The distance between singing cover tunes at open mic nights on a remote kibbutz and having your debut album go gold is traversed one song at a time. That’s what Israeli singer/ songwriter Maya Isacowitz has discovered on her improbable journey from a shy teenager who began writing songs out of a need to express herself to an accomplished singer/songwriter who makes… gold records.
The 26-year-old guitar-playing daughter of South African olim, Isacowitz released her debut album Safe & Sound in 2011.
Compared last year by Jerusalem Post reviewer Brian Blum to “Alanis Morissette, Joan Osborne and Tracy Chapman, with a little Tori Amos thrown in for good measure,” Isacowitz and her acoustic-based songs sung in English received widespread radio airplay and media coverage, resulting in her being named 2012’s Discovery of the Year by the music licensing group ACUM.
But it was only last month, nearly three years after its release, that the album received gold status, signifying sales of 15,000, which in the Digital Age and in the tiny confines of Israel is not an easy task.
“When I got the news, it was very emotional for me,” said Isacowitz from New York, where’s she’s been living for the last year.
“When I started, I didn’t even have an idea where to start from. I just had these songs in my head, and I began to perform. And when the album was finally ready, I remember coming home one day and finding a box of fresh CDs on the table and a note from my boyfriend that said, “I hope you’re happy with the results. I believe this album will go gold.”
Much of the reason for Safe & Sound’s success derives from the more than 100 shows that Isacowitz and her band, which includes her cousin Shai Lochoff on guitar, performed over a twoyear period following its release. In addition to honing her musical chops, the regular cycle of concerts helped her develop confidence in herself.
“When I first started performing, it was only in small pubs in the North near my kibbutz,” she said.
“Then I made the decision to move to Tel Aviv and go for it with everything I have. It was interesting to see how the buzz spread from mouth to ear and more people started to tell their friends, and the shows began filling up.”
She added, “I try to push myself to my limits and let go as much as possible, but it took me a long time to learn to do that. Where I was on stage when I started to the point where I am now is a different world in terms of how I feel and how I connect. Still, each time I play, I’m trying to learn how to reach a new point where I feel even more comfortable and unrestrained.”
Following the two-year push for Safe & Sound, Isacowitz said she felt the need recharge her creative batteries in order to return to the mindset that enabled her to write in the first place. That desire led her to an unexpected destination, thanks to a meeting with Jonathan Dagan, the successful Brooklyn based Israeli producer and remixer who goes by the stage name of J. Viewz.
“After the intense promotion of the album, I knew I needed some time to focus on writing new songs,” said Isacowitz. “And when I started to think about a producer for a second album, I met with Jonathan. We immediately had a strong chemistry and bond between us, and when he suggested going to New York for a month to record the album in his studio, it felt right. So that was the trigger to take that step, and it’s been a year and I’m still in New York,” she laughed. “The album took much longer than I expected, but I think it was worth it to take it slow.”
One of the elements that elongated the record-making process was Isacowitz’s efforts to distinguish between her blossoming music career and the very personal craft of writing songs from the heart.
“I had to find that place of creation again,” she said. “I started writing songs when I was 14, not to make an album or have a career but out of a need to express myself. It was my saving grace growing up.
Being a professional musician kind of puts me in conflict with myself and the danger of losing that pure and innocent place of creating music because I need to sit down and write and express myself through song. Once I was able to stop touring, the river started flowing again very strongly and I was able to get back to that point of being in the place where the creativity comes from,” she explains.
During her extended stay in New York, Isacowitz has focused on writing and recording but has performed some US shows, including a showcase at last year’s South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, and an opening slot for a New York performance by one of her influences, Suzanne Vega.
Aside from a short series of shows in Israel last year, Isacowitz hasn’t appeared in her home base in a while. But the announcement of Safe & Sound’s gold record status provided the impetus to return for a one-time solo acoustic show to celebrate the good news with her family, friends and longtime fans.
“I’ve been missing home like crazy for the past year, so when I got the good news about the album, I thought, ‘Okay, this is a great reason to come back and celebrate with so many people who were part of the reason Safe & Sound succeeded,’” said the singer.
The show will take place on August 12 at Zappa Tel Aviv, and Isacowitz promised an evening of songs from her first album, a preview of the upcoming sophomore effort due to be released later this year, a couple of songs with her band and a special guest she wouldn’t reveal. Once the second album is released, she said she’ll be back for a proper tour.
“I’m not sure if I’m coming back to Israel for good and will go back and forth to New York. We’ll see. But either way, I’m going to be in Israel a lot.”
That will undoubtedly make Maya Isacowitz fans feel safe and sound.