Shulem Lemmer always dreamed of getting signed by a major record label, but he didn’t think it would ever become a reality. It didn’t occur to him to try to send out any of his music for consideration.
“I wouldn’t even know how to do that,” Lemmer told The Jewish Press in a phone interview. “I didn’t think it would be possible because of my frumness and being Hasidic.”
Lemmer did know how to make YouTube videos, and his version of “Chad Gadya” caught the attention of Graham Parker, president of Universal Music U.S. and Decca Gold, one of its new imprints.
“Having served on occasion as a cantor in my own synagogue, and even before those instances, I have loved cantorial music so it is not unusual for me to be researching and discovering music from this source,” Parker wrote in an e-mail to The Jewish Press. “So when I happened to find Shulem’s video on YouTube, it was a revelation to me that this voice I was listening to was so special and compelling. Although time passed before I was in a position to offer him a recording contract as I was not with Universal when I first became aware of Shulem, it was an immediate call to action to try to sign him once I had taken the position at the record label.”
The 28-year-old artist, who grew up in Borough Park, lived in Israel for more than five years and now lives in Toms River, New Jersey, first thought Parker’s interest was a joke.
“I didn’t think it was real,” he said. “But I figured I might as well and go see what it’s all about. We met in a coffee shop, one thing led to another and eventually, baruch Hashem, I signed a record deal with them.”
He said that besides lawyers, several rabbis went over the contract to make sure it was kosher. Lemmer, who is a Belzer Hasid, is shomer negiyah, so the only woman he can touch his wife. He said before every meeting at Universal, an e-mail went out reminding females not to attempt to shake his hand.
“If I can stay true to who I am it could be an amazing Kiddush Hashem,” Lemmer said, using the terms which means a sanctification of God’s name or an act that inspires people to look favorably on Judaism. “I’m grateful to Universal for this opportunity and encouraging me to stay my authentic self.”
Matthew Miller, known as Matisyahu, was able to shock the world by crossing over into the mainstream with “King Without A Crown,” which reached No.28 on the billboard charts and “One Day.” He performed on late night talk shows of David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel.
Can lightning strike twice?
Lemmer’s upcoming album “The Perfect Dream” will include covers plus one original track and two impressive singles have already been released: “Jerusalem of Gold” and “Bring Him Home” from the musical “Les Miserables.”
According to Parker, the commercial viability is there because people care more about talent than religion or outfits.
“It’s ultimately always about the voice, the music, the communication and the connection,” Parker wrote in an e-mail. I think the world is always ready to listen to a magnificent vocalist no matter who they are or what they wear, and Matisyahu certainly is an example to correlate but so is Björk, or Boy George or Sia. For Shulem, he is authentic to who he is and that will always remain the same because that is from where his music and his creative vision originates.”
Lemmer’s brother, Yanky, is a renowned chazzan and singing star of the Jewish music world. Did he feel pressure to be as good as his brother or to make a career out of his voice?
“It wasn’t pressure, it was more of a help,” he said. “We learned together, we were very close and we still are very close. He is a great chazzan and a great singer.”
Lemmer said he enjoys listening to some secular artists, including Michael Jackson. He said “Earth Song” was his favorite one of Jackson’s songs because of its positive message. He said there wasn’t one big moment where he realized he could be a professional singer, but has been on albums since the age of 14 and rose up the ranks to be a featured soloist in the Shira Choir.
As far as his accent, he said he’s not so concerned with the Hasidic part, but has been working to take a little of the Brooklyn accent out when he sings.
Lemmer said he knows the secular world may not have much exposure to Hasidim and might have stereotypes. He said he hopes is some way he can “change the perception if they may have negative views” and not only inspire fellow Jews, but people of all ethnicities and religions.
“I definitely think it will break a barrier,” he said. “I think it’s a message for everyone, not just people of my background that you don’t have to compromise who you are.”
It is believed to be the first time a Hasidic artist has been signed to a major label for a debut English album.
Is it a miracle?
“You always want to dream for the stars,” Lemmer said. “When you dream of something, you always dream of being the best. I think Hashem pointed me in the right direction.”
Lemmer will perform at the 92nd Street Y on July 24 in an event to be streamed on Facebook Live.