Arts and Culture

Ezra Koenig explains the Jewish history behind the Vampire Weekend song ‘Harmony Hall’

(JTA) — Vampire Weekend’s singer and songwriter Ezra Koenig has teased in previous interviews that his latest album, the Grammy-nominated “Father of the Bride,” contains some Jewish content. The band has also put out music videos recently that involve Jewish delis and a Passover seder.

But now Koenig has gone in depth about the Jewishness of the album’s lead single, “Harmony Hall,” which contains a lyric that has vexed many until now: “Beneath these velvet gloves I hide/The shameful, crooked hands of a moneylender/’Cause I still remember.”

As Koenig explained for an episode of the Song Exploder podcast this week, the track explores the cycles of gaining and losing power — in his words, the people “outside the palace” becoming the people “inside the palace.” Among other things, the term “Harmony Hall” was a popular name for plantation buildings in the pre-Civil War South. But Koenig connects the idea to Jews and Zionism.

“I wouldn’t say the song’s particularly about being Jewish, but because… I’m Jewish and I’m American… I’m gonna think about American history and I’m gonna think about Jewish history,” he said.

The moneylender line is a clear reference to Jews, who were once global outcasts and were forced into working in finance, being restricted from other industries. But they eventually established a state for themselves, and now, in Koenig’s eyes, are partly “the powerful ones… in the driver’s seat.”

“When I think about that phrase, the moneylender, it just makes me think about the past and shame, and how sometimes people in power, regardless of what their background is, or their ethnicity, even though they have more power than they used to, because of trauma or shame sometimes make decisions that are based in fear,” he said. “In some ways that’s one of the drivers of these kind of vicious cycles that we have as people.”