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Interview with Shani Kimelman

It has long been the dream of many young musicians to head to California and the bright lights of Los Angeles to find fame and fortune, yet Shani Kimelman has travelled further than most. Born and raised around the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, Shani picked up her first guitar in her early teens and soon began to emulate the sounds of her rock and metal heroes, even nurturing the talents of other music lovers as a guitar tutor.

Eventually earning a place at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, Shani then traded the east coast for the west, arriving in L.A. with dreams of breaking into the music industry. Over the last few years she has built an online following through her homemade videos, showcasing her talents through renditions of classic and often complex riffs from some of her favourite songs. Already demonstrating a talent some could only dream of possessing, Shani now looks ahead at the next stage of her journey.

Shani Kimelman reflects on her journey from Israel to L.A.

Everyone loves music but not everyone decides to pick up an instrument and learn to play, what was your motivation for doing so?

As a child and while growing up I was always surrounded with musicians, and very good ones. Probably around ninety per cent (or more) of the people I got to know throughout my life are musicians. Before I started playing guitar I used to sit in the room while my friends would jam and just listen. Whenever it would happen I would feel like an outsider and I wanted so much to take part in this. I think it’s what motivated me to pick up an instrument and my love for rock and metal motivated me to choose the guitar.

Coming from a family of musicians and initially starting out on the saxophone, what prompted you to move to guitar and were you as passionate about jazz as you were about metal?

The reason I started playing the saxophone is that my father is a great saxophone player and a great teacher. In second grade he started teaching me how to play and we would practice together three or four times a week, usually for over an hour. It was like that for two or three years. Since I was very young I was not allowed to take out the instrument without him being in the room, and since I was always practicing with my teacher I didn’t have time to develop and get used to bad playing habits. He would always correct me on the spot and I developed a great sound, was progressing very fast and playing very good for my age.

HOWEVER, I was seven or eight-years-old and to be honest my true passion at that time was not jazz nor metal. It was riding my bicycle in the neighbourhood with friends. So if after an hour or two of playing, if my mouth wasn’t slurry to the point I can’t play anymore – and that would make me laugh so bad – I would tell my dad that I wanted to go outside. I have funny memories of how we would bargain on how many more times I needed to play a certain scale or a piece before I could go outside. It was a great time and it shaped my understanding of music for later times. Guitars, rock and metal came way later when I was fourteen or fifteen and I can definitely say I wasn’t as passionate about jazz as I am about metal. Jazz is a very beautiful genre but it doesn’t excite me.

There is a very prominent extreme metal scene in Israel, as Sam Dunn had documented in his 2007 film Global Metal. Were you initially more inspired by the metal acts of your own country or those from the United States and Europe?

I was very inspired by the Israeli metal scene and many of my friends from Israel are/were part of it. I was especially inspired and amazed by a band named Acropolis that doesn’t exist anymore. However, I think for the long run it was international acts and guitarists that influenced me most and made me pick up the guitar and choose my path with it.

Among the musicians whose work you have performed are Nuno Bettencourt and Paul Gilbert, both of whom are known for their complicated riffs. When you were first learning to play guitar what were the more basic songs that you used to practise?

When I just started playing I couldn’t play ANYTHING from the stuff I liked listening to. Playing stuff by Jason Becker, Paul Gilbert, Nuno and more seemed absolutely impossible and so far away from achieving. It was so frustrating. I started with basic stuff like Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb (how surprising) or Jason Becker’s Blue…not that basic but for some reason it’s one of the first solos I played. At first I didn’t play rhythm at all. I would just learn to play the solo (or part of it) of a song and move on, and other songs and solos I would play extremely slow and work up to speed. It feels to me like a very sudden and weird transition, but something happened after two years of playing and my hands started moving. Lately I’ve been going back to songs that seemed impossible to play in the past and all of a sudden I can play them. It feels great.

Shani Kimelman

Prior to relocating to America you taught guitar in Tel Aviv, would you say that teaching others how to play had an impact on yourself as a musician that you may not have realised had you not become a tutor?

I was mostly teaching very young kids and usually from scratch. Some students were older and more capable and it made the lessons more fun and interesting for me. I didn’t feel like it had much impact on me as a musician but I learned the importance and the values that playing an instrument can give to kids, especially at a young age. I was lucky to have talented students and I really wanted to make them passionate about guitar like I was. I’m curious to meet some of them in a few years and see where they have taken it.

