By Justin Gilmore
The Isaacs have been a mainstay in Gospel and Bluegrass music for years. This acclaimed family has captivated audiences with their harmony and musicianship. Most importantly their hearts for God are truly apparent. I recently had the pleasure to talk with matriarch Lily Isaacs about the group’s career and their recent Grammy-nominated album, Nature’s Symphony in 432: A Journey from Pain to Praise.
Gilmore: Tell me about the formation of the group, the early days.
Isaacs: Well, the Isaacs started with myself and my kids’ father Joe Isaacs, who’s my ex-husband. We started singing in 1971 after we got saved.We had a
band at the time and we performed just on weekends because we had full time jobs. And as time went on and we got busier, we went into full time ministry in 1986.
As our children were teenagers, they showed a lot more interest in music and so as one band member would leave, the kids would take their place. Sonya was the first one, taking up the position of the mandolin and then Ben went on bass, and then Becky went to the guitar. So it wasn’t really a plan, it just happened that way. So today we are an all-family band and we also have a drummer and my grandson Levi, who now plays guitar for us as well.
Gilmore: What is the group’s mission statement?
Isaacs: Our mission statement is that we want the world to know that there is hope in trusting the Lord. There are a lot of things- most all things- that are out of our control, and (we need) to just put our lives in God’s hands. Trust Him with everything is the most important thing you could do. So our mission is to go out there and let people walk away with a feeling of hope and not despair. There is hope through Christ.
Gilmore: Who are/were the group’s musical influences?
Isaacs: We had a lot of different influences. My kids’ father Joe Isaacs was very
popular in the Bluegrass industry so he would listen to groups like the Stanley Brothers and Bill Munroe. So the Bluegrass end of what we do basically started with that. I personally am a Folk singer. I [recorded] an album on Columbia Records in 1968. I loved people like Simon and Garfunkel, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Bob Dylan, so we had a unique blend of what we liked. Our kids grew up with both sides of that.
My kids would love to listen to Ricky Skaggs. The Marshall Family was one of our favorites, who was a group that was very popular in the ‘70’s. We loved listening to a lot of variety type of music. I would say that my son Ben was always a Country music fan, of the old-style Country that you hear on the Grand Ole Opry. So he loved that style. My daughters also would listen to a variety. Like Eva Cassidy, and the Country gentlemen who were more progressive, and bluegrass influences; Allison Krauss of course. So it’s just a complete mixture and I guess that’s why we have what we have today.
Gilmore: Great! What is the most memorable experience you have had in your career singing Gospel/Bluegrass music?
Isaacs: The most memorable experience I think that I’ve had is probably when we performed at Carnegie Hall. That’s one of the most memorable. We had an opportunity to go up there with the Gaithers. It was the year after 9/11 and Gaither put on a patriotic event at Carnegie Hall and we were a part of that.
Growing up in New York City, Carnegie Hall was always my dream. I never dreamed that I would go there. I just wanted to go see that stage let alone be on that stage performing. It was a very memorable event as they honored firefighters, first responders, and police officers and everybody in New York City who responded to 9/11. So it was a very emotional video.
But the highlight to me was my kids got to do the National Anthem, and we did another song as well. My parents are Polish Holocaust survivors, Jewish, and we
had my mother come out on stage that night. Bill Gaither introduced her, and at 82 years old, he asked her if she wanted to say anything.
In her thick Polish accent, she said, ‘I am proud to be an American now!’ And she got a standing ovation. After everything she had been through in her life and losing everything during World War II, it was an electrifying moment, because my parents and I became American citizens when I was nine years old. Just to stand there and have her say that and to get a standing ovation was just probably the most memorable moment of I think all of our lives.
Gilmore: Wow! That is pretty incredible!
Isaacs: Pretty amazing. It was incredible! And she had never been honored for anything in her life, why would she be, and it was so unexpected and Bill was so gracious to get her out on stage. I was kind of nervous as she had never been to a Gospel show before and hadn’t heard our family sing Gospel music, (that’s a whole other story in itself). She came and when he invited her on stage, I was a little anxious and I wasn’t sure what she would say, but it was perfect! She was charming. She was just perfect!
