MUSIC: Interview with Noga Erez: "Ambivalence is a positive trait in art"

Photo by Julia Drummond via The Line of Best Fit

Lee aquí la entrevista en español con Noga Erez para El Quinto Beatle

One would never expect a young, thoughtful and politically-aware woman from Israel who brings forefront, earthy mystical electronic music to the international table to consider herself privileged, but Noga Erez does, partly because she’s extremely humble and down-to-Earth, and partly because very few conventionalisms apply to her.

During her second year at Primavera Sound she made all heads turn, and for a very good reason that has nothing to do with her presumed privilege. “Off The Radar” is the name of her debut album, and it probably wasn’t titled like that just because it sounded pleasant to her ears (although that definitely must have played a big part in the decision-making), but also as a subtle way of telling those out there who aren’t amongst her hardcorest fans (yet) something very crucial both about her latest project and about Noga herself; that her art, while having been fuelled by every artist and every scenery she’s encountered, is a spontaneous act of creativity and authenticity that comes solely from within her, and can’t be traced to no specific geographic or chronological point.

First of all: how exactly should I pronounce your name?

It’s “Nouga” “Erezzz”, just like that!

Oh, cool, I thought it’d be more difficult than that! Anyway, Noga Erez: your new album, “Off The Radar”, was released a month ago now, congratulations! It’s truly an amazing piece of work! What are your expectations (if you have any) for the album so far, in terms of public and critical reception? Do you have any specific goals, as to what you’d like to achieve with it?

I don’t think I have any specific goals… Probably reaching as many people as possible. I don’t have numbers or places in my mind, but obviously, when you release something that you’ve worked on for so long, you really want it to get as much attention as it can get.

And what about maybe reaching a specific artist you’d like to collaborate with, or a label?

I’m already signed to a label [the Berlin-based City Slang], which I’m quite happy with! [Laughs] So I’d say that I wish to be able to expand beyond the audience that I currently have.

Also, when it comes to collaborating with other artists… The problem is that the more I like an artist, the more I listen to an artist, the less I’m going to want to collaborate with them, because I like to keep my heroes as heroes. On the other hand, it’s true that I’d like my next album to be more collaborative, since this new one was a very intimate kind of process that I had to do with my partner [Ori Rousso], just the two of us, and it felt very nice and secure. But now I’m ready to get out of that comfort zone and start communicating more with other musicians. So I’d like “Off The Radar” to help creating the ability for me to approach many different musicians to make music with.

You mentioned your creative partner, who’s more on the production side, or you both do the writing and the production together?

Yeah, we do everything together! It’s just that… Let’s say he’s not the crowd-loving kind of person. He’s still on stage with me and all, but he’s definitely given up on the show business side of the profession. And luckily for him, this creates a situation where he’s more able to do his work and keep things going while I go around and talk with the press and everything. It really makes a very good division of tasks between us, but basically, creative-wise, we’re as equal as it can get.

That’s very interesting and useful to know… Let’s talk about your style now, because you’ve been called “the Israeli answer to Björk” and all that, and been compared with the likes of MIA, FKA twigs, St. Vincent… How comfortable do you feel with that depiction of yourself? To which extent do you feel it’s accurate?

I think that I am, in a way, a combination of all the artists that I have been influenced by, it’s just a natural thing that happens to everyone. All the names that you brought up are influences on me, some of them to major extents than others, and I see them in parts of myself, although at first, when people started to mention such musicians as compared to me, I felt it was exaggerated…

Very humble of you to say that.

Yeah, well, I mean that I get the idea, because when you have to put music into words, you’re obliged to do that, you have to give definitions, genres… “She’s an electronic pop artist”, they say about me, and with statements like that, I can say that I agree with them and I can say that I don’t! And it’s necessary to compare one artist with others so the listener can get a picture of what he or she is going to listen to, it really serves a purpose. Eventually, it’s in my best interest for people to understand what I do, so yeah, I’d say I’m comfortable with it.
Apart from these amazing musicians we just mentioned, what would you say are your main references, specially while recording this album? Any unlikely ones, or any artist that inspires you or you’re a huge fan of but you’re sure nobody would ever associate you with?

