Rocking in a strange land

Shachar Gilad carving out a place as an Israeli on Poland’s music scene, and as an American in Israel.

Shahar Gilad, Yonatan Ydov and Yoni Kory 370 (photo credit: Liat Shahar)
Shahar Gilad, Yonatan Ydov and Yoni Kory 370
(photo credit: Liat Shahar)
All his life, pop rocker Shachar Gilad says he has felt like an outsider.
The son of two Israelis, Gilad was born in Los Alamos, New Mexico, moved between Israel and the US, and then spent his junior high and high-school years in Brookline, Massachusetts. Gilad spoke that quintessential “Heblish” at home common among Israeli families in the US. The outsider status has continued with singer/songwriter Gilad today, since he made the big move to Tel Aviv five years ago and finds himself pursuing his music career in Israel – and in Central Europe.
Last summer, when he and his band first played gigs in Germany and then Poland, a country seeing a growing interest in Jewish and Israeli culture, Gilad, 35, says he found himself gaining fans, and later Facebook friends, among the local population.
“It was Western enough that we could connect with the culture and the local people. But Eastern enough that it felt like a bit of an adventure for us,” he says.
A fan at a club in Warsaw was so impressed that she got the guys, Gilad (guitar, vocals), Yonatan Ydov (bass) and Yoni Kory (drums), to perform on a local Polish television show, a sort of “Good Morning Poland,” six months after the summer tour.
Thanks to the connections he made with fans and the Israeli Embassy’s cultural department in Warsaw, the band has returned to Poland for some more shows.
Over the past weekend, Gilad played at the Life Festival in Oswiecim, Poland, with headliner Peter Gabriel, a couple of days before at the ESNalia Festival in Krakow, as well as at Israeli Independence Day events in Poznan. The guys will also play a show in Minsk, Belarus.
“It’s literally kind of cool to be Jewish or Israeli in Poland right now, counter to what a lot of people think,” says Gilad in an interview with The Jerusalem Post just before he left. “That helps create a fertile ground for an Israeli band like us to come and play there.”
Audiences, which tend to be largely non- Jewish, he says, often ask Gilad to sing in Hebrew more than in English. He sings comfortably in both.
“It’s fascinating. We met girls who aren’t Jewish at all, far from it, from religious Christian families, who have a fascination with Israeli folk dancing... We’ve seen people really hope that they have Jewish roots.”
But nothing could have been more odd than playing at the Life Festival near the town of Auschwitz. While initially Gilad felt reluctant to perform by the infamous site of mass murder, he says the festival promotes tolerance, understanding, and healing from the past, while looking to the future, positive concepts he was happy to support. Having the opportunity to play at the same festival where Matisyahu played last year and this year boasts Peter Gabriel also swayed him.
“It’s definitely not just another show,” he says. “I was torn for a minute. They’re sort of looking at us as a band that represents Israel, so that’s a big honor.”
Gilad has been turning pain and setback into music since he first picked up the guitar at age 15, after being kicked out of his band at 14 for not being able to play the guitar as lead singer. While his peers grew interested in drugs and going out to clubs, he says all he wanted to do was play his guitar, an instrument he fell in love with.
“I started late, but I really went deep, so I managed to catch up,” he says.
As an undergrad at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, where he studied philosophy, Gilad started playing local shows – “just me and an acoustic guitar” – at Boston’s Irish pubs, honing his pop-rock style.
AFTER COLLEGE and a stint at a hi-tech firm in Boston, Gilad decided to make music his priority, and moved to New York to pursue his career. He found himself writing songs, doing sound engineering and producing for other artists, while pursuing a master’s degree in international relations and business administration at New York University.
“During the day I was in all these intellectual seminars and at night I was in the studio with all these rappers who sometimes had guns and in songwriting sessions with pop stars,” he says.
As an engineer, songwriter and producer for other artists, Gilad says he learned the finer points of creating music, perfecting the sound and marketing, tools he uses on his own music today in his home studio and for the occasional Israeli artist he works with, like Shiri Maimon and Nurit Galron.
“I think it’s better to see those different sides of things and it improves your chops not just as a musician, but as a marketing person and as a technical person that I think are important to have in 2012.”
Since the release of his first album About Time in 2002, a solid collection of ultra-personal, beautiful songs, Gilad says he finally plans to follow it up this summer, after having received airplay and positive reviews in Israel, including with singles “Fall,” “On Your Own” and “Noadnu.”
“I definitely did not come here to be making music, “ he says. “I just came from a personal standpoint, it was something that I wanted to do and it felt right.”
Still, he’s glad to pursue his musical revival and what he calls the “chase” for the best music he can create in Israel.
“I always want to write a better song. That’s always been my passion,” he says.
“It’s gotta be more interesting, while at the same time more accessible, while being more sonically interesting, simpler, deeper.”
Sometimes he sings in Hebrew, other times in English, a remnant of his familial Heblish.
“I always just let it come out the way it comes out,” he says of songwriting. “It’s kind of like when I speak it depends what I’m speaking about,” he says, explaining that certain topics lend themselves to Hebrew and others to English.
Though since living in Israel he has written much more in Hebrew than he did in the US, he feels comfortable singing in English here and accepted by Israeli audiences.
“I think I’m lucky that nowadays... it’s really become very okay for an artist that’s perceived as an Israeli to sing in English,” not what he found five years ago when he arrived and was told the radio would not play an artist singing in English. That has changed, he says, pointing to Asaf Avidan, Karolina and other popular Israeli artists who also sing in English and are played on the Galgalatz radio station regularly.
“In the world of Tel Aviv it’s very acceptable. Outside of Tel Aviv it’s getting there.”
As he finds his place on the music scenes of Israel and Europe, Gilad, happily, remains the curious observer. “There’s a price but there’s also some nice perks that come with being an outsider.”