Maya Isacowitz - Shai Fleischer - April 27, 2012
Isacowitz works and speaks in Hebrew, but sings in English because of her upbringing. Photo by Shai Fleischer
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She started, she will admit, more of a hummer than a singer.

"I would hum, very very quietly, and never in public. I was shy. I would go into my parents' room and close their door, and then go into the toilet in their room and close that door. That's where I would hum."

Maya Isacowitz, the 24-year-old indie singer-songwriter who just won Israel's prestigious Akum "Discovery of the Year" award, has clearly moved on from those days of yore.

Nowadays, the up-and-coming redhead is more likely to be found before sold-out audiences, strumming her guitar and belting out songs from her debut CD "Safe and Sound" - a mix of rock, folk, blues and soul, where the celtic harp, harmonica and banjo blend with the piano, guitar and violin - her voice rising above them all.

A first encounter with fame

Sipping orange juice this week at a Tel Aviv cafe, and wearing a faded "Miss Giggles" T-shirt, big hoop earrings and fuchsia-colored nail polish, the petite musician admits it can still all be a bit intimidating.

The first time she heard her popular single and first release "Is It Alright?" on the radio, she was at a corner kiosk she had dashed out to during her shift as a waitress at Cafe George to buy ice. "I couldn't believe it," she says. "I just couldn't stop smiling."

A few days later, when she heard the song again, she was in the back of a taxi. "That's me!" she recalls telling the driver. Now he was the one who didn't believe it - telling his unassuming young fare that "everyone knows the singer is from overseas." Isacowitz insisted, took his number and invited him to a gig. He came. He believed her. And today, he is her driver.

"Not that I have a driver-driver," she clarifies. "It's more like he might drive us to Shai's mother's place in Hod Hasharon, where we pick up the car, so we can drive to our shows," she says, referring to her 28-year-old cousin and original bandmate Shai Lochoff.

Isacowitz is an Israeli through and through: A sabra who grew up on Kibbutz Ma'ayan Baruch, went to school in Kfar Blum, and lives today in Tel Aviv, she studied in Hebrew, works in Hebrew and speaks Hebrew to all her friends, bandmates and also her boyfriend. But when she sings, it is in English.

"My parents came to Israel from South Africa, and we always spoke English at home," Isacowitz explains, her South African accent growing more and more noticeable as she gets going. "So when I started writing and singing, it came from a natural place and I didn't stop to think about [it]."

Her love of music, she says, was inherited from her "hippie" dad Peter, who handcrafts ethnic musical instruments such as marimbas and didgeridoos for a living. He also introduced her, when she was a child, to live music - which she would go to hear at Jacob's Ladder, the friendly bluegrass, folk, country, Irish and world music festival on the shores of Lake Kinneret - as well as to the greats on vinyl.

"We always had a record on at home - Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen - or African music," recalls Isacowitz. "You would have to drag dad away to get him to come to the kibbutz food hall to eat."

Later, as a teenager, Isacowitz began to discover her own favorites - Alanis Morissette, Tracy Chapman, Pearl Jam - and take guitar lessons from her dad. The family had just left the kibbutz to live in the Carcum community village, and Isacowitz, feeling a little isolated and disconnected, spent a good deal of time in her room, practicing chords and writing her first songs.

"It was then I realized that's what I wanted to do. I felt a deep sense of connection to playing. I felt this was my destiny," she says.

An inauspicious beginning

After two years of national service, which she spent working with autistic children in Carmiel, and another year saving up money while working as a clerk at the Vered Hagalil guest ranch in the Galilee, Isacowitz set out in 2008 to fulfill that destiny - in New York City.

The beginning was less than auspicious. She had just broken up with her first serious boyfriend, moved into a basement apartment with two friends and no furniture in Brooklyn and, needing to make ends meet, found herself interviewing for a telemarketing job at an Israeli company. "I wanted to die," she says. "Really. So awful."

Desperate enough to get over her shyness, Isacowitz scoured the Internet for open-mike events, set out on auditions, and before you could say "Is this the next Yael Naim?" she was asked to do her own show in the West Village's Cafe Vivaldi.

"I thought tons of people would come, but there were just a few. Basically, I knew no one in New York to invite. I had my two friends, some people from the hummus place I had started waitressing in, and a cousin of my dad's from Long Island who Dad made come with her husband," she says. "But when I got up there to sing, and got over being nervous, I loved it. I was thinking, 'This is for me. I don't care if there is one person or 100.'"

Six months later, even as she was getting bigger and better gigs, Isacowitz decided to come home to Israel. "I felt lost in America," she says. "I realized it was such a huge place, with so many people trying to make it; I would be better off going home and developing from here. It was the beginning of January too. It was cold."

That said, the young artist stresses that her experiences in New York made her "more sure that music was what I wanted to do, and I came back with power and energy." Isacowitz moved back to her old room in Carcum, with the orange walls she had painted at age 14. With the help of a loan her parents took out, she self-produced a CD - and then set out to perform.

A year later, with a growing following, 10,000 copies of her album sold, a new manager (who also happens to be her new boyfriend), a public relations team and new band members, Isacowitz was in Tel Aviv - trying to convince taxi drivers that, yes, that girl singing on the radio was really her.

In the coming weeks, Isacowitz can be heard at the Jacob's Ladder Festival she frequented as a child: She is scheduled to perform on opening night, May 3, 9 P.M., on the main stage. The festival, now in its 36th year, will be held May 3-5. Isacowitz will be accompanied by her father Peter on the harmonica.