Seattle's Rafe Pearlman Finds New Music In Old World Traditions
Rafe Pearlman came into his music career 20 years ago, right when grunge was capturing the world's attention. He didn’t have a meteoric rise to the top, but the singer-songwriter is still moving forward, selling out local shows where he mixes rock music with the chanting of many faiths.
And he’s bringing a new audience to ancient spiritual traditions.
'Almost Cost Him His Life'
Pearlman didn’t quite fit in with the other kids in school.
He spent six years living off the grid in Alaskan bush country: fur trapping and learning to sing by howling with the sled dogs. He was homeschooled and studied lessons that were dropped from an airplane.
Pearlman said moving to Fairbanks for high school was a culture shock — one that got him into trouble with drugs and gangs.
When he moved in with his dad in California, things got worse and almost cost him his life.
“Not only was I on LSD, I was on crystal meth and cocaine and smoking weed and drinking. There was going to be this big rumble. There was going to be guns. There was all this crazy stuff happening," Pearlman said. "We were all getting psyched up for it and taking all of these drugs. I had one of those experiences where I had just taken too much."
He injured himself while wandering the streets that night and eventually passed out.
Pearlman said he felt his heart leave his body and heard a voice telling him he had gone too far.
When he came to, hours later, he decided to go back to Alaska and come clean to his mom.
“My mom basically said, ‘Hey I’ll help you get into rehab, like a two-year rehab program, or I’ll help you get into school if you think you can get clean,’" Pearlman said. "I said ‘I can get clean; I don’t want to go into some rehab center. I’ll get clean, I want to do this, and I want to go to school.’”
And more than 20 years ago, that’s how he arrived to Seattle.
'Something Just Didn’t Gel'
The Art Institute of Seattle gave Pearlman a creative outlet. He took commercial art courses and sang just for fun.
But it was his pure, soulful voice that connected with local musicians.
“I became friends with a guitarist who worked in the store there. He mentioned to me that his band was looking for a singer,” he said. “I auditioned, and the next thing I knew, I was playing in this full-on grunge band. That was totally their thing, and that soon became Thinkfeed.”
Thinkfeed played the same stages as some of the biggest names in grunge like Off Ramp and RCKNDY, but Pearlman’s band never got that record contract.
Something just didn’t gel.
'I’m Living A Good Life'
As grunge continued to evolve, so did Pearlman.
He studied shamanism. A book called “The Spiral Dance” introduced him to spirituality and world music.
He also connected with his Jewish roots, which led to more religious study.
“But when I’d read and sound out the transliterated passage, a lot of times it would spark a melody in me immediately. It was really fascinating,” he said. “And these little chants would come to me, just by reading a passage, and I’d connect with it. So some of these little things started coming into my music.”
He learned to sing the "Shema," a traditional Jewish blessing. But when he started singing it at Seattle church and synagogue services, he performed his own version of the prayer.
When Rabbi Ted Falcon heard Pearlman sing, he said he was intrigued by the unique style.
“It’s kind of an impressionistic channeling of melody and motif and words. I was fascinated,” Falcon said. “Because part of me felt there is an authenticity about what he’s doing that is extraordinary and extreme. And a rational part of me is saying ‘He’s got the words wrong.’”
“When I sing the 'Shema,' it’s not for Jews. It’s for the universality of what that statement is. And when I sing in those moments, I do want them to resonate,” Pearlman said.
He also performs at interfaith services, with prayers for Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. But at the same time, he sings rock.
His Los Angeles band, The Chelsea Royal, has been featured on TV shows. He’s currently touring the world with William Close and the Earth Harp Collective.
Looking back, Pearlman asks himself if he’s lived his life to the fullest.
“I think about my life and there are so many different movies in my life. I always think of, ‘Hey, I’m living a good life,’ because there are these amazing chapters. It’d be neat to be able to share it,” he said.
Produced for the Web by Akiko Oda.