Life on the High Cs

At the end of a breakthrough year both at home and abroad, high-pitched singer Asaf Avidan describes the emotional journey that brought him to his latest album and his need for control.

Alex Rivlin never imagined this is how he would start the week. After the sofas, the rugs and the breakables were cleared out of the living room in his Ramat Hasharon home, Asaf Avidan and the Mojos took the stage (where the television used to be ) and struck the opening chord of their tour's first performance, sponsored by Maccabi Beer.

Rivlin, 21, and his friend Ynon Lan won the honor through a competition, after they submitted a video of a rock rendition of Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam," with an electric guitar covering Adam's private parts. They wrote as part of their submission, "From the second story you can throw televisions out the window. This is a common sight in Ramat Hasharon, and the neighbors will simply think we have upgraded."

Asaf Avidan (Yanai Yechiel)
Yanai Yechiel

That scenario never played out. Instead, in the middle of the performance Avidan invited Rivlin to join him and the Mojos for a blues improvisation.

Behind Rivlin's bashful facade hides a talented harmonica player and a stage animal. The sextet swept into a 10-minute groove that Rivlin and Lan's friends documented via the camers on their cell phones. Rivlin's parents, an English-speaking couple in their 50s, murmured to each other: "Oh my God! Look at him!" At the end of the jam, Rivlin left the stage and shouted to his friends through the alcohol haze, "This is a formative moment!"

A few hours earlier, Avidan, 30, was sitting in his own living room. After spending half of 2010 performing abroad, he is pleased to be spending November to March in Israel. His two-room apartment in central Tel Aviv gives no hint of being the home of one of Israel's most successful musicians, a man with two albums that went gold in Israel and a contract for four albums with music giant Sony-Columbia Records.

In the living room are two orange sofas, a red hammock facing a balcony that overlooks a quiet street, and two large bean bag chairs that serve as a bed for his dog Fay. Avidan's girlfriend, Mikey Bashiri, a PR professional who is managing the band's tour, serves us tea and cookies and then shuts herself into the adjacent bedroom. A slim man, Avidan does not look like a big eater and the box of cookies stays closed until the end of the interview.

Asaf Avidan (Yael Engelhart)
Yael Engelhart

On one of the speakers sits a Lego ship with a tall mast, an impressive sail and a crew of sailors. Avidan bought it from a little boy at a Berlin flea market over a year ago, long before he made "Through the Gale," his album about a sea voyage.

"Yes, I do have a thing for the sea," he says. "Even before I started writing this album, I knew I wanted it to have at least one song about the sea. In the end, an entire album came out."

"Through the Gale," which was released this month, was written during Avidan's first vacation since the start of his musical career about four years ago. He started as an indie musician performing for 150 people at a small club in Tel Aviv. Now he has performed before hundreds at Masada, filled the Center for the Performing Arts in Tel Aviv, appeared at prestigious festivals like Latitude in England and strutted his stuff at New York's Carnegie Hall and Beijing's Festival 1 in front of thousands of people.

To take a short break from this madness, he and Bashiri took a two-week vacation on an isolated beach in Hawaii. They went on treks during the day and in the evenings Avidan shut himself inside their rental house, and wrote and recorded. The result was eight songs about the voyage of one Captain Cassius and his crew, who go to sea to find "the real life." Avidan says this is a personal voyage into his own "archaeological strata."

"I see my albums in a very linear way," he explains. "They are very personal, my diary. 'Now That You're Leaving' was my first EP alone and it is about the pain of breaking up after six years with my girlfriend. 'The Reckoning' was about what is wrong with me and why I couldn't maintain another relationship. In the third album, 'Poor Boy/Lucky Man,' I realized I also have darker sides. I developed a kind of inability to feel. I made many girls fall in love with me without my feeling anything for them. I sowed enormous amounts of destruction but that is what led me to the new album, in which I am in a completely different place in life, though here too I address a question that has always bothered me - Why am I here?"

Avidan's answer is the same one that emerged from his previous albums - love, which he does not narrow down to romance alone. "It's an existential state but not in the sense of a Boombamela Festival. I don't think the opposite of death is life, but rather love. Our wishes, our longings, people who remember us - all this, I assume, is summed up in the word 'love.'"

Avidan credits his relationship with Bashiri with helping him reach this insight anew. "I feel like someone with amnesia who has to learn to speak again. I am learning to love anew and this requires a lot of patience on the part of the people around me."

Speaking too openly

Musically, Avidan is continuing a transition he began with his previous album, from a 1970s sound to contemporary rock that recalls Jack White and Tom Waits. Avidan's special voice has often been compared to that of a 1960s rock icon who cannot be named if one does not want to annoy Avidan (but who invites us to take another little piece of her heart ). On the new album, Avidan's voice sounds like it has been mixed so that it doesn't overwhelm the instrumentals. Is this an attempt to divert attention from the vocals to the music?

"This isn't conscious," he claims. "I am continuing to research what I can do with my instrument. The only thing I've taken from dubbing to singing [Avidan dubbed animated films for 13 years] is the knowledge that you can do crazy things with this instrument. On this album I let myself explore. It was also easier because there are characters - the sea, the Sirens, the people, the wind."

The band members also evoke nautical characters with their instruments; Hadas Kleinman's cello sometimes sounds exactly like the creaking of an old ship at sea.

The album is less communicative than its predecessors, and does not replicate their familiar, proven sound. "We didn't even make a radio single," he adds. "Not because I think the songs aren't worthy of being played, but because the album is a single unit and I didn't want to choose one song from it. I've heard the title song has entered the Galgalatz playlist and this makes me very happy. It says we've come a long way on Israeli radio."

He has spoken openly about the girlfriend who broke his heart, about his bout with cancer, his thoughts of death and his fondness for sex.

Asked whether he regrets things he has said, he replies: "Lots. But when people ask me a question, I try to answer sincerely. Maybe one day I'll understand I erred and I have to watch myself. In the meantime I don't feel that way, because I don't really care what people think. This is something I've learned from Bob Dylan - nothing that can be said about me is going to make me doubt myself. The only thing that annoys me is inaccuracy, when they write about all kinds of girls I supposedly dated. I get very annoyed but I also calm down very quickly."

Avidan generally arouses strong emotions - either people love him or they hate him. "I think this stems from the totality and the energy level. It's impossible not to react to them," he says. "I'm not some kind of cat dying quietly by the roadside under a car - I'm a cat having death throes on the hood in front of the dashboard. Apart from that my voice is unusual, and you instantly decide whether you like it.

"I enjoy arousing emotions in people. That's my role as an artist, for good and for bad. I assume it's also something in my personality. This profession didn't choose me, I chose it. I've done film, animation, design, sculpture, even a bit of acting and also dubbing. I came to music and I've stayed in it because it let me be who I really am. I've always been a person who needs to stand out and to feel the spotlight; otherwise I feel uncomfortable. Because of this I don't go to concerts. I hate being part of an audience. I have to be on stage. I need to feel special. I need to be seen."

This probably makes your work harder.

"Look, I'm pedantic about everything. I write the songs, I make the arrangements, I'm involved in the production [with Uri Winokur], I do the mixes, everything. Maybe because I need to feel control over my life. Down to the level of the graphics. I can drive the designers crazy and at some stage they always say to me, 'Okay, do it yourself.' I'm a terrible person. But I'm a Hitler with self-awareness, which is the worst. If Hitler were in therapy, this is how he would look. I want to do things my way, but I am sensitive to other people and I do try to let them stand out. Otherwise the Mojos would have left after a single album. Because writing songs, for example, is something I don't let them do."


"Because that's what I decided. I'm not interested in singing other people's songs."

And what about writing together?

"Maybe some day on some other project. Asaf Avidan and the Mojos are about self-investigation. This very much limits them. I understand this and I feel I am suppressing their creativity. It took me a long time to learn not to feel bad about this. At first I was apologizing all the time. The Mojos now have their own side project, in order to express their creativity without leaving the band. Lately we've been addressing this an awful lot in order to understand what we are and so that I won't feel bad. It's funny, but even I feel limited inside the band. Because of this, I recorded an album with other instrumentalists. It will have a different vibe, more jazzy."

Bashiri comes out of the bedroom and says our ride is coming to take us to the Rivlin family home. Avidan steps out of the room and returns wearing cowboy boots, a brown leather jacket and a belt with a pirate's head buckle.

"We're not doing this for financial reasons," he says. "We could have made a lot more money with four performances at the Barbie [club] than in the four performances at private homes. We liked the initiative. There are Cellcom banners at the Arad Festival, too. There's no way around it - someone has to sponsor the event and if we find another platform for music, it's welcome, certainly if it enables a connection with the audience. The only launch performance we're doing for this album, apart from the appearances in homes, is a performance of classical arrangements on January 19 at the Tel Aviv Opera House, with 40 instrumentalists. This excites me a lot. We'll perform songs from all the albums for an hour, and in the last half hour we will perform the new album in its entirety."

All the members of the Mojos are waiting for us in the van (bassist Ran Nir, percussionist Yoni Sheleg, guitarist Roi Peled and cellist Hadas Kleinman ), along with Roie - Avidan's brother and the band's manager - and soundman Ronen Hajaj. En route the band members split up into separate conversations. Kleinman tells Bashiri about the apartment in Jaffa she and her partner are thinking of buying.

"We're also moving to Jaffa. I hope you take it and we become neighbors," says Bashiri. "But we're going to rent - we don't have the money to buy."

