Geva Alon likes to say he knows every song that rocker Neil Young has ever written. And in fact, his own smooth, crooning voice and stellar guitar solos seem to channel the high, distinctively reedy sound of the older musician, who has spent the last forty-something years making music. It’s a point of pride for Alon, a blues/folk singer and songwriter who was born on Kibbutz Maabarot where he was raised on the American music of the 1960s and 1970s.
That porousness of culture and music has made Israel’s current crop of musicians hyper aware of what kind of music they want to create, infusing them with a serious appreciation for rock and folk roots, particularly in the more indie scene. Their sound is overwhelmingly pure, acoustic, and the words, surprisingly, are often in English.
“That’s what came out,” says soul folk singer Maya Isacowitz, who has often been called ‘daring’ by the Israeli press for producing songs in English. “There was a point that I fought myself to write in Hebrew because I’m Israeli and live in Israel, but then I decided to do whatever comes naturally.”
Isacowitz, at least, has a good excuse, as the Israeli-born daughter of South African immigrants, whose strongest musical influences have always been in English, given her family’s English-speaking home and the music that she heard when she was younger. So does Yael Deckelbaum, who first became known as one of Habanot Nechama, the Comfort Girls, but now has two solo albums of her soulful folk-rock, one in English, the other in Hebrew.
Like Isacowitz, Deckelbaum was also raised in a home filled with music, as it was her father, David, a dentist by day and banjoist by night, who founded Israeli folk band Jerusalem Taverners and taught Yael how to sing from a young age. Deckelbaum channels the wild energy of Janis Joplin onstage, while Isacowitz is more soulful, telling about lost loves, difficult life transitions and her personal yearning for security and satisfaction.
As for the English lyrics, Isacowitz shrugs, commenting that songwriting — whether in English or Hebrew — is about authenticity, with lyrics and sounds that “come from an honest place.”
“I didn’t pay attention previously to the fact that my music was in English,” she said. “In the last two or three years, there have been many more Israeli artists singing in English and it’s a lot more acceptable. But I think that it’s all about music that feels real to people, whether it’s in Hebrew or English.”
Not all the successful Israeli singers are crooning in English only; Karolina, the diva-like soul singer who is also the lead singer for Habanot Nechama, struts across the stage, filling every space with her larger-than-life presence, and tends to mix English and Hebrew in her singing and comments. In her solo career, she has been able to collaborate with international musicians visiting Israel, opening for the Black Eyed Peas and Lauryn Hill in local concerts. Yet raised in Eilat on a diet of Greek, Arabic and Turkish music, she mixes it all when onstage.
Still, it would seem that singing in English only, the most common language for most internationally
acclaimed singers, would be the key to success. Alon, who sings only in English, just earned his first gold record in Israel for his third solo album, “Get Closer.” It was the album produced by Thom Monahan, a well known record producer, and was written during Alon’s ten-month tour in the US.
It’s a huge achievement, said his agent, Carmi Wurtman, particularly for an Israeli artist singing in English. According to Wurtman, there’s two main reasons why Israeli singers will persevere to sing in English, particularly if it’s not their native language. Outside influences is one, given that many musicians grow up hearing “the great singers and bands from around the world.”
The other reason is to access the international market, which is so much bigger than the Israeli market and offers a much better chance at an international career.