How Soon Is Now? Israel's Next Indie-sensation Is Still Waiting Tables

No one would guess the roots of flamboyant singer-songwriter Tzvika Force.

Doron Halutz
Doron Halutz
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Doron Halutz
Doron Halutz

A day after playing the main stage of the InDNegev music festival last month, Tzvika Lorber showed up at Orna and Ella, the Tel Aviv restaurant  on Sheinkin Street where he works as a waiter. On Saturday, his face painted with neon colors, Lorber − whose stage name is Tzvika Force − had shared the stage with Daniela Spector, one of Israel’s indie stars, before an audience of some 1,000 people. On Sunday he served yam pancakes, sharing tips with his fellow waiters.

This was the biggest audience the 27-year-old singer-songwriter has had to date. He plays mainly small venues in Tel Aviv, and released his debut EP, “Petite Nature,” six months ago. But into his excited descriptions of the desert music event creeps a depressed tone of despair.

“It’s like a roller-coaster ride,” explains Lorber. Sometimes the roller coaster does a whole cycle without even leaving the restaurant.

“A little while ago, I was clearing dishes,” he recalls. “The kitchen radio was on FM 88, and I heard my song ‘Take What You Can Get From Me.’ I was embarrassed. Often, when one of my songs is played on the radio, the cooks call me into the kitchen. I smile a little, and they ask me: ‘Aren’t you happy?’ But even if it’s an honor to be played on the radio, it has no impact. I want more. I want a big hit.”

The successful and impressive “Petite Nature” had a good chance of propelling Lorber forward – if not into mainstream stardom, then at least to the top of the local indie scene. His voice has an interesting tone, and his lyrics mysterious yet touching. His melodies can surprise yet are catchy. He is also blessed with personal charm and an alluring face. For years, indie-music bloggers have been praising him and, just before his EP was released, he received favorable coverage on the Ynet Website and in the Hebrew entertainment magazine Pnai Plus, which labeled him one of the promising artists of the season. Lorber was optimistic, hoping to follow in the footsteps of Asaf Avidan.

With titles such as “For Breaking My Heart” and “It’s Over,” the five tracks on “Petite Nature” ‏(which means “weakling” in French, but is used as a derogatory term for someone who’s fragile and spoiled, explains Lorber‏), the mini-album grew out of a depression which swept over him after a band he’d put together broke up. Lorber had suffered a prolonged creative block, thinking that his love affair with music was over. He returned to composing only a year later, and quickly recorded his new songs in an attempt to overcome his crisis. Although the underlying cause of this depression was specific and obvious, it was nurtured by years of internal struggles, some of which have still not been resolved. “The depression that followed the group’s breakup reminded me of earlier depressions,” he says.

Lorber grew up in a warm, religious home in Be’er Sheva. His father, Yehuda, is an electrician at the nuclear research facility in Dimona and volunteers for Zaka ‏(the emergency paramedic service‏). His mother, Hanna, works in the field of special education. “They were supportive parents, but things weren’t good for me,” he says. He attended a religious high school, arriving each morning at 7:20 A.M. for prayers, then studying Bible and Talmud all day.

“I didn’t connect with people,” Lorber explains, adding that he suffered also at Shabbat, when “there was nothing to do at home, when listening to music or using a computer was forbidden. My thoughts became depressive. The religion generated fear. Even when I moved to Tel Aviv, I refrained from mixing meat and dairy. When I schedule events on Shabbat, I still worry about bad luck. This burden will probably never go away.”

Social isolation also played a part in his woes. “I was a good kid, a bit sensitive, but I couldn’t find myself in Be’er Sheva,” he admits. “I didn’t have any friends and didn’t find anything interesting to do. I was suffocating. I never kissed anyone until I was 21, and never felt any affection. I really wanted it, but it was lacking.”
An Orthodox upbringing in Be’er Sheva is probably not the optimal environment for a boy who starts to experience same-sex attraction. “I’d fall in love, but I couldn’t share my emotions with anyone because of the way I’d been raised. I didn’t know what to do with that feeling of loneliness: a feeling that love was only a fantasy.”

