Riff Cohen. 'Suddenly I got it: ‘Sexy’ is the word I was looking for. I don’t sound sexy.' Aviv Abramov

Israeli Singer Riff Cohen Explains Her Love Affair With the Turks

Cohen talks about how motherhood changed her music and learning to accept her 'Bedouin child' voice



Riff Cohen’s new single, “Boi Agale Lach” (Come, let me tell you), opens with the sentence by a woman who isn’t Riff Cohen.

“Riffi,” the woman says, “in the end you’ll find yourself alone.” A loaded sentence – toxic, like the dark whisper of a sorcerer. Who is this woman? And if she doesn’t know Cohen intimately, like the nickname “Riffi” indicates, why does she tell her these disquieting words?

“It’s someone I had some disagreement with,” Cohen says, “and she texted me that sentence. It affected me very deeply. I didn’t know why, or what to do with that feeling. It pressed some button in me.”

Understandable – it’s a disturbing phrase.

“Yes, but today I have defenses. I know how to handle it. Then I was pregnant and more vulnerable. It took me time to think what about it was difficult for me and if it really needed to be difficult for me, and then I wrote an answer in my diary.

Aviv Abramov

“It went like this: ‘So come, let me tell you: I’m always alone. Everyone is always alone. The question is if he accepts it or not. A human being comes into the world alone, leaves the world alone, it’s a journey we pass alone. So come, let me tell you: I’m always alone.’

“The moment I wrote those words, I solved the whole story for myself,” Cohen says. “I took it out, that’s it, finished, problem solved. I don’t have those vibrations in my body anymore.”

Then the text became a song, with almost no change. “When I sang it – and on a beat I wasn’t familiar with, that was new and intriguing to me – it was so liberating. Goose bumps,” says Cohen. “It was like a rebellion, like punching someone. It’s such a personal song. I have no idea what people will do with it.”

Can you imagine what she felt when she heard the song?

“She doesn’t know it’s about her.”

Of course she knows.

Aviv Abramov

“I don’t think she knows,” says Cohen, laughing, and adds: “She wrote lots more things. I don’t think she’ll remember.”

Like a Kinder Surprise

Behind “Boi Agale Lach” lies an existential idea that people have been pondering from time immemorial, but when I heard it, I had a thought that was much less existential and profound. Cohen, 35, has two small children with her partner, fashion designer Hed Mayner. The older son is almost 4 and the younger son was born a year and a day after him. This means that in recent years there was hardly a time when Cohen could enjoy a few moments of coveted solitude. Maybe the philosophical reflection of “Boi Agale Lach” is actually a civilized reflection of the selfish urge for a little alone time amid the daily grind of being a parent?

Cohen smiles for a few seconds when she hears this hypothesis, but half a minute later she’s already deep into Khalil Gibran, who says our children are not really ours, that “they come through you but not from you.”

Riff Cohen performing at Haaretz in August 2019

“In this sense, giving birth to a work of art is very different from giving birth to children. When I create music, I need to devise its skin and tendons, choose the nostril and ear and angle. Numerous choices, numerous decisions. Pregnancy isn’t like that. It’s like a Kinder Surprise,” she says laughing. “The process and production happen by themselves, and there’s the album’s release date. You know when it’s going to happen. And then this thing comes out, and somehow it’s not me who is responsible for how it came out. I didn’t choose all those details.”

Cohen tends to go on and on in her answers, and although they’re always interesting, she sometimes loses her line of reasoning. She wanted to say something harsh about the separateness of parents and children. “Yes,” she says. “I know a lot of mothers whose children are their whole world. They think they’re not alone because they have children and the children are what fills them. But this period in which you don’t have a moment to go to the bathroom, it ends sometime, and you find yourself alone again, and the question is, what do you have left of yourself? My sticking to my work stems not only from the fact that I must do it as a person, and if it didn’t exist, I’d feel off. I adhere to it even more as a mother, because I understand that that’s what I have for myself. It’s the only thing I have for myself. And it’s the only thing that hasn’t changed through this crazy earthquake of raising a family. All the rest is a kind of illusion. That’s how it feels.”

