Jerusalem-born Avital Raz is a theatre maker and musician. Her first solo show My Jerusalem was derived from a controversial song. It combines live music with storytelling and projected images. A politically-charged tale of a drunken one-night stand, infused with stories of growing up in the turmoil of 1980s Israel.
Raz started out as a child singer of classical music. She studied at The School of Visual Theatre in Jerusalem and After completing degrees in vocal performance and composition, she shifted her focus to India where she studied the ancient art of Dhrupad singing with Prof. Ritwik Sanyal of Benares Hindu University.
This improvisational style led to a surge in creativity and Avital’s first album: Sad Songs About The End Of Love – 11 of James Joyce’s poems from Chamber Music composed mostly in Raag style and recorded in India and Israel with local musicians.
Her latest musical release ‘The Fallen Angel’s Unravelling Descent’, a collaboration with Keith Angel (producer) was given four stars by RnR magazine and high Praise in Folk Radio UK among other publications.
“There is no-one quite like Avital Raz in the world of music right now, and she should be applauded for the intelligence and singularity of her artistic vision. The Fallen Angel’s Unravelling Descent is a genuinely original musical statement, full of wise, exotic and gleefully mordant songs that manage to be simultaneously challenging and melodic.”
Avital spoke to us about songwriting and her latest show ‘Jerusalem’…
1. What’s the first piece of music or song you remember hearing?
AR: I don’t know if this counts as music… My mother had her own version of Mother Goose nursery rhymes. Some of them had melodies and some were more of a deranged chant. I remember my Mom, my sister and I shouting it for hours: “Wee Willie Winkie runs through the town, Upstairs, downstairs in his nightgown, Tapping at the window, crying through the lock, Are all the children in their beds…?” So, I’m going with original compositions by my creative mother.
2. Can we talk a bit about the latest show you are performing, My Jerusalem… The seeds of its creation are from one of my favourite songs of yours, The Edinburgh Surprise. The song feels so visceral and instantaneous. I remember hearing it for the first time and it made my hair stand on end. Was there a specific intention when you sat down to write it?
AR: I’ve got a lot to say about that but I’ll try to be concise…. Being an Israeli living in the UK, people made all kinds of assumptions about me so I guess I wrote the song to give a complex picture of where I stand. It describes a drunken sexual encounter between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man in Edinburgh. When I released it, it sparked some controversy on twitter not only from right-wing traditionalists but also from Palestine supporters and feminists. So rather than clarifying my political position, it brought up more questions which is why it ended up being the backbone of a solo show I started developing two years ago. I toured the show and adapted it to film during lockdown. While performing the show, in one month I was both called an Israel-hating-antisemite and a Zionist racist. I started to think that the subject of Israel and me as an Israeli having my own narrative was so contentious, lots of people came to the show wearing blinders. So, together with Chris Davis, we created a documentary film to accompany My Jerusalem entitled Your Jerusalem interviewing Palestinians, Israelis and people in the UK about issues raised in the show (holocaust, occupation, Jerusalem, racism, gender politics…).
As this is a music blog, I should say the show is a mixture of songs broken up and infused with storytelling and projected video. I was getting fed up with gig life. I wanted audiences to listen to me as I put a lot of care into my lyrics and had too many experiences of performing as background music to people chattering. Perhaps for that reason my songs became increasingly filthier, so people would be shocked enough to stop their conversations! I enjoy the attention I’ve been getting from theatre audiences and the fact that being thought provoking appears to be a strength. As a musician I was once offered a mentoring session with a high level promoter in London who shall not be named. She told me, if I stopped swearing and didn’t go so political, I’d have a chance of “making it” with my pretty voice
3. As a follow up, is that your usual writing process and if not how does it differ?
AR: I’m not sure I have a writing process. I tend to either do something really reckless and stupid and then write about it or write because I’m so miserable, I need to unpack the emotions and sculpt them into something with beauty to be able to bare them. Some songs have come about through wanting to have the last word, so they’re really written to someone specific and some from dreams. I’ve never been very disciplined or imaginative. I spent years in India studying Dhrupad, an ancient form of Hindustani music which is improvised. I think a lot of my melodies are influenced from singing in Raag.
In the case of ‘The Edinburgh Surprise’, I was touring a lot and listening to a lot of Bob Dylan at the time. I had a long train journey from Edinburgh to Manchester and it just came out fully formed. Some songs are just like that, others take years of chiseling.
4. The use of prosody in your songs has always struck me as meticulous. Do the lyrics come first and then you match the music to them? Or do you have the emotional base of the music first and find words to match that?
AR: I think in most cases the words come first. I often have a story to tell which is probably why I’ve found my way into theatre. I mentioned songs that come from dreams…, there are quite a few of those and they usually have music, sometimes it’s only the music in a dream and I wake up and try to figure it out.
5. Is there a specific experience that you can bring to mind that has encouraged you to write music you wouldn’t have written otherwise?
AR: I’ve started working on a new show, like My Jerusalem, it will be a mixture of songs and storytelling. It’s a ghost story and its main plot line in a woman in her 40’s is depressed after a miscarriage. One day, during lockdown, she manages to finally open the door at the back of the utility closet that would never budge and discovers her long deceased grandmother’s ghost standing over a pan of sizzling halibut.
The show and the songs in it will focus on infertility and pregnancy loss with a backdrop of the pandemic exploring questions of life and death and family bonds.
For the last five years I’ve been struggling with recurrent miscarriages. I’ve found it’s quite a taboo subject but after My Jerusalem, I feel equipped to try and raise awareness to it and hopefully through my show and songs provide some solace to women/ couples who often feel isolated and even ashamed to discuss what they’ve been going through.
6. Give us an Avital Raz Oblique Strategy… Are there any special techniques you employ to get a new song started?
AR: SUFFER! suffer in life, feel things really deeply, have your poor heart broken and then maybe you’ll gain insight into the fabric of being alive that will be worthy of an audience… but honestly, what do I know? My songs tend to offend people ‘trying to have a pleasant night out’….
7. TECH QUESTION! Take us through your gear list. When you demo new songs or ideas, what is your home recording setup for writing? For example, your favoured instrument? Any favoured FX pedals or plug ins? Which DAW(s) do you use? Which interface?
AR: I’ve recently started experimenting with a loop station. I’m hoping it will provide a musical soundscape for my next show. Beyond that I use protools with a Mbox pro. I recently acquired a good condenser mic. I can’t remember brand names or any techie stuff. I listen to a lot of music recorded in the 60’s and 70’s, some of it in India, Sound quality is not something I care too much about. The instruments I play are guitar, Tanpura – which is a 4 stringed Indian drone instrument that singers use to accompany themselves, glockenspiel and I create a lot of midi sounds mostly from what protools and contact have to offer. My house is a graveyard for dysfunctional instruments. People keep giving them to me and I keep thinking one day, I’ll use that accordion or fix that bass but I don’t….
Tickets for ‘My Jerusalem’ are on sale now for 28th May at The Duke’s in Lancaster: