Naomi Sommers

Naomi SommersBiography

With roots in bluegrass, the blues, jazz, traditional folk, and old-time country, singer/songwriter Naomi Sommers is emerging as an exciting voice on the music scene. She grew up in a New England home full of music and instruments, performing since middle school with her parents and brother in the Sommers Rosenthal Family Band. Naomi’s recording career started at age 5 when she sang her first harmony parts on an album of bluegrass music for children. Over the years she has sung and played flute, banjo, piano, and guitar on more than 15 records released on her father Phil’s independent American Melody label, and has lent vocal and flute tracks to numerous recordings by other artists. In addition to the folk and bluegrass music she picked up at home, Naomi performed in orchestras and wind ensembles as a classically trained flutist, sang jazz with her brother Daniel Rosenthal’s quartets since high school, and joined the gospel choir during college.

After studying literature and music at the University of Connecticut, Naomi devoted herself full-time to writing and performing. She moved to Boston in 2001 to begin a solo career. She played at favorite local venues including Club Passim, where she endeared herself to music fans and fellow musicians alike, and began lasting collaborations. She toured throughout the U.S. with songwriter Noam Weinstein as the duo Broken Dreams, and later followed some of the same routes as a Gray Sky Girl with Lisa Bastoni. In 2004, Naomi traveled to Texas to participate as a finalist in Kerrville Folk Festival’s New Folk Songwriting Competition. More recently, Naomi was invited to be part of an upcoming PBS documentary, “On The Record,” hosted by Sir George Martin and narrated by Kevin Spacey. She traveled to the home of Jean Ritchie to play a few songs with the influential folk singer and songwriter on film for the series. In July 2008, Naomi performed one of her songs at the GRAMMY Foundation’s Starry Night Fundraiser in honor of Sir George Martin (producer of the Beatles and many others). At the event in Los Angeles, she shared the stage with Jeff Beck, Burt Bacharach, Chris Body, Tom Jones, Jimmie Webb and others.

Since 2002, Naomi has put out three albums on American Melody. Two of these were solo albums, featuring original songs with eclectic backup by her family and other outstanding musicians. In 2006, she released a mesmerizing album of traditional and original “old-time country slowgrass” with the Gray Sky Girls. Now in 2008, Naomi has just released an album recorded in Nashville, produced by the acclaimed musician/producer Jim Rooney (John Prine, Iris Dement, Nanci Griffith, Bonnie Raitt). Jim’s enthusiasm over Naomi’s songs and her voice prompted him to end a hiatus from the music business to make this record. The album was engineered by David Fergusson (Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin) and features a backup band of some of Nashville’s finest musicians. Naomi’s trusted family and friends traveled from New England to play on the record as well. She is thrilled to present the resulting collection of songs, the culmination of years of devotion to the craft of songwriting and to the merging of traditional and contemporary styles in American music.

Naomi’s Spoken Biography, Transcribed by Jim Rooney

My earliest memories are of being around people playing music. My dad Phil Rosenthal was in the bluegrass band The Seldom Scene when I was growing up. We lived in the Washington, D.C. area, and any time my parents had friends over they were musicians, and I remember hearing fiddles and guitars around the house. I also remember traveling with my parents a little bit and being backstage at a show and hearing the music from there. Concerts, especially bluegrass, are still really powerful to me because of the memories they evoke–the thrill of that full sound and the comfort of being around music being played. My younger brother Daniel and I always said we were going to be in a band when we grew up, if anyone asked what we wanted to do. It was the only thing I could think of. Back then, I definitely imagined being in a band. I had no thoughts of being a songwriter. I was thinking more of playing music with people and how much fun it was as a community or family activity.

