The Musical Stylings of Willy Lebowitz ’08
The Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter commutes to Philadelphia for his steady gig as the mandolin player for the Stonethrowers.
Yes, Willy Lebowitz ’08 is a singer/songwriter and musician, but he’s never had a yen to be a front man or a solo act. “I probably won’t ever be in a band where I sing every song,” he says. “My interests lie in ensemble music, where people can step up, [and] people can step back.” Lebowitz has been seeking musical partners since his days with Haverford band Hannum Overdrive, which featured David Snead ’08, Peter Barish ’08, and Rhys Roho ’09. Hannum played its jammy prog-rock on campus and at nearby venues like the Rusty Nail in Ardmore. He also started playing the mandolin during college in a duo with Eric Smith ’08.
Soon after graduating, Lebowitz visited Smith, who was working as a park ranger in Yosemite National Park. He arrived to find Smith had joined forces with musician Austin McCutchen, who also was working in the park, to form the band The White Bark Pine. The group’s Americana sound, it turned out, was a perfect setting for Lebowitz’s rhythmic mandolin playing and roots-derived songwriting style. “So I was brought in to make a triumvirate of songwriters,” he says. The White Bark Pine put out two records, Live at Rockwood Hall (2013) and a self-titled album issued in 2016, but Lebowitz says the members now perform together infrequently.
Lebowitz’s steady gig is with the Philly-based band The Stonethrowers, which he joined in 2013 when he learned that bandleader Marc Silver was in need of a new mandolin player. After an audition at Silver’s house in Fishtown, Lebowitz became part of the group and began contributing songs to its repertoire, which mixes folk, bluegrass, and other distinctly American styles. “It’s been one of the best musical experience of my life, getting to play with those guys,” he says. “My tenure in this band has been a form of tutelage— it’s been an extended education in mandolin playing. I’ve been inspired to get better playing with them.”
His musical growth is showcased on the band’s latest album of acoustic Americana, Kissed by the Blue, which came out in 2018. The Stonethrowers just wrapped up their summer run of gigs at Longwood Gardens, outside Philadelphia, and they’re working up new material for a recording session later this year.
Lebowitz lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Lindsay Gandolfo, and waits tables to supplement his musical earnings. Five years into his tenure with the Stonethrowers, he feels such a deep personal and musical connection with his bandmates that he regularly commutes between NYC and Philly for gigs, practice, and recording sessions. “It’s quite a travel commitment, [but] I wouldn’t dream of stopping.”
Despite the various frequencies Lebowitz tunes to in his musical life, he says he cherishes every single one of the opportunities he gets to play with other musicians. And at age 31, he knows he has a continuing musical road ahead of him— and a lot more to learn. “I’d like to find that new musical connection that’s around the corner that I don’t know about yet and be inspired by that,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot by being one of the least skilled people in a room. You can practice and practice, you can work on the technical skills, but at a certain point, to get better, you need other people.”