As a founding member of Nefesh Mountain, a band that performed at the Grand Ole Opry and has been praised by Rolling Stone magazine, Rutgers alumnus Eric Lindberg says the group’s boundary-blurring approach comes naturally.
By John Chadwick
When guitarist Eric Lindberg runs down the list of musicians who influenced him, the names resist any neat category. The jazz fusion of Pat Metheny. The virtuoso, bluegrass banjo-picking of Béla Fleck. The clarity and directness of Beatles songs and others from the classic rock canon.
But Lindberg MGSA’06 says they all have one thing in common. “All the musicians I liked had a unique sound that reflected who they were and where they came from,” he says. “They made music that was authentically of their own world, and they did it on their own terms.”
Now, with his band Nefesh Mountain, Lindberg is making music that reflects his own world, and that of his wife and musical collaborator, Doni Zasloff. Nefesh Mountain, which formed in 2014 and has released four albums of Americana roots music, plays a mix of folk, bluegrass, and old-timey songs, often laced with Jewish themes.
The band’s latest studio album, Songs for the Sparrows, contains original songs written by Lindberg and Zasloff that ruminate on social justice issues like antisemitism and racism, reflect on life’s joys and travails, and explore Jewish heritage and spirituality.
With its new single, a cover of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Revival,” Nefesh Mountain digs into a 1970 chestnut and makes the sweet refrain of “love is everywhere” ring out with conviction for the 2020s.
Lindberg says the band’s boundary-blurring approach seemed to bubble up naturally as he began making music with Zasloff in the 2010s. “Ultimately our band blurs the lines between our personal life, our heritage, and the music we make,” Lindberg says. “We are trying to do it all at the same time.”
And it’s catching on. The band plays all over the country, from synagogues and Jewish community centers to concert halls and music festivals to the City Winery in Manhattan. In late 2021, the band made its debut at the Grand Ole Opry. Rolling Stone praised Songs for the Sparrows as “a master class in string music” while American Songwriter described it as “arguably some of the best bluegrass ever made.”
Lindberg, who grew up in Brooklyn and Maplewood, New Jersey, had mostly jazz on his mind when he arrived at Mason Gross School of the Arts to study with guitar great Vic Juris. He loved the depth and breadth of the jazz performance program, and says it shaped him into a professional musician comfortable with complex arrangements and deep improvisation.
The Mason Gross experience also made him a better listener, Lindberg says, and more open to diverse approaches. He notes how one adjunct faculty member at the time, Tim Ries, was an accomplished saxophonist who toured with the Rolling Stones. And it was during Lindberg’s years at Rutgers that he began deepening his explorations into bluegrass. “I learned from my teachers that to really do the music thing, you kind of had to understand it all,” he says. “You had to know the many different walks, and that it’s all valid.”
After graduating, he took “every gig that I got called for,” including weddings, nightclubs, and even some USO tours in Iraq and Kuwait that were followed by some dates in England and Ireland.
He began collaborating in 2010 with Zasloff, whose work as the singer-songwriter Mama Doni had been captivating kids and families with her warm and witty celebration of Jewish life. Lindberg was brought in as her musical director, and something clicked—personally and artistically. “We looked at each other and the sky fell apart, and we were completely in love with each other,” he says. “And so began this whole journey where we started exploring the things we were interested in. It happened completely by accident.”
Based in Montclair, New Jersey, the two are on the road for much of the year, either playing as a duo or with a full band. The couple managed to give themselves a short break in June 2021, when their first child, Willow, was born. “Our album came out on June 11, and our baby was born on June 10,” Lindberg says. “She was a day old, and our manager was asking us to do stuff, and we were like, ‘Let’s just turn off the phone.”’
To check out their tour dates, visit the band’s website.