A Tel Aviv Pop Star's Story: Should She Stay or Should She Go?

Israel's Emily Karpel and her husband-music partner Tomer Adam Lenzinger are rerecording her first album in London; that doesn't mean they're not homesick.

Emily Karpel loses her flow when a robin enters her field of vision. The little bird is hopping around in the yard of the London bar and its red breast is hopping around with it. Karpel has completely lost her train of thought and is fascinated by her new friend, who is flying around from place to place. The robin is a very British bird, with a particular place in local culture for one thing as a guarantee of good luck (or the bringer of bad news, depending on who you ask). Finally, the bird comes to rest right above her on the branch of a fig tree, a souvenir from the Middle East.

“It’s just like us,” says Tomer Adam Lenzinger, Karpel’s partner in life and in work, while the bird settles on the fig tree and chirps above the noise of the drinkers. The bar is located in the Strongroom complex, the studios where albums by artists as diverse as the Spice Girls, the Arctic Monkeys and Radiohead were created.

The creative atmosphere and trendy spirit of the Shoreditch neighborhood (in east London) makes you forget Israel and its urgent problems, but not for long. When the person sharing our table asks where we’re from, Lenzinger replies: “Tel Aviv.” The neighbor introduces himself. His name is Tariq and he’s a Lebanese of Maronite origin, and very soon the conversation about the unlimited creative possibilities offered by London is replaced by a depressing discussion about the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Apparently what they say is true you can flee the Middle East, but whether you like it or not, it will invade your life, conquer it and try to hold onto it as long as it has the strength to do so.

Emily Karpel is trying. Three months after the release of her second album, “II,” the 32-year-old Karpel hops between Tel Aviv and London in order to rerecord it in English and develop an overseas career. London is not holding its breath. Londoners are excitedly awaiting next month’s Olympic Games, but Karpel is trying. She is spending time in the capital in order to convince the British that she’s the next big thing, or return home knowing that she tried.

Our first meeting took place a few weeks earlier at the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, whose Gothic facade looks like a smaller version but not by much of Westminster Palace. During their current visit, Karpel and Lenzinger are staying at the refurbished train station hotel. Behind the counter, a Polish barman pours beer into tankards. They are recuperating after a day of business meetings, and it takes both of them some time to switch from English to Hebrew.

While we’re waiting for drinks, Lenzinger replaces his sunglasses with thick-framed eyeglasses and Karpel goes over her e-mails and uploads another picture to Instagram. This is apparently their first moment of rest all that week. After she receives an update from me about what’s going on in Israel (“They hate the Sudanese”), and gives a situation report about the atmosphere in London (“It’s lovely here”), Karpel finds time to explain what the heck she is doing there, only three months after releasing an Israeli album in Hebrew.

“My career has never been defined,” she says. “The first songs I wrote were in English, but then entering the army being in the army entertainment troupe and performing at army outposts really grounded me. Hebrew is the language I most like to write in, but I’ve never had a place. In my mind I’ve never seen Hebrew as an obstacle, that someone in another place can’t understand me. It’s something I discovered only recently.”

What happened?

Karpel: “Suddenly I realized that I’m able to excite people, to move them in some way, even when they don’t really understand the language. Several times there were meetings with people who don’t speak Hebrew who had heard things online, and suddenly they asked to come to our studio to hear material, and things started to happen on their own.”

Things don’t happen on their own if you don’t plan them.

“I don’t know how much we really plan. In Israel you don’t plan ahead, it’s simply impossible. Here they can say to me: ‘December? I can’t do December, I’m going on a three-week vacation.’ Next December! How can he know what he’s doing a year from now?! I don’t know what I’m doing two months from now.”

Musical-romantic ensemble

Even if Karpel doesn’t know what she’ll be doing two months from now, her husband does. Lenzinger is her musical director and a partner to all her career decisions, from marketing strategy to the bow in her hair. The naive listener is likely to think that Karpel is a solo artist, but in fact this is a musical-romantic ensemble.

