Taking Off

A decade after her first public performances, Rona Kenan says she’s ready to take chances. Hence the new, loud shows at the Barby, experiments with electronic music, and a teaching job at a surprise venue.

Rona Kenan returned a few days ago from a vacation. A little R&R in Mexico and then concerts-shopping-wandering in New York. She talks about two concerts she went to in the big city. One was a show by the band Bon Iver, one of the great hopes to come out of the American indie scene in recent years. "It was very impressive and I learned a lot of things from it, but somehow it didn't seep into me," she says. The second show, a joint performance by David Byrne and St. Vincent (musician Annie Clark's stage name ), was another story altogether. "I came out of it ecstatic," Kenan, 33, enthuses. "David Byrne always intrigued me, and I had Talking Heads' records at home, but I had never gone into the music deeply. Their concert was very impressive precisely in its relative simplicity, compared to Bon Iver. With Bon Iver there was a crammed stage, a lot of musicians, serious lighting, and then there was this David Byrnish thing: a horn section, he and she - she has long intrigued me - a drummer, a computer, and very funny and simple choreography, with the placement of the musicians set up differently on every song. "I'm all into David Byrne now," Kenan says and points to his new book, "How Music Works," which she bought in New York along with the vinyl version of his and St. Vincent's new album, "Love This Giant."

On "Shirim Leyoel" (Songs for Yoel ), her third album, which came out in 2009, Kenan forayed fearlessly into the volatile biography of her father, Amos Kenan (member of the prestate underground militia Lehi, satirist, author, and journalist for Haaretz and Yedioth Ahronoth ), interrogating, dismantling, imagining and reassembling it in a spectacular manner that had about it a wonderful blend of restraint and free rein. The disc that came out two years later, "Hamra'ot Venehitot" (Takeoffs and Landings ), was a nice album but far less thrilling.

"Of all the albums I have made, that was the album that I most enjoyed making," Kenan says of "Takeoffs and Landings." "There was a release of some kind involved. The atmosphere in the studio was so good. That ease ... I had an easy time making it, I enjoyed every second."

Maybe it was easy and fun to make because you were operating within your comfort zone? Within the routine?

"That could well be. We returned to the studio where we had made 'Einayim Zarot' [Through Foreign Eyes, her second album, from 2007]. I was with my band, which has been playing with me for a long time. It was like summer camp. Izhar [Ashdot, who produced all her albums except "Songs for Yoel"] photographed the whole project. It's an album that came easily, and it is possible that things that come easy" - Kenan realizes she is starting to apologize for something that she does not want to apologize for, and says: "Hang on, I really like this album." Then she starts laughing.

"At Gidi's shows," says Kenan, who is a member of the ensemble that has accompanied Gidi Gov for a number of years in his live performances, "we frequently host Yehudit [Ravitz], and Yehudit has an expression that she has introduced into our lexicon. When we come off stage she does an impersonation of people who come out of a concert and say 'ani ahavti,'" (I liked ). To get the joke you have to separate the syllables "a" and "ni," making the "ni" high and then going back down on "ahavti."

"It's sort of a caricature of a particular kind of Israeli audience," Kenan elaborates.

The "culture lovers"?

"Yes. Something Romanian-like, and I don't mean people who came from Romania. A-ni ahavti." She bursts out laughing again.

It is a safe bet that nobody will come out with "a-ni ahavti" from Kenan's latest shows and those to come. Not only are these electric and energetic performances that take place at a rock club (just recently at the Barby ), they are also embedded in a wider context in which Kenan is forging a powerful affinity between herself and the Israeli indie scene.

The latest concert at the Barby was the fourth in a series of evenings she curates that are held at the club every two months or so. Kenan, with slight irony, terms them "my mini-festival." Each evening is made up of three "terminals," in keeping with the title of her last album, "Takeoffs and Landings." Terminal 1 is a one-musician show (this last time it was the Israeli singer Sun Tailor ); Terminal 2 is a performance by a young rock band that Kenan guests (in this case the band Hatraklin ); and Terminal 3 is Kenan's electric show, which hosts a top-flight artist (this time it was Assaf Amdursky ) and also one of the musicians from the earlier terminals.

Eight years had passed since Kenan last performed at the Barby (at the launch concert for her debut album ). In the intervening years her home port was the Zappa club in Tel Aviv, which is a much more refined concert venue than the rocker-oriented Barby.

"I felt that something in the music was beginning to grow some muscle, that the Zappa outfit was starting to get tight," Kenan says. "I wanted to crank up the volume, not just physically but also metaphorically. I felt that there was beginning to be a clash of some kind between what I want and what I am able to do in a place like the Zappa."

The new desires for higher volume and an electric sound were preceded, Kenan says, by "a long process of 'chamberness,' which came to a head on 'Songs for Yoel' and its return to Land of Israelhood. During that period I listened to old Israeli music a great deal. I gave back to myself an education I had never had." What do you mean?

