Nobody's Darling

Ninet Tayeb has undergone a psychological and musical metamorphosis since making her big splash on 'A Star is Born' eight years ago. She's no longer afraid to say or sing things that her audiences might not like. Coming soon: a new English-language CD.

Ninet Tayeb's vocal chords are in fine shape. She knows because she recently went to have them checked when allergies were disturbing her singing, and the doctor showed her a picture of them. She bursts out laughing as she tells the story, stammers, and bursts out laughing again.

"Those vocal cords," she explains, "look like ... I haven't got another word for it, so I'll just say it" - then she uses an impolite term for the female genitals. "I'm sorry," she says. "I'm trying not to be gross, but I can't help it. They are lovely, especially when producing sound. You can see the cords trembling and touching and separating. It's really terribly beautiful."

Ninet Tayeb
Rotem Vahnish

After the doctor showed Tayeb her vocal cords, he showed her those of other people. "I wanted to be sure I didn't have any calluses there, and along the way he gave me an anatomy lesson," she says. "Callused vocal cords look quite terrible. You know those balloons ...?" she tries to complete her sentence, but once again chokes on laughter. "I'm sorry, I have another image but I don't know if I should say it out loud."

Go for it. You're in the world of rock 'n' roll now.

"It looks like a used condom, okay? Wow, that's terrible, awful ... Well, anyway, calluses happen mainly to people who have smoked for many years," she says, lighting up a cigarette. "I hardly smoke at all. Once in a while. If I ever get calluses on my vocal cords, I don't think it will be from cigarettes. There is one good thing about smoking: Cigarettes make your voice hoarse and that's terrific. I like that rough quality."

An hour later, when Tayeb sings some excerpts from the as-yet-unnamed English-language CD she will be releasing in a few months (a Hebrew album is also in the pipeline ), it is possible to hear a little hoarseness in her voice now and then.

During our first conversation for this interview, when the subject of how she feels about her voice arose, she said, "Let's not get into it. Let's just say I've gone from once to twice a week with my voice teacher." When we met a second time, she was less vague. "I have a very complicated relationship with my voice. When I hear myself recorded in a studio, I try to approach it objectively as far as possible. I make a big effort to remove many layers of ... I won't say 'self-hatred' because that's too harsh, but I have to try really hard.

"Do you know how it is when you like something you haven't got? I like voices that are very different from mine. Several times friends will say I remind them of a particular singer and I don't know whom they're talking about, and I check it out. If we do sound alike, I feel insulted.

"Don't get the impression I'm belittling myself. I'm not. But I always think I can do better. The highness of my voice gets on my nerves. When I worked with Rockfour on an album ["Communicative," her second, in 2009], it was really important to me to find the right microphone, because some mikes only catch the highs and lows. My singing on my first album ["Barefoot," released in 2006] is something I simply can't bear listening to."

Why? Because your singing there is processed, unnatural?

"That, too. On that album I sound so lousy ... Atrocious. Horrifying. Bad. It emphasizes exactly what I didn't want. Even then I knew what I didn't like, but I didn't know how I did want to sound."

She did know how she wanted her second album to turn out - but this time it was the turn of other people to say "Terrible. Atrocious. Horrifying."

At the Arad Festival 18 months ago, she gave a preview performance of "Communicative," a month before the album's release, and the young audience did not like what it heard, to say the least. Some expressed their discontent vociferously, and the television cameras, as always with Tayeb, captured the moment and broadcast it.

"They shouted terrible things," she recalls. "'Get off the stage,' 'Get lost,' 'We don't want to listen to you,' 'Yalla, go back where you came from.' Things like that. Like [Internet] talkbacks, but live. All of this at the debut performance of 'Communicative.'"

Was it a mistake to play the new material for the first time there?

"It wasn't a good choice. The Arad audience comes to hear the music it knows, and I didn't think about that. I was enthusiastic: Yes, I want Arad, music, let's go!"

Do you make decisions like this alone? There must be experienced people around you, who could have guessed it was a mistake.

"They said that, but it didn't do them any good. When I want something I say, 'Okay, I'll listen to what you have to say' - and I do what I think is best. In any case, I didn't expect such extreme reactions ... You know what really got me at Arad? My mother, who is the strongest woman I know, called me afterward. She saw girls in the audience cursing me. My mother usually doesn't get upset by these reactions. But this time, on television, it apparently seemed monstrous to her. I could hear the pain in her voice. She said, 'Why are they doing this?' ... The fact that my mother took this hard was my breaking point, worse than what I felt onstage."