Karpel always speaks in the plural: “We’re coming”; “We’re meeting”; “We were very drunk.” And Lenzinger often answers questions for the two of them. Things really did “begin to happen on their own,” but Karpel and Lenzinger handle them and don’t rely on chance. During their latest two-week visit to London, they are hopping between business and creative meetings writing songs in English and recording and meeting local artists socially. It is clear to both of them, even if they don’t say so, that personal connections are an important part of this industry, and every new friendship is likely to lead to another acquaintance and in that way they can hop from one connection to the next until they reach the goal.

I hope you’re not insulted, but aren’t you a little old to be trying to become a star in England?

Lenzinger: “No. Our music is not a function of age. We were at a meeting with a very senior executive in the publishing world, who also raised that question. But her age is also her maturity, it’s experience, it’s not childish music; it’s also part of what the product has to offer.”

There are men who would slap you if you called their wife a “product.”

Lenzinger: “What we represent together is a product. There’s Emily Karpel/Tomer, which is a kind of team, a kind of cute pair, only I’m not onstage. And we have a great product. It’s just that until now we were in Hebrew and this product is worth much more in another language, so why limit ourselves? You know, it’s a business like any business that wants to develop. One person makes underwear in Israel and wants to go to the Czech Republic or develop in Eastern Europe. Another deals in real estate and buys in Berlin. We’re in the music business, so we’re changing direction and traveling here, and we’re going to work with new people on new projects and become involved in all kinds of things. It’s not only the songs of Emily Karpel.”

And if it doesn’t succeed?

Karpel: “What could not succeed?”

Lenzinger: “What is not succeeding?”

Tell me what succeeding means for you.

Lenzinger: “We are totally with our feet on the ground, we know what we’re doing. One of the most senior people we met asked us: ‘What’s your goal? You need a goal and it has to be realistic so you can realize it within, say, eight months to three years.’ I told him: ‘To reach an audience of 3,000 people in every city in the world.’ That’s the initial goal. From there it can only develop.”

So actually it’s not the familiar situation of an Israeli who goes out to conquer the outside world or else it’s a failure. You aspire to an intermediate possibility?

Lenzinger: “Clearly, there’s a middle here! In Israel there simply isn’t, there isn’t a range in anything. We want first of all to make a decent living from what we know how to do and to maximize what we do which is unique and very good content by international standards.”

Karpel: “I think it’s very much related to satisfaction.”

Can you achieve artistic satisfaction in Israel?

Karpel: “It’s very difficult.”

Lenzinger: “Our country is made for performers rather than creative artists. Performers can achieve satisfaction. Everything related to creativity in Israel is not appreciated. It’s appreciated if you have a big jeep first of all.”

Karpel: “In Israel your rights as a creative artist...”

Lenzinger: “I have no problem with that as long as you have an alternative, as in other countries. There it’s the writers and intellectuals rather than generals who are held in high esteem, and in Israel it’s not balanced. If you’re a writer or something like that and you have something to say, then you’re a stinking leftist.”

Karpel: “In a country that lives under threat and is preoccupied with security from the moment it gets up in the morning until it goes to sleep, it’s clear that as a creative artist your rights will be limited. It’s a luxury. A performer on a major TV program and a major TV channel receives far more rights and respect than a creative artist.”

Lenzinger: “But it’s not about rights and respect. The hierarchy in Israel is about money. We’re a country of money and power. It’s related to certain aliyot [waves of immigration], it’s related to an economic balance that has changed greatly since the Gulf War, when we switched from being Europeans to being Americans.”

Karpel: “We’ve become terribly American.”

Lenzinger: “We used to see f****** England on television all the time. Today we don’t see a single British TV series. You can’t make a broadcast schedule without British series! So there’s only one sense of humor, and there’s only one style, and there’s one of everything, and we’re all one, and we all vote without questions. That’s it. It’s boring, it doesn’t expand your mind. I personally am not entirely convinced that a child at university will gain less if he’s with Japanese, Muslims, Somalis and Malaysians and Scandinavians in his class, rather than spending three years in the army.”

He’s not supposed to gain from the army, he’s supposed to defend the country.

Lenzinger: “Yes, but with all the defense and security, we see how much security there is.”

