In 2014, early on in a three-year stint spent living in Israel, songwriter Ben Fisher took a vacation to Japan. Sitting in a hotel room in Tokyo, he spontaneously wrote a song about the founding of Tel Aviv — in about 15 minutes.
The story goes that the first Tel Aviv homesteaders chose their plots of land at random by picking seashellsfrom the Mediterranean shoreline with numbers written in them. Fisher named the song “The Shell Lottery.”
Earlier that year, the Seattle-based songwriter had quietly released an album of country-tinged folk rock called “Charleston.” But Fisher, a self-described “huge musical nerd,” had long wanted to write a more ambitious concept album in the vein of Sufjan Stevens’ cult classic “Illinois” and “Michigan” records. “The Shell Lottery” was the moment he had been waiting for.
“I realized that it could serve as the start of something bigger, something more cohesive,” he said.
Over the course of the next year, while living in an apartment across from the Old City in Jerusalem, he went on to write most of the songs that wound up on his folky, heartfelt 17-track opus “Does the Land Remember Me?”
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On the album, which comes out Sept. 7, Fisher inhabits a range of characters, from early Israelis nervous about their new country to Palestinians forced to leave their homes to a settler imagining his eventual expulsion from the West Bank. There are history lessons on Masada, terrorist attacks and Israeli figures such as singer Meir Ariel and astronaut Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli to make it into space (he was killed in the fatal Columbia mission in 2003).
Some songs also capture the 26-year-old Fisher’s contemporary perspective on the city and country he grew to love, from his apartment on what he calls “the seam” between Jewish western Jerusalem and Arab eastern Jerusalem. Each song has an explanatory liner note giving the listener context and, in some cases, a mini history lesson.
“You hear gunshots from terrorist attacks, you see dead terrorists in the public park adjacent to the walls of the Old City,” reads the liner note for “Horses and Helpers,” one of the tracks sung from Fisher’s contemporary perspective. “You are late to work because a car has plowed into your light rail station, aiming to run down people going about their daily business. You’re not allowed to leave the Damascus Gate of the Old City after getting coffee with friends because there has been a stabbing attack and they’re still searching for the perpetrator.”