I picked up various instruments over the years. The first was the piano. Then I took some violin lessons, then flute lessons. Throughout middle school and high school I played classical flute. But at the same time I was listening to singers like Maura O’Connell, Nanci Griffith, Greg Brown, Iris DeMent, Jonathan Edwards. People that my mom liked or my parents listened to. That’s when I started thinking more about songs and how I really liked singing. I had been singing all along, starting when I was four or five, actually being recorded. My dad had his own little recording studio in our basement, and he started working on bluegrass albums for kids. So I would be called down to his studio and required to sing harmonies on different stuff, which at that time was kind of a chore and I would be bribed with a lollipop or something. It was something I could do. He would sing something and I’d just repeat it and sing along. I had this husky voice for a kid. When I hear it now it’s kind of funny because it sounds somewhat similar to this thing that my voice still does that I can’t help.

I liked singing, but I didn’t think I had a great voice or that I was going to be a singer. I just thought it was part of the whole playing music thing. Later, in high school, when I started listening to all those singers, I got into the idea of how much I loved the feeling of singing. I started listening to Bob Dylan, who my dad also really liked, and that led me to think about song writing. By this time I was in a band with my parents. While I was in high school my brother, who was a few years younger, started playing the trumpet, and he really got into Dixieland Jazz. I had played some guitar. There was a guitar that my dad always said was mine, but at some point he said, “It’s only going to be yours if you really keep playing it.” I’d pick things up and put them down. I kind of took it for granted that I would be a musician, but I never applied myself to one particular area or instrument other than the classical lessons I was taking all along. When the family band started, I applied myself to learning the basics on guitar, and then I learned a little banjo. Then the four of us, my mom, my dad, my brother and I started playing shows all around Connecticut and other parts of New England. We played at small festivals, at libraries, schools, outdoor summer concert series.

The first songs I ever sang as the lead singer were Bessie Smith songs. My brother was really into Louis Armstrong. He had a Louis Armstrong biography on video. In one scene Bessie Smith was sitting on some steps singing, and I was so taken by her. I got all of her recordings and started learning a few of her songs–“Weeping Willow Blues,” “My Sweetie Went Away,” “Downhearted Blues,” “St. Louis Blues.” At that point in the show my dad would play guitar, my brother would do some trumpet solos, and I would sing. I was excited by the response I got from that. That was when I realized that I had a good voice or something in there I wanted to develop.

I’ve always been moved by melodies. Listening to Maura O’Connell or the Judds, I sang along with the songs that had the great melodies. But it was really listening to Bob Dylan that got me thinking that I wanted to write my own songs. I was always an avid reader. I was amazed to discover through Dylan how intelligent and literary song-writing can be. He was combining simple music with poetic and thoughtful lyrics as a way to express emotion, and other times he referenced history, politics, religion, and other writers. I thought he was the one of the greatest poets that ever lived. I had always written short stories and poems. I had a journal. Throughout my childhood I would always work on things like that. So In high school I tried writing some songs. None of them really stuck around. For about a year I was in a rock band. The guys in the band had written a melody, so I made up some lyrics about a boy who was leaving home and waiting for a bus, leaving it all behind. I did like the song and I sang it, along with Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away.” That would be the quiet segment of our shows with this loud rock band. The rest of the time I just sang their songs. They had heard me in class singing and thought I had a good voice and asked me to sing with them. I was pretty shy, and it was nerve-wracking most of the time, but it was a good experience.

I went to the University of Connecticut and started out studying music education, to have something to fall back on. I was still playing the flute. However, I have never really like competing, and with classical music you’re always competing for that spot in an orchestra or ensemble. You have to practice so diligently, hours every day. I’m interested in too many things just to focus on one instrument, or to practice the necessary hours each day to succeed in that line of work. So I switched to being an English major. I loved to read and write papers and do comparisons in literature. I started reading a lot of poetry and Victorian literature. That helped me to develop my own writing. In poetry I liked Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath and Wallace Stevens, for prose Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence, and especially Toni Morrison—now she would be an incredible songwriter, such vibrant images and characters.. One day I remember crossing campus on my way to an African-American literature class. We were reading a lot of Langston Hughes Blues poems. As I was walking, I was thinking of Bessie Smith melodies and her sweeping, strong voice, and the song “Hard To Love You” started swimming around in my head.