You don't have money to buy an apartment? You, Asaf Avidan?

"I said to myself that I won't get into my money issues but let's say I make my living from my music, it's a huge gift, but I am light years away from being wealthy. The amount of investment we have as a band is gigantic. After all, we do everything ourselves [the band also operates its own independent label]. This buys me artistic freedom, but I am maintaining a company and investing in tours and albums. We record one album a year, and the recording and the mixes cost a minimum of NIS 150,000 each time. The contract with Sony [Columbia] is bringing in money but everything that comes in we invest in order to grow. In the meantime this is proving itself."

To what extent are you really succeeding overseas?

"We are very successful. There's a huge buzz around us internationally but we're still in the category of a big promise. We perform before 300 people and at large festivals, and starting next year we are moving from the small stage to the large stage. We are a band that is starting out but it's not for nothing Sony-Columbia contacted us. We've had other feelers from big labels and we refused because it's important to me to maintain our artistic freedom. Incidentally, I believe [Israeli bands] Infected Mushroom and Balkan Beat Box are more successful, but we have the potential to become a very big band and this is incredibly scary."

"The Reckoning" came out at the beginning of this year in Europe. How was it received?

"It was received very well, with excellent reviews. However, I assume that if we had done the same work there that we do in Israel, things would have been a lot better. Because we're always moving from one place to another, our pace is different. I'll be able to judge our success only after 'Poor Boy/Lucky Man' comes out in April, because we really are investing in this release and doing it the way it should be done. The label is behind us, we will do radio and television shows, and we will do an organized tour. Until now everything we did was very eccentric. We fill halls but in terms of selling albums, we haven't done that amazingly."

Tension is normal

At 5 P.M. we get to Rivlin's home. The Mojos make coffee for themselves and settle into the yard. Mikey calls them in for a sound check, which in addition to the band's songs includes bits from Sting, Bob Marley, a bit of Gossip and a lot of Radiohead. The band, which is accustomed to performing in large spaces, has difficulty adjusting to the small living room. After arguing with Hajaj, they get the volume right and then go back to hanging out in the yard, this time with a flask of whiskey.

Maybe it's the alcohol, but the Mojos seem to get along just fine. Do they also get along so well on the intense tours abroad?

"There are also moments of crisis," confesses Avidan. "Sometimes there are periods during a tour, three days with nothing to do and that's terrible. You are shut up in a hotel with the same eight people and you're missing home. There was a moment in Switzerland when I bought a plane ticket to Israel and I escaped, and I didn't know whether I'd have the strength to return. I'm terribly sorry about this in retrospect and I imagine what they went through there, left high and dry, but I was a wreck. It's awfully hard to maintain sanity and optimism in a situation like that."

Hajaj calls Avidan for another sound check and the band members stay outside. They refuse to elaborate on the Switzerland incident. "It's a daily war to maintain sanity and it's a lot of work," says Sheleg, "but nothing can be done - every band goes through this. I want to believe it's not just us. Most of the time on tours it's more good than bad. As long as there are performances."

Do you get frustrated because you can't write songs for the band?

Sheleg: "At first this was disturbing but we very quickly realized this wasn't the plan and it's okay because we really love Asaf's songs. Now we have this side combo [The Wrong Demons - a trio of Sheleg, Nir and Peled], so altogether we will be a lot more pleasant and relaxed."

Kleinman: "From the outset I saw myself as a performer, so for me it's a bit different. Recently, though, I've just been starting to write myself, but it's more electronic."

Is it easy working with Asaf?

"He's a musician," says Nir sarcastically. "All musicians are easy to work with."

Gradually the house fills up with 20-somethings, lucky folks who received invitations from Rivlin and Lan. The Mojos, courteous, smiling and drunk, hand out autographs, have their pictures taken and drink more whiskey (and also beer - after all, there's an open tap ). The time has come to begin. The Mojos leave through the front door and enter again, greeted by applause from the audience. Within 20 minutes, Avidan asks the audience to get off the mattresses and stand up. They do so immediately. The atmosphere heats up quickly and Sheleg, undeterred by the presence of his own parents, strips off his shirt and opens his pants button. The audience is hot, and sometimes noisy (toward the end, Sheleg asks them to stop talking ). After an hour and a half of songs from all their albums they leave the stage, say thank you, get photographed some more and sign some albums. At 10:30 P.M. we are all back in the van.

"I hate being a perfectionist," mutters Peled, refusing to elaborate. In the van people are mostly quiet. They say it was weird.

"A first performance in a home. Next time it will be better," says Avidan decisively. The driver lowers the television screen and we watch "State of the Nation"; rock pianist Shlomi Shaban is the special guest. "Look at that. I'm performing in a private home and he's on prime time on Channel 2."

"He also did a round of home performances," everyone reminds Avidan, and he says: "So now I also want prime time."