Stop and Listen: This Israeli Singer Is Praised by Kendrick Lamar

At the age of 46, and after a period of self-doubt and writer's block, Karolina found herself working with some of the biggest names in U.S. hip-hop, including Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. She also has an important message for Morrissey.

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Karolina. Quite prepared to make a spectacle of herself.Credit: Ilya Melnikov
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

A picture of Stevie Wonder hangs above the computer in Karolina’s living room. It is no surprise that the Israeli soul singer – founder of the Israeli funk group Funset and a former member of the folk band 'Habanot Nechama' - worships the Motown legend. What is surprising is that her favorite album of his is “Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through ‘The Secret Life of Plants’.” This 1979 release fell way below the standards he set on his previous records, when he allowed his New Age tendencies to take over.

Kendrick Lamar performs "Don't Wanna Know" at the American Music Awards at the Microsoft Theater on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016, in Los Angeles.
Kendrick Lamar performs "Don't Wanna Know" at the American Music Awards at the Microsoft Theater on Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016, in Los Angeles. Credit: AP

But Karolina, 46, doesn’t share that view. “That album’s not Shanti Baba,” she says, which is her way of saying ‘fake spirituality.’ She won’t let anyone think that about Wonder – and she doesn’t like people thinking that about her, either.

The cover of Adrian Younge's The Electronique Void.
The cover of Adrian Younge's The Electronique Void.Credit: Courtesy

“There are diamonds there,” she says, continuing to praise Wonder’s album. “There’s a singing flower there. I’m a little lady, flowers speak to me. There are prophecies there. That album is so illuminating.”

It’s also the album that exposed the young, 16-year-old Keren Karolina Avratz from Eilat to the wonder called Wonder. So, naturally, that’s a major reason why it’s her favorite album of his. And if that’s not enough, it also brings back memories of adolescent love. “I fell in love with some guy. He was of Indian origin, but he looked black to me,” she laughs. “He gave me a cassette of ‘The Secret Life of Plants.’ That album melted my heart. It comforted me in such a profound way. And wow, that voice! How is it even possible to sing like that? He’s divine.”

One day late last month, the loudspeakers of the computer under Stevie Wonder’s picture were playing a song Karolina wrote a couple of years ago in Los Angeles, when she was invited to work with West Coast R&B “super-producer” Adrian Younge.

“That’s the sad song I wrote with Ali, ‘Smiling For Me and For You,’” she explained, referring to Ali Shaheed Muhammad – one of the members of legendary hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest.

This link to giants of U.S. hip-hop followed a period of profound personal crisis for Karolina, following the birth of her son (“It’s such a crazy thing. It’s insane. I suffered from postpartum depression for several months”). She stood at a crossroad, not knowing when there would be another album, unable to write and even flirting with the idea of retiring.

The cover of Karolina's latest album.
The cover of Karolina's latest album.Credit: Courtesy

Then came the chance to work with Younge, who was visiting Tel Aviv to deejay at a party and was invited to a Kutiman Orchestra concert. Karolina, who usually performs with the orchestra, had an earlier engagement that evening and wasn’t sure if she would get there in time. She did, though, and went onstage toward the end of the gig. The next day, she was informed that Younge had seen her, was very impressed and had even dreamed about her voice that night.

Younge wrote her: “We have to talk, urgently” – and two weeks later she was in Los Angeles. In the intervening weeks, he sent her several drafts from his studio and asked if she would like to write a song based on one of them. She wrote the song “Feel Alive,” sent it to him and, at 5 A.M. the next morning, woke her, full of praise for her efforts. She didn’t know that Muhammad was also involved; when she heard about that, she says she was temporarily speechless.

Surreal incident

Ali Shaheed Muhammad, left, Jarobi White, and Malik Isaac Taylor aka Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest pose for a portrait at Sirius XM studios in New York.
Ali Shaheed Muhammad, left, Jarobi White, and Malik Isaac Taylor aka Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest pose for a portrait at Sirius XM studios in New York.Credit: AP

They worked in Younge’s studio for five days, producing five songs. Younge played the rough mixes to some of his (high-profile) friends on the R&B and rap scene in Los Angeles. “I admit, it’s nice to get a text message that says, ‘Kendrick [Lamar] really likes your voice,’” laughs Karolina.