I wrote “It’ll Be Alright” while at UConn. That was more influenced by listening to Johnny Cash and other country artists. I also listened to jazz singers like Sarah Vaughan which influenced my singing.

At the end I couldn’t wait to get out of college so I could just pursue my music career! I had played at coffeehouses around the campus and the area. I was still performing with my family. I felt comfortable as a performer and a singer. I didn’t know where I was going to go, but I wanted to record an album, so my dad’s studio was the obvious place. As it turned out, I worked on it for nearly two years, so it was a bit disjointed. But it got me started, and I decided to move to Boston to see if I could play music and work my way into the folk scene there. I did all sorts of jobs. I’ve never had a full time job, because I wanted to leave enough time for music. I wouldn’t commit myself to anything solid because that would mean I was giving up. I have never lost faith that it’s going to happen. I just keep going and figure out what to do next. I worked as an assistant for a photographer; as a babysitter; I worked in a toy store, sang at birthday parties or sing-alongs for kids; as a cook at a ceramic arts center in Maine; I made and sold my own pottery. As I got to know more people in Boston and Cambridge, I played more shows at nearly every folk club the area. When I first moved there I knew that Club Passim was the place where you wanted to get a gig. I would go to their open mics once in a while, but open mics just made me nervous. I saw the people who all knew each other. I wasn’t good at forcing my way into a scene, so I let it happen slowly. After a year or so I got invited to play at some of their festivals. After I did, they realized that they liked me, and I was proud to have finally been accepted as part of the scene. A lot of the musicians I admired when I moved there became my friends. I feel that that’s where my music career was born and where I figured out how to do it.

I lived in Somerville for two years and then Jamaica Plain for a year. I loved both those places. I made many good friends, and I loved the activity of the city, but I started wanting some countryside in my life and moved to western Massachusetts. I knew there was also a good music scene there and it’s not that far from Boston. I just extended my range a bit. I’ve also toured different regions in the country over the past few years, the Midwest, east coast down to Atlanta and back, and to Tennesseee, Lousiana and Texas a quite a few times. I was a finalist in the Kerrville New Folk songwriting competition two years ago. During these tours I traveled with some songwriters I started collaborations with while living in Boston. First Noam Weinstein and I formed a duo called the Broken Dreamers. We played in Boston and NYC, as well as making a tour across the country to Texas and back. More recently I teamed up with Lisa Bastoni (both of these folks I met at Club Passim during the campfire festival or a songwriter Tribute night). We share a passion for old-time and traditional folk/country music and discovered that the blend of our voices really strike a chord for listeners. Sorry, that was a terrible pun! Lisa and I formed the Gray Sky Girls in 2004, toured and played regionally quite a bit, and then recorded an album last summer. We both play guitar, banjo and mandolin in the band and it’s really nice doing simple arrangements on our favorite old and original songs.

Over the years my writing has changed. Definitely the way I approach melody has changed. I’ve always felt that melody was the most central, the most important part of a song. Throughout the years I’ve figured out a little better how to write a melody that I feel is going to be enduring and interesting, yet simple. I knew intuitively that it was important, but it took me years of trying different things and listening to different music to figure out what my style is and what I’m willing to put out there. There was a time when just because I was writing songs, I was excited because I had done something. Now I have more of a filter.

My lyrics have also evolved. I want to make them more conversational. When I first started writing they were just a little stiff and definitely influenced by reading poetry and literature. Now I’m more open to putting words in my songs the way they come into my head and not try to think too much. I want things to flow and to feel like they’re being spoken in a natural way. Yet I feel that every line should be there for a purpose and should have some meaning and some good images.