Connie and Blade

Karpel was born in Canada. Her father is guitarist and musical producer Avi Karpel. Her mother is in marketing and was involved in promoting various brand names, from Toys”R”Us to a lingerie firm. Aged 3, Karpel returned to Israel with her family after the death of her uncle, Eldad Tzafrir, a fighter in a Golani elite commando unit who was killed during the Misgav Am hostage crisis in April 1980. She says the bereavement wreaked havoc on the family, and in the end her father returned to Canada and she remained in Holon with her mother.

Karpel was a member of the Tzeirei Tel Aviv (Youth of Tel Aviv) entertainment troupe, served in the Education Corps troupe, and after her discharge accompanied singer Riki Gal during performances. In 2008 her debut album, “Nemashim” (Freckles), was released.

She had met Lenzinger in 2004 at a kind of classic Tel Aviv encounter a drink that led to another drink, which led to their being married for almost eight years. They were married within a year of first meeting, on Palmahim beach (south of Tel Aviv) with a ceremony conducted by a Reform rabbi.

Karpel: “One day I called the rabbinate, all excited, and told them: ‘Hi, I’m getting married.’ The woman on the other end replied: ‘When is your period?’ I didn’t understand what business it was of hers. That moment I realized I wanted nothing to do with them.”

Tomer Adam Lenzinger, 41 (“I’m tired of being asked whether Emily is with me because she has a father complex”), was born to a father of German origin and a mother from Jersey, a small British island off the coast of Normandy, France. He spent his childhood in the Bavli neighborhood (in north Tel Aviv), Ra’anana and on Kibbutz Hagoshrim, Kiryat Shmona. In the army he served in a special unit, where he was also wounded. Later he worked in musical production and brought artists to Israel, until he became exclusively responsible for the “Emily Karpel” brand.

Are you strict with her?

Lenzinger: “Very.”

And how does it work?

Lenzinger: “It works great.”

But how does it work?

Karpel: “Tomer is the only person who listens to the songs long before they enter the studio. They do their selection through Tomer.”

Lenzinger: “In answer to your question, I’m the bad guy.”

Are there arguments in the studio?

Lenzinger: “Of course.”

And do they continue at home?

Lenzinger: “Of course.”

Karpel” “Yes, of course.” Lenzinger: “Like any couple we also fight, and because of the hours and the work there are no clear boundaries. We try, but it’s very hard.”

Karpel: “We don’t have the separation of when the work day begins and when it ends, which is something that we’re trying to achieve.”

Do you feel together against the world?

Lenzinger: “Yes, absolutely.”

Karpel: “Really. We call ourselves Connie and Blade, which was the name of our radio program.”

Who talks business more?

Karpel: “Tomer is much more business oriented. But wait, can I say this?”

Lenzinger: “I don’t know what you’re going to say, baby.”

Karpel: “All the business and the discussions and all that, I rely on Tomer’s opinion...”

Lenzinger: “Emily is totally involved, she’s not some kind of doll...”

Karpel: “That’s what I wanted to say. All the legal agreements and the contracts, that’s me.”

Lenzinger: “It’s become hers. In the previous recording it was me, but now the Iraqi in her has emerged. Accounting/contracts, she really enjoys all that.”

‘Beware of the pack’

Our hotel bar conversation was long, and they’re already late to a performance by their friend Davo in a tiny club in another part of the city. The same Davo cooperated with Karpel on her work in London, writes words in English with her and together they work on new songs. Karpel and Lenzinger leave the hotel in a daze, and rush to the Underground station, skip down the escalators, look for the right platform and get mixed up planning their travel route. The performance is about to begin and it’s important to them to be there, both in order to honor their friend and because you never know who will be there. In every pleasure there’s an option for business. They find the train, and subsequently emerge into the open air at a gallop.

The Indian dispatcher at the taxi stand is not familiar with the club, nor is the Chinese man in the supermarket. Karpel tries to navigate with a complicated app that causes her and Lenzinger to travel in wide and expansive circles. Now they’re officially running. It seems as though their entire stay in London is a desperate race against two perishable resources: time and their iPhone battery.

