'Still Better Than Death': Asaf Avidan Is Back After a Year of Self-isolation

The songwriter had just finished a year of isolation when the pandemic struck. His new album explores a favorite theme of his: 'the bottomless loneliness of being inside yourself'

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Asaf Avidan in June 2019.
Asaf Avidan in June 2019.Credit: Paolo Santambrogio
Nitzan Pincu
Nitzan Pincu

“I imagined a scarred lion that had reached old age, who maybe no longer wanted to carry the burden of disappointment and defeat. That’s the reason I took the break. After 10 years of pretty unbridled activity, to call it hard is an understatement. It meant giving up my home, roots, sanity, quiet, serenity. This forsaking becomes a load you carry with you. It becomes heavier and heavier.”

Asaf Avidan is speaking in a Zoom interview from a Berlin hotel about “Rock of Lazarus,” one of the songs on his new album. He then returns to his earlier statement to add, “True, it’s not optimal. But it’s still better than death and nothing.”

Avidan is promoting the new album, “Anagnorisis,” his seventh. For two years he flit between Tel Aviv and Italy, where he lives and creates in an old house that he renovated to add a studio. The new album was born out of a personal-creative crisis that’s also a midlife crisis: Avidan turned 40 in March. After more than a decade on the road and in concerts in some of the biggest venues on the planet, he felt a need to take his foot off the gas.

Recently his “The Labyrinth Song,” originally released five years ago, was chosen for the soundtrack of the third season of “Dark,” a Netflix series. Avidan is used to delayed success: A remix by German DJ Wankelmut of his song “One Day / Reckoning Song” came out four years after the original and boosted Avidan’s career abroad. Avidan’s Spotify page confirms this narrative. On the list of most listened-to songs, in first place with 15 million views is the original version of that remix, with “The Labyrinth Song” second.

Avidan is one of the most successful Israeli musicians in the world, and a unique voice in the music world. As the son of a diplomat, he moved with his two siblings when he was 7 to Jamaica; the family returned when he was 11. He studied film in high school and then animation at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design.

Asaf Avidan in June 2019.
Asaf Avidan in June 2019.Credit: Paolo Santambrogio

He began his musical career at 26 after a successful stint in animation and film dubbing. Avidan’s first album with his band the Mojos was a big hit in Israel, selling more than 20,000 copies and going gold. In 2012 Avidan launched his solo career, which has boomed.

But the endless touring exacted a price; Avidan decided to seclude himself for a year in his Italian home. That was just before the entire world had to seclude itself.

“It wasn’t the best timing,” he says, laughing. “I had gotten sick of all those things, like baking bread, before the coronavirus. I had read the books I wanted to read, and I simply wanted to return. I was so pleased that within this quiet I discovered that I do want to come back. The stage is still important to me.”

During the break, Avidan wasn’t sure he’d ever go back to playing. “I survived the tour and crawled back home, to a home that wasn’t yet home because I hadn’t yet officially left Israel,” he says. In the abandoned Italian home that he renovated, you can cook pasta in one room and record music in another.

“I’m actually a farmer now,” he says. He takes care of the horses, rides a tractor, grows trees and makes olive oil. “I’m still pressured,” he says. “But I feel I have more tools to be stable.”

Asaf Avidan performing in Caesarea in June 2013.
Asaf Avidan performing in Caesarea in June 2013.Credit: Nir Keidar

Avidan emerged stronger from his self-imposed isolation. “I realized that no hug would suffice. I’m not sad or depressed, I’m aware of my own topography. There’s a huge wadi that nothing can fill, neither sand nor water. And I’m fine with that. Everybody has quantities of sadness and loneliness. Since childhood I haven’t had the mechanism not to look at them.”

The isolation, he says, also followed his separation from rope artist Marika Leila Roux, not long after their wedding. “I had a polyamorous relationship that ended, a lot of good but also a lot that was not good – it completely drained me,” Avidan says.

“If monogamy doesn’t work and polyamory doesn’t work, what hope is there? It’s not that I chose to fall in love with more than one person. It happened, and I was surrounded by people who saw this as perfectly logical.”

The cover of Asaf Avidan's 2020 album "Anagnorisis."
The cover of Asaf Avidan's 2020 album "Anagnorisis."Credit: Paolo Santambrogio

For the last two years he has lived with his girlfriend Caterina, a biochemistry student; they jump back and forth between Italy and Israel. For now, he says, they don’t bicker over where to live, but it doesn’t hurt that she really likes hummus.

Bob Dylan, son of a bitch

“Anagnorisis,” the title of the new album, is the moment when, according to Aristotle, the tragic hero discovers the truth about himself. The album was produced by Tamir Muskat, who also produced Avidan’s 2012 album “Different Pulses.” That one went gold in Israel and platinum in France.

Avidan and Muskat have a terrific musical chemistry. Avidan says he chose to work with Muskat because the producer had proved he could “create a mosaic of different genres.”

“When I sent Tamir the songs, I thought he’d hate them and not want to work on them. I was very insecure. For a whole year I was around the trees and not around people, and no one told me that I was amazing and wonderful,” he laughs. The first songs, he says, were very Bob Dylan-esque or Leonard Cohen-esque.

