Putting Some Punch Into the Protest Song

Mary Ocher was written off in Israel, so she moved to Berlin to release her first solo album. Now she's back with two performances this week

When Mary Ocher participated in a singing competition at 14, Idan Reichel, who was working as a music arranger in the same competition, told her she would never be a singer. At 20, after hearing the same thing from a few other Israeli teachers, Ocher packed her bags and moved with her band, Mary and the Baby Cheeses, to Berlin.

She says she feels like part of the scenery there. "There are so many oddballs there, and the mainstream is not all that absolute so I'm really comfortable there," she says. "I can wear the most outlandish clothes I want and put on the most extreme makeup and that will be fine. There is a lot less sexual harassment there. Here I can't cross the street without someone yelling something at me, and I just want to disappear."

Mary Ocher
Daniel Tchetchik

The Baby Cheeses played the songs Ocher wrote and composed on piano, acoustic guitar, cello, xylophone, coil and theremin ("an electronic instrument that sounds like a saw" ). "After a while I decided I wanted to do rock 'n' roll, and the people I was playing with didn't want to. They also wanted to come back to Israel and I absolutely did not want to."

Ocher, now 24, went off on her own, and two months ago released her first solo album, "War Songs."

On her website, http://www.maryocher.com, she describes it as "a rather eccentric presentation of what seems otherwise a very moderate tradition, the protest song." The songs on the album reflect her ambivalence about leaving Israel. "I felt in some place that I was a traitor, because I wasn't staying here to fight against what bothered me and instead ran away. I felt as if I couldn't do a thing to change the situation."

Ocher describes in her songs the destructive effects of life in a country under the constant shadow of military propaganda. She sometimes strays from the here and now to images from other times and places in history, in order to sketch a timeless picture of war.

The similarities with PJ Harvey's album, "Let England Shake," are striking. Ocher's singing style is also reminiscent of Harvey's. She doesn't like the comparison, though. "I really don't like her," she says. "I think she was much more blunt in the '90s, and then she softened up, and somehow, I didn't believe her anymore. I need something with more balls."

Her sources of inspiration, she says, include Lydia Lunch, Buffy Saint Marie and Nina Hagen. Others may argue that with her freak-folk style and her expressive singing, she sounds more like Joni Mitchell on acid.

One song on the album that deviates thematically from the rest is "Trampoline." "'Trampoline' made it onto the album because I wrote it during the same time and I felt that there was still a little protest in it, not about war, but about the issue of status - about role playing among men and women," she says. "I met a sickening group of men, each one of whom treated me like some kind of toy. To this day, I still can't fully define my place because I'm trying to challenge the feminine image. Today I feel like I'm in costume because I'm wearing a dress. I'm also very aggressive and like to hunt, and men don't always know how to handle that. This specific song is about my tremendous jealousy of women who are dolls, whose vulnerability everyone falls in love with, and their softness, and I'm the type that stands aside and laughs at men who are into that. I'm not really jealous of them because I think that my role is more challenging. I fight with men on the same battlefield."

Ocher is now in Israel. She comes every year to visit her parents, who like many other immigrants from the former Soviet Union, did not fare that well here.

Her father, who worked in a puppet theater for 20 years and took part in various radio and television programs, is now a forklift driver at a Coca Cola plant and her mother, an engineer by training, is a supermarket cashier.

"My parents don't really understand what I do, but they appreciate it because they see other people like it," she says. "My dad is very proud of the fact that I am so serious and consistent about it, but he also sometimes tells me, 'Listen, your music will never succeed because it's niche music.' That may be true, but today I'm performing so much that I'm able to live off of it."

Tomorrow Ocher will perform at the Hatichon Club in Haifa, and on Wednesday, at Levontin 7 in Tel Aviv. The album, still not officially distributed in Israel, can be purchased at the shows and through her website.

When she returns to Berlin, Ocher will continue working on her second album, to be produced by the eccentric garage music artist, King Khan.