On the air

On one Sunday last month, at 10:45 P.M., Ninet, who is 27, was sitting in a small room at Israel Radio's 88 FM station in Tel Aviv preparing for the weekly show that she hosts. She had a large pile of discs and some pieces of paper, on which she had written a few lines from songs, with some sections highlighted in orange and yellow.

She has been presenting the two-hour program, called "Pando Najena,"for more than a year. Yuval Ganor, director of 88 FM, offered her the slot when she came to the station for an interview, and she accepted on the spot ("I was a little drunk" ).

"What gets me about radio is that there's an audience out there, but I'm alone," she says. "In the theater, it's called 'the fourth wall' - there are three walls onstage, and the audience is the fourth. As an actor, you have to imagine a wall there. It is totally different from a live [musical] show, where you interact with the audience. In the theater, the audience is not a factor; it's as if it does not exist ... It's the same with radio. It's like I'm talking to an audience, but don't get any feedback, for better or for worse. I don't see them or know who they are. It's my little corner, and no one else can enter."

But a few minutes into the program, when the studio telephone begins to ring, it seems that Tayeb is bringing people into that corner. She answers nearly all the calls (off the air; on air there are only music selections and some narration in between ), enjoying the controlled proximity of a telephone in a studio, and she conducts friendly conversations with listeners, many of them regulars.

There are also a few somewhat bizarre listeners; one calls after Tayeb plays a recording by the Swedish singer Robyn, one of the most intelligent pop sensations of late. The song is called "Don't F------ Tell Me What to Do," and in it Robyn sings "My drinking's killing me / my smoking's killing me/ my diet's killing me / my heels are killing me / my ego's killing me."

"The song is so precise," Tayeb says on air, "I wish I had written it myself." Then she gets the phone call, and after she finishes talking, she tells me, looking amused: "The guy said he has a borderline personality disorder and this song cured him of it."

When did you realize that people's interest in you exceeded all proportions?

"A long time after it began to exceed all proportions. The first two years after 'Kokhav Nolad' ["A Star is Born," the Israeli version of the "American Idol" show; she won the first season's competition in 2003], when people were saying 'Ninet is a phenomenon,' I didn't know what they were talking about. I didn't go into it deeply. I was in a good place. There were shows, people wanted to see me sing, and that's what was important. But at a certain point I began to feel that everything I did was ... that each ripple [I created] became a tsunami. And then I understood that something was wrong. Every little thing I did - I'm even talking about wearing red boots - everything was analyzed ... Everything began to get crazy. I noticed it later than I should have."

Were you writing songs then?


Did you talk about whether to include them on "Barefoot?"

"Yes, and they weren't."

How did you feel about that decision?

"It wasn't too emotional."

It must be pointed out that Aviv Geffen didn't just write songs for your first album. He wrote songs about you.


So, the songs you wrote about yourself were left out, and the songs Geffen wrote about you were included.


So I'm asking again: Didn't it bother you?

"Yes. But I didn't know how to say it. I don't want to say the wrong thing now, because today everything looks different. At the time I felt something was wrong, but I didn't know what. Aviv knew what he wanted and how he heard the album. I took part in it, but I was very young. After the first album, I said, 'Enough, I don't care anymore, leave me alone.' I simply wanted people to leave me alone. I didn't have any desire to make a second album. I lost the will to sing."

Was there pressure on you?

"No. There was pressure around the first album. On the second, no. I told Roni Brown [the director of Helicon, her record company] that I was going my own way, and didn't know when I'd be back. I will say that to his credit he didn't come to me with demands. He waited patiently."

And you didn't make any demands?

"Mostly, I was afraid. I thought: What does it mean that I have lost the desire to sing? Who am I if I don't sing?"

Do you agree that you were, and perhaps still are, an object upon which the entire country projected its obsessions, fantasies and anxieties?

"According to my analysis, people felt I owed them because they elevated me. They chose me with their text messages, and I owe them a giant thank you. But there was confusion. They thought I owed them my life. Here is where the ways started to part between us."

Who is "us"?

"Me and all the rest [i.e., the audience]. Because they made their voices heard, it was as if they had elected a prime minister, but vastly different. On the entertainment side, they chose me and now [they felt] I owed them and that's all. It's not that they were bad; they simply were too caring. It was like a bear hug; it kills you in the end. When I started to go against their thinking and follow my own path - when I started to learn to play guitar - they started to say, 'Who does she think she is?' 'Who is she anyway?' 'She's nothing, a zero!' 'Go back to where you came from!' That's where I discovered my courage. They could say whatever they wanted. But I would do what I wanted to do."