Lorber now lives in Tel Aviv with his partner for the last five years, Ofer, who is also his first boyfriend. This means Lorber never had to deal with the bitter taste that a hard breakup might create. The two met over the Internet, and got married half a year ago at a party on a southern moshav, which Tzvika’s parents did not attend. The disappointed love stories in his songs are, therefore, those whose existence he could never talk about. “I don’t know if those responsible for them are even aware of it,” he says.

In the lyrics that grew out of these experiences, he tries to remain abstract, discreet – for example, by using the second-person form of speech, which is gender-neutral in English. Lorber bristles when asked about this. In the few interviews he has given, this topic wasn’t even hinted at, and he doesn’t mind leaving it at that. He discusses that inner debate frankly: a combination of wanting to shelter his parents, and a concern about the media’s tendency toward sensationalism, which could reduce him to being “the gay Orna and Ella musician.” He repeats his affection for mystique, but knows that in this case it’s only a pretext, adding that the “shadow of my past has left a strong and still-reverberating emotional mark on me.”

Jennifer Lopez and Hasidic music

“I didn’t really have any childhood dreams, except maybe of moving to Tel Aviv,” says Lorber. “I closed myself off at home, with music as my only refuge. My father has a large collection of CDs, Hasidic music, Jennifer Lopez, trance. When I was 4, I listened to Michael Jackson records in our living room when no one was home, and imagined performing for our neighbors. My grandfather was a cantor, and my father had some unfulfilled dreams of becoming a singer. I think he tried to fulfill some of them vicariously, through me.”

At the age of 12, Lorber started learning to play a guitar that his father had bought him, but quit after only a few lessons “because that’s the way I am.” “Diva” was the first song he played, “since it’s easy. Later on, I listened to groups such as [British rock band] Muse and was drawn to the piano. My father bought me one, which was brought to our house in an ambulance belonging to Zaka.”

Meanwhile, by the age of 14 Lorber was starting to write his own music. He relates that the time spent doing his military service ‏(as an electrician servicing helicopters at the Hatzerim Air Base‏) was particularly productive. His father stepped in again, “buying me an expensive computer for recording my music, even though I didn’t know what to do, since sound was not my area of expertise.” During a week’s sick leave following an operation, Lorber recorded some sketches for his songs. He posted them on Myspace, “which is how they got to me from the radio station Kol Hacampus, on which I was invited to be a guest in 2007. I realized that people were interested.”

Following his discharge from the army, he moved to Tel Aviv and started performing, accompanying himself on the piano. “Daniel Roth from the Hapsharot band heard me play on the small stage at InDNegev in 2009, and suggested we do something together. We arranged a marching band with eight musicians and some burlesque dancers, and played at the Tmuna Theater [in the Montefiore district].”

That ambitious project did not last long, however: “I had no money to finance that, and you can’t organize anything with eight people involved. Besides, I was spoiled and lazy. I thought people should approach us and invite us to play. I returned to being alone and depressed again, not knowing how to continue.
“I was on the ropes, but out of the depression came the five songs that are on the EP, and I decided to try and publish them. I turned to Ben Spector, a music producer who is also the partner of Daniela Spector. I sent him the song ‘I Believe.’ He obviously understood my intentions, based on the sketch he sent back. In retrospect, I’m not sure how I had the energy to do what I did then.”
He concedes that his partner Ofer’s French grandmother was one of the catalysts for his recovery.

“I really love staying at Ofer’s parents’ villa in Meitar. On one of the Saturdays I spent there, when his grandmother was told that I’d gone to sleep, she called me ‘petit nature.’ I decided then that I would stop being so spoiled. The penny dropped, and I realized that my new album would be a revival, a renewal of my soul.”

‘Broken heart’

On stage, Lorber is colorful and peacock-like. He wears a theatrical purple suit that he had specially designed for himself, inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince” ‏(although it looks a bit like a jester’s costume‏). Fractured self-confidence, hesitation and bewilderment are part of Tzvika Lorber’s essence.

