There’s something magical about catching artists when they first start out, suffused with unbridled youthful energy and possibly a touch of bravado. Then again, there is much to be said for mature performers after they have honed their skills over the years and accrued some invaluable life experience and bring that hard-earned savvy to their delivery.
Despite being only in her mid-40s, singer-songwriter Mika Karni seems to have been with us forever. That may have something to do with the fact that she started out pretty young, as a violin player backing pop icon Shlomo Artzi. Her first album came out in 1997 and included several hits such as “Mitchell,” which gained generous air play.
Fast forward almost two decades, and Karni is still doing her thing, but she has now created an alter ego by the decidedly fantastical name of Lulu Moonlight. The character also gave its name to Karni’s new cabaret show, which conjures up the heady burlesque vibes of the 1930s and has Karni producing surprising vocal output.
It is a pretty sizable undertaking, with Karni ably supported by the six-piece New Orleans Function band.
They are currently performing up and down the country, with upcoming shows in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem.
Karni conceived of her new artistic departure when she began taking voice lessons with Hannah Hacohen.
“It all started with Hannah. She’s a great teacher. She teaches more classical singing, and she introduced me to a completely different style of singing.
She also gave me very different material to what I’d been used – songs by Kurt Weil, Gershwin and more classical works,” says Karni.
It was quite a professional epiphany.
“It was clear to me that I sounded so different. I sounded classical when I did that material,” she says.
Even so, we’re not talking about Mozart here.
“I produced a more classical vocal sound,” Karni explains, “less rock ‘n’ roll. To people who don’t really know what opera is, it sounds a bit operatic, but it’s not that at all. I’m not at that level.”
The new sonic departure had wider implications for the 44-year-old.
“I realized straightaway that I couldn’t take the stage as Mika Karni. I needed some kind of persona,” she explains. This was starting to become quite a production.
“I couldn’t just come onto the stage and thank everyone for coming out to see me. I needed a script, something really polished, just like the music,” she continues.
There was more to the innovative Karni concoction.
“I also realized that I couldn’t perform with just a piano, and I looked for a specific sound.”
One day salvation came floating in over the airwaves.
“I heard an amazing Israeli group on the radio called New Orleans Function.
It’s a Dixie band that has been around for 10 years. I heard them, and I said to myself, ‘That’s it!’ That and my singing is really the sound that was around in the 1930s,” she explains.
OK, so Karni had the business of sound down pat, but there was still a lot more work to be done.
“I started writing music with a great guy named Gil Seri, the son of Gadi Seri the percussionist. He’s a director and playwright. He’s still really a kid, but he’s got a very good head on his shoulders. He helped me to write this little musical, you can really call it a cabaret show,” she recounts.
Karni had excellent raw material to start with, which rang true with her on both a musical and a personal level.
“It’s really my life story in many senses,” she says. “It is told through a singer from the 1930s who arrives in a snowbound city at the age of 17 with a baby. I was also a mother when I was 17,” Karni notes. “She becomes a singer to make a living, and she becomes a star without even meaning to.”
Lulu Moonlight pays a heavy price for her professional success.
“She misses out on her motherhood,” Karni explains.
It is unclear if that part is biographically accurate. The trail runs a little cold after that.
“You don’t get the story in its entirety,” Karni continues obliquely.
“It’s pretty abstract. Each person understands it in his or her own way.”
Lulu Moonlight is also a means for the 40something musician to take a look back at where she has come from, professionally too, and cast a more seasoned eye over what it takes to make a career out of music.
“I sometimes look at this profession and this whole thing they call ‘stardom,’ all this lie. There are all sorts of messages in the show,” she adds.
What is certain is that there’s plenty of good music in Lulu Moonlight, which gives the impression of being a highly burlesque creation.
“It allows me to sing all this great material within the most appropriate musical framework,” says Karni. “The songs are by great writers like Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gershwin and Kurt Weil. In the original musicals, the songs are mostly love songs. In my cabaret, they take on a slightly different sense. But we worked hard to make sure that each song fit the story in sequence.”
For Karni, Lulu Moonlight is something of a throwback to an earlier stage of her life and also a way of furthering her artistic expertise.
“I started out as a classical violinist, and I discovered that almost all of these great songwriters were Jewish, who ran away from Europe to the United States. That sort of sat well with me,” she says.
It also pushed her to new levels of performance expertise.
“I never really saw myself as an accomplished performer. Yes, I’d been singing for many years, but it wasn’t material that demanded high skills.
But these songs really do. The precision and accuracy in these songs are really complex. This has been a really wonderful adventure for me,” she says.‘Lulu Moonlight’ will be performed on November 20 and December 26 at 9:30 p.m. at the Tmuna Theater in Tel Aviv; December 5 at 8:30 p.m. at the Haifa Theater; and December 12 at 9 p.m. at the Khan Theater in Jerusalem. More shows are planned through January and February. For tickets: Tmuna Theater (03) 562-9462 and http://www.tmu-na.org.il/; Haifa Theater (04) 860-0500 and www.ht1.co.il; Khan Theater (02) 630-3600 and www.khan.co.il