It is after 10 p.m. on November 11 in the East Village, and as singer-songwriter Orly Bendavid and band mate Robin Mitchell pass The Sidewalk Café, a mainstay home of eclectic songwriters, they share a cigarette. “We should try to book them,” the wiry, half-Israeli, California native made New York musician thinks out loud while peering in at the window. The “we” refers to her ensemble The Mona Dahls, whose music could rightly be called “folk.”

After all, folk was once the antidote to commercial music, and Googies, a venue in Soho where up-and-coming artists play 40 minute sets, is a good place to find non-commercial sounds. Earlier that chilly night, The Mona Dahls warmly filled its intimate second-floor lounge with front-woman Bendavid’s metered singing paired to the violin, mandolin, and piano.

And anyone listening to the short brunette alight with emotion as she sang might have remarked that a sound like The Mona Dahls’ seldom makes the radio. Drawing inspiration from such folk contemporaries as Andrew Bird and Ani Difranco, The Mona Dahls knit the lyricism of the violin in conversation with the tender and terse cadences of Bendavid’s own voice. At times upbeat and folksy, and other times absorbed in serious melody, they ground both plaintive and ebullient sounds alike in the rhythm of guitar, mandolin, and crashing bells. This pronounces a noise strangely earthly and cerebral all at once, yet above all, emotional.

“I try to go for a feeling or an emotion; our songs all have an emotional character to them. I try to pick out melodies that will accompany the emotionality of a song. If a song is based in the country tradition — I go for that feeling. It’s complex because we use so many chords and melodic patterns that are outside traditional genre,” said violinist Daniella Fischetti, describing The Mona Dahls’ sound, which is unquestionably unique.

For that reason one could ignore that a dead microphone barely projected the piano in the tiny, almost undecorated Googies that night, where obsidian colors and a cheap pair of Christmas lights gave the listener a vaguely cavernous sensation; the performance was original. Original, like Tom Waits, whose gravel-drawn voice holds a cult following, among which The Mona Dahls can be included—they cover his song “I Want You” on their album. And whether their art is folk, or coffee shop music, The Mona Dahls’ core is really the inner self—a subject that Bendavid may know best. In fact, she encounters that self whenever she takes the stage.

“There is a voice in my head that tells me I can’t do anything — that my voice is terrible. That I’m a phony and a liar, and nobody’s listening,” admitted Bendavid, shortly after finishing her set later that night.

Personal struggle is Bendavid’s personal acquaintance. A music therapist in her professional life, she unabashedly finds her own therapy on the stage. With that same embattled volatility, in one song she even croons: “It’s okay that no one’s listening/I will sing songs just for you.” In other songs, Bendavid studies women caught in gears of the entertainment industry machine; “Christine,” about a washed-up former model Bendavid encountered at a bar, and “String Bean,” inspired by an unknown anorexic, singer-dancer sex object. In general, the lyrical repertoire hangs elusively simple words around cryptic stories of heartbreak, longing, and relationships.

“Songwriting is my process that I was put on earth to understand about myself,” Bendavid explained. “Art is a reflection of that inner part of the artist—it comes from a place we don’t understand.”

“When taking a character portrait, there’s projective identification—you see something in this person. There’s something deep there that resonates with you and an emotional piece of yourself,” she added.

At its core, Bendavid’s study of life might be said to begin with self-exploration, and by now she is well-versed at this. For in Bendavid’s journey to this place, to Googies of lower Manhattan in the year 2011, she was surely not without her own coming of age. Since discovering music at 19, she has traveled from North Hollywood to Chicago to New York in search of herself. In Chicago, still searching, she performed open mics and made close friends with Brian Walker, husband of American Idol winner Crystal Bowersox. But Bendavid recalls being sometimes petrified with stage fright in Chicago, even forgetting how to play onstage.

“I was in Chicago for a year and a half, and loved that city. I was just coming out of my parent’s house, just learning how to play guitar. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just so insecure, wasn’t secure in my musicianship,” Bendavid commented.

Later, after coming to New York, she recorded “The Human Haiku” as the band Every Good Boy, a poppy singer-songwriter debut album. Even so, it was not until much later that she feels she learned to play well with others. Bendavid said becoming a music therapist forced her to hear and feel others when she plays. This is especially true of her and her band mates, or rather of her strong chemistry with The Mona Dahls’ violinist Daniella Fischetti. She described Fischetti, who imports much of band’s folk sound, as grounding her.

“Daniella takes the emotion and understand it, and puts it into melody, communicates the essence of what that song is meant to describe. She’s an integral part of the song, woven into the song,” said Bendavid.

Bendavid and Fischetti have been playing together for almost four years now, having met each other in the music business. At the time, Bendavid was working for a production company and Fischetti for a commercial music house in the same building. Both were the only women working in offices consisting entirely of men, and described needing each other for support. Their band has changed form since then, including its present assembly of Kevin Hummel on bass, Jim Vasquez on percussion, and Robin Mitchell on keyboard, melodica, guitar, and vocals. Yet it is Fischetti and Bendavid who have enjoyed a long, stable, musical relationship at the core.

That kind of firm ground is not always easy to find in New York, either. Lately, The Mona Dahls play venues like Googies, The Living Room, The American Folk Art Museum and The Jalopy, but Bendavid admitted to being perplexed about where her music fits in the New York market.

“It’s hard to find people who you don’t know, who come and listen,” she said. “I can count on my hands at a show the number of people who come to a bar or coffee house to hear new music. The street culture just doesn’t exist like it used to in New York. There are few places where it exists.”

Yet in a mystifying market, Bendavid is not obsessed with self-marketing. She proudly declares that she is not a “scenester.” And she’s not. She projects little in the way of invented persona. Later after her set at Googies, she took a tea in a quiet lounge, and the conversation drifted to Wall-Street Occupiers. Suddenly, a startled tension danced in her voice on the note of people being prevented from expressing themselves. But it was not politics — of which she said little — that most seemed to lift her voice. Instead Bendavid seemed filled with the unfettered and unconstrained passion that just may be the raw material of her art.

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