Naomi Bindman – an Interview with Seth Casale
Written by Staff on September 19, 2023
I first met Naomi Bindman at a small open mic in Troy. As soon as she told her story, I felt as if an ice pick had been driven through my heart. Naomi had tragically lost her daughter, Ellen, the week after she graduated from high school in a car crash. As a father myself, I began to wonder how I could react to such a loss. I was taken by the strength as Naomi played songs penned by her daughter in the years before her passing. Moreso than that I realized, that while I had expected a stoic under a mantle of grief, Naomi was a triumphant celebrant of her daughter’s life using her music to keep Ellen’s legacy alive.
RRX: So tell me about yourself.
NB: I’m at a point now where I’m playing Ellen’s music. After she was killed in 2009, my whole life just stopped. I had lost my mother as a child, and Ellen’s dad had died when she was a child, and the one thing that made any sense to me had any meaning was her music. I found myself being pulled to her guitar and I began trying to plunk my way through her songs, because of the connection that I felt with her, not wanting to lose that. Most of her songs were not recorded, she had made a Demo CD with a dozen or so, so all the melodies were in her head. I tried to preserve them, I had the idea that someone might want to record them, someone who could really sing could record them. Eventually, I ended up playing one of her songs at a memorial for a young man who had also died in a crash.
RRX: And that was your first time playing one of her songs out? Were you already a musician at that time, or a poet?
NB: I was a teacher, I was a writer but not really a published writer. Yes, and I was terrified, my voice really thin, but I was doing it to honor her and to honor him, so it wasn’t about me, and I got through it. After that, the sound manager at the time of Caffe Lena invited me to come play there. I thought that it was not my dream; that was her dream. But I did it.
RRX: So it didn’t start out overtly to do what you’re doing now?
NB: Not at all, it was simply to remember the melodies to pass on.
RRX: So you had only intended to keep in touch with the creative side of her?
NB: Right, there was no intention that I would sing the songs. I hoped to find someone with a good voice who would sing and record her music. But through this series of events I thought maybe if I want people to hear the songs, I should sing them myself. That’s led to a number of things, and I’m gratified when people hear the songs. When I share my losses, people often share theirs, it gives us a way to talk about it, and I didn’t see that coming.
RRX: I think if you’re in a spot dealing with grief and you haven’t figured out how to move through, hearing someone else’s story can really help.
NB: Exactly, and we’re so grief illiterate in this culture, so much of how people deal with emotion is to avoid it in different ways rather than leaning into the pain which is what I did. I ended up recording a CD with Freddy Shahade whom I met at Caffe Lena who said “You should let me record your music and I’ll play with you.” It feels like the doors have opened as I meet the right people at the right times. I think that’s a bit of irony there.
RRX: Not a pleasant one but I see it.
NB: We did a CD release show at Caffe Lena where I didn’t play at all, as I said it wasn’t my passion, not my dream and I don’t like being on stage. I had to learn how to perform, and the first year was really about learning a lot of stagecraft. To act relaxed when I’m really not, that’s when they all say, “Fake it till you make it”. We’re our own worst critics, but eventually, I started to trust people and performed. I started performing in 2011, then I went on a little road trip down south, and out west. I performed to do the songs justice, to not fuck it up. She had a gorgeous voice, and I will never sound like that, but I’ve learned to embrace my own voice. After the show with Freddy, a Skidmore student approached me and asked if she could do a documentary about my story for her class, and that led to someone in LA seeing it. He asked if I’d like to make a longer film, not necessarily a documentary but true to the story. We’ve been working since 2016 and I think he really gets my story.
RRX: So it’s still in development, ongoing?
NB: Yes, active development they call it. He’s highly respectful of the nuances of my story. In addition to the work on the movie, I’ve written a memoir, and am in the process of seeking an agent and publishing. For agents and publishers, it’s about salability, so I have to find the right person who will identify with it and champion it.
RRX: Going back to your poetry, it’s clear you process grief through the poetry that I had read. I would like to share a passage I found profound from your poem “Lament”
“The newly spotted fawn’s tiny foot-two pointed toes unmarred by stone or stumble-Severed at the ankle rests pristine on bloodless snow.”
Can you talk about that?
NB: That was something I saw on a walk.
RRX: So it was literal? I was thinking of some allegory or parallel to your own pain.
NB: There is the metaphor for the mother, which I am, and I think it ends with “Is she grieving like me?”
RRX: Powerful stuff. Can you talk to me about what your intention is for the culmination of these projects?
NB: My goal is to honor Ellen every day in whatever I’m doing, whether it’s writing or singing her songs. There are these various projects that will ultimately come to fruition. When I see my book on a shelf or my movie in the theater, it will be amazing…and she will still be gone. and I have to live with that, and what do I do each day and how do I be a human who is carrying on her spirit in a very general sense. And that’s really my goal. I would love to find musicians here locally to perform her songs for another CD. I’m also writing another book about my mom, Ellen, who she was named after.
RRX: How can people reach you?
NB: My website, naomibindman.com has contact info and show listings. I have a show coming up on October 15, and my friend who is a percussion goddess is coming from Maine to play with me, I don’t know if we will play two 45-minute sets or one longer set.
RRX: Thank you for your time and for sharing your story, I admire your strength and ambition so much.
NB: thank you for reaching out.