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Asaf Avidan @ Union Transfer.

February 5, 2015

2.2.15_AsafAvidan_UT_DarraghDandurand_26The Asaf Avidan backstage – curled on a leather couch, legs tucked underneath like a cat – seemed so different from the one showing off in a muscle shirt and tight black pants, running the show and screaming into the mic only an hour later.

On Monday, the 34-year-old Israeli played Union Transfer on tour for brand new album Gold Shadow. There was no opener. He was backed by a quintet of multi-talented musicians who were prepared for anything.

Avidan’s edgy, yet polished live set, like a stone in tumbler, made for a mind-blowing experience, equal parts mesmerizing, melancholy and memorable. It was unbelievably clear how crafted his sound was, easing effortlessly from one genre to the next. His songs flowed with little break in between. On occasion, he spoke either nervously or embittered about the breakup that inspired the album and took a few too many swigs of whiskey whenever he had the chance.

The crowd swelled and only grew larger throughout the show. The eclectic audience was soothed into submission with melodic numbers like “Let’s Just Call It Fate” and “The Labyrinth Song.” He sometimes stopped to explain a few facts about physics for mini-lessons about the inner workings of the universe, winding his poetic prose into song after song.

Avidan’s stage presence was undeniable – bold and unapologetic, yet, when he obliged the audience for an encore, it became all too apparent as he began to rant that perhaps he should stick to more singing and less conversation. The night ended better than it began as a collective sigh settled after his final performance, as if the crowd was disappointed the show was over.

Our Darragh Dandurand spoke with with Avidan before the show.

How does it feel to be starting off your tour? Philly is your second city, right?

The tour, it’s still molding itself, still trying to understand what it wants to be. The setlist isn’t tight yet and it’s not that it isn’t working, it’s that I still have to find out what I want to say with this show. The way I approach a concert is like the way I approach an album. It’s not just a bunch of songs being performed, each song conveys something, something you want the audience to go through.

Do you want each show and each performance to be uniquely different, even though they will be with different venues and audiences anyway?

Yeah, exactly, but no. There is something I really love, that is beautiful to me about the repetition of it. I change the setlist all the time until I find the right one, but when I find it, if I do, it will stay the same for the three or four months every night. I leave room for audiences to pick songs, but other than that, I like that it can be almost like a screenplay with a beginning, middle and end. I like to find uniqueness, but through a constricted frame. Within that, once you are playing the same notes over and over, you can begin to shape them in your own way.

Your shows are often described as very intimate, face-to-face, especially since going solo.

It depends which ones. The way I am a musician is very introspective. I try to go through something in myself, try to feel something, generally on the stage. Maybe that translates. On my Back to Basics tour, which was a whole year up by myself playing until last night, a nod to how I started. Then I had the Mojos, my band, then different musicians, then solo. It reminded me what I loved about this process, of outletting your dirty laundry. It’s a regurgitation process you go through when you chew up the words and spit them back up. I think that it you feel something on stage, there is a slight chance that somebody else will, and if they don’t then it’s just entertainment.

Do you consider yourself solo still, even though you are now being backed by a band for this tour? Or are they the new band you’ll be playing with in the future?

They are not my band, but they are a group of musicians that I feel very strongly for. Some of them were already with me on the Different Pulses tour. I really like to go for long relationships. Because of the way I am, because I don’t know what my next project is going to be, I never say that this band of musicians is going to be the right group or the right instrumentation for the next project. Maybe I’ll need jazz musicians next.

On the note of intimacy, do you feel like it is missing from most music today?

I don’t know. I wouldn’t say that, I don’t like to generalize. I feel like there are a lot of ‘cool’ musicians, a lot of riff-based guitar bands, a lot of really great produced bands, there are great sounding bands, but I think the focus went away from songwriting and to production. I sound old saying that. The music I love is 20s-60s. There is an amount of honesty in the lyrics and the delivering of the song. It’s not trying to sound beautiful, but the vocals are expressing. There are artists like that nowadays.

How does Hebrew fit into your music, if at all? Do you always write in English for yourself or for internationally commercial reasons?

I grew up in Jamaica, around the ages 7-11, when I really started reading, which was mostly in English. I read all translations in English, I don’t know why. Also, the music I draw from is almost only American or British. And my parents met in New York, so they had lots of English writing, American albums around the house.

Where do you reach for inspiration? Do you look backwards of forwards?

It’s usually in the past. It’s usually trying to use the past as a mirror for something that is happening now. I do feel like life has this cyclical, perpetual motion to it, and Gold Shadow is very much about that. Gold Shadow is from the past, coming to pay a visit, feeling that at my age, after going through those circles of hope and the break of hope, circles of love and the break of love, all of these things over and over again each time, you start feeling like, ‘Jesus, fuck, not again.’ So it’s not only the hardship of a breakup, Gold Shadow is about a specific breakup, a difficult time period, but the accumulation of those repetitive breaks and breaks and shatters, just pulling yourself back together every time and trying to find something hopeful, optimistic, whatever you want to call it.

