(photo credit: David Brinn)
Don't let Tamar Eisenman's diminutive stature fool you - she's a musical heavyweight. The 27-year-old, Jerusalem-based rocker's brand of self-titled 'hip rock' has been raising plenty of eyebrows - and moving just as many hips - since her first major label CD Gymnasium was released a couple months ago on NMC.
Mixing hip hop production sensibilities with a sensitive singer-songwriter ethic and a not-so-hidden female punk side, Eisenman regularly shatters stereotypes, much like her musical role model Ani DiFranco.
With a breathy, little girl-turned-rock rebel voice that provocatively wraps itself around the notes and melodies, Eisenman sounds equally at ease with the delicate soul searching piano ballads "New Touch" and "On My Way," as she does with the energetic bluesy guitar groove of "High Now" and the horn-driven soul-funk of "Give Me A Sign."
Can she bite off that much of the musical map and establish herself as one of Israel's premier talents, even though she sings almost exclusively in English? Today, she's too busy to think about the future, as she heads up North for a series of radio interviews before appearing later in the evening in Haifa.
"I'm very happy the record is out there and reaching people. I'm pleased that the country appears to be opening up to the idea of Israeli musicians singing in English," said Eisenman. "I don't know if my daily life has changed much, maybe I'm working harder. I think it's made me more motivated to start working on new songs."
Eisenman, who released an indie debut EP in 2003 and a first full-fledged solo album in 2005, has been performing since she was a child, when she accompanied her parents on shlichut to San Francisco in the late 1980s. "That was in first grade, and it was my first exposure to English and also my first contact with music. I discovered country, folk and blues, things I had never heard in Israel. I got my first guitar, and I always associate my time in the US with my first connection to music," she said.
Years later, when Eisenman began writing songs, she felt a stronger affinity to lyrics in English than in Hebrew.
"For the kind of music I'm trying to write, that funky, bluesy style, it's no secret that it sounds better in English. Writing in English to me is like home - I have that connection with it. For me the lyrics are another instrument to me. And my guitar speaks better in English," she said, adding, "I love singing in Hebrew - I've sung with Danny Sanderson and with Shaanan Streit. I'll sing in Hebrew when it feels right." While the lyrics may be in English, Eisenman insists that the subject matter is completely informed by her sense of being Israeli.
"I'm not singing specifically about wars or the army - sometimes I feel like I am singing about it when I'm singing about myself, which is the subject I know best," she said. "The fact is I'm very much Israeli. I served in the army and I feel connected to the good and the bad things that happen here. And I'm still rocking here, not somewhere else."
Asaf Avidan provides guest vocals on one of Gymnasium's jazzier tracks, "Hey Woman," and Eisenman is hopeful that with the recent international signing of her good friend to Sony Columbia, doors will be opening around the world for Israeli artists.
"I'm really happy for him, but we should also remember Ofra Haza and Ahinoam Nini, they were way ahead of the curve. Still, I agree that there's a new wave of Israeli music out there that is causing waves," she said.
EISENMAN DIDN'T think that being a woman in a male-dominated industry provided any pluses or minuses in forwarding her career, and insisted that she had never sensed any discrimination or sexism.
"I'm very much accepted. I have lots of experience working with men in the industry," she said. "Often I find that I'm the only woman around. Still, there's lots of female Israeli musicians and they rock out. But I didn't really have female role model here. I love Yehudit Ravitz and Chava Alberstein, but they weren't specific role models. I found those abroad - artists like Ani DiFranco and Alanis Morissette."
A noticeable trait of Gymnasium, for anyone who's seen Eisenman's rocking live show, is how measured and crafted the album is. There's barely a leather jacket to be heard, with programmed beats and hand claps and start and stop rhythms as predominant as electric guitars. On songs like "Sun," it all comes together in a rhythmic and melodic marriage that exemplifies Eisenman's 'hip rock' vision.
"The album is very much arranged, that was the whole concept behind it," said Eisenman. "Gymnasium is not supposed to be a live album; it's composed, arranged and edited. Still, it's very much me. I love the idea of a live show that shows a different side of the artist, without trying to be exactly like the album. What I'm trying to do at shows is to bring out more colors that exist in the songs."
To achieve that aim, Eisenman enhanced her power rock ensemble with a bunch of studio programming. "I was in charge of the arrangements and played most of the instruments, including for the first time some programming for drums and string arrangements. On a song like 'Let's Stay,' the album version is all computers except for my voice and guitar - there's a programmed percussion pattern. In the show, though, the whole song is hand clapping, no computer or drums. I love the dynamics of that," said Eisenman.
For her rhythmic inspiration, Eisenman turned to the rhythm source of her generation - hip hop - and the production techniques of artists she admires like Kanye West and Erykah Badu.
"I really love hip hop, more from the production end of it. It combines the feel of Motown, rock and funk. It's more of a groove issue for me, trying to be unique in the rhythm patterns and not break things up equally," she said.
"There are a lot of stops and starts, which originate with my own body. I make decisions after listening to a take and see how my body reacts to the music. If it makes me dance, then that's it. It has to be sort of twisted," she laughed.
While her body has to be moved, so does Eisenman's mind. The pinnacle of musical artistry in her book was seeing Leonard Cohen, here September 24th, in London last year.
"It was the greatest show I've ever seen - it was a religious experience, like seeing a prophet while he's still alive. It was pure, beautiful music," she said.
One day, they may be saying the same thing about a Tamar Eisenman show.
Upcoming shows by Tamar Eisenman include September 19 - Timnoa Theater, Tel Aviv, September 21 - Inga Bar, Herzliya, October 6 - Arad Festival, October 7 - Yellow Submarine, Jerusalem.