The most important thing Shlomi Shaban's piano teacher taught him was humility
The man who brought the piano to a new generation of Tel Avivians wants us to feel 'less alone.'
What are you doing these days?
A lot of projects. I have become a guy who does a lot of things. And I am trying to write more songs and put together a new album. It’s going slowly so far.
It always goes slowly, doesn’t it?
Now I can say that it does. I put out one album, then there was a seven-year break, then an album of covers. And now I am trying again.
So you’re enjoying the coveted status of “collecting material.”
Yes. And it really does take a lot of time. I am not lazy when I write, I just erase a lot. Now, of course, just when I need to rehearse for the appearance with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, I suddenly started to write a great deal – two songs a day. Concurrently, I worked on my stomach muscles and had my bathroom retiled ... I have compiled a few songs that I really like, as of now. I want to do a new album. That’s a must. By now it’s become a physical need.
What do you want people to think about you through your music? What’s the story you’re telling?
I don’t want people to think about me. I want people who listen to my music to think about themselves.
When you write songs for yourself, you imagine that the listener is you. Just so. The same emotional makeup and the same experiences. You know quite clearly that people are all the same and that everyone will identify with what you are trying to convey to them. After you release a song for the first time to the radio, you realize that everyone understands what he wants to understand from it − including the exact opposite of what you thought, on top of which they develop all kinds of ideas about your personality. That’s when things start to get complicated. But in the end, when I personally started to be moved by songs, what actually made me start writing them myself is the feeling that someone is telling you a very personal story that sheds light on your life and makes you feel less alone. It’s a feeling that someone experienced something similar but survived to tell the tale, or the opposite: Underwent something very different but still distilled from it some sort of insight which can − excuse the expression − diminish existential loneliness.
“Diminish existential loneliness” − isn’t that a very stressful supreme goal?
I don’t live with it on my shoulders day to day, but I do think that ultimately it is one of the goals for creative people, in whatever field: to make people feel they are less alone in the world. However pompous it may sound. So, amid all that, considering what people think of you is a nuisance. If you’re out to look very smart or very human or very sensitive, or whatever, you are already in trouble.
What interests you apart from music? What other desires do you have?
I like very much to enjoy life. I have that talent. My pleasures are very simple: I like to drink, I like good food, I like being with my friends, my wife, I like to laugh and watch nonsense on television, I like going out, I like finding myself in situations from which you move on to other places − the sort of things, I suppose, that you do less when you have children.
There you go.
You know, that will change at some point. All my friends already have at least one kid. I understand that my time is limited.
Do you think a lot about children?
I try not to. But unsuccessfully. Sometimes you find out what’s troubling you through new songs that you write. It’s like a flooding of the subconscious, to understand what you are repressing. Many of my recent songs are somehow about the fear of having children, about looking around me and seeing that many other people are parents.
Maybe because now you are closer to being bourgeois than you have ever been.
Yes and no. I see being bourgeois as a state of mind. I do have the feeling that something in our life here is always unraveling. There are weeks that we spend with friends who have children and we have barbecues and talk, and there are weeks when we suddenly live like gypsies. It’s always something else. That is what I like about our life now. That it’s not just one thing.
That’s why parenthood is so threatening to you.
Definitely. The thing about being bourgeois and sated and tired and not being curious makes me very uptight. And it’s true; from that perspective the thought of parenthood is very, very frightening. For the first time I look at my life and understand that it is not infinite, that things change, and you have to constantly check to see that things are fresh and interesting and not decaying. It’s hard, maybe impossible. But the very act of observing is something very much alive.
Do you need thrills? Do you look for them?
I like thrills very much and I need routine. I am also very prone to addiction. So if I encounter something I like and it makes me feel good, I very quickly want to do it again – if possible, at the same time and with the same people. I am very attached to thrills. Like I feel, “That was amazing! Let’s do it again. Tomorrow. At seven.”
Where does the routine enter?
I need things to be repetitive. I am obsessive-compulsive, it’s a sickness. I need a pattern. For everything. For example, I know that whatever happens, I can get up tomorrow and play the piano. That is something to hold on to; I am alive, I am fine, I am here.
How is your obsessive-compulsive disorder expressed?
In a whole world of rituals.
Most of it is very embarrassing. And I am also not capable of talking about it − that’s part of the OCD. But about concerts, let’s say, there are any number of things. I need to sleep from a certain time until a certain time before, and I drink my vodka half an hour before going onstage, and I dress with particular timing. Everything has to repeat itself. And there is always a book of Psalms in the right-hand pocket. I have a lot of problems. I am a sick person who understands his sickness; I understand that it is part of my personality. And so I take it in good spirit.
Are you an ambitious type?
It took me time to realize that I have that drive. It comes from home and from the period when I was a classical pianist, which is a very competitive field. It’s a drive that you have to examine constantly. Once, in Berlin, I was walking around with a choreographer and I told her I wanted to appear in bigger halls. She asked why and I didn’t know what to say. Because it’s not a money thing. That was never the thing with me. There is an ego element. Recently I have been asking myself, what next, and why? In order to subsist − not in the economic sense − I need what I have now simply to continue. To be able to do what I love and make a living from it. But that is not enough for me. And I am also aware that things will change for the worse. That at some point in life I will have less than what I have now. But I want to get ahead.
