More than words

Anglo musician Yael Deckelbaum's new album ‘Joy and Sadness’ exclusively features Hebrew songs.

Yael Deckelbaum 390 (photo credit: Dan Peretz)
Yael Deckelbaum 390
(photo credit: Dan Peretz)
Yael Deckelbaum can’t decide whether she likes to sing more in English or Hebrew. But the 32-year-old singer/songwriter’s star would probably keep on rising if she sang in ancient Sanskrit.
With Joy and Sadness – her first album featuring exclusively Hebrew songs – newly released, a featured guest slot on the Mashina Unplugged tour freshly undertaken, and her ongoing status as one-third of the female world music phenomenon Habanot Nechama, Deckelbaum has managed to cultivate a blue-and-white dimension to her well-established position as the country’s Joni Mitchell-style clear-eyed folk singer laureate. For the youthful, long-haired musician, it was a welcome development.
“I grew up singing in English, so it’s been very natural for me to continue to make music in that language,” said Deckelbaum, the daughter of the late Canadian immigrant and Anglo-folk banjo player David Deckelbaum, the founder of the legendary 1970-80s good-time roots folkies The Taverners. “But over the past three years, especially with Habanot, and by beginning to write songs in Hebrew, I’ve opened up to the language, which is actually my mother tongue. I slowly starting falling in love with Hebrew and Israeli music, something that I didn’t really grow up on because I was surrounded by my father’s influence.”
That influence led a young Deckelbaum to follow her father’s musical footsteps, and barely into her teens, she was accompanying The Taverners at their annual bawdy, hand-clapping headline slots at The Jacob’s Ladder folk festivals.
Having caught the performing bug, Deckelbaum immersed herself in music, and at age 16 won first prize in a national contest for the best young singer/songwriter in Israel. Within a few years, she had nabbed a coveted slot in 1999 as a featured vocalist on an all-star Beatles tribute show in Israel conducted by the band’s famed producer George Martin . Her performance caught the eye of fellow vocalist Shlomo Artzi, already a major star, who invited her to tour with him.
Since then, Deckelbaum has alternated between performing solo acoustic music in English, recording and touring with Habanot Nechama with Karolina and Dana Adini, and laying the seeds for her solo career that was boosted by her 2009 debut Ground Zero.
Most of the time, she’s been accompanied by two friends – Yonatan Levy and Shaul Eshel – the three of whom bonded musically and personally while hanging out together in Jerusalem’s Zion Square in the mid-1990s. The three friends have continued to collaborate ever since, playing pivotal roles on Ground Zero, and on Joy and Sadness.
“We used to play together and dream about the days ahead when we would make great music,” said Deckelbaum of Levy and Eshel. “We’ve gone a long way with each other on this journey, each of us changing, growing and evolving.”
“You can see on Joy and Sadness the process we went through from the last album and chart the growth.”
Joy and Sadness indeed displays a confident and creative Deckelbaum, offering a collection of songs ranging from the jazz-inflected folk-pop of the title song to hymn-like chorale flourishes that provide emotional peaks on the very personal album.
The cover features an angelic but serious little girl sitting on the shoulders of her rugged-looking father, who’s walking past a street sign that has been photoshopped to read “Yael Deckelbaum/Joy and Sadness.” The back cover features the same girl – Deckelbaum – now smiling and grown-up some 20 years later. She explained that the title refers to her father, who died in Canada following a stroke in 2010.
“I wrote the song ‘Joy and Sadness’ about him,” said Deckelbaum. “I had just finished the debut performance of my album Ground Zero, and it was an amazing evening – I was so excited. Then I got home and my brother called to say that our father [had] suffered a stroke. Since he was in Canada, I couldn’t do anything about it. I picked up my guitar and the words ‘simcha’ [joy] and ‘etzev’ [sadness] started running through my head, and I wrote the song that night.”
It was the beginning of her Hebrew writing surge, which Deckelbaum described as opening a new door to her personality.
“There was some kind of process I went through naturally that just connected me to a place inside that I wasn’t aware of before,” she said.
“Writing in Hebrew enables me to feel more whole. It also brings out another side of me and the style of the composition changes. I don’t understand why and I don’t really think about it when it happens. You could call the result Israeli music – I guess it’s more Israeli in style. That’s because there’s something a bit more direct writing in Hebrew, there are fewer places to hide.”
Not that Deckelbaum will need anyplace to hide when she and her band debut the live performance of Joy and Sadness on February 7 at the Einav Center in Tel Aviv, along with special guests Mashina. For Deckelbaum, it’s a treat to play with other musicians after performing solo for much of her career.
“I’m very used to performing alone, it’s something I do very naturally,” she said. “And in Israel, where the rooms and crowds are generally smaller, it’s an advantage to be able to create intimate acoustic music – it’s something I really love, especially that personal contact with the audience.”
“But with a band, there are other benefits. It’s more powerful, and you can make a connection with the other performers, not just with the audience. Performing alone taught me a lot about how to connect with the crowd, and I learned what I had to bring to that moment – to know my color and what kind of character I have. So now, when the band comes in, I already know myself well enough so I can let them into my world.”
Having Israeli rock heroes Mashina in her world has been a surprising and enjoyable development for Deckelbaum, and she’s repaying them for inviting her to perform in their “unplugged” tour by having them sit in with her at the Einav Center.
“We’ve become good friends and are really having fun playing together. So they agreed to be guests at my show, and will come up instead of my band for a few songs that we’ll perform together,” said Deckelbaum.
Despite her current love affair with the Hebrew language, she insisted that her English career hasn’t been shunted aside.
“I still write in English all the time. The way I see it is that I’ve just expanded my scope,” Deckelbaum said.
If that trend continues, who knows what she’ll be up to next – maybe ancient Sanskrit folk songs?