"I wasn't raised on Israeli music at all. There were a few Israeli records at home - I remember Shmulik Kraus' 'Spinning Wheel,' but nothing aside from that. My sister, who is 10 years older than me, was an Anglophile, and my parents listened only to classical music. The truth is that my father also liked Dave Brubeck, and occasionally stuff by Pink Floyd, mainly 'Ummagumma.' Those were his only two contemporary things," she smiles. "So Israeli music was not part of my musical lexicon."

Not Matti Caspi? Not Yehudit Ravitz?

"Nothing. Nothing. I knew who Gidi Gov was, right? I remember they'd sing songs of his in elementary school. But nothing beyond that. Not records of Kaveret and not Arik Einstein. My slow approach to Israeli music began with Eran Tzur, Corinne Allal, and Friends of Natasha. And then, very gradually, I began filling in gaps and listening to old albums that amazed me. My Matti Caspi phase, for example, happened only when I was working on 'Songs for Yoel.'"

At a certain stage, though, Kenan's infatuation with Israeli music was played out: "I said, 'Enough, I'm fed up. I miss other things.' I was excluded a bit from playing electric guitar, or more precisely I excluded myself, and I wanted to get back to that. The launch concerts for 'Takeoffs and Landings' at Zappa were lovely, but I wanted to perform in front of a standing audience, after having performed for quite a few years only in front of people in seats." That move forced Kenan to reopen the arrangements of her songs, inject them with adrenaline, and also change the way that she stands on stage. "These shows undoubtedly require more movement," she says. "There are songs on which I do not play and I stand exposed without the guitar. That is something new. I come back to that David Byrne concert: He stood there and danced in his charming awkwardness. It was wonderful. So yes, it means moving and sweating and holding the stage in a different manner. It isn't easy, but I feel that I manage to do it."

What about your singing? You are a terrific singer, but you don't have that rocker "arghhhh," the rugged vocal expression that comes from the gut.

"I disagree. I feel that it's totally there, especially in concerts, and not in a forced way but rather in a manner that is called for by the arrangements."

I don't demand it of you.

"Nor do I demand it of myself. But the moment I decide to go in the direction of a rougher and looser and bigger performance, dynamically speaking, it requires me to encounter this thing. It has always been a part of my vocal repertoire, but sometimes I set it aside."

'Why are they so mean?'

Kenan is accustomed to reviewers raising questions, mainly regarding her authenticity as a rock singer. "I don't have a problem with aesthetic demands," she says. "My problem is with emotional demands, with accusations like, 'you're not torn to pieces enough,' 'you don't pour your heart into it enough.'" Who says that - critics, the public?

"Critics. And incidentally or not, all of these reviewers are men. The subtext is, 'There is something frigid about her.'"

It is always men who make these allegations against you? Never women?

"Only men. It has to do with all sorts of images that men have about femininity and rock. It's as though if you're in this field, if you strap on an electric guitar and scream, you still have to maintain a kind of sexiness. They don't want it to be utterly filthy, with fat and not-pretty women. They want funk, but for it to be aesthetic. Or else they want it to be something terribly sweet with sweetly straight content.

"The problem with me is that I am not entirely one of those things, not categorically. Yes, there's an electric guitar there and I'm a lesbian, but maybe I'm not lesbian enough, and not electric enough, and it's soft but not too soft, and it's isn't sweet, it's just heavy. What do I know? God knows what people think. It is impossible to get into everybody's head and please everyone. And happily, I am learning to treat it with a little more humor and perspective. It used to drive me nuts. I would think, 'Why are they so mean?'"

The move from the seated audience at Zappa to the standing audience at Barby is challenging enough. Why did you feel the need to add two more "terminals" of indie performances?

"One of the ways to handle big tasks is to spread the stress out among multiple elements. If I turn myself into a kind of artistic director, that means I am not preoccupied only with myself, and that's good. Besides, there was the fear that we might not fill the Barby."

Really? I thought you were past concerns like that by now.

"No. I am content with my situation. I work very hard, and I feel that I have help from some sort of providence, in the sense that people want to hear what I do. But the older public that came together on 'Songs for Yoel' won't come to a standing-only show at the Barby, and the people who saw me in my early days at the Tmuna Theater - I don't know where they're at today. Some of them left, some of them don't go to shows. There is a certain public that comes to the Barby, and you need to bring in new people."

How do you select the musicians for terminals 1 and 2?

"I go to concerts, pore over YouTube uploads, my email is filled with recommendations. I even called up Leon Feldman [a prominent radio broadcaster who promotes independent Israeli music] and said, 'Give me a list of people you think I will like.' I read blogs, look at the concert schedule of Ozen Bar and check out the names that seem to me the most interesting. Bottom line: The musicians I invite to perform are the ones that I really like."

Some of the Terminal 1 performances have been by electronic musicians. Are you into that?

"I got into it lately. I am experimenting a bit. It's still in a primitive stage, but I am pleased with myself. After years in which I talked about it and tried and didn't succeed, suddenly some porthole opened between me and the computer."