In the end they find the small club and Davo is just going onstage. He looks like a young and only slightly more human version of David Bowie. He stands alone on the stage there aren’t many more people in the audience and produces strange sounds from both himself and on-stage devices. Surprisingly, this combination of sounds blends into hypnotic music. Karpel approaches the stage and dances to the music; Lenzinger leans on the bar at the back and listens.

They are joined by Israeli friends such as Gil Lewis who produced Karpel’s latest album together with Lenzinger and his partner, Maya; Nimrod Kamer, an Israeli who stars in viral clips in which he harasses celebrities such as rappers Kanye West and P. Diddy until they or their bodyguards remove him. Kamer is also trying to make it in London and, in spite of the differences in temperament, one can identify some kind of brotherhood among the Israeli exiles. “Beware of the pack” says Lenzinger about the other side of this brotherhood.

Meanwhile, Davo performs and the audience which is composed mainly of the Israeli contingent and the parents of the person who is supposed to perform afterward are drawn into the music produced by this one-man band. “That’s what interests her,” Lenzinger explains to me while we’re drinking a post-performance beer, as though Karpel weren’t sitting next to us and participating in the conversation. “What you saw, standing on the stage and performing without all the bullshit, that’s what she wants. We don’t want all this surrounding life, we aren’t pigs. She hates publicity, I hate publicity, those things make us sick.

“The hardest thing for her in this profession is everything that’s not related to writing and singing. All the rest, it makes her vomit. And it’s hard for her, she’s a very private person. In the previous round of promotion, with all of Helicon’s [the distributor of the album] concepts, with all the promotions and the idea of ‘Let people see, let people see’ and all that, it’s so unsuitable for the project. You’ll see that this time there won’t be any of that.”

Did they intervene even on the level of styling and your appearance?

Karpel: “That’s the thing, I wanted to say that it was...”

Lenzinger: “They intervened as to which paper it would be in or...”

Karpel: “Just a minute, I want to say something...”

Lenzinger: “If it’s about your hair...”

Karpel: “Tomer! Now I’m talking! It’s very, very important to me to say about the first project that it was very external, everything was run very externally...”

Lenzinger: “People aren’t familiar with the best songs, they’re on the album...”

Karpel: “I’m talking! I went to launches, events, parties. I’ve been working in the profession for many years, and the first album was something I’d been awaiting for many years. It’s my first complete work and there was a lot of excitement. And then suddenly I’m signed up with a recording company and I have a PR agent and a radio schedule, and I go for photos and people are interested in me and ask who and what I am, and I felt that I had to do it. There was also a clause in the agreement that said I had to cooperate with every public relations step for promoting the album.”

So you’re saying that, in a way, you enjoyed it at first.

Karpel: “No, I was testing. I went there first of all...”

Lenzinger: “She didn’t enjoy it at all. It was a big smile with sadness behind it.”

Karpel: “Just a minute! Me! I went there first of all in order to test. It was the first time that people invited me, and were involved with me and my clothing, and I understood that I didn’t really enjoy it. Slowly but surely it has narrowed down to a point where now the PR activity is done on radio stations, and in places where I can come and be a guest, play the album and talk about the music.”

Lenzinger: “And since then the newspapers are suddenly writing ‘creative artist.’ Before that it was ‘icon.’”

Family entertainment center

The next morning the Karpel-Lenzingers go for a day in the studio. The studio, a room the size of a Citroen trunk, holds four people, but the oxygen may be enough for two. Karpel sits in front of the keyboard. Davo plays the drums as she plays a few notes. In response, Gabriel Stebbing former guitarist and bassist with the Metronomy band answers her with his own monotonous plucking. Stebbing, with a wild mane of hair and big glasses, works closely with Karpel. Together, they experiment musically in the studio and work on texts in English that can be adapted to her melodies.

After two hours of musical experiments, the three go up to the roof and join Lenzinger, who went up there earlier to get some air. The roof, slightly larger than the studio, overlooks the lovely gray landscape of Shoreditch. The weather is not at all British, with the sun out having just chased away the clouds. Karpel is telling Davo and Stebbing about the background to the song they’re working on, called “Cotton Wool.”