I’ve come to understand that songwriting is a craft like any other, which, as you practice it, you become more skilful at, but it’s also such an emotional experience to create a song. You want it to feel genuine and even inspired. So you’re trying to learn to combine these things. Your feelings about a song can change over time. It’s easy to get sick of a song, and it’s really hard to know while you’re writing a song whether you still like it, just because it came from you. At some point I can lose the excitement I felt for a song when I was writing it, but then it can come back when I’m performing it.

When thinking of putting this album together I wanted every song to be good. Some of the songs I’ve been playing for years, while some of them are quite new. In the past I’ve recorded over a period of time. This was the first time that I came into a studio and everything was created in one week. I loved the fact that Jim Rooney was leading. I was able to place everything in his hands. He had put a wonderful group of musicians together, but also accepted my friends Noam and Lisa and my brother Dan and my dad as part of the ensemble. All of the Nashville musicians were thoughtful and attentive to what I was trying to express in a song or how I felt about the way it was turning out as we played it. Without me saying anything they seemed to know the feel of a song very quickly. They had a good vibe with each other. I felt that without knowing it, I had been dreaming of this, of letting someone else have a vision for my songs, choosing the direction they would go, and bringing them all together so that there was something unified about the whole experience. Songs that were stories from different times in my life came together in what feels like one narrative when I listen to it.

The fact that Jim produced several albums that were among the most influential to me in middle and high school when I started seriously thinking about being a singer/songwriter myself made this record feel like a culmination of many years of effort and dreaming. It was very exciting. I can close the door on what I’ve been trying to figure out how to say up until now. I feel that we made something pretty strong out of that, and now I can use that to inspire me to take the next step. When I moved to Boston, I believed in myself. I believed I should get booked in all these places I wanted to play, but I didn’t know how to convince anyone I could do it. This album I can give to anyone, and it says what I wanted to say. It’s something I’m proud of and am happy to put out there.


“Sommers’ strickingly beautiful folk songs, ones that don’t fall into the trap of many current folk records: Just how good? (She) transcends the folk paradigm…Some have it; Sommers is one of those.”
– Patrick Ferrucci, New Haven Register

“Stirring vocal harmonies… An elegant collection of contemporary folk music that pays homage to traditional values…”
– Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine

“In harmony with nature…youthful exuberance and boundless enthusiasm… the music is inviting, very personable, filled with charisma…Naomi Sommers delivers a stunning set, highlighting her remarkable voice and strong guitar work.”
– Bluegrass Now Magazine

“This young singer-songwriter nicely blends blues, bluegrass, jazz, roots, country and more. Strong songwriting as beautiful as you are likely to hear anywhere…lyrics that read like good poetry.”
– Sing Out! Magazine

“Five Stars *****. Third album from Naomi Sommers is an absolute joy! GENTLE AS THE SUN is exactly what it says on the label, gentle, beautiful song cycles which warm and feed the soul like a winter sun. Not for Naomi Sommers the sudden changes in mood, which can sometimes destroy the flow of an album for the listener, this is simply a glass of red wine, watching the sun go down experience from start to finish.

Her vocal and delivery (though softer) is reminiscent at times, of one of her declared influences Iris Dement. The musicianship throughout is outstanding and whilst very easy on the ear on the first listen, it becomes compulsive after a few plays. With a maturity of songwriting and arrangement well beyond her years, Naomi just has to be a name we’ll hear more of. The genre is old-timey folk, but delivered in such a relaxed way, that you can’t help finding yourself tapping away a foot, right there on the back porch. Let it warm your soul. Magnificent!”
– AJT, Maverick Magazine (UK)

“Naomi has soaked up a lifetimes worth of musical wisdom. She sings with an uncanny naturalness and confidence far beyond her years… Rooted in American folk but playing around the edges of blues and jazz, surprisingly sophisticated songs, Sommers understands subtlety of lyrics and melody, and brightens them both with imaginative hooks.”
– Joshua Mamis, New Haven Advocate


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