“Boi Agale Lach” is the second single on Cohen’s third album, scheduled to come out sometime in 2020. Cohen will perform songs from it at the 'Barby' in Tel Aviv on December 3. She has been working on the album for a year and a half together with Atar Mayner, her partner’s younger brother. She likens the work to a soda bottle about to explode, with every song that comes out lessening the pressure a little bit, but the bottle remains full of material aspiring to be released.

“It’s great and frustrating at the same time,” she says.

What is the source of this accumulation and the need to release it?

Moti Milrod

“It’s got to do with the two births so close together,” says Cohen. “And it’s not only a technical matter, that I was used to working at home and now I can’t do that. Before giving birth I was used to processing every significant experience immediately into a song. In my new routine I had less time to do it. I didn’t have time to stop, digest, process. For the first time I felt the need to go to therapy. In the past all the feelings would come out immediately on the piano and that was it, end of story, problem solved. In therapy I discovered I’m not such a communicative creature. I don’t know how to talk my feelings so much. It’s some kind of human backwardness.”

In the studio, too, when she had to communicate with Mayner about the small details of their work, she found it difficult to do it. She had never worked with a partner before. She had always done things on her own. “It was hard for me to define and pass on my thoughts,” she says.

“In one song I had a problem with how my voice sounded. I wanted to illustrate it to Atar but couldn’t find the right word. Suddenly I got it: ‘Sexy’ is the word I was looking for. I don’t sound sexy. It made me laugh that that’s the best way to describe my feeling, but it was the word. Only in this song. There are songs in which I’m really not sexy, deliberately. There are songs in which I sound like a Bedouin child. In fact, it may be my most known voice. It’s the voice that dominated in the first album. It’s a voice I created, I discovered some formula and it caught on very strongly. It kind of defined me, even though it’s only one angle of me.”

The fact that the voice most identified with Cohen is, according to her, a produced voice put together in a studio, reflects her claim that singers’ voices aren’t a natural, given thing. “I don’t believe I have one voice, or one artistic identity,” she says.

She says that in some songs on the new album she used Auto-Tune, an audio processor that fixes off-key music or singing, not in a transparent way to correct the singing, but as a conceptual statement.

Riff Cohen performing at Haaretz/The Marker headquarters, August 2019.

“It intrigued me to try it, and it felt right to me with the rhythm and the music. Auto-Tune is an inseparable part of hip hop, of trap, but it also is very strong in North African music. In Moroccan Berber music there’s extreme Auto-Tune [effect]. You hear some older singer, like a grandmother, who has robotic voice, and she thinks it’s pretty. And I think, is that aesthetic in her view? That’s amazing.”

From here she moves onto thoughts on how in the Israeli periphery, people tend to adopt new technologies and new sounds immediately. “Think of arsim,” she says, referring to usually lower-class men who wear flashy clothing or jewelry. “They always have the newest things. Huge loudspeakers, lasers. They have complete faith in technology, in new products. Or teenagers – when a song comes out they love it right away. They don’t wait. In cultural centers, in Tel Aviv or Paris, it’s the other way around – people need a lot of confirmations before they accept things.”

While Cohen is speaking of North African musical influences on the one hand and hip hop/trap on the other, she stops suddenly and says: “Hip hop, trap – for me it all came from Africa. Everything, everything, everything. Metal came from Africa.”

But it’s seen as the whitest style there is.

“Go to Gnawa [Moroccan spiritual, ecstatic music with ancient African origins] performances. You’ll see people dancing like crazy, with all their hair flying, and you’ll see that metal is Africa too.”

Moti Milrod

And you, as someone whose roots are from Algiers and Tunis, feel part of it? Do you feel African in some way?