Kenan tells of a deep bond that she has formed with two young electronic musicians, with whom she is working on a project entitled "Livyatanim" (whales ). With their help Kenan has even begun to create her own electronic beats and enter a musical world that is not associated with her in the least. "I'm like a teenage girl working for the first time with a drum machine and a synth," Kenan says. "A lot of things come out that are electro cliches, and sometimes it's really stupid, and sometimes it's nice, and occasionally something good comes out."

Turning it into a song

When something good comes out, whenever she manages to create a beat that she is pleased with, Kenan tries to turn it into a song, and she already has six or seven such songs, all of them in English. She has no idea if they will lead to an album. "I've thought about an EP," she says, "But I am inclined to begin things and say 'Maybe it will be an EP' and it winds up becoming almost a double album."

Your work with musicians who are just starting out, coupled with the fact that at one of the "Takeoffs and Landings" shows you hosted Eran Tzur, made me think of the concert where you were first exposed to the public, at the age of 18, alongside Tzur in his show of Yona Wallach poems. Did you think of that show too?

"I didn't, actually. Working with young musicians took me back to the Tmuna days, when I had a trio with Adam Scheflan and Omri Hanegbi, and we worked completely independently, even before it became fashionable. This thing of building a public: performing for the first time and not knowing if anyone will come, and suddenly they come, and you get to the club and see that there's a line of people, and you pass through them to your show - as far as I'm concerned that is where the conscious beginning was. That performance with Eran was naturally a formative performance for me, and over the years I have bumped into more people who told me that they were there than could possibly fit into the Suzanne Dellal Center, but the conscious decision to recruit musicians, to work in a [minuscule] rehearsal room, to perform for three years without recording, and make an EP that we designed ourselves, to buy stickers and brown paper at Arta to put the CDs in - that was the true beginning. I look at the bands that take part in the shows at the Barby and I see them working the way I worked back then."

Only without stickers. When the music is distributed on the Internet there is no need for stickers.

"True. And there is another difference between the bands I invite to perform in the terminals and who I was 10 years ago. They sing in Hebrew [except Sun Tailor]. I am pretty insistent about inviting primarily bands that sing in Hebrew. When I was starting out I sang in English."

Why do you insist on inviting mainly bands that sing in Hebrew?

"Because a lot of times when I listen to new bands, I get the sense of a real missed opportunity. When I hear people who are plugged into the world, and play well, and on top of that they have sharp-witted lyrics in Hebrew, it sounds to me like the most innovative and exciting thing. When the same thing is done in English, without the added value of extraordinary wit and intelligence ...

"I come back again to David Byrne," Kenan continues, picking up the singer's book. "He writes something here, I even marked it, he says it about himself: 'We all spend time imagining ourselves inhabiting the bodies of our childhood heroes, like avatars in a way, and it's thrilling, but at some point it's time to put those urges to rest. After all, those bodies are already being used by their original owners.'

"We all try to be somebody else. We all commit that sin. But Hebrew can save you. I don't want to sound like a missionary, but what does our mother tongue enable us to do? To think of something new. The ability to come up with a combination that is completely new, intuitive, dreamy, a combination that draws from the spring beneath the spring - it is hard to pull that off in a language that is not your mother tongue."

And this is coming from a woman who recently went back to writing songs in English.

"True. There is a contradiction here. But sometimes language is only another component. The music I am making now is not so text-based. There are no-less important players there."

The key word is "elastic," she believes, "Up to a certain age you feel your way, establish your identity. I've done that already. I don't need to fight to define who I am. Now I am ready to go back to being elastic. For the first time I am toying with the possibility of collaborating in depth with other people to work on an album: inviting people to write with me, to send half-finished things to people so they can complete them. Things I did alone until now. You might say I am searching for a new language, a new working assumption."

In the meantime, at the end of the month, Kenan will begin teaching for the first time in her life. This will happen at the Mizmor School, the music program belonging to the Givat Washington college near Ashdod. "It is a school for the religious community," Kenan says. "I am going to teach religious girls songwriting and interpretation. I want to talk with them about how in pop music, a text that is good in its own right is not necessarily the most important thing. I want to discuss with them the ethos according to which being honest is more important than being witty or clever.

"It is obvious to me that I will learn a lot from these classes," Kenan continues. "Every assignment I give out, I will try to complete myself. You can't have too many tricks and ways of writing songs." Kenan says she will discuss with the students the songs of Roy Orbison and Elton John, Berry Sakharof and The Biluim. The thought of The Biluim's brand of leftist views in a school affiliated with the Orthodox community begs the question concerning the gaps between Kenan and the venue where she is about to teach. "It's excellent," she says. "It is one of the things that interests me the most. Encountering another world, interacting with women who are different from me, women who have another cultural language and perhaps also another political language. You have to get out of your comfort zone sometimes."

Yaniv Edry