Heeeere's Johnny!

By day he's a music student at the Thelma Yellin High School, by night he's a seasoned musician and producer.

Yonatan Goldstein 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yonatan Goldstein 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Yonatan Goldstein doesn't look his age. Giving new meaning to the description "boyish," the slight, 17-year-old resident of Jerusalem suburb Motza Illit could easily pass for 14 or 15. But on the other hand, Goldstein doesn't act his age either. While by day he's a music student at the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Givatayim, his alter ego Johnny is already a seasoned musician far beyond his tender years. Besides producing five albums in the last year and half for other artists in his home studio, Johnny has just released his acclaimed hip-hop debut album called The Johnny Show, featuring guest appearances from established stars like Hadag Nahash, Rami Fortis and Shlomi Shaban. The album's musical vitality - ranging from rap and jazz to pop and punk-inflected tracks, highlighted by Goldstein's inventive arrangements, production and keyboard playing - resulted in Yediot Aharonot's Seven Nights labeling him "the Israeli Timbaland," referring to the versatile, hit-making American producer/singer. "Zeh gadol" (it's big), says the cheery but soft-spoken Goldstein with a smile, employing classic teen generalities in an attempt to describe how he feels about enjoying an adult career while he's still in high school. But for Goldstein, success in music isn't something new. He's been appearing onstage and on CD since he was a "kid" of 13. "I always loved music - and I would nag my mother to buy these strange instruments for me, like African drums. When I was nine, I started taking formal drum lessons and soon after that, I also learned piano," says Goldstein, sitting in the living room of his family's spacious home, which is lined with his father's collection of a couple-thousand vintage jazz records. By the time he was 11, Goldstein was writing songs, and on his own initiative, he sent a cassette of his material to Dudus Kalmas, the keyboard player from his favorite band, Hadag Nahash. "Dudus got in touch with me and said he liked it, and we started working together, and soon [singer] Sha'anan Street joined us. It resulted in me appearing on their 2004 album Local Material and in performing with them onstage - I was called Johnny Hakatan [Little Johnny]. I was 12 when I played with them at the Barby Club - it was really exciting," recalls Goldstein. The impressionable Goldstein was intrigued by how things worked in the recording studio and paid close attention as Hadag Nahash and Kalmas, who he calls his "second father," produced their music. "I saw how Dudus put things together and built them electronically, combining computer programs and music. So I started to do that at home - create 'beats' on my own. Little by little, I put my own studio together. Every time I had a little money, I would buy more equipment and eventually it became a studio," says Goldstein. He leads the way to a guest to a room on the lower level of his home which houses the studio. It features an oversized computer keyboard and screen, a mixer, a sampling machine, a number of microphones, a drum set, acoustic piano and a set of congo drums. "One side is the acoustic section, and here's the digital section," says Goldstein, proudly pointing to the electronic apparatus. "Here's where it all simmers - where the cooking is done." THROUGH HIS work with Hadag Nahash and via word of mouth about his prodigious talent, Goldstein began being approached by other artists to produce them. His track record includes political hip-hopper Sagol 59 and singer/songwriter Hadara Levin-Areddy. "We created an interesting integration of R&B and folk with Hadara," says Goldstein, who compares producing a record to the role of film director. "I'm in charge of all the details - which songs, how it's sung, which rhythm, which instruments. It's really like directing the song. It's not relevant at all that they're adults and I'm 17. We're all professionals." While producing other artists provided Goldstein with experience and satisfaction, it was his dream to make his own album - but not in the conventional sense. "I wanted each song to have its own guest and style. I consider myself both the artist and producer, like the Neptune Brothers and Timbaland, where they write the songs and produce them but have others perform them," says Goldstein, who began approaching his wish list with unanimously positive results. "Of course, some of them I've worked with before, like Hadag Nahash and Sagol 59, but others I only met when I contacted them, like Rami Fortis and Shlomi Shaban. Everyone was really willing and excited to collaborate - they were stunned by the concept," he recalls. Goldstein wrote some of the material himself and collaborated with his guests on other songs. The lyrics to the Fortis song "Karnafayim" were written in 1990, and the veteran rocker worked together with Goldstein on the music. "Most of the songs were written together with the guests. Often, we would sit in the studio and write on the spot," says Goldstein. "It was a pleasure to work together with Johnny on his album," said Shaban, who performed on the song "Dialogue" together with Levin-Areddy. "In my opinion, he's one of the new young creative sparks in Israeli music. His talent and vision put him a class of his own and there's no telling how far he can go." ON MONDAY night at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv, fans will have a chance to see how far Goldstein has come, as he hosts a one-time-only performance of The Johnny Show featuring almost all of the guests from the album. "This will be the first performance of the album - and for sure the last time, because it's not so easy to get everyone together," laughs Goldstein. "Because the album is built on the guests, it presents an advantage and a disadvantage. It's great, but it's difficult to recreate. Every song requires everyone in on it - the whole package. It wouldn't be the same without it." One thing that hasn't stayed the same is Goldstein's life as a teenager. While other students are enjoying breaks outside the school in the sun, or playing soccer, he's usually on his cell phone talking to his manager Boaz Murad or planning the Barby show. "There's always a lot of work to do, and it's not just my career. Thelma Yellin has one of the best jazz tracks in the world, and it's demanding," says Goldstein, who travels three hours a day to attend the school. "It's somewhat problematic to balance everything, but I'm doing my best. I try to continue a normal life - like a person that works very hard until the night, then goes out and enjoys himself. I still try to get out with friends, and go to movies." Despite his celebrity status, he says his fellow students treat him like one of their own, and have been extremely supportive. "Especially with the album out and the show coming up, everyone's really excited, and planning to come," he says. Goldstein, who graduates in the spring, is hoping to serve in the IDF in some kind of musical capacity. But he said that if he finds himself in artillery, he'll make the best of it, because he knows he'll be returning to his music afterward. "Sometimes I come in here and just bash away - or invite some friends over to jam, " he says as he takes a last look around the studio room before closing the door. For Goldstein, it's the music - not the hoopla surrounding it - that's "big."