“No, but there are genetic things. I can trill and my Ashkenazi friend can’t. We live in a very urban world, but there’s a genetic charge that comes from a more primordial place, and is not necessarily reflected, until suddenly it bursts out. Suddenly I discover my body knows how to belly dance.”

North African music was and is an important part of Cohen’s music, but with “Boi Agale Lach,” she says her singing is influenced by Turkish music. She has been performing in Turkey a lot in recent years. A song from her first album, “Dans Mon Quartier,” became a minor hit in Turkey. Then a Turkish singer covered it and it became a huge hit and sparked people’s desire to see Cohen, the original performer. It became an ongoing romance.

The Turkish cover of Riff Cohen's 'Dans Mon Quartier' by Simge ('Mis Mis'). More than 180M views

“I’m excited when I think of the Turkish people,” Cohen says. “I feel they understand something I understand as well. There’s a very deep meshing of east and west there.”

Isn’t it supposed to be here as well?

“Yes, but I don’t know how much it’s taken root here. There it actually has. And there’s real openness there that doesn’t exist here and certainly not in France. In one of my music videos there’s a short shot of a bearded man, just a man with a beard, you don’t know who he is. But in France they told me I had to take it out.”

Why?

“Because it’s religious, they said. I was in shock. We don’t understand how sensitive they are. Then I thought: We, in the Middle East, are more enlightened than you. I’m amazed by the audiences that come to my shows in Turkey. You see women with burqas next to a bar with alcohol, at a performance of a Jewish Israeli singer. It’s an openness I don’t see either in France nor in Israel, regrettably. In my performances here I don’t see enough religious people, certainly not Muslims. There’s something here that sadly is going a little in the wrong direction.”

Maybe I’m passé?

One of the main innovations in the new album is the extensive use of a computer, production software and electronic sounds. Cohen’s previous two albums were more acoustic. The change stems partly from Mayner’s involvement. It’s no coincidence that Cohen, who never worked with a producer and even considered this role suspect, chose her partner’s younger brother to produce the new album.

Moti Milrod

“I’m sure there are other people who could work with me on the new album, but I can’t help it, Atar is so talented. I’m pretty sure I’d be interested in him even if he weren’t my brother-in-law,” she says.

Mayner, who released his debut album this year, is one of the leading representatives of the contemporary moment in Israeli pop that‘s on the cusp of mainstream. He’s 27, eight years younger than Cohen.

“Sometimes I feel I don’t belong to his generation,” Cohen says. “He sees things completely differently than I do, and then I think: Maybe I’m passé? Maybe it’s wrong to see things the way I do? On the other hand, Atar grilled me, tried to understand how I see things, and then a very interesting symbiosis occurred. I took from him and he from me.”

In a certain sense he’s where you were seven years ago, when you burst onto the scene all at once.

“Right. When Atar’s show at the 'Barby' was packed, it really reminded me of my first show at the 'Barby', which was also packed. This feeling of ‘it’s happening. It’s really happening.’”

Do you miss that explosion of the beginning?

“I don’t know. I can still fill up the 'Barby'. And it excites me the same way. All the time people are inspecting and asking: She’s still there? She’s still successful? Or not any more? It’s happening or it’s not happening? I don’t ask myself this. What happened is that I broke through in Israel, and then it happened in France, and then as far as Israel is concerned, they didn’t hear from me for five years. I disappeared as far as people in Israel are concerned. But I did tours in Europe. It was a period when the perception of an artist was still not international. Then it was as if there’s no Riff Cohen. She wasn’t here for five years. But I worked my ass off, worked a crazy amount and things worked out really well for me.”

“I think that only now the industry is beginning to think globally. You can be present in a number of places at the same time. We still need to work on this system. Instagram has a very important role in this, because now I can document things. I didn’t document my tours in Europe. As if I didn’t exist. I was overseas so I didn’t exist. Now there’s Instagram. Even when I’m out of the country, I’m here. You see all the Turkish people jumping at my show? See, it’s happening.”

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