“I hated it. That’s my self-critical side. There was nothing wrong with the songs, but I felt that it didn’t make sense that if I felt so different, my songs would be so similar.

“Maybe I’m too hung up on who I am as an artist or what I represent – like, yallah, just write some blues folk and leave us alone, what’s with the David Bowie? I thought that maybe the influences were really clear; you know, all these conversations I have with myself. I didn’t know how it would be received.”

Asaf Avidan performing in Paris.
Asaf Avidan performing in Paris.Credit: asafavidanmusic / Instagram

The internal and creative conflict were accompanied by insight – and this ended up being the concept of the album, anagnorisis. “I realized that every time I went deep into myself, the deeper I got, the less I saw. And then I understood that it’s not that I’m not good enough. I understood that art is always a lie,” he says.

“As soon as I understood that I’d never succeed, I could start trying. If it’s impossible, then let’s start enjoying the attempt. The way forward was through ‘multitudes,’ the many different characters I hear in myself.”

You use the word “multitudes” a lot. Is that influenced by the line in the Walt Whitman poem?

“You know what bugs me? I had this word all ready to go,” Avidan says, noting that Bob Dylan released an album this year with a song that quotes Whitman’s line “I contain multitudes.” “Son of a bitch, that’s so much better than my line. Well, that’s why he has a Nobel Prize.”

One way Avidan expresses multitudes on the album is a myriad of different characters, all of whom are a part of him, he says. So Avidan sings all the parts on the album. In Aristotelian terms, Avidan is the Greek chorus, the narrator and the tragic hero.

Such characters recur in our interview, and one particularly fascinates him: the ancient archetype of the destructive and dangerous woman. Avidan doesn’t use it lightly and is aware of the character’s social and historical baggage as represented, for example, by Lot’s wife, and how this character derives from “men’s fear of women, who create life, when we only destroy life.”

This symbolic woman, who appears in the song “Wildfire,” is about destruction and the need to build. “At the time I was watching a lot of David Lynch films,” Avidan says. “I had this image in mind of ‘Fire Walk With Me’ [the ‘Twin Peaks’ movie]. There’s a recurring image there of this girl riding in a convertible as if all is right with the world, not caring that a whole city is on fire behind her. The sexual connection, this passion for total destruction, is something that still lives in me.

“Apropos the question of whether I learned all the lessons from age 40, from the polyamory and the drama, this is the multitudes. Along with the farmer who grows olive trees and plants and waits 20 years for it to grow, there’s also the desire to look back, to gaze at Sodom and Gomorrah and turn to stone because I can’t not look.”

Bob Dylan performing in France in 2012.
Bob Dylan performing in France in 2012.Credit: Fred Tanneau / AFP

The idea is also expressed in the album and cover design by Jonathan Lax, better known as Yonil. “On the album cover there are shapes in bold colors. That’s me! But I’m not in the songs, I’m in the negative space, in the black area between the shapes,” Avidan says.

“All these songs are lies of who I am, but they’re the best lies of who I am. If you have the patience to connect the dots, you might come up with the constellation of a character who’s close to it.”

All the videos for the new album feature Bobbi Jene Smith, a dancer formerly with the Batsheva Dance Company. The video for the title track was directed by none other than Wim Wenders of “Wings of Desire” fame. The German director and Avidan met after a concert and planned to collaborate on a short film before the coronavirus scuttled that project.

In the video, Smith dances through gloomy spaces in the moonlight. At the end of the clip, Smith meets her real-life romantic and creative partner, Or Schraiber. Maybe Wenders is suggesting here that the way to cope with anagnorisis, with self-discovery, is through the Other. Avidan is a bit defensive when the conversation turns to Wenders, apparently reluctant to be defined only by his famous friends, it seems.

Wim Wenders wrote in The Guardian that you’re a true singer-songwriter. What does that mean to you?

Jonathan Safran Foer
Jonathan Safran FoerCredit: Ulf Andersen / Aurimages / AFP

“I studied Wim’s films in high school, to learn about cinema. On the one hand, every person is a person, and on the other hand it touches me that a person I think understands something inherent about the process of translating the self via form sees the structures that I create and accepts them. That moves me.

“What’s more interesting than the compliment is the depth. Okay, he said to me, ‘You have a big dick’ – that’s the subtext that everyone wants to hear: You’re enough, you’re great, you’re being seen. I’ve had many conversations with him about the Other and the self and the bottomless loneliness of being inside yourself. Our talks are the interesting thing.”

Crying wolf

Don’t feel bad if you weren’t familiar with the word anagnorisis. Avidan’s close friend, best-selling American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, didn’t know it either. He admits as much in “Asaf and the Wolf,” the novella he wrote at Avidan’s request that comes with the album.

In the novella, Safran Foer describes a meeting with Avidan during which the Israeli tells him about how he was attacked by a wolf dog, a cross between a wolf and a dog, that he and his girlfriend had adopted. When Avidan tried to protect his cat from an attack by the wolf dog, the singer nearly lost his ear. The aggressor in that scuffle, which has since been given up for adoption, also bit Avidan in the thigh and arm, putting him in the hospital in December 2018.

