspired her to write and record her latest album, ‘Silver and Ash,’ which is due out Sept. 14.
“She left before things got really bad,” the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Burson tells Spinner. “I’ve been more curious just to know what her life was like, to flesh her life out and get a better understanding of her parents — what they were like, what their relationships were like.”
Based on Burson’s interpretation of her grandmother’s early life, ‘Silver and Ash’ deals with theme of memory — from Rabinowitsch’s recollection of hearing Hitler screaming on the radio (‘Everything’s Gone’), to the apartment in Leipzig where she and her parents once lived in (‘Goodbye My Love’).
“What was so compelling about the story,” Burson says, “was that it was a secret. It was a mystery that no one spoke of. Once I learned about the Holocaust and kind of put two and two together, I was told to lay off and not ask my grandmother any questions about that. And of course I was like, ‘I need to know everything I can about the context she grew up in.’”
Burson went to Germany, where she lived for two years, and also visited Riga, Latvia, where Rabinowitsch’s family ended up after leaving Germany. Burson’s experiences abroad helped informed her as she was making the album.
“I had the opportunity to go into the apartment that my grandmother had grown up in and my great grandparents had lived in,” she says. “After that visit. I started writing the song ‘Magpie’ not really knowing what I was writing about other than the experience of being in Germany, trying to reconcile the present with the past and what could have been.”
Most of the songs on the new album take on a country-folk sound, but one stylistic deviation is ‘The World Turn on a Dime,’ a track with an old European feel that Burson says is a meditation on fate.
“The second verse looks at my maternal grandmother coming to the US in a boat,” she reveals. “There are pictures of her where she is smiling. She’s having a great time, she’s flirting with guys on the boat. I’m like ‘Oh my God, [you] just left the only home you’ve ever known. Unbeknownst to you, you said goodbye to your parents for the last time.’”
Overall, the making of ‘Silver and Ash’ has touched Burson on a personal level. “For me, it’s a been an incredible project of self-discovery and therapy,” she says. “It’s been the most meaningful project I’ve worked on certainly in my life, musical or otherwise.”
As for Rabinowitsch, who is now 91, she got a taste of what her granddaughter had created when she saw her perform songs from ‘Silver and Ash’ at a New York City concert in February 2009.
“She’s pretty overwhelmed by it,” Burson says. “Surprisingly, given how secretive and private she’s been about this, she’s kind of loving it too, to know that we love her enough to really put our emotions, time and effort into exploring who she is and where she came from, and in the same breath, discovering who we are as well.”