Talking to Alma Zohar is almost like getting into a time machine and nipping back to an era that was more innocent, and somehow cleaner, when artists were less driven by financial gain. That may be just a rose-tinted nostalgic view of the way things were – and they do say “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be,” don’t they? – but the 38-year-old singer-songwriter really isn’t after the big bucks.
That said, she has just put out her fourth album in seven years, with the release of a children’s CD called Pelleh (Wonder).
“That’s not bad going,” she admits. “And I’ve only been in the profession seven years.”
Zohar’s discography kicked off in 2008, with Dabri (Speak), which went gold. She may have been a slow train coming, but when she puffed into the station the public was clearly ready and waiting for her.
What makes her tardy entry to the industry all the more surprising is that she grew up in the music community. Her stepfather is none other than award-winning songwriter Yankeleh Rottblit, whose prodigious output includes such nuggets as the anthemic “Shir Leshalom” and a string of songs which were turned into hits by Arik Einstein, and who has also worked with the likes of Shalom Hanoch, Yehudit Ravitz and Shlomo Artzi. All of this meant that Zohar was familiar with many of the country’s pop and rock Who’s Who from early childhood.
So, what took her so long? “Maybe it was because of just that,” she muses. “It is very tough being the child of someone famous. I couldn’t come home and announce I’d written a song, unless I knew it was a really good song. I remember once being in the kitchen at home, and I told Yankeleh I had a new song. I played it on guitar and my hands shook with fear.”
Rottblit and Zohar’s mother, Orna Zohar, would have liked nothing better than for Zohar and her three half-brothers to have become professional musicians. But it wasn’t to be.
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“None of my siblings is a musician,” she notes. “They had to work very hard to choose a different path in life.”
But Zohar also reaps great benefit from having the experience and polished songwriting skills of Rottblit close to hand.
“In truth I never had a problem with being called ‘the daughter of.’ Maybe only right at the start. Anyway, I think I am in a win-win situation. I have a wonderful dad, and also, when I record a song in the studio, I always ask Yankeleh to run his eye over it, and express his opinion. I trust him implicitly and I always ask for his feedback on everything I do, in music. I don’t always agree with everything he says, but I always need to hear what he has to say.”
It’s not just a parental thing, either.
“There are other people, whom I trust, who come to the recording studio and tell me what they think about what they’ve just heard. It’s good to have people like that around.”
With such a thorough and down-toearth approach, and after biding her time, perhaps the eventual instant success she gained after she released her debut album was not that surprising.
“I became too successful right from the start,” recalls Zohar. “It was a real shock and I had to overcome it. I was an adult and I was totally unprepared for becoming famous, overnight. I became popular, and people would recognize me in the street.
It wasn’t easy. That is something you need to be ready for, and you need to be able to cope with it.”
Zohar was a classic overnight success. As Dabri shot up the charts she was able to devote herself to her music, and to give up her daytime job.
“I was a waitress in a café,” she recalls. “I worked hard and made about NIS 3,500 to NIS 4,000 [a month], and I managed with that. But, when the first single hit the radio, my quiet life was over. I had a cover in Yediot Aharonot, and literally the next day my life was turned upside down. I didn’t go through the gradual process that almost all musicians go through, you know, performing in small pubs and that sort of thing. With me...
one day I was a waitress and the next the whole country knew who I was.”
While happy with her new way of making ends meet, Zohar was not looking to make hay while the music industry sun shone brightly down on her. Instead of producing a hit-oriented sophomore album, Zohar decided not to replicate her debut success.
“I came into the business very naïve, and I had no idea the thing would become so big,” she says. “I made a second album that was all about creating intimacy with the audience. I intentionally made a non-commercial second album. It did me good, and it allowed me to grow in peace and quiet.”
Naturally, the record label chiefs were not deliriously happy with Zohar turning her back on making more bucks from her second effort, both for herself and for the record company, and they duly parted ways. It was a complex legal process, and Zohar is still paying off her settlement with the company.
At least she isn’t paying with her soul.
“I am not a commercial artist. I am not a celebrity. I am an artist, this is what I do.
That’s what I told the record company.”
She also advised them against putting out the second album, Thirty Three – Zohar’s age at the time. They didn’t listen to her and subsequently suffered heavy financial losses from the venture.
Free of contractual obligations, Zohar got down to work on her third, rock album Lechem VeAhava (Bread and Love), which sold pretty well. A year on, and Zohar is back in a kid-oriented state of mind, with Pelleh. The fact that she became a mother 16 months ago also contributed to the junior audience line of artistic exploration.
Zohar clearly has the courage of her convictions.
For her the choice was quite simple.
“As a musician you have to decide if you are going to be an artist or are going to be constantly looking for success. Trying to succeed the whole time is very hard work.
I wasn’t willing to pay that price. I didn’t want some manager, chewing on a cigar in the studio, and telling me what songs I should be recording. That’s not for me. I need my freedom.”
Pelleh is now available in stores and online, but it will take a while until Zohar starts to perform material from the album in public.
“I need some to time to recuperate,” she says. “I’ll get around to doing shows ‘after the haggim’,” she laughs.
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