Asaf Avidan performing in Paris.
Asaf Avidan performing in Paris.Credit: Pierre Hennequin / asafavidanmusic / Instagram

And that was followed by a long and difficult rehab. In the story, Foer explains that anagnorisis is when Oedipus discovers that Jocasta is his mother, when the wolf dog throws off his domestication, when the wolf dog’s owner is revealed to be merely human.

“He understood the story right away because it’s not about Asaf or about the wolf, it’s about Jonathan,” Avidan says. “Something in him feels regret or lives through me or recalls something that reminds him of this burn, of all the moments when the universe forces the knowledge on us that we’re not all-powerful. We anesthetize ourselves and this truth because it’s difficult and painful. The idea is that it’s so easy to train ourselves this way, so easy to soften and turn down the volume, that we forget the wolf beneath the dog.”

Avidan says Safran Foer gave him “the greatest gifts” such as his personal writings, and calls their connection “a connection to our self.” But Avidan doesn’t just hang out with world-famous directors and writers. He’s also known for giving extraordinary opportunities to up-and-coming Israeli artists and musicians.

I spoke recently with Liron Meshulam, aka Flora, and Stella Gutstein about women working in production, and they all mentioned you and Assaf Amdursky as artists who do a lot to promote women. You took Flora and guitarist Zohar Ginsburg on your international tour.

“They weren’t chosen because they’re women but because they’re talented. Assaf Amdursky and I are willing to choose people with less experience. Because if you only take people with seniority, it will just be men, because that’s the old world. If you open the door to younger musicians, it will bring more women into the industry. I get along well with women, maybe because I grew up without a father. I have an aversion to men.”

What does that mean, “an aversion to men”? Maybe it’s really an aversion to toxic masculinity?

“I don’t totally stand behind this sentence; I have men friends and a brother I love, but in all my personal history, I’ve never been part of a group of guys. In groups of men I feel an undercurrent of contained violence, and it makes me nervous and uncomfortable. It’s not biological. Men become a certain way through culture and education, and I’m not so keen on being around that.”

German film director Wim Wenders at a Q&A at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, December 14, 2019.
German film director Wim Wenders at a Q&A at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, December 14, 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod

Not everyone would be glad to admit that.

“I know that I often hang myself in interviews like this. But I don’t care about coming off looking good. It’s the same when I sing – what matters isn’t that my voice sounds nice. What matters is to express truth.”

Avidan hasn’t been to Israel since the start of the coronavirus crisis. Having asthma and having survived lymphoma when he was 21, he doesn’t take many chances. He travels around Europe by car, accompanied by his two dogs on a smaller-than-usual PR tour.

In interviews over the years, you’ve talked about your search for a home. Do you feel you’ve found it in Italy?

“Yes and no,” he says, smiling. “Of course I miss Israel. My insides cry out when I come to Israel. I miss the culture – not just the Hebrew language, the cultural language, the shared past of experiences. It doesn’t matter how much I love another place. But I also don’t miss it – the ongoing political situation, the internal situation over the last decade, the corruption and the decline of democracy.

Record producer Tamir Muskat in October 2016.
Record producer Tamir Muskat in October 2016.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

“All these things affect me. When I’m not in Israel I read five newspapers a day. I’m very interested and connected, but like everybody I also have a lot of anger and despair. Because I was a child of diplomats, and because my profession kept me moving all the time, I see everything from the inside and the outside. It’s hard to feel so much. It’s a little like monogamy – if you don’t numb yourself, there’s despair. I sense this despair among my friends.”

The artist from Israel

Avidan is tired of answering questions about Israeli-ness, but he’s also proud of his achievements as an Israeli.

“I don’t want to talk about it; I’ll give you a quick answer. I have to say that I’ve been around the rest of the world long enough that it won’t interest people that much. The media no longer asks me about it, and no one is happier than me about that. I’ve completed a long-enough path,” he says.

“In Israel, I’m still ‘the artist from Israel’ more than anything else. My Israeli-ness is more important now in Israel than it is in other places. I understand that and embrace it; it’s nice to feel that pride. I grew up in Israel and in Israeli culture, and I’m glad that Israeli culture is embracing me in return.”

In his effort to maintain his Israeli residency status and divide his time with Italy, the logistical problems are many, but he isn’t ready to leave the old-new country completely behind. “I still can’t bring myself to the place where I’m ready to do that. I’ve yet to feel that I don’t want to be part of it.”

It’s a very Israeli desire for there to be someone who’s “one of ours.”

“It’s very Jewish. It’s an obsession born of insecurity, and that’s okay. We’re small in quantity and have been in a lot of danger throughout history, so I understand the need to seek out points of light.”

What would you say to the Asaf of 10 years ago?

“Everything I’d say are things I was told but didn’t listen to. Asaf from 10 years ago was a big jerk who didn’t listen. I’d like to tell him what everyone told me: When you get to age 40, you’ll understand. Not everything is as important as you think. Not everything needs to be mixed with war. Drama doesn’t equal quality. There are other ways to create besides destroying.”

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