Gilmore: Let’s talk about your latest radio single and integrating your Jewish heritage into your music.
Isaacs: Well our latest single is “This Is The Year,” which talks about this year being the year of Jubilee. It actually was supposed to be over at the end of October and every 50 years in Judaism, since the beginning of time, there is a year called Jubilee. My girls studied it quite a bit. It speaks of it in Leviticus 23 about how all debts would be cancelled, all people would be healed, and it was a year of new beginnings, a new start. You know the Jewish people were excited about this particular time because it would give them a fresh start.
The actual holiday began on the eve of Yom Kippur, which is the Day of Atonement. We happened to be in the studio that day and recording the vocals on that particular song. So we decided that it would be so cool to have someone open the song with a shofar, which is the instrument that’s used in the synagogue for every celebratory holiday. It happened that the engineer knew how to blow a shofar, so we waited until sundown and had him blow that shofar and we had some of our friends join us.
You know this has been a year of Jubilee. We had a change in our people and our country, giving it back to God; you know it just seems that the song is very timely. We just wanted to get it out there this year especially for that reason. We being Jewish, the DNA of the mother passes through, so my kids, though their father is not Jewish, are considered full blooded Jews and we have dual citizenship in America and Israel for that reason.
It’s just all of our lives, and my kids’ lives. You know we always pay attention to that because the New Testament is an extension of the Old Testament. Jewish people believe in God; very beautiful religion, and very religious. Jewish people are godly people. However, they don’t accept Jesus as Messiah. But I think one day they will.
So we just incorporate what we can and we are proud of heritage. My ex-husband is from Kentucky and his parents were preachers. So it was quite a unique upbringing my family had. We do what feels good, we don’t try to fit in a box. My girls wrote all the songs on this new album so we were able to expand our territory that way.
Gilmore: Congratulations on being nominated for a Grammy for this record.
Isaacs: I can’t believe it!
Gilmore: Tell me about the recording process for the album.
Isaacs: When we started on this new album, we had had probably the two hardest years of our lives. Each one in our family was facing some type of life devastation. For example, my daughter Becky had been suffering from Crohn’s disease for many years and actually went into remission five years ago. But because of that she suffers anxiety. People don’t see that on stage. That’s something she’s dealt with forever.
Two years ago, in 2014, my mother passed away at the age of 95. She was a huge force in our family and that was a big loss.
Two weeks later, my daughter Sonya was carrying a little girl who she named after my mother and lost her. She hemorrhaged and gave birth to a stillborn. That was very devastating. Two weeks exactly from when my mother passed away.
My son has a family member who is suffering addiction and has dealt with that for the last three to four years which was very hard for him.
The subtitle for this album is: A Journey from Pain to Praise. All of these songs were born out of our own life experiences. The girls just started writing songs with other writers and when you hear a song that my family has written, that’s what was on their mind that day, that’s what they were living basically. That’s why I think this album is so special.
My daughter Sonya got fascinated with nature and birds and named her daughter Ava Devorah which means little bird, my mother’s name was Fiegel Devorah which also means little bird, so after she lost the baby and all through her last few years of experiences, she was fascinated with the sounds of birds and the sounds of nature. After she lost the baby, she had a special visit from a bird on her windowsill singing to her which was so emotional for her; so she started researching sounds of birds and nature and come to find out that all of nature is tuned to 432 megahertz not 440 which is standard tuning.
After all the research that we did, 432 tuning was what they used for the Gregorian Chants, the Stradivarius fiddles in the 1700s, because people didn’t have the modern day tuners like they do today. So the only way they could tune their instruments and voices was to nature. The birds sing in 432, the whales bellow in 432, the sounds that you hear in our atmosphere and our nature is 432. Studies have shown that the tuning of 432 is more calming and healing to the spirit and the cells respond subconsciously to 432 more than ever.
We’re not New Agey, this does not come from New Age, but we just started doing so much research about that and realized that God was telling us: “You’ve got to record this album in 432 tuning.” It is just a little bit under 440 but with the natural ear you can’t hear it, but if you play along with it in standard tuning it would sound out of tune. It’s just a lower frequency and it vibrates a little slower, but spiritually we feel like it just connected with the songs and what we were doing.
The recording process was very interesting when we went it the studio. We had the piano tuned seven days in a row down to 432 and then back up after we were done. We had the National Symphony, the strings, come in and play on several of the songs and they also had to tune their instruments to 432.
The whole process was so unique, and the outcome was I think — I love listening to it myself and when it opens up, I feel connected to the Creator. So the whole process was exciting, and just to feel people recognize it by nominating it for a Grammy, is more confirmation that God was pleased with the way we brought this forth.
Gilmore: What do you hope audiences take away from the album and your concerts?
Isaacs: We hope that they take time and listen to the voice of God. Take time to listen to what’s around you, you know. We live in such a fast paced world. Everything’s drive through. Drive through prayer, drive through work, drive through food. God has created this beautiful and magnificent world for us to enjoy and if anyone’s like me, it’s like you’re so busy living, that you forget to pay attention to things that really matter. We hope that when people listen to this album that they pay attention to God’s beautiful creation and renew their spirit and be in connection with the Holy Spirit.
Gilmore: How do you present your faith in your concerts? How do you put your faith into action, every day?
Isaacs: Well, when I wake up every morning, I try to take time to reflect on my day, pray and read a scripture if I can. I am constantly in prayer throughout the day. I say, “Lord, I don’t know what you have in store for me today, but help me to be that person who will receive.” My family as well. My children were saved at a very young age.
We are busy working a lot but we try to carry that into our ministry and when we are on stage and whenever we go somewhere, we give our testimonies. Each one of us has a story they want to tell. There is always somebody out there that is going to connect with what you have to say.
We have found that when you get on the same level with your audiences and just show them that we are real people. We have suffered the same thing you have, but we got through it. That’s kind of our motive in ministry.
Everyone has someone in their life that suffers addiction. That’s overcoming addiction. Everyone has someone in their family that has a disease that they are fighting or getting over. Everyone in their family has had a loss whether it be an old person or a baby or lost a child. So we try to bring that personal aspect to our concerts.
Gilmore: Any advice for aspiring groups or Gospel singers?
Isaacs: I guess my advice would be: be yourself! You know so many people try to be who other people are, that I think if you have a talent or a desire, to just be yourself. If you love what you do, the music you do or the songwriting you do, go for it! The American Dream is to go after it and don’t give up.
You know if you have to get a job as waitresses of waiter, while you’re doing your songwriting, do it. But don’t give up your dream. I think that would be my advice. A lot of young people these days have a spirit of entitlement, but it doesn’t come with that. We, The Isaacs, for example, have been singing for 40 years and we are still working. You don’t get it handed to you on a silver platter. You have to work; you have to be dedicated. Keep focused on the ministry and keep focused on the Lord. Be yourself!
Gilmore: What can fans expect from the group this year?
Isaacs: Well, we are going to the Grammys in February so we’re excited about that. We are getting ready to back into the studio to do another recording perhaps later this Spring. My daughter Sonya is expecting a baby girl in April so we’re excited about that. We are going to Israel in July. It’ll be our 13th trip and we love going and taking people with us. Terry Bradshaw, who is the executive producer of our new album, is also going to be doing an album this year on the House of Isaacs Music label and we’re thrilled about that. A lot of positive things coming up but a lot of work. Hopefully, we can just continue doing what we are doing and meet all the people out there who are faithfully going to our shows.
Photos courtesy of The Isaacs and Craig Harris.
By Justin Gilmore
First published by SGNScoops magazine in January 2017
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