The song was written three days before a good friend of hers jumped to his death, and during the preceding two weeks they were not in contact. While she was writing the song which includes a monotonous and disturbing bass-piano line and the lyrics “He passes by, surrenders, through the curtain he seeks his way out of here” she didn’t know about his distress. Karpel explains to her friends, in English, that she understood after the fact that “Cotton Wool” was written about her friend and that the text and the melody were simply expelled from her, as though she were a pipeline of information. Karpel says his death “crushed her” and she is haunted by the sense of a missed opportunity, of their friendship and his talent.

Karpel’s happy pop songs sound like cotton candy (Lenzinger: “If anyone calls us ‘overly sweet pop’ or ‘candy’ again, I’ll vomit”), but anyone listening to her lyrics will find a dark and threatening side. Karpel, who grew up in a home enveloped by bereavement, says death was always present in her family: “When we’re in Israel, we spend all our time in cemeteries. It’s part of my family experience.”

Lenzinger: I don’t understand this business with graves; in our family nobody ever visited any grave. In general, since when do Jews visit the grave? Since when do they attach themselves to a place? In our family, each generation left for another country. That’s what Jews do. With Emily it’s not like that. I’m married to someone who’s bereaved on a daily basis and she has a role in her family. She has to take care of them and make them happy.”

Karpel: “I was always the family entertainment center.”

So the words to the songs are an attempt to express the other side?

Lenzinger: “It’s reflected everywhere in her work, in her writing where she really emphasizes that aspect...”

Lenzinger: “And then I come with the wrapper.”

Karpel: “That’s the contrast.”

Lenzinger: “And I’m not there, I’m not involved in the bereavement. I choose when to be there and when to stay away and to create a contrast. She’s the raw material, she’s the stone, and I choose how to cut it, how to present it.”

“Tomer is the director of my life,” says Karpel, closing her eyes lovingly. “He’s the musical editor and the scriptwriter and the designer of the soundtrack. He decides what we hear and which films we see.”

Asaf Eini

Lenzinger: “I’m your slave, Babe!”

Conquering the world

The two stumble back to the hotel, exhausted. But the day is not yet over. In the evening they’re going to have a farewell drink with a local friend, a musician who is about to embark on a tour outside England. They met this guy only recently through local friends, and they can’t permit themselves to miss the opportunity to say good-bye to him, to drink another beer and maybe to find another thread to a rosy and freckled future.

In Israel, it’s not easy. Although the reviews are very flattering, the big audience is not waiting for Emily Karpel, but instead for the melancholy songs of Keren Peles and the popular music of Sarit Hadad. Karpel and Lenzinger insist that they combine simple music with a sophisticated wrapping and that there is an audience for it, if not in Israel then abroad. That doesn’t mean she’s giving up on Hebrew. “Even if I’m doing an album that’s all in English,” says Karpel, “I’ll never be ashamed to include a song in Hebrew.”

Was there a stage when you still thought it could be achieved in Israel?

Karpel: “It’s possible, I still think it’s possible.”

Lenzinger: “I still think it’s possible.”

Karpel: “I can’t give up, I can’t really leave. We talk about Israel and I immediately become homesick. We’re not going anywhere, it’s important to say that.”

Lenzinger: “I didn’t tell you that I would leave Israel tomorrow. What’s wrong with taking in some different air? What’s wrong with getting away? Call it a sabbatical year or a long vacation. Listen, it’s very simple. If we had enough money, we would have two homes and live both there and here. In any case, I’ll be a stranger everywhere; it’s in my DNA.”

And if your dream comes true and your career is successful here?

Lenzinger: “But we want to continue working in Israel.”

But your life will be here and your children will be here and then it’s no longer so simple.

Lenzinger: “That’s the question, where the child will grow up.”

And whether he will grow up with Hebrew.

Lenzinger: “There will always be Hebrew at home. Just as I grew up in a home where there was English. But I don’t know, it’s early for those things.”

Karpel: “I really believe, I see it happening anywhere, no matter where. It could happen in London, in Berlin, in Canada with my father, or in Israel. And it makes no difference where our children will be; Tomer will speak English with our children and I’ll speak Hebrew. And then we’ll switch.”

Is it possible that your music is more suited for a foreign audience than an Israeli one?

Lenzinger laughs and says cynically: “It’s possible.”