I would say there’s one big example of someone I admire that people would go like “Hum, okay, that’s interesting”, and that is PJ Harvey. We obviously do very different styles of music but, in a way, I think we’re very close, because we’re both artist who approach subjects in our music that have to do with social and political issues, and we come to it from a very personal point of view of taking this whole general treatment that is usually being given and documented through the media, and upgrading it to a far more human and emotional level.

She’s my hero and she’s a huge inspiration to me, and I went through periods when my music sounded like hers, but recently I’ve been growing further and further away from that.

And talking specifically about the fact that PJ Harvey and all these amazing artists you’ve been compared to are mostly female; how necessary do you think that calling attention on women in the electronic genre is? In which way do you think that giving the spotlight to female musicians is important? Just because they’re not given enough recognition or because there really is something unique about the way women write and play music?

We’re in a very crucial point in history when it comes to the place of women in the world, and it’s been an on-going struggle that we, this generation, have not started, at all! There have been many brave women before us who ignited this fight we’re trying to be a part of now, and just very recently we have come to the point when it is, in many ways, more possible than ever to accomplish this sadly futuristic goal of creating equality between men and women. As a woman who operates in the area of music and art, I do believe that it is important to talk about it and to find our place, because I don’t think male artists go through the same issues that female artists have to go through.

That is such a brave point to make, and maybe it could apply as well not only to your condition as a female artist, but also to that of you being an Israeli artist, especially now that there seems to be a sudden and very exciting cultural awakening in Israel for the last years. For those of us out here who might be sadly and shamefully unaware of what’s going on in Tel-Aviv and its scene and artistic bubble, how would you describe it?

It’s like a boiling pot, it’s very crazy! [Laughs] It’s so diverse and hectic, because there are so many artists… But at the same time, it’s very small; when you look at Tel-Aviv, geographically, it’s a very small territory and, in spite of it, it has so much to offer!

Another thing is that Israel is such a new and young country, it has only existed for 69 years! It has people from all over the world who came and built their lives from scratch, so one has such diversity of cultures blended into this mix of things. That creates very particular and interesting art and culture, and one can really sense the feel of what’s coming from Tel-Aviv.

Continuing with the topic of the special circumstances of your home country, and going back to the underlying political and social awareness of you work: how do you cope with the ambivalence of you being ethically compromised with the way you make art and write lyrics while, at the same time, not wanting to be portrayed as a full-time protest singer?

[Laughs] From an outside point of view, it may seem like an ambivalence, but for me it’s the realest thing because I am not an activist, I’m not a protest artist, and I create music from a more selfish place and because it has always been my way of tackling issues that bother me, of processing the world. The fact that you can relate what I talk about to where I come from and the stuff going on around me doesn’t make me a political artist! That’s something I’m 100% convinced of and that I perceive as very authentic; it doesn’t create any ambivalence, being very politically aware and an artist who discusses these matters from an individual point of view, both things at a time.

I’m sorry if it came across as if I was bringing that up as a negative trait, because it isn’t, in any way; it’s just that it can be interpreted like that.

No no, not at all! I even consider ambivalence to be a positive trait in art, generally. It’s always a complexity, and if I was so easy to understand, if I was just one straight message, I would feel that it’s not enough or it doesn’t have enough depth or layers. Me representing things that almost seem opposite to one another is actually a good thing.

I understand that you have a very special way of writing your lyrics in English, taking into account more the sound and the aesthetics of the words rather than the grammatical content, which concludes in a very idiosyncratic style of lyric-writing.