Weighty issues

I think there was a collective anxiety around your weight. Hypocritical anxiety, completely unjustified, but real. As if, along with the kilograms you shed, you also lost your identity and turned into a product of the celebrity assembly line.

"I'll tell you the truth. I don't want to sound apologetic, but it's the truth: I gained 12 kilos before 'A Star is Born.' I was in the army and that's what happens to girls there. I attended auditions at the height of this stage, and that's how I was etched in people's minds.

"I have to feel comfortable with my body ... I want to feel good about myself, I want to be in good shape, and I work at it - sports, nutrition. Then when I wanted to lose 12 kilos, they started to say 'She's surrendering to pressure.' All I wanted to do was lose the extra weight I had gained. But people said, 'How thin you are - it doesn't look good on you,' 'You don't look like you - you have to gain the weight back.' I am crazy about these folks, lovesick over them, really ...[but] it is impossible to fight this and so I haven't tried. That's what the song 'She Knows' is about: 'People always tell her what to wear, what to eat, what's right, what's wrong.' That sums up my entire life. 'We chose you this way; don't dare change. Hey, give us our money back' - just like that. It's very simple: When I started to lose weight, I crossed a line for them."

What line?

"[The perception of] Ninet the bonbon, Ninet the darling, sweet Ninet with her cheeks. Being anything that is different from what they 'voted' for - that's leaving the framework."

And then, with your second album, you crossed the line completely, musically as well. Now some worry that you've been dragged in a new musical direction in which you don't really believe - or that you aren't good enough to be part of.

"Many people were sure I was being contrary. Waging a sort of youthful rebellion ..."

And it wasn't?

"Not even a little. From my point of view, this was a way to survive. It was the cornerstone of the house I'm building for myself."

Many people doubted this. Did any of this doubt get to you?

"I am a strong person in general, but when I'm not - when there are cracks - water gets inside ... And at those times I thought, 'Okay, I'm just not worth anything. My voice is terrible. I don't know how to play guitar. I write like crap. I want to get away, fly away from here.' I wrote the song 'Hot Air Balloon' about this. It begins with: 'I know I have to fly away from here.' I imagined that a bird took me away ..."

The song, she says, was written in her living room, under a poster of Al Pacino in the movie "Scarface." Pacino is holding a submachine gun, above which is written "Say hello to my little friend." "I sat down and grabbed the guitar and that's what came out, with a boom," Tayeb explains.

The words and the music together?

"Yes, as if the song had already existed."

"Hot Air Balloon" is sweeping - one of the finest songs on "Communicative," an album with a few poor tracks. In other songs on that disc, Ninet doesn't take the edge off her anger but spits it out raw, expelling all the poison that she says was aimed at her in recent years.

"It was like opening a pressure cooker; everything simply exploded inside ... I didn't have control; it burst out and is still bursting out today. I am enraged about a lot of things, and have recently allowed myself to let it all out. Once I thought I wasn't allowed to hurt anyone because I'm a public figure. Today it's not like that at all. Like in the case of what I said against the proposed law against performers who have not served in the army."

Tayeb's views of the legislation that would forbid government bodies to hold shows involving such musicians and actors, which were more or less in sync with the national consensus (she was careful to say she objects to draft dodging ), aroused immediate reactions, as could perhaps be expected: "In a few seconds there were telephone calls from the news, as if I were at least the prime minister," she exclaims.

You are working on your two current albums, English and Hebrew, with Rockfour like before. Since you have a need to innovate all the time, didn't you want to work with other musicians?


Did you not want to surprise yourself and your audience?

"No. The vibe of 'Communicative' can also be felt in our work on the new albums, but they won't sound like it. I like to surprise myself and try new things, yes, but with Rockfour. We are a sort of unofficial band together."

She admits that "Communicative" was not a big success financially, but also notes that there has been a positive momentum lately in her performances. "I see people voting with their feet this time," says Tayeb. "The halls are filling up. I won't lie, at the beginning 'Communicative' did not draw an audience. It was a very tough experience [going] from a place where people want to hear me sing, to 'Wow, nobody wants to hear me.' It was extreme, but I like that."

As to the future, after the release of her new CD in English, to be produced by Mike Crossey (one of the producers of the Arctic Monkeys' second album ), Tayeb hopes to embark on an intensive European tour. She says she is looking forward to the relative anonymity involved in such an adventure. For her, this will be an opportunity to exorcise ghosts, clear out poison - and simply shout for joy.