In the eight years since singer-songwriter Asaf Avidan quit his job as an animator and turned to music full-time, the Jerusalem native, 33, won over local audiences with critically acclaimed albums and captivating live shows before repeating the feat across Europe. There, he got his start at clubs and theaters and worked his way up to performing at major festivals.
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Now, like a prospector looking to strike (more) gold, he’s heading further west, to embark on his first North American tour.
Avidan dubs it “Back to Basics,” because, as he put it recently in an email, “I wanted to give my songs and myself, and the audience as well, a chance to explore one another in a more intimate setting – to test my abilities as a songwriter and performer, with no big stages and big light shows. Just words and tunes.”
The 12-date tour kicks off February 19, with stops from New York’s Irving Plaza to Seattle’s Neptune Theater. For those who aren’t yet familiar with Avidan and his curiously singular voice, here’s a brief introduction.
Don’t be fooled by appearances
Belying his slight frame, Avidan’s voice packs quite a punch – so much so that he’s been compared with a number of late, great artists, including Jeff Buckley, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse and Nina Simone. Yes, you read that right: If you close your eyes and listen to Avidan croon, he often sounds like a soulful female singer – and occasionally like one undergoing an exorcism, but in a good way.
He got into music on account of an achy-breaky heart
Like other artists who turn to creativity to overcome a lost love, Avidan only picked up a guitar and began writing songs around eight years ago, after a devastating breakup. Six of those first tunes became his 2006 debut disc, the EP “Now That You’re Leaving.” Since then, some of his four subsequent albums have gone gold or platinum (in Israel), he has performed for massive crowds at international festivals and shared a stage with Lou Reed, among other legends. In other words, it’s safe to say he’s picked up the pieces and moved on.
Finding – and leaving – his Mojos
From 2006 until 2011, he fronted the band Asaf Avidan & the Mojos. They released three albums and toured Israel and Europe extensively before taking an indefinite hiatus so that everyone could pursue different projects. Avidan released his first solo album, “Different Pulses,” in 2012, but found himself performing mostly with other musicians in live sets. “I miss playing alone,” he says, “which is why I’m going out on this tour this year.”
Mixed feelings about some of what made him famous
Avidan & the Mojos released their melancholic “Reckoning Song” on the 2008 album “The Reckoning” – only to have a young German producer who goes by DJ Wankelmut give it a clubby remix four years later and upload it to Soundcloud. Avidan tried unsuccessfully to get that version pulled, ultimately allowing it to be officially released after pressure from his former label, Sony. It hit No. 1 in 14 countries and the video went viral on YouTube, where it’s been viewed more than 119 million times. The remix was also featured on the soundtrack of the recent HBO documentary “The Crash Reel,” but that doesn’t mean Avidan has warmed to it: He’s told multiple interviewers he’s still not a huge fan, but he certainly recognizes how the remix has helped his career.
Don’t expect Hebrew lyrics (or reggae sounds)
If you’re considering checking out his show because you want to brush up your Hebrew, you may be disappointed. Unlike other popular Israeli musicians, Avidan writes and sings solely in English. “I’d sing in ancient Greek if I would feel it expresses my thoughts and emotions well,” he says. “I read almost entirely in English and listen to English-spoken music, so it’s natural to me that, when I need to write a song, it evolves in English in my head.”
His solid English vocabulary (and accent) may also have to do with the fact that his parents were Israeli diplomats stationed in Kingston, Jamaica, when Avidan was aged 7 to 11. But don’t count on hearing any reggae-inflected tunes, either: He’s previously said he was too young to have been influenced by the music while living on the island.
Speaking of diplomacy …
Avidan doesn’t necessarily view himself as a second-generation diplomat for Israel. “I always say, I’m an artist from Israel, not an Israeli artist,” he says. “My parents were both diplomats, and I certainly have no wish to be one. I don’t try to hide it; I don’t change my name or shy away when someone asks me about it, but I don’t put any weight to it. I’m an artist, and there’s no relevance to what my passport says.”
He’s made some inroads Stateside
This may be Avidan’s first full-fledged North American tour, but that doesn’t mean he’s an unknown in the United States. The Boston Globe named him one of “music’s rising stars for 2014” and actor Sean Penn reportedly sought him out for last month’s annual Help Haiti Home gala, a charity effort to aid the country still recovering from a 2010 earthquake. Avidan was photographed hobnobbing with celebs like Penn, actress Charlize Theron and U2 at the Beverly Hills event, but he’s staying grounded ahead of the tour.
“The fact that it’s my first tour here … will mean that I’m kind of going to where I was in Europe three years ago, in terms of the sizes of venues and the amount of people who actually know about my music,” he says. But he’s optimistic about American audiences connecting with him and his work: “People are people,” he says. “We all react to honest emotion in a very similar way.”