Elijah Aaron grew up in an artist’s household.
His father — Paul Palnik — is a cartoonist whose work is exhibited in the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. The museum is housed in Sullivant Hall, the home of the Department of Dance.
After leaving his guitar case in his father’s studio, Elijah Aaron — whose real name is Elijah Aaron Palnik — received it back covered in paint, suddenly looking like a Monet impressionist pointillism piece, he said.
“All signs (of my life) pointed to like, ‘You should be here,’” Elijah Palnik said.
While there might be a general assumption that music — Elijah’s art — begets dance, Elijah Palnik’s work has also seen its share of web hits and commercial success.
The musician has served as a resident musician for the Ohio State Department of Dance since last year, having already accompanied at OSU for about four years.
“We come from a world where we play to make people move. This is people moving and … they’re making me play,” Elijah Palnik said. “As a musician, it’s like lifting weights every day.”
He also instructs a sound design course and makes promotional videos for the department’s YouTube and Vimeo channels.
Some live musicians tend to stick with one instrument at a time, but Elijah Palnik doesn’t stop there.
Elijah Palnik improvises music to accompany dance for students at OSU, using a looper to simultaneously play percussion and guitar while singing.
“The man can do anything,” said Dori Jenks, external relations coordinator for the Department of Dance.
Jenks said that Elijah Palnik’s sensitivity makes him a spectacular musician for dance. She also said his eclectic nature and improvisation brings something different both to dance classes and the class he teaches.
“It’s not like somebody is playing a standard a Beethoven piece and adjusting it for how long the combination is. He’s making it up as he’s seeing it,” Jenks said.
The Columbus native grew up playing music on a drum set in his basement. Since then, he has expanded his wheelhouse to include piano, violin, flute and the aforementioned guitar, percussion and voice. With his looping abilities, he never has to stop at one instrument.
After graduating from the Berklee College of Music, he formed a band in Boston with two childhood friends. Elijah Palnik compared their sound to that of Crosby, Stills & Nash or Simon & Garfunkel.
The band members called themselves The Northwoods, named for the Wisconsin region in which they went to summer camp together as children.
They moved to St. Louis to avoid the intensity of bigger cities and attracted the attention of national acts before falling apart with “no hard feelings.”
After going “all in” for his art with The Northwoods, Elijah Palnik was forced to head home with nothing and start again. At Boston University, he had briefly accompanied dance, so he thought to try it again closer to home.
Susan Chess, music supervisor in the Department of Dance, said that Elijah Palnik reached out to her with his resumé and links to YouTube clips of his work.
“I thought, ‘This man seems like he would be a good fit for us,’” Chess said. “(And) he showed himself to be a real team player.”
Recently, he has been spreading his music through commercial work.
In October, department store chain Belk ran a breast cancer awareness campaign for its mobile mammography program and licensed music from Elijah Palnik’s old group The Northwoods for the spot. Elijah Palnik’s “Sun Song” now has national exposure.
This was not an overnight success, but rather a two-and-a-half-year process, said John Ritchie, co-owner of Gold Sounds. The music licensing company had been pushing the song and getting interest from television shows, but nothing worked out until Belk decided to use it.
Elijah Palnik is currently working with Wrigley to write music for a commercial for Extra gum. Though it is not confirmed that executives will use his music, he is among their final selections.
“We’ve just started to scratch the surface, and we’re hoping for bigger and better things to come,” Ritchie said.
This is not Elijah Palnik’s first run-in with unexpected success, though. A YouTube clip of him live-looping TLC’s “No Scrubs” was featured on Huffington Post and has garnered more than 333,000 views, as of Wednesday afternoon.
Though Elijah Palnik said he still performs constantly in and out of class, interacting and relating with students has become the best part of his job.
“It’s hard to make a living in the arts … and I get time to tell (my students) that. I get to be around them and be like,‘Yeah it’s not easy, but at the same time … you can do it,” Elijah Palnik said.
Though he never thought he would work for a university, Elijah Palnik said the Department of Dance has “the best vibe ever.”
Some of his students think he helps create that vibe as a musician.
“If I walk into class in a bad mood and Elijah’s sitting there, he’ll play a song that’s recognizable,” said Madison Girardi, a third-year in dance. “And you can sing along while you’re getting ready and warming up, and it really just brightens the mood when he’s in a classroom.”
Shannon Drake, a fourth-year in dance, said she enjoys him as a teacher as well.
“He’s very easy-going, and that makes the class environment super fun. But he’s a super competent musician and can impart … that practical knowledge to us,” Drake said.
Having faced the ups and downs of a career in music, Elijah Palnik said one must be self-motivated without having a boss or that “next assignment.”
“I know a lot of talented people … but a lot of them have trouble making a go of it because it takes more than talent. I mean, you hear all that crap on the radio, there’s a reason,” Elijah Palnik said. “If you’ve got the drive, that’s the battle.”