Three years ago, shortly after her first album, “Air Pocket,” came out, Israeli singer Roni Alter went to Paris to attend an intensive music workshop. The group consisted of 15 actors and her, the only non-actress. When the leader asked the participants to imitate a rusty hinge, and then to lie on the floor and be a walrus, the others weren’t fazed at all. But for Alter it was a difficult, and embarrassing, assignment.
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“I’m not cut out for that kind of thing,” she recalls during a recent interview in Israel. “I really admire people that can do those things, but it’s just not me.”
So what did you do?
“When it was almost my turn, I was thinking, ‘no way, no way’ – but then I did it. I made the sound of a rusty hinge; I was a walrus on the floor. I have to tell you it was one of the most liberating and rejuvenating things I’ve ever experienced ... It frees something in your mind. It shows you that you can do anything, in any situation. It really opened me up. I could feel the difference in appearances afterward. Before that I was able to let myself go when performing, even though I’m a restrained person, but I was conscious of it the whole time, I was always thinking about it. This workshop helped me stop thinking and being afraid.”
The rusty hinge workshop led to several more dramatic changes in Alter’s life and work. For one thing, that experience with the actors led her and her partner, fashion photographer Amit Israeli, to move to the City of Light two years ago. It is also where Alter wrote most of the songs for her lovely new digital album, “Go Wild.”
You weren’t concerned about leaving Israel so soon after you released your debut album? You’d started something that could have been hard to continue from afar.
“I wasn’t worried. It wasn’t like I was suddenly leaving at the height of some amazing success, plus I also make sure to return [to Israel] every three months to sustain what I started back then. And I didn’t feel like I was going off to 'conquer' another country. That’s not me. I just wanted to experience something else. That’s exactly what the title track of ‘Go Wild’ is about. The plan was to go [to Paris] for six months but we got stuck there. It’s been exactly two years. I don’t know what will happen. The song is very clear.”
Actually, it’s not all that clear. Other things are clear about the song "Go Wild," which is planted in the middle of the new album like an anchor. It’s clear, for example, that this is a very beautiful song. It’s also clear, if not to Alter herself, that it has the potential to speak to many people, perhaps even to be a minor hit (“But it’s six minutes long!” she says in astonishment when asked why it wasn’t released as a single).
Alter says it's obvious the song talks about living in a foreign city and about whether to remain there or return home: “It seems quite straightforward to me, unlike my other songs that are more mysterious. I’m talking about Paris and about how I’m not in my own home. I think it’s the prettiest song on the album, and whenever I sing it I want to cry. It’s my most powerful song; it takes everything out of me. Every day I’m in Paris I think about whether I should stay. I don’t feel totally right being there, but I also didn’t feel completely sure about being here, in Israel.”
Hearing Alter say this, it’s impossible not to think about the famous song composed by her father, musician and filmmaker Naftali Alter – “Yonatan, Go Home” – to lyrics by Yehonatan Gefen. It was the first song he ever wrote, and that happened while he was living in England. Asked in a recent interview whether he created such a perfect melody because he personally experienced the sense of foreignness that the song talks about, Alter replied: “That’s part of it. When Yehonatan wrote ‘The people are healthy but the sun there is sick’ – I knew exactly what he was talking about. Or the opening line – ‘A big city without soldiers.’ Only we can understand that.”
'Kids in a candy store'
Roni Alter’s new album preserves her underlying melancholic tone, with the texture of musical colors slowly spreading in water, but it also differs from her debut album in many ways. First of all, it is in English. Alter doesn’t make a big deal of this.
“It makes sense to me that an album that was written almost entirely in France should be in English and not in Hebrew,” she explains. “And it doesn’t mean that I switched to English and that’s where I’ll stay forever. This album is in English. Who knows what the next one will sound like?”
Another key difference is that Alter wrote the words and music to all the songs on “Go Wild”; on her previous album, "Air Pocket," she wrote the lyrics to just three songs, and none of the music. “After that album came out, it was like a creative faucet suddenly opened in me. Something was freed.”
In Paris, Alter also got to know the Israeli-born singer Keren Ann: “I was a fan of hers before I became her friend. She was my favorite musician in the world. And suddenly I’m sitting there in her house and she’s listening to my songs. She put on earphones and asked me to stay. You have no idea how nervous I was. I was sweating in places I didn’t know I could sweat in. I was flushed all over. Finally, she gave me the most positive feedback and introduced me to people from her record company. It gave me a lot of confidence.”
Alter recorded “Go Wild” in Paris with Alon Lotringer, who produced the album and played most of the instruments, along with drummer Shahar Haziza. Avishai Cohen popped by the studio and contributed his marvelous trumpet-playing to a few of the tracks. The studio in which they recorded the album, CBE Studio, is steeped in history.
“All the greats recorded there,” says Alter. “Serge Gainsbourg, Edith Piaf, Johnny Hallyday. A very low-tech studio. All the cables were held together with masking tape. But all the equipment that was there! In Israel you could only dream about them, like 200 kinds of keyboards. And the ambience. The sofa was the same one that was there 40 years ago ... We were like kids in a candy store.”
The cover of "Go Wild" conveys a bleak, perhaps even slightly disturbing, feeling. There is much melancholy in Alter’s songs, and it’s evident right from start of the album. The first track is called “Lazy,” but the words and music and Alter’s singing show that the song is not referring to laziness in the simple sense of the word, but to a deeper existential feeling of an inability to act. In "Air Pocket," Alter referred to this as “dying a little.”
“I have sadness in me, which comes out in the songs and in their sound and in my singing,” says Alter. “It contrasts with the way I act most of the time. I’m usually the joker in the group. I used to think it was weird to joke and be sarcastic in interviews when I was writing such depressing songs. But it’s okay. I’ve learned to accept it. There are all sorts of layers. You can be funny when you’re with people – and then want to die a little, or a lot, when you’re at home.”
Adds Alter: “I don’t like to shout when I sing or when I fight. I’m not good at it. Anger that comes out restrained and calm and soft is a lot scarier than anger that is screamed at the top of your lungs.”