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First impressions may be lasting but they can also be a little misleading. If all you knew about Noam Rotem was the image he portrays and the issues he addresses in his lyrics, you might arrive at the conclusion that he has something of a dismal view on life. "I am an optimist," he declares uncomplicatedly. "Maybe some of the things I talk about in my music are a little dark, but I think I have a positive take on life."
In truth, 34-year-old Rotem has much to be upbeat about. He has just put out his second solo album, Ezra BaDerekh (Help On the Way) and seems to be enjoying life. His solo career began in 2000 after his first band, Kerakh 9 (Ice 9), broke up. Kerakh 9 was around for seven years during which it put out several well received albums and built up a faithful following. Still, for all the perils of hitting the solo road Rotem is happy to be out there on his own.
"I was initially a little shaken when Kerakh 9 broke up," he recalls. "It had been a warm cocoon in which to create, but I generally look to the future and don't dwell on the past. I have always done what I want, and now as a solo artist I have even more artistic freedom. That suits me."
Rotem is an Israeli, through and through. While many of his artistic influences come from Britain and the States, he says, he is not planning on recording or performing songs in English. "I have all sorts of sources of inspiration. I like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Cream, Clapton and Mike Oldfield," he says. "My first major Israeli influence was Barry Saharoff. I still think he's great."
Other local musicians Rotem appreciates include Rona Keinan, Shlomi Shaban, Assaf Amdurski, Evyatar Banai and Amit Erez - the latter is one of a growing number of Israeli artists who perform in English. Interestingly, almost all the artists and bands Rotem cites date to an earlier generation than his own.
More than anything Rotem believes an artist has to write and sing about things that are real to him or her, and do it in a sincere manner. "That's why I don't perform material in English. The language is important. If an artist runs away from his or her own language, they lose something on the way, it becomes less credible. When I hear a song in Hebrew I know it's coming from here" - from inside.
But what about Amit Erez? He features in Rotem's roll call of favored artists, despite the fact that he sings in English. "Amit is just so good at what he does," Rotem declares simply.
Rotem's claim of taking the sunny side of life's road notwithstanding, his lyrics don't always reflect that. "Yes, it's true that many of the things I sing about are dark and difficult," he repeats. "I start from that, but I am more optimistic than that."
And Rotem doesn't exactly write love songs about staple romantic topics either. "I have never written a love song," he admits. "I don't know why, but I think most artists stick to the same subjects all through their careers. Dylan says he always writes the same four songs over and over again. Take writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Raymond Chandler, all their books are basically the same story."
Rotem has a theory which goes some way to explain the phenomenon. "The spectrum of human emotions is limited. The subject is not important - it is the way the artist presents it. I am always authentic."
That is an understatement. Ezra BaDerekh includes such songs as "The Sword of Damokles" in which Rotem spills out his anguish over the tough medical treatment sessions his wife had to endure a short while ago. "There's No End To It", too, is not exactly a joyful ditty. Still, the title track - "Help On the Way" - does offer some glimmer of hope.
The bottom line for Rotem, however, is that he is happy with his line of work. In a highly competitive Israeli rock and pop market patently bursting at the seams with talent, all vying for the attention and pockets of a relatively small target audience, Rotem seems to be managing pretty well. While he may not exactly be a millionaire, he says he feels blessed. "It wouldn't be bad to perform in Caesarea every summer like Shlomo Artzi and bring in a pile of money from just one show. But my dream is just to be able to carry on doing what I am doing, and to feed my family. That's what I've always done."
Rotem's down-to-earth approach has also helped get him through the tough times. "Of course it's disappointing if your record doesn't sell well, if something you believe in fails. But you just pick yourself up and carry on to the next thing. You learn to allocate your resources. You want people to like what you do, and it's wonderful when people like something you believe in."
With Ezra BaDerekh doing nicely in the charts, and getting plenty of play on the radio, Rotem's honesty seems to be paying off.
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