When Eli Lev accepted a teaching position at a little middle school out in the heart of the Navajo Nation’s vast desert, he wasn’t quite prepared for the culture-shock awaiting him.
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“Going from green trees and grass to an open, expansive desert was really an eye-opening and life-changing experience for me,” he told American Songwriter. “When I got there, I was really just a fresh-faced student teacher right out of university.”
But soon, Lev began to feel right at home in the northern Arizona town of Shonto, where the school was located. In fact, learning about the culture, traditions and teachings of the Navajo people proved to be so enlightening that, after a few years, he felt inspired to give one last, full-efforted try on one of his dreams: pursuing music professionally. Now, with hundreds of thousands of streams racked up and fans from literally around the world, that dream is becoming a reality. In June, Lev will release True North, the final EP in a 4-part series inspired by the Navajo teaching of the “four directions”—the EP’s first single, “I Wanna Tell You,” dropped on April 9.
With double-tracked vocals reminiscent of the ‘90s, infectiously folky melodies reminiscent of the ‘10s and an atmosphere unique to his sincere approach to songcraft, “I Wanna Tell You” shows off all of Lev’s eclectic influences as they come together to form a single sound.
“One of the cool things about getting into the music industry so late in the game is that I’m totally free when it comes to what I sound like,” Lev said, alluding to the fact that he started his career in his mid-30s. “There are so many cool things I want to do—whether it’s indie-folk or pop or honky tonk or Americana or anything. They’re all palettes I can use to convey the message of the song and, for me, it’s all about the meaning and the message.”
In a way, Lev owes a lot to the Navajo community who embraced him. An artist devoted to a certain brand of sentimental expression, some of the wisdom he gained in northern Arizona went on to serve as the foundation for his record-making process, as evidenced by the “four directions cycle” of EPs that he’s put out—preceded by All Roads East (2017), Way Out West (2018) and Deep South (2019), True North is the final release of the series.
“The community really took me in,” Lev began, explaining the cycle’s origins. “I got to go to a lot of their community events. Once I was there for about a year, they invited me to their sweat lodge ceremonies. Then, after another couple years, I got to experience the Kinaaldá ceremonies, which is a female coming-of-age. In all of these ceremonies, the ‘four directions’ kept coming back, over and over again.
“So, I did a writing unit in my English class on ‘how to write a paper’ using the ‘four directions’ teaching. The east is the beginning—we get our ideas. South is where you plan it. West is where we write a first draft. North is where we edit and look back. My students got really into that—they really understood it and grasped the concept. So, I thought ‘Well, why don’t I try this with my music?’
“At the time, I had no idea what I was doing, musically. I got into music very late in the game and I didn’t have any structure or groundwork for it. I needed something that would carry me through, so I thought ‘Okay, the four directions help me with my teaching and with my life, so let’s bring this into the music.’ Sure enough, that’s guided me over the past four or five years of making this music, which is amazing.”
One of the cooler things about Lev’s “four directions” cycle is the fact that each EP shows him exploring a slightly different sound. Raised on the East Coast, All Roads East indulges in his alt-country and Americana roots. Way Out West takes on more of an indie-folk element. Deep South, naturally, looks at the marriage between folk, rock and pop which illuminates so much classic American music. True North, fittingly, gives Lev space to show off his intimate, singer-songwriter side, which is evident on “I Wanna Tell You.”
“Well, of course, the narrator in ‘I Wanna Tell You’ is talking to a past lover—but, at the same time, it’s also me singing to myself,” Lev explained. “I’m different now. We’re different now. Everyone becomes different. We can’t connect with people the same way we did in the past. That’s a scary thing, but it’s also a liberating thing because only through change can we grow. That song just came out of me—there was no intention there, I wasn’t thinking about it. It’s just a pure expression of where I was in that specific moment of life. It’s like the letter you write but never send. It’s to remind me that it’s okay to grow, it’s okay to be different. Sometimes when we’re in a new place, we just need to remind ourselves that.”
That’s something Lev always makes an effort to do—take the lessons he learns from his travels and experiences and share them with the world through his songs. That’s certainly what he was setting out to do with his “four directions” cycle.
“I was like ‘Okay, I’m just going to do everything I can to share just the small amount of information I’ve learned in my time out there,’” he said. “I spent about two years learning about indiginous history, trying to understand the genocide that happened in our country. We don’t usually talk about it that way, but I had to spend two years essentially unlearning everything I had been taught growing up as a middle class white male. So, to me, it was really important to know who I was, know who our society was and know where our country came from. That was a lot of deep work. I know that not everyone else has the opportunity to connect, in that way, with a population who we don’t really get to see.”
But, for Lev, it’s been heartening to see how wide the reach of his music has been. “A lot of my former students are huge fans, they keep up with me on Instagram,” he said “It’s really awesome to see them and know that they appreciate what I’m doing. It kinda brings all of the aspects of my life together into one single work. I have this community called the ‘Levitators,’ which is an amazing group of people. We’re up to about 1,000 ‘Levitators’ now, which is awesome. In that community, on those livestreams, are friends I have from Andorra (I was a teacher there too), friends I have from Israel, former-students from the Navajo nation, my parents’ friends, elementary school kids, people who just found my music through Instagram two weeks ago—It’s the entire world in this community.”
In that sense, Lev, his craft and his success are indicative of some of the truly incredible things that modern music technology has made possible. By connecting with thousands of people from across the globe and sharing a message of unity, Lev is able to enjoy one of the greatest things that anyone—especially musicians—can enjoy: community.
“The songs and music have brought together this community from all over the world, from all walks of life,” he said. “We share that vibration of positivity and kindness. So, it’s really special.”
The final EP in Eli Lev’s “four directions” series, True North, is due to drop on June 25. Listen to the EP’s debut single, “I Wanna Tell You,” below: