How do you say Dotan in Dutch?

The Israeli-born singer scored big in Holland with his debut album and now hopes to repeat his success here.

Dotan, album 'Dream Parade' _390 (photo credit: Mark Uyl)
Dotan, album 'Dream Parade' _390
(photo credit: Mark Uyl)
The packed audience at Jerusalem’s Yellow Submarine earlier this month was gathered to hear the alt country sounds of Geva Alon and his special guest, Spanish guitar hero DePedro. So when the lights went down and a lanky, wavy-haired young man walked out on stage with a microphone, followed by a fedora-capped companion holding an acoustic guitar, many in the room were puzzled.
And even when the dark-skinned, good-looking guy spoke into the mike and said, “Hi, I’m Dotan,” it didn’t provide much of a clue as to who he was. That is, unless you’ve been following the Dutch pop charts, where the album Dream Parade and the singles “Where We Belong” and “This Town” have made the Israeli name Dotan a household word in Holland over the last year.
Dotan and his guitarist performed a short opening set of earnest pop anthems and ballads in the James Blunt/James Morrison vein, with the charismatic singer evoking powerful vocals and a charming stage presence that contestants of The Voice and American Idol could do well to study. Impatient as they were for the headliners Alon and DePedro’s more earthy rock sounds, the audience reacted politely, increasingly warming up to the polished duo with the performance of each song.
The next day, the 25-year-old Dotan felt good about the performance and explained how an Israeli-born, Dutch-raised college student propelled himself into the European pop limelight and how he’s now intent on repeating the process in Israel.
“It was short and simple, and I think the audience liked it,” he says in fluent English, describing the set. “I enjoyed it, but it was a little scary and strange. For the last year, I’ve only been doing big headline shows with my band and with my own opening act. So it was a little different coming out there unknown with just a guitarist – you feel really naked.”
Dotan’s decision to swallow his pride and play second fiddle at the show had to do with the fact that after many months near the top of the Dutch pop charts, Dream Parade was being released in Israel that same week, and virtually nobody in the country has heard of him. But he’s used to that because a year ago, nobody in Holland had heard of him, either.
Born in Jerusalem to a Dutch mother and an Israeli father, Dotan was raised in Amsterdam, staying there with his mother after his parents divorced and his father returned to Israel to live in Zichron Ya’acov. Growing up, he would spend school vacation times in Israel, where he picked up basic Hebrew.
But back in The Netherlands, Dotan became enamored with music, spending his free time in an Amsterdam record shop and taking a shine the classic singer/songwriter style of Van Morrison and James Taylor. He eventually taught himself to play guitar and began attempts at composing his own songs.
“I never played them to anyone; I kept them to myself – they were my secret,” says Dotan. When he was finally coaxed to perform in public for the first time at 18 for a high school event, the response from his friends encouraged him to pursue his musical dreams further.
“When I went to college, I paid for my tuition by playing in cover bands in every grungy bar and pub in Amsterdam,” says Dotan, adding that the experience taught him about the craft of making music. “But eventually, I got so sick of it. I just wanted to play my own songs and really knew I had it in me to record an album.”
However, he had no contacts in the music business and didn’t even know where to start. So a little over two years ago, he began employing some of the Israeli chutzpah he had been born with.
“I had a couple CDs in front of me –Adele, James Blunt and Coldplay. I really liked the way they sounded and saw the same names on each disc – producers Martin Terefe and Sacha Skarbek,” recalls Dotan. “I said to myself, ‘I need to get in touch with those guys.’”
He found the emails of the successful British producers, and in late 2009 the 22-year-old sent them an email with some home demos of his songs attached. Dotan never expected to receive a reply, but the duo’s office quickly called Amsterdam and invited the young musician to London to work with them and prepare a proper demo recording.
“I flew out immediately, buying a ticket with the last remains of any money I had,” he recounts. “I rented a decrepit room in London with no heat or hot water and stayed there for two months.” .
But most of the time – day and night – he was in Terefe’s Kensaltown studios, laying down tracks and working with various songwriters and musicians in what he calls “kind of a collective.”
“Adele and James Morrison were there working on records, and we used to swap rooms every day and work with different producers and writers. It was incredible.”
When Dotan returned to Amsterdam, armed with formidable musical ammunition to pitch to record companies, his name began to get around town.
“People were asking me what I had been doing over there. It was kind of a weird story that I was working with these huge industry guys without any management, record label or anything,” he says.
But that situation didn’t last for long. The demos proved to be gold, and before too long Dotan had signed with EMI. The company flew him to Los Angeles, where he recorded with noted indie producer Bill Lefler and guitarist Michael Chaves, who’s played with John Mayer, Rufus Wainwright and Sarah McClachlan. The results led to Dream Parade, which was released in 2010 in The Netherlands. Almost overnight, “This Town” became a radio hit, and Dotan was on his way to national stardom.
“I try to keep a low profile in Holland and don’t attend many public events or premieres – I’d rather focus on my music,” he says. “But yeah, I get recognized on the streets a lot.”
The same can’t be said in Israel, where Dotan’s anonymous debut at The Yellow Submarine was his first foray into the consciousness of the local music world. Rather than focus on the US or other parts of Europe, he told his management that the first country outside of Holland he wanted to establish himself in was Israel.
“I think I have something to prove here,” he says. “Obviously, a year ago I was a nobody in Holland as well, but things changed really fast. You get used to bigger venues, hearing your songs on the radio, and you get kind of spoiled. But it’s very cool to be in a position now of really having to work for it and beginning from the starting point again,” he says.
“It’s funny, I always came to Israel as a visitor, and now I’m working here. So it’s a nice feeling,” says Dotan, adding that he would love to see a situation where he could spend half the year in Israel and half in Holland. A lot will depend on how Israelis take to Dotan, whose style is slicker and smoother than that of most local artists.
“I’m very curious if people are going to like it because it is different than what you’re used to hearing on the radio in Hebrew. We’ll see what happens.”
But it’s a good bet that the next time Dotan walks out on an Israeli stage, the audience won’t have to wait until he introduces himself to know who he is.