You seem particularly keen on the glam and hair metal scene of the late 1980s, particularly Mr. Big. What is it about that particularly brand of rock that fascinates you so much and do you wish you could have been in Los Angeles performing during that era?

I think it was the era of guitar heroes. So many bands had crazy guitar players, great songs and great music and in my opinion these years and this type of rock took guitar playing to a new level as far as playing and sound. I like the combination of bluesy and melodic guitar riffs, with cliché lyrics, catchy vocal lines and great performance and musicianship, and the awesome energy that comes from this genre (and the hair style!). I definitely wish I was born in time to experience this era in Los Angeles but on the other hand that would mean I’d be in my fifties now and I’m not ready for that yet.

The industry has changed significantly over the last fifteen years with how music is consumed, making it harder for emerging artists to achieve longevity. Do you have any kind of master plan on how you hope to forge a successful career?

Right now I don’t have an exact master plan except for being the best I can. I want to keep learning and develop as a guitarist and musician and I know this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life, regardless of how much money or fame it will bring me.

Has your goal been to record and perform as a solo artist or were you hoping to meet other likeminded musicians and form a band?

Both. It’s an amazing feeling when you get to play your own music with other musicians and I would definitely want to form a band and perform my own stuff. I also love playing with people and I feel I haven’t done that enough and would very much like to join bands that plays different styles except my own music.

While your YouTube videos have often focused on the electric guitar do you also like to play acoustic and are there any specific artists that have influenced you in that way?

I’m not much of an acoustic player. I never really owned an acoustic guitar and didn’t play on it much. I have an amazing nylon string guitar, which is about fifty years old and sounds amazing but I had no choice but to leave it in Israel. Whenever I did come across acoustic or classical guitars I usually played country and finger style tunes. I’ve worked on some Jerry Reed and Chet Atkins tunes and I also liked playing fingerstyle arrangements for pop songs by Sungha Jung.

Many rock musicians collaborate with pop stars as it allows them to try something new outside of the expectations of the genre, such as Nuno Bettencourt touring with Rihanna. Are there any specific pop stars you would like to work with and what is it about them that appeals to you?

I have one very specific actually. Playing for Lady Gaga would be a dream come true for me. I think she is a genius and I love her music, her voice and the performance she gives. She brings something new and refreshing to pop and commercial music in my opinion.

Comparisons have often been made between heavy metal and classical music, particularly the likes of Vivaldi, while some artists such as Sepultura have incorporated other elements such as tribal. Does this kind of music appeal to you and would you like to experiment beyond the metal genre?

I love it when metalheads play classical tunes (Vivaldi was the first thing that came to my mind) and as far as classical music, I really like Stravinsky but except him I’m not really into classical music. Tribal music and its elements are incorporated in many genres and it’s very interesting to see how it affected and effects music. Exploring and focusing on new genres is something I will definitely do at some point. I like fusion, gospel and R&B music, and also country and fingerstyle, but I’ve yet to really focus on these genres and get into it for long enough.

Shani Kimelman onstage

Would you say you are as comfortable performing in public as you are when recording a video and do you have a routine that prepares you for going onstage?

Performing for me is always very exciting and makes me a bit nervous in a good way. I didn’t perform much lately and it’s something I miss a lot. I’m not sure if I’m as comfortable playing in public like I am at home when I record a video because it’s a very different experience. I feel comfortable pretty much the same if I’m playing stuff I know but when it comes to improvising I notice a difference. My preparation before going on stage includes warming up and playing for a few hours and making sure my equipment is all set, that everything works and I have everything I need.

You have already travelled from Israel to Los Angeles via the Berklee College of Music, so you could already say you are living the dream. Did you ever think you would come this far and what will be your next step?

I wouldn’t say I’m living my dream yet, but I think I took the first major step or two to get closer to it. I wanted to go to Berklee a very long time ago but never had the money, and the same goes for moving to Los Angeles. Everything happened very fast in the last two years and big changes happened that I’m grateful for. My next step will be to start building my life as a musician here in L.A., release lots of YouTube videos and also my EP and my album. I’m not sure about where I’ll be a year from now but I hope it’ll be LA.

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