Karpel: “I think that the Israeli audience is very intelligent and it can, it can. It simply doesn’t have enough tools. It doesn’t have enough festivals, it has no events, it has no cultural freedom.”

Lenzinger: “A senior television executive grabbed me after a performance and said: ‘It’s crazy, it’s an amazing show, everyone has to see it.’ I said to him: ‘Great, what are you doing about it?’ It’s very simple. If you’re exposed on television or radio, then you reach the cities. That’s how it’s supposed to work. But the written media say that Emily is ‘pop, pop, pop’ and the broadcast media say that it’s ‘underground,’ so there’s severe disharmony here.

“The executives in the written media don’t speak the same language as those in the broadcast media,” he continues. “They don’t speak in the same codes, not even in the same cultural titles, there’s a tremendous gap. It’s strange. Everyone plays it safe, everything is safe, safe, safe. Even those that aren’t commercial, even those who receive public funding. What’s ‘Sof Shavua Ragua’ (A Calm Weekend a program of quiet songs on the popular Army Radio station)? It’s an Israeli invention, isn’t it?”

Karpel: “When will there be a wild weekend?”

Lenzinger: “When will we go crazy? They put us to sleep and what happens is that you have very strange interpretations of high-quality popular culture. The broadcaster on television or radio is a few years behind. In foreign languages they broadcast things that come from exactly the same world as ours, and they [Israel broadcasters] keep saying: ‘When will there be such a thing in Hebrew?’ When it’s available in Hebrew they’re sympathetic, but they don’t go out of their way in the newspaper or the television program and say: ‘It’s the most happening thing, the newest thing.’”

Karpel: “They may broadcast it, but not during hours when the audience can access it.”

Lenzinger: “And what’s most infuriating is that the same people who sit in the same media organizations tell us privately: ‘There’s nothing for you here, get out of here.’”

Karpel: “’You’re the best thing that was here.’” Lenzinger: “’You’re the best thing that was here, there’s nothing for you here.’ Time after time after time.”

In effect, they’re telling you that you’re too good for their audience.

Lenzinger: “I can show you actual quotes. It’s on the level of: ‘Forget it, don’t waste your time, get out of here, nobody can understand those excellent things, there can’t be such a thing here.’ Listen, it almost brings tears to your eyes, your throat tightens. It’s as though they those who decide what we’ll read and what we’ll see are saying in advance ‘We’ve lost the battle,’ and don’t stand on their hind legs. Because they’re concerned with their salary and there’s pressure from the shareholders and so on. So it’s every man for himself.”

Karpel: “The feeling is that in some way they’re chasing us away from here.”

Lenzinger: “What do you mean they’re chasing us away? They’re saying we’re too good to be here and they’re saying: ‘Go and bring us honor.’ It’s depressing.”

So tell me one last thing.

Lenzinger: “What do you want to know?”

Who’s paying for your stay at the 5-star Renaissance Hotel?

Lenzinger: “Good question. There are people who believe in us and want us to conquer the world. There’s a lot of middle ground between that and my goal of 3,000 people in each city. It’s simply that once there were recording companies and today there aren’t any. There are silent partners people who believe in culture and music, and want a better world. We don’t sit in anyone’s lap and we don’t rub anyone’s back. There are all kinds of good Jews in this country and there are also wonderful non-Jews who never talk to us about money always about creativity, creativity, creativity. We’re actually modest; we always have a dream about a small hut in New Zealand, a new place that’s far from the problems of the past. There are terrible problems here in London. So what if it’s green here? You asked before what success is...”

Karpel: “Oh, oh, oh! Satisfaction, that’s true success for me...”

Lenzinger: “I’m sure that...”

Karpel: “I’m answering for myself, only for myself. I only want to go to sleep every night tired and happy, and excited about what’s going to happen tomorrow. That’s what I want most. I want the world to run according to the rules in my head. As long as it depends on me, that’s what I would like. Unfortunately, we all have to spend our lives surviving and searching and being extremely determined in order to achieve that. But I’m willing to work very hard and I want to enjoy my work. I want my work to be the thing I most love to do. And that’s what I’m fighting for.”