That is something you can do when you don’t create in the same language that you talk or think in, because I like to believe that I have a good English, particularly taking into account that it’s not my mother tongue, but I’m not a native English-speaker. So when I have ideas in my mind, they are in Hebrew, and that is why I can look at words in English from a sonic perspective. When you think about writing songs, at the beginning it’s more like drawing than writing, in the sense that you don’t understand the meaning of what you’re putting down, you’re just imitating the vision of the words. It’s the same, in a more abstract way, to when you talk or pronounce something musically; you focus on the sound of it and how it sits rhythmically.

But on the other hand, I always try to put a meaning underneath that. It’s definitely not just crafting words as sounds.

That must be difficult to make happen, crashing meaningfulness with the aesthetics and sounds of the words, or making catchy hooks.

Yeah, the lyrics-part of the work is certainly a big challenge, although it comes a bit more naturally to me than the music.

Did you ever consider writing lyrics to this album in Hebrew?

I started writing songs in Hebrew at the beginning, yes, but Hebrew gives a completely different set of rules, because words have a minimum of two syllables, whereas in English you have just one most of the time, which makes it so easy to put on rhythm! That is one reason. The other is that Hebrew is the language that I think in, and English isn’t, so it allowed me to be way freer during the writing process. I consider it a great privilege, not having English as my first language, and being able to say whatever I want to say while, at the same time, preventing it from totally invading my thoughts or exposing my internal world.

So the aim of you writing songs in English was never consciously reaching more people than you could ever possibly reach by singing in Hebrew?

That’s always there as well, to some extent, always. But I still think the primal motivation is more artistic than practical. The main intention is always writing a song that you can feel fully comfortable with, and then, fortunately, the byproduct of that is that more people will be able to understand it.

And to follow with such a well-thought answer, here comes corny question time, so tell me: do you have any favourite songs on “Off The Radar” so far?

It changes every day! On the day of its release, I listened to the whole thing, which is something that didn’t happen for the last three months or so…

You don’t usually listen to your own music then?

I play other people’s music all the time, I don’t just sit at home listening to my own music! [Laughs] There’s so much stuff out there that I need to listen to, and I rarely get in the situation of actually sitting down and listening to my entire album. But I did that that day, and I felt that the song that I loved the most was “Global Fear”, which is the song that breaks the album right in the middle. It’s very different to the rest of the tracks, in a way, but it took something out of me that is very genuine and authentic, that really spoke from my guts.

That was so cool and moving, I’m sad to have to finish this now… Well, last but not least, and as Nardwuar the Human Serviette (great contemporary Canadian music journalist) always asks at the end of his interviews: why should people care about Noga Erez?


You can take your time!

[After a very long silence] What do you mean when you say “care about”?

It’s left for open interpretation, usually, but I guess you can simply take it as “why should people pay you attention” or consider it in a deeper, higher level, like “why should listeners take you into their lives as something that gives them some kind of fuel or food for thought”.

I think people should care about the idea of being able to live in this world we live in today, which isn’t easy; it has so many new complexities to it, so many things we’re still struggling to adjust to... It also has privileges that were inexistent not so long ago, at the same time. And what I’m trying to do as an artist is to find a way to combine the fact that we are very privileged with the fact that we’re also very unlucky, and putting those two things into one context, because both of them are realities. They are two sides of the same thing, which is the place we currently inhabit in the world. We are people, in the Western world, with all the means and opportunities close at hand, who live quiet and comfortable lives, but who also have to deal with brand new complexities that no other generation has ever had to confront before.

I think that, through my work, I try to show how we can work that out together, and how both dimensions are a part of the same thing and how it’s our responsibility, as individuals, to build the bridge between them. We must accept that we are lucky to be alive during the times we live in, even though there’s still so much to do to make the world a fair place to inhabit.

Damn gurl, brilliant answer, probably up there with one of the best I’ve ever been given, thank you so much for that!

Really? Thank you, it was a bit hard to formulate, though! [Laughs]

But totally worth it!

Lee aquí la entrevista en español con Noga Erez para El Quinto Beatle.