That’s in my head all the time, but I don’t know how to explain it. Maybe because I was never an independent person. For example, I don’t have a driver’s license. Until a very late age I was dependent on a great many people, especially my parents; I needed them to help me, finance me. When I wanted to study abroad, they invested all the money they had in that. I seem to have that need, the need to be as independent as possible in terms of my career. Excuse the simplistic psychology.
What did you learn from your parents?
My mother is extremely assertive and pragmatic, and she believes in hard work. In getting ahead. In fulfilling your potential completely. My father does everything to avoid confrontations. He often tells me how someone came to him in the store and told him whatever, and he answered back. Now I know that he didn’t say a thing. Maybe he said it inwardly. It’s important for him that the milieu is harmonious.
You’re like that, too, aren’t you?
Yes. That’s something I get from my father, though in the past few years it has been somewhat repressed. It is less important for me that everyone I meet should be enchanted by me and love me.
But it’s still going on. Everyone I told that I was going to meet with you said, “What a delightful guy, what a sweetie.”
Suddenly it sounds like a problem.
Because over and above the basic desire to please, I have the feeling that you know how to adjust yourself to the person opposite you.
Hey, right on.
You know what will charm everyone and how to charm everyone, and you assume that character.
You are absolutely right. That is a very accurate perception.
Are you trying to charm me?
No, I just have a lot of things to say about this and I am thinking how and what. First of all, it is not something I am fully conscious of. And it’s also not exactly to charm others, but rather to integrate into their jargon, into the nuances of their speech. It’s true that I am very fluid, a kind of Zelig [Woody Allen’s human chameleon]. I meet people and they turn on something in me, and then I suddenly create a kind of branch of myself in which they can have a good time. I don’t feel it, though as it is happening I can feel that it happened, and the truth is that it really turns me off, this whole thing of pleasing others. Where is my personality in this story? It used to happen to me with people I don’t like, too. And that is really depressing. You say: What is it with me? I meet someone I don’t even like and I try to get into them. These days it only happens with people who truly turn me on, and I get something from them, too. I met them, I become them in some way; it’s not that we stay in touch afterward, but the color stays on my palette. With people that I really loved and they become lifelong friends, I have branches in my personality that are devoted to them, like Arison Internal Medicine C Ward. I think that’s really beautiful.
When was the last time you went on an adventure?
Getting married was one hell of an adventure. Even on the day itself, when they told us the reception was starting and to come downstairs, I felt that I didn’t want to leave the room. Because I had no idea what I would encounter.
Did you cry at the wedding?
There was one moment where I did. I had tears.
When you saw her in the gown?
No. I enjoyed seeing her, but I had waited for it for such a long time that when it happened it was “Okay, she is in a wedding gown. She looks stunning. Just as I thought.” It’s too much to experience when you wait for it so long. The tears came during a song, at something she suddenly said.
What is the best advice you ever received?
It was something I must have received from my first piano teacher. She was my teacher from the age of eight to 18; we saw each other every day. She had all kinds of sayings, all in the same format. Things like: If you pursue honor, honor flees from you. She talked to me a lot about humility, which is the key to many things.
Are you able to be humble?
I know when I am not. I think I can discern 99 percent of the cases in which I am impelled by ego, and I can try to bypass that, and, if not, at least tell myself that it was a sick thing to do that came from a sick place.
You are constantly examining yourself, from the side.
Very much so. Most people seem to be freer than I am, from every point of view. That makes me very envious. Very. People who are experiencing. In the moment. That stirs envy, absolutely.
How are you with clichés?
When it comes to writing, I am sensitive to it. Not that I think everything has to be unique and original, but when someone disturbs his surroundings by writing something that has already been said a million times, it’s terribly depressing. That turns me off. On the other hand, I discovered that when I come into contact with people and someone tells me something like that and you say to yourself that the conversation can end here, you lose out. People use clichés naively or to describe a very meaningful experience they had and are unaware that others experienced it thousands of times before them, and that is fine. It doesn’t mean they are dumb.
It only means that you are judgmental.
True. But to be completely honest, I think that in most cases, if someone says something to you that is a total cliché, the chances are he won’t have anything interesting to say a minute later, either. That is not to say, of course, that I don’t have the same failing. I hear myself talking to you and feel like shooting myself. It’s a lot more fun to meet someone who has original thoughts, whose brain works differently. That is mind-blowing, you love them most of all. But the truth is that then you discover that they also have their patterns. In the end, everyone has one thing to offer. It’s not that he is nourished by some different solar system.
How are you with your age, with getting older?
I am aware of it. For the first time in my life. It stresses me a little.
What frightens you?
Sicknesses. Not being relevant. Being ashamed. Being bored. Finding myself in a situation that I don’t know how I got into. Like in the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime”: “You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife.”
Are you there?
No, but this is the first time in my life that I am on track for somewhere. Like, I got married, I will have children at some point. I am getting into situations that are final. Whatever is not final is nonsense. Let’s say, suddenly I decide that I feel like being a gardener instead of a musician. Terrific. But these situations, you know − suddenly I could be a 45-year-old singer, married, three kids, living in Neot Afeka! Like, why?!