Maya Johanna is not exactly a stranger to the music scene here, as Jacob’s Ladder Festival regulars will know. The 28-year-old has been performing covers of icons of the Sixties, the likes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, for some time, often at the side of veteran guitarist and harmonica player Shai Tochner. And she gained national exposure a couple of years back when she put in a highly creditable appearance on The Voice television talent show, with a stirring rendition of Mitchell’s “River,” which got three of the four members of the jury to hit the seat revolver button. Now she is ready to strut her own stuff and will mark the release of her English language debut album, Bells in Our Stomachs , at HaEzor Club in Tel Aviv on August 22, at 10 p.m.
These days, there is the technology out there to facilitate the almost instant dissemination of music, all around the global Youtube village. But Johanna has bided her time, and has been gradually testing the waters with her original scores. She says it has been an important learning continuum.
“Yes, the CD has [been] bubbling under for quite some time,” she admits. “To be honest I think I was a little naïve. You know, I thought that things would move quickly and, through the process, I realized you can’t make the process move faster than it’s supposed to move. Things just take time. Once you learn that, and just let go, things happen in the time they’re supposed to happen.”
There were plenty of logistical hurdles to be straddled or side - stepped along the way, with last summer’s Protective Edge military operation in Gaza putting things of a musical nature on a back burner, as well as some misunderstandings with members of the band. That was compounded by the decision by Johanna’s boyfriend to relocate back to San Francisco, after which the singer began accruing air miles by the thousands, and dealing with the ensuing constant bouts of jet lag. Not the ideal set of circumstances for getting a first album done, dusted and out there.
Johanna’s steep learning curve took on an even more challenging gradient when she realized she was going to need some serious finances to get the project well and truly off the ground. But she successfully tiptoed her way through that mine - field by running a crowd-funding effort that brought in the requisite dineros, and then some – all of which brought Johanna to a much better and wiser place to do the artistic business.
“I went into the process without planning, financially, how I was going to do it. I was just, like, I am going to make an album. In the end the process took longer than I’d expected, but I am very happy it took as long as it did,” she declares.
The drawn-out interim period also offered unexpected benefits, for instance, having the time to reconsider and reflect on some of the lyr - ics, and seeing whether they still fit the bill, through the eyes of an older and wiser Johanna.
“Some of the songs were written as long as seven years ago, and some were written literally a few months before we went into the recording studio,” says the singer. “I worked on some of the songs with the producer Arnon Naor [aka indie musician Sun Tailor]. Some are personal songs and some are more general songs about the situation, and our generation, which I think are just as relevant as they were when they were written. I didn’t feel very different about those songs between the time I wrote them and the time I recorded them.”
All told there are seven tracks on Bells in Our Stomachs . Johanna clearly took on the sentiments and sounds of her parents’ generation, and there is strong Sixties folksy feel in there, but there are also some grungier slots, such as “Good Girl,” with rougher-edged vocals and distorted guitar backing. The title track also hits home and, says Johanna, was prompted by a general sense of awakening around her.
“There was a feeling among people of my generation that there is nothing we can do about the situation, to make things better,” she explains. “But, you know, there are little things people are starting to do, like volunteering somewhere, helping someone, maybe voting for a political party, or something like that. That is the ‘bell in our stomachs’ – a feeling of doing something that is right. It’s sort of like a wakeup call.”
There were more fundamental obstacles to seeing the creative process through to its recorded culmination, including a language barrier. Johanna’s American-born mother passed away when the singer was only six years old, and thereafter Johanna primarily spoke English with her grandmother. That meant that while Johanna’s spoken English was more than passable, she was much more fluent in Hebrew.
She sang in Hebrew as a teenager and into her twenties, and it was Israeli-born troubadour Tochner who pointed the youngster in the direction of American folk material. Tochner, who was a founding member of seminal Jerusalem-based Anglo folksy band The Taverners, was well-versed in North American and British folk songs, and he encouraged Johanna to write in English. It was quite a challenging departure.
“It is not only a matter of the language, it is also a matter of trying to put a feeling into a word, and finding the word which is the most accurate,” Johanna observes, adding that some of the greats she hadn’t gotten into over the years provided her both with a source of inspiration but also a high bar to reach.
“I think especially because I was dealing with songs by writers that are unbelievable, like Dylan and Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitch - ell and Joan Baez, I had this ideal of my songs expressing exactly what I feel.”
That’s pretty tough competition.
“I wasn’t trying to be like them,” Johanna hurriedly adds, “I was just trying to be as true to myself as I can. Sometimes the process was easy and sometimes it took a long time.”
But, as Johanna notes, she has grown wiser through the pangs of getting Bells in Our Stomachs off the drawing board and into a recorded format.
“The one thing I really like about Dylan is that he has always done what is right for him, regardless of what people may think,” she says. “I always want to do things that challenge me and feel right to me.”For tickets and more information: (054) 446-7240