Showing who’s the Bossa

After years of various artistic endeavors, Tel Aviv singer Michal Lotan is finally getting around to releasing her debut album – and it was worth the wait.

Lotan 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Lotan 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘I guess I would describe it as ‘elegant pop,’” answered Michal Lotan after a few seconds of searching for the words to describe her music. Considering that on her new single “Be Bossa,” the sounds like an updated hybrid of the sophisticated jazzy phrasings of Nina Simone, the be bop attitude of Rickie Lee Jones and the classy stylings of Phoebe Snow, that two-word summary hits it on the nail.
The forerunner of her debut album being released in November, the song is a declaration that, after a lifetime of various artistic endeavors including theater, experimental performance art, traveling, and mastering guitar and percussion, Lotan is finally focusing on what she may do best: singing.
“My parents realized I could sing from an early age, but they didn’t put a lot of emphasis on it. It was only when I joined a youth choir in grade school that I had a music teacher who really pushed me,” she said.
“At first I was afraid to open my mouth because I was afraid I’d get all the notes wrong, but by fourth grade I was getting all the solos.”
Those solos were taking place in Dekel, a small community close to the border with Gaza, where her parents moved after evacuating their home in Sinai when Israel returned it to Egypt in 1982, when Lotan was two years old.
By the time she was 10, the family had moved to Tel Aviv and another music teacher discovered her vocal talents.
“She told my mom I had a real gift and that I had to study voice, but it took me a few years to get interested enough to take it really seriously,” she said.
Instead, she took an interest in percussion and spent much of her teen years on street corners with musical friends.
But it wasn’t until she decided to spend some time in New Zealand and Australia when she was 19 that her music career began in earnest.
“I knew I wanted to go somewhere, but wasn’t sure where. I wanted to go somewhere where I could meet interesting people,” she said, adding that the time she spent in Melbourne was “my first year of school.”
“The city really hugged me, and I met some amazing people. It’s a real artsy city with lots of music and theater.”
Lotan gravitated toward those artistic types and ended up in a band called Ahimsa, a flower child quartet featuring violin, harp and Lotan on vocals, percussion and guitars.
They recorded a CD, but the band was dominated by the male leader, who was obsessed, according to Lotan, about animal rights.
“I’m against animal abuse as much as anyone, but he was way overboard about it,” she recalled. The final straw was when he handed out leaflets at one of their performances showing gory photos of animals being tortured, which turned away most of the crowd in disgust.
“I don’t even have a copy of the CD we made, which is probably a good thing because it wasn’t so great,” she laughed.
A happier memory of her time in Melbourne was participating in underground musical and theater performances at different guerrilla locations around the city under the moniker SPART (Sporadic Performance Art).
WHEN SHE returned to Israel in her early 20s, she attempted, along with two friends, recreate that environment under the guise of Search Engine. For more than a year, they held performance art shows in nonconventional venues in Tel Aviv.
“You see that more often these days, but often when it’s done the art is somehow non-communicative. It can be alienating and hard core. We always tried to strive for communication,” she said.
Back in Israel, in addition to fronting two rock bands and writing music for theater, Lotan also fulfilled her music teacher’s wish and formally studied music at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in Ramat Hasharon and at the Hed School of Music in Tel Aviv.
The seeds of her forthcoming album, called Michal Lotan, grew out of an EP she recorded in 2006 called Rose and Wine, featuring solo performances on guitar and vocals.
“I was invited to perform in Moscow, and I decided to make a record that I could sell there. I uploaded it to the Web to let people hear it, and it began to get some traction. I still get e-mails from people about it,” she said. “There are some songs on the new album that you can hear in stripped-down versions on the EP.”
The album, which will be unveiled in a show on November 11 at Tmuna in Tel Aviv, began emerging when Lotan approached producer/musician Adam Shefflan (Eatliz, Rona Kenan) about collaborating with her.
“I decided I wanted a music producer to take what I did with guitar and bring it to the next step. Adam and I had been in touch for two years discussing it,” she said. “We worked in the studio for six months – just the two of us – and then we brought more musicians in (including Eyal Talmud, Yoni Silver, and Barak Kram) and cooked it up in the studio, as they say.”
The “elegant pop” that resulted is sung entirely in English, a comfortable second language for Lotan after her time in Australia.
“There’s something in the way English words roll off the tongue that’s suited to the way I write music,” she said. “I really like writing and singing in Hebrew as well. I’m sure at some point I’ll have a Hebrew album.
“What it comes down to is that some songs want to be written in English and some in Hebrew. It’s the song that decides.”
With songs as slinkily seductive as Michal Lotan’s, it doesn’t really matter which language they’re in.