Have you ever heard of the term ‘death of the author?’ Do you feel that your audience must know your context before they can interpret your music for themselves?

No, no I don’t. I think that is the beauty of a form of writing that is not a narrative. It’s poetry in a sense, but I don’t know if I can call what I do poetry, that’s stretching it a bit. But it is in that world and it is less of a figurative painting and more of an abstract painting. I know the narrative and it’s very important for me to be very specific and in tune to a specific emotion and event. I write it in a sense that leaves a lot for interpretation. That’s the beauty of art, you translate and transform, filter it through your own experiences.

How do you choose your visuals, such as music videos?

Well, for my most recent, ‘Over My Head,’ that was easy, because it was a love song, but this album is about breaking up, but I wrote that song before I knew what the album was going to be about or before the breakup from my momentous relationship. We were together for six years and I had never written her a song, so I thought I owed it to her, but the joke was always that my songs were shitty. So I wrote that love song, but then things started to get darker and darker and the album follows that chronological order. One of the things I regret now is that the music video isn’t supposed to be serious, but everyone thinks I take myself seriously. It’s a cliche, almost American Levi’s commercial. I’m not sure if people get the joke. We just wanted to create a naive, almost teenage idea of love.

I’ve watched a lot of videos of you performing live and you get a certain look on your face. Where do you ‘go’ when you’re playing or are you present in the moment?

Never. I’m not there. It’s what I said at the start, it’s all very introspective work. I’m looking for something inside, trying to feel something. Sometimes I’m literally just remembering stuff, going through stuff, just to evoke something. It won’t ever just happen to me when I’m trying to play something, but the moment I try to sing, there is something about the process that when you open your mouth and your lips pull apart, barriers of teeth open up, tongue moves to the side, there is this complete gateway to your insides. It’s such an interesting metaphor to me, outlets and outlets. When you outlet, you start to go inside. It’s a circular thing. The more I am able to outlet honest emotions, hurtful emotions, the more I am able to look inside and see what’s going on there.

Isn’t that terribly painful though? Does the repetition of your shows make it less so?

It’s always painful. And no, I don’t think so. I’m not trying not to feel pain, I’m actually trying to feel those things. I feel those feelings are very underrated. We’re all trying to have this joy-problem, of feeling great all the time. Why separate all these feelings, good and bad? We’re supposed to feel them. I don’t mind feeling pain and I think there is the blues, where you play with your troubles in a way that somehow makes them bearable.

What’s it like to be back in the States?

Well, I was here for the Back to Basics tour. I feel exactly the same, I have to say. It’s always been my music and composition, so it’s not so much a big change to play on my own or with a group of musicians, it’s just about presenting my music. The songs are the masters, they are the ones that demand the amount of time in the studio, of production, of which instruments and musicians I need.

How is it to be here in Philly?

We are just a breeze. I could tell you how our Holiday Inn was, but that’s about it. Honestly, I could say that people are the same wherever you go, but it’s really not the truth. There are specific cities that are just really different. I don’t know if it’s culturally or has to do with the weather, I don’t know. It’s my first time here.

I think Philly is a pretty welcoming city for all types of music and art.

I would be surprised if there was more than two or five people in the audience. First of all, I did one tour before this in the States. I had no label, no single, no radio, I had nothing. I have no idea how people would even know that I existed and would come to the show. It would literally be surprising to me.

How does that make you feel?

Humble? But in a good way. It’s weird, because in Europe I’ve already based myself and we play 8,000 capacity venues in the big cities and huge festivals as headliner acts, so it’s very different. But it’s not like I didn’t do this type of tour in Europe. I just did it before. I love it. I love this feeling, it is anticipation mixed with trepidation and it’s great. I feel alive, I feel excited, not just anxious. It’s like a new start, so that I won’t take things for granted. There is something humbling about being pissed off again, but it’s not even true because I am fuckingly amazingly lucky in that sense. I played DC once before and there were less than 100 people there. Yesterday there were over 500. In France I started at a 60 capacity place, then 150, then 300, playing every single venue on the map, and I have no problem doing it here. It’s just that I feel like there are expectations from people I work with, of what I should be doing.

How do you balance that?

That’s something I don’t do well. I get stressed out for other people. I don’t care working hard, I don’t care starting over, I don’t care playing in front of 30. I mean, if I know that’s what I’m going to do, if someone books me for a 7,000 capacity place and only 30 show up, it’s going to hurt a lot, but if I know in advance that this is a small tour that I’m going to do, I’ll go in there and do it the best that I can, but you still have the expectations of other people.


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