Yirmi Kaplan’s road less traveled

The veteran red-haired rocker’s unlikely journey from American roots to Israeli musical heights.

February 22, 2015 19:49
American-Israeli rocker Yirmi Kaplan.

‘MY INSPIRATION comes from real life, whether it’s my own or the people who are close to me. That’s what makes the music a little deeper, a little higher,’ says veteran American-Israeli rocker Yirmi Kaplan.. (photo credit: LEITAL GIBEROVITCH)

During a period in Israel’s music scene that is increasingly seeing artists perform in English, Yirmi Kaplan has steadfastly remained faithful to Hebrew. Ironic, considering the 54-year-old rocker made aliya with his family from Chicago when he was nine.

“Once I decided I was going to duke it out and pursue a music career in Israel, I was all about using the language and the culture as the basis. I was going to create a Zionist rock persona, which meant making music in Hebrew,” explained Kaplan last week in a phone conversation from his Tel Aviv home.

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“That’s what makes us different and special from any other place in the world. I’ve always shied away from Israeli artists singing in English – either the accent was terrible or the sentiment just didn’t come out right or sincere sounding. Because it’s the sincere part which is the most important and where you connect with your audience. Rock & roll in general sounds better in English so the trick here has always been to make it work in Hebrew and to create a musical language that interacts with the place that we live in.”

Kaplan, with his trademark curly red locks and unfettered live performances, has mastered that trick over the course of the past 20 years and five intense, passionate albums on his way to becoming a mainstay on Israel’s stages and radio stations. He’s a far cry from Jeremy Kaplan, the fish-out-of-water grade-school kid who spent two weeks on a sea voyage from New York to Haifa with his parents Irv and Ora and older brother Aaron en route to his new home in Israel.

“We arrived like true immigrants, on a boat,” laughed Kaplan, adding that his mother is a first cousin of President Reuven Rivlin.

“We had a big extended family that I had never met before, but settling in Israel was still a big transition for me to make. I was lucky to have my brother who was two years older than me. We clung to each other for the first couple years.”

The Kaplan family settled in Ramat Aviv, where father Irv worked as a director for Educational TV (casting a young Jeremy in the English-learning TV series Neighbors in 1976). The family tended to socialize with other English-speaking immigrants – a development that Kaplan looks back on fondly.

“There was a community that became like my second family here,” said Kaplan, recalling communal High Holiday services in his home because the immigrants preferred the songs and style they had grown up with.

“I was considered one of the more ‘Jewish’ kids among my friends in school. We kept kosher at home and made Kiddush on Friday nights, something I still do today. But most of the other kids at my hiloni (secular) school didn’t do anything.”

As a way of finding a connection with and integrating into his new country, Kaplan took up the drums, which he would play alongside his brother Aaron on guitar. In ninth grade, a neighbor down the street who played keyboards asked the brothers if they were interested in forming a band.

“That neighbor was [fellow American immigrant] Rami Kleinstein,” said Kaplan, adding, “We used to play at school events and parties. In 11th grade, we even won a battle of the bands.”

Following his army service Kaplan enrolled at the Tel Aviv University’s law school, but after one year he put his studies on hold and spent a year traveling in Brazil and the US where for the first time, he began to write songs.

“I kept hearing music in my head and kept wondering whose songs they were. When I realized they were my own original melodies, I started to record them on a cassette player,” said Kaplan. “I felt like I was on to something that hadn’t happened to me in Israel, so I was hesitant to return.”

Kaplan did return to Israel at his mother’s insistence, but ended up back in the US again a few months later, convinced that his musical future was in English. It was only when he flew back for his brother’s wedding in the early 1980s that he decided to stay for good.

“My parents convinced me that if I thought I was capable of being a successful musician, then I should be able to be successful in Israel just as well as America,” he said. “I came back and I was trying to put a band together, but my parents were pressuring me to go back to school, even if it wasn’t law school.”

“But I knew that for my music to happen, I needed to be 100% devoted and I had to put blinders on and be very focused. For me, it was about being an artist – it’s more than being a musician, it’s writing songs with meaningful lyrics, and then performing them with passion.”

After co-writing a song on Kleinstein’s 1986 debut album, Kaplan began his career in earnest, performing with a number of bands and signing on to Helicon Records at Kleinstein’s recommendation. But it took until 1994 until he released his first full-fledged album, Yirmi Kaplan and The Flowers.

The album immediately caught on thanks to romantic songs like “Modedet” (Measures) and “Madua lo bat?” (Why Didn’t You Come) that touted Kaplan’s mellow side, but masked his naturally raucous frontman bent.

“I had a lot of teenage girls coming to the shows at the beginning expecting a romantic, mellow show and all of a sudden, they’re hit with this fire and brimstone performance,” he said. “I like seeing the transition that people go through when they come to a show after just listening to a few of the hits on the radio. I’ve always wanted to express something and I think that my stage performance is probably my strongest attribute even today.”

That’s fortunate for Kaplan, during an era in which working musicians are increasingly relying on live performances for their livelihood amid the record industry transformation into the digital era. While Kaplan is an enthusiastic advocate of the DIY ethic of making and distributing music via online channels directly to the fans without a record company middle man, he still feels that it all comes down to live performances.

“It’s great that you can release music on YouTube or some other media and something great might happen. But for me, the live performance is still the test, something you have to be present for and experience,” he said.

Of course, because he made that decision long ago to write and sing in Hebrew, the touring options are considerably narrower than if he had opted for his native English. But even there, Kaplan sees a silver lining.

“As someone with two children, I don’t think I would ever want to be out on an international tour. I have friends who go out for four months running, and that can tear you apart. People who start out together in a band as friends end up hating each other after being on a tour bus for four months. It’s part of the plus of being in Israel that you’re able to come back home at the end of the night. After all, how far can you go? Unless it’s Eilat, where we fly down and stay overnight, we wake up in our own bed in the morning with our own makolet [corner store] downstairs. It keeps you sane, and connected to yourself, your surroundings and the people you love.

“And it enables you to be real with your music by experiencing life instead of being on a tour bus. My inspiration comes from real life, whether it’s my own or the people who are close to me. That’s what makes the music a little deeper, a little higher. The sincerity and the truth that emerge speak to people beyond trendiness.”

One time seeing Kaplan perform will be enough to convince a skeptic that he knows what he’s talking about – whether it’s in Hebrew or English.

Yirmi Kaplan and his band perform on Wednesday night in Tel Aviv at the Passage Club at 94 Allenby Street.

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