But Tzvika Force is another matter entirely. “This is someone who radiates power,” Lorber explains. “On stage, something different emanates from me. On stage it’s ‘I’ll show you’ − [whether it’s] religious society, my school, even myself.”

Do the songs you write have biographical elements, or are these fictions you create to suit your alter ego?

“I don’t decide consciously that I will now become a certain character while I’m writing. But Tzvika Force is a character with a broken heart, who has experienced some of the things I have gone through.

“Making music is a kind of escape. When I write, I play something I like on the piano and the lyrics come flying out, even if they are only scattered thoughts that I use to imagine situations and to construct a reality I would like to enter. In the song ‘Accident,’ the words ‘accident’ and ‘wilderness’ sprang to mind, and I used them to construct a story about loving from a distance, about falling in love with someone from another country. It’s not something I experienced personally, but I know people who have, and I draw inspiration from my surroundings all the time.”

The first line in the first song in the album is: “Hunted / By death.” Where does that come from?

“I imagined a cold night with a full moon, with me in a black leather jacket on the way to a party.”

And death appearing at the beginning?

“It’s in the air.”

And it dictates a certain tone.

“I agree, but it wasn’t conscious. I just tried to create an interesting atmosphere, dark and mysterious.”

The nickname Tzvika Force was born in the army, “while I was beginning to write more serious material, songs with a more aggressive tone such as ‘Sounds Better’ and ‘Above Them All.’ The commander called me ‘Tzvika Force’ [in Hebrew] over the wireless, but I changed my performing name into English since I didn’t want any association with the army.”

Lorber is aware of the importance of YouTube in the dissemination of new music, and creates video clips of his songs, even when there is no budget available ‏(“I saw this morning that I only have NIS 38 left in the bank,” he admits‏), hoping one will somehow become a viral hit.

He tried out for other “instant” paths to success in auditions for reality shows. However, he says, “When I stood on the stage there, I asked myself why I was doing it. I don’t want to sing cover versions in Hebrew, and the whole experience was unpleasant. They have talented production workers. They would try to draw me in, and I was attracted. In one of the shows I didn’t even pass the audition stage. In another we started negotiating, but I felt that the contract they offered would tie me down and I refused to sign it. I don’t have anything against the whole thing; it could be a great platform.”

Radio stations that aren’t devoted to popular music − such as Kol Hacampus and the Internet station Hakatze/KZradio − like Lorber and play his songs. The “establishment ones,” he complains, don’t. “They play Rufus Wainwright or Regina Spektor or Muse, all of whom produce music similar to mine, but when it comes to an Israeli singing in English − that’s considered marginal and bizarre. My music could reach many people if only it had the opportunity,” he believes.

Despite his complaints, Lorber’s music did get some exposure over the summer. Radio Darom devoted a whole hour to his songs, and Army Radio invited him to play a few songs in the studio, live. Just before the Jewish New Year, “Petite Nature” managed to get into some of the “albums of the year” selections: third on NRG’s list ‏(“He has the passion, theatrics, looks and balls of a rock star ... powerful melodies ... clever lyrics”‏), and ninth on the Musica Neto music store list ‏(tucked between Ninette and Chava Alberstein‏), compiled by using a weighted average based on ratings by the store’s staff and Web users. The performance at InDNegev gave him more air time. He was hosted by Radio Tel Aviv, alongside Ester Rada. And just last week he made his debut performance at the Piano Festival, at the Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv.

Yet you still complain of being ignored? Maybe it’s just a matter of personality? Maybe you want people to worry for you?

“Perhaps, but I’ve developed elbows over the years through lots of work.”

Why don’t you try and make connections through the high-end clientele at the restaurant?

“There are maybe five musicians who are regulars there, and I gave all of them my album. I’m a bit shy, and don’t like to push myself and be a burden. But now I do keep copies of my album at the restaurant.”

Tzvika Lorber. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum