With over 7 million recent YouTube views and a screen debut with Billy Crystal, mainstream success is in reach for musical trio, Distant Cousins.
“We’re somewhat giddy to see how far the music we make in our little spot in Los Angeles can spread in the world,” says Distant Cousins bandmate Dov Rosenblatt.
Not genetically related (as far as they know), the three band members of Distant Cousins make their home in LA’s highly Jewish Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Each met while performing shows with their previous bands, long before they were married fathers seeking to support themselves and their growing broods in the music industry.
By working in Hollywood, the three make a living writing, performing and producing music for commercials, film and television. As Distant Cousins, they also release albums, play live gigs and tour.
As a band, the threesome also picks up other gigs — such as performing behind-the-scenes and on screen: Distant Cousins appears as a fictitious synagogue band beside Billy Crystal, who portrays a politically-engaged rabbi in the dramedy, “Untogether,” which opened February 8.
While filming, the Cousins said they hit it off with the legendary comedian.
“We had so much fun with him in between takes when he would walk over to us and start singing ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ classics,” Rosenblatt says. “We’d jam along and then the director would be ready to yell ‘action,’ except he was having way too much fun singing and wasn’t quite ready to stop.”
In another project, millions of viewers of a trailer for the animated film, “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World 3,” which premiered February 22, have heard the Distant Cousins’ blood-pumping song, “Are You Ready.”
Commissioned to write and record, Distant Cousins also enjoy the kind of kismet that characterizes the business of music licensing. Through licensing, a single song, such as the band’s “On My Way,” can appear in multiple contexts, including the Season 14 premiere of “American Idol” and a 2014 Macy’s ad for jeans. Their tune “Are You Ready” not only appears in the newest installment of the DreamWorks “Dragon” franchise, but also appeared in the film, “This is Where I leave You.”
Sometimes well after songs are written, music supervisors consider and submit songs to producers of TV, film and commercials in response to specific requests. When well placed, music and lyrics organically fit to “sync” with dialogue or a scene.
“Are You Ready” is a strong example of a successful sync, Rosenblatt says. The song appears in the latest installment of the DreamWorks Animation family-friendly trilogy, in which a boy befriends, tames and takes to the sky on a wild dragon.
“You’d think we wrote it just for the movie,” says Rosenblatt. “The lyric ‘fly on your own’ appears on screen at one point as the dragon takes flight. We actually wrote it four years earlier. At the time, the song was a meaningful one for us because we immediately sensed there was ‘something there,’ which pushed us to edit and fine-tune the final [version] for quite some time.”
Like fine wine, only getting better
The group’s sound builds on the prior success each Cousin tasted before they joined forces.
The eldest Cousin, 40-something Duvid Swirsky, grew up making music beside the guitar-slinging Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, at Moshav Mevo Modi’im, the village Carlebach founded.
There, Swirsky met his other bandmate, Yehuda Solomon, with whom he continues to perform in their popular world music and Jewish rock group Moshav — named after their hometown. Moshav is a fixture at Jewish cultural events, music festivals, weddings and bar or bat mitzvahs.
The second most senior Cousin, Rosenblatt, 36, grew up in Baltimore and first made headlines with his former band, Blue Fringe. After performing together for eight years, the members dispersed across the US.
Like Rosenblatt, the youngest Cousin, Ami Kozak, 32, is an East Coast transplant. He performed with his high school band at the same shows as Rosenblatt and later moved west to pursue commercial music.
The trio also pursue other professional opportunities independently. Swirsky recently began voicing the performances of a lead character in the ABC-TV primetime drama, “A Million Little Things.” Rosenblatt remains part of the duo Wellspring, which composes music for TV and film. And Kozak, who studied at what is now the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, also composes and produces. Each maintains a home studio.
Whatever the gig, Swirsky says, composing and performing share certain constants.
“You still need to do your best work, your soul’s work. Everyone knows — from the shul to the club, everyone knows — if it’s real,” he says. “You have to share what’s in your heart and soul no matter what you’re doing.”
Although the bulk of their work is not on the road, Rosenblatt and Kozak, who both attend Modern Orthodox synagogues, face the challenge of keeping Shabbat.
“It definitely isn’t easy,” Rosenblatt says. “We aren’t the first band of Jews to play shows all through the week except Friday nights — and Saturday nights half the year,” Rosenblatt says. “And we’re grateful to artists like Evan and Jaron, Peter Himmelman, Matisyahu, Alex Clare, and others who have paved the way.”
Swirsky’s other band, Moshav, also does not perform on Shabbat. But twice monthly, Swirsky appears at Nefesh, a community led by Rabbi Susan Goldberg at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in LA’s Koreatown.
“It’s a warm music service that connects with a lot of people who otherwise don’t have a lot of connection to Judaism,” Swirsky says. “It’s been amazing, really inspiring, to me — and helped me reestablish my own connection.”
Distant Cousins’ origin story echoes back to Moshav’s frequent tours.
“Everywhere we’d go, we’d get a band calling and asking, ‘Can we open for you?’” Swirsky says. “It was always younger Jewish kids. We loved it. It felt really gratifying — the influence the music was having on the kids to get up there and do it.”
Among them was Rosenblatt, with whom Swirsky felt instant chemistry. “And we both felt, if we have a chance to work together, we would,” Swirsky says.
Eventually, Swirsky and Rosenblatt co-wrote a song while Swirsky was visiting New York. When Rosenblatt later moved to Los Angeles, where Swirsky was already living, he and Swirsky teamed up again. Rosenblatt was already exploring commercial composing and was working on a piece for a comedy film called “Coffee Town” when he brought Swirsky aboard.
“We wrote it quickly and it felt really good,” Swirsky recalls.
When they needed sound mixing on the song, Rosenblatt suggested Kozak, who had already relocated and put his degree to work composing and producing commercially. Kozak’s input on the song “worked right away,” Swirsky says.
As teens, Kozak and Rosenblatt had both attended Torah Academy of Bergen County, New Jersey. And Kozak followed both Moshav and Blue Fringe as an aspiring performer, sometimes opening for the bands.
“We were always fans of each other,” says Kozak. “Once we were in LA, it was inevitable that we would get together to collaborate.”
Soon after, the three gathered at Swirsky’s studio. “Immediately, it was just awesome,” says Swirksy.
That’s when his neighbor suddenly rang.
“She said, ‘I hear you all the time. Whatever you are doing right now is really great.’ And that was the sign,” Swirsky says. “That was the launching of Distant Cousins right then.”