Stevie Wonder performs in November, 2016.
Stevie Wonder performs in November, 2016.Credit: AP

There was also a surreal incident with Quentin Tarantino. On the day Karolina was supposed to return to Israel, Younge told her he wanted to suggest a song to his filmmaker friend for the movie he was working on at the time, “The Hateful Eight.” Younge played the rough version to Karolina (just the music, without words) and then, in her presence, contacted Tarantino and told him about it.

“Tarantino told him: ‘But Adrian, the soundtrack is already sorted; Ennio Morricone is writing it,’” she recalls. “Adrian wasn’t impressed. He asked me if I could complete the song. I did so in the car, and we rushed into the studio to record it – four hours before my flight to Israel.” The song didn’t make it onto the “Hateful Eight” soundtrack, but rapper-producer RZA loved it, and he finished and eventually released it.

Karolina didn’t even know the song had been released until Israeli rappers began showering her with praise like “Respect, sister!”

She received even more respect when she flew back to L.A., several months after that first visit, to take part in a show promoting Younge’s 2016 album “Something About April II.” She can be heard on two tracks, “Hear My Love” and “Winter is Here,” and performed alongside some industry greats at the concert.

“I sang a duet with Bilal,” she says, calling him “my favorite singer in the world. In the middle of the show, there was a commotion. Adrian said there would be a surprise, but we didn’t know what. CeeLo Green would come? Solange? Suddenly, there was a murmur in the crowd and Kendrick Lamar jumped onto the stage. I was standing at the side of the stage. Someone standing next to me said, ‘You stole the stage, girl.’ At first I didn’t recognize him, but afterward I realized it was [rapper] Talib Kweli.” It’s a moment she’ll never forget.

But the compliments weren’t the main thing. “I traveled to L.A. full of thoughts like ‘What am I? Who am I? I really want to retire’ and suddenly this whole thing came to me,” says Karolina. “I traveled all the way to L.A. and distanced myself from here – from the search for songs and from being a mother, and suddenly I bumped into myself. Then, all I wanted to do was record my album in Hebrew, and to do it properly.”

That’s the origin of her lovely new album, “Shalosh” (“Three”), which is sung entirely in Hebrew.

Late bloomer

Karolina is a late bloomer, in every respect. She gave birth to her son at 42. Simultaneously, she also became a singer who’s now familiar to truck drivers, as she puts it. She only released her debut album (with Funset) at 34. “Everything happened late, I don’t know why,” she says. “It seems like something in me has to mature. I don’t really know why I’m such a late bloomer.”

She says her latest album “comes from such a sane place. In a way, it makes no difference to me what people will say about it. I’m relaxed about it – and not because I’m sure it will succeed. I have no idea. I feel a kind of strange, nice, simple affection for it. We’re really good friends.”

“Shalosh” boasts several songs about floating in space, and one of them even features a product of David Bowie’s imagination: Major Tom. Karolina says she wanted to put him into the song but didn’t know how, and asked songwriter Meir Goldberg to help her. “He did it, and also added the lyric ‘A small image of a satellite, red as a wound.’ And then Bowie passed away and he became that wound.

“I was really heartbroken. By the way,” she adds, “sometimes I sense who is going to leave the world. It happened to me with James Brown, Michael Jackson and David Bowie.”

Who’s next?

“I don’t feel comfortable saying.”

You don’t have to.

“Okay, well, I have concerns about Morrissey.”

While we’re feeling morbid, Karolina says she has been invited several times to sing for people who are about to die. “I go, of course,” she says. “And it’s a very delicate situation: ‘Why did you choose me, of all people, to visit your dear ones on their deathbeds?’ When you meet the person who is dying, he still doesn’t believe that it will happen to him. You understand the seriousness of the situation from those around him.”

How do you behave in such situations?

“It’s hard. There was one girl of 21 whom I’ll never forget. She broke my heart. I don’t talk much; what is there to say? I simply sing. That’s what they brought me for. I come to give a little hope – although usually there is no hope, so I sing in a kind of” She has difficulty finding the words. “I sing in a way that may express my concept of death; that it isn’t final. I don’t think it’s necessarily a terrible thing. We really don’t know what happens there. What’s terrible is that we remain and part from someone we love very much.”

What do you sing to those about to die? What do they ask for?

“They ask for my songs. For ‘So Far’ and ‘Tzel Etz Tamar’ [‘Shadow of the Palm Tree’]. That’s the song they ask for the most. That song has been with me since I was a child; it’s a part of me. It was kind of a song of my father’s – he really loved Zohar Argov, who sang it originally.”