Golden light

Jerusalem folk duo and married couple Tamar & Netanel launch their second album, ‘Pure As Gold.’

Jerusalem folk duo Tamar & Netanel (photo credit: YARDEN LIOR)
Jerusalem folk duo Tamar & Netanel
(photo credit: YARDEN LIOR)
It is rare for an Israeli artist to harbor an affinity for American folk music and perform covers of such folk masters as John Denver and James Taylor. It is even more rare for two Israeli artists who love American folk music to meet, start dating at the same time as they begin playing together, and then go on to get married and form a folk duo. But that is the story, more or less, of Tamar and Netanel Amar, collectively known as Tamar & Netanel.
As it turns out, the musical journeys that led each to the other were quite different. Tamar has played the violin since she was eight. Her mother was in theater, and her whole family is very musical. Tamar was sent to the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance for high school, where she began learning to play guitar. She was in many different bands during that time, giving her the ability to spread her wings and discover herself musically. After serving in the army, Tamar began a solo career, which led her to perform at venues around Jerusalem. One night in 2013, she performed at the Halita tea house. “We had a mutual friend who invited her to perform and also invited me to come listen because she played folk music, so he knew I would like it,” Netanel shares. “I came and listened to her. She started with a John Denver cover and I didn’t know anyone in Jerusalem who played that kind of music, at least not at such a young age. I came to her afterwards and my pick-up line was that she should play more Simon & Garfunkel. She asked me which songs specifically and if I knew how to play them. I said I did.”
What Netanel didn’t expect was for Tamar to ask him to get up on stage with her then and there. It was only his second time playing in front of an audience and he was incredibly nervous. His first experience playing in front of a crowd had ended with a noise complaint from a neighbor and a show abruptly shut down. But he acquiesced and the two played James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes.” It’s a song that is still part of their live shows to this day.
Netanel also grew up in Jerusalem, but did not attend music school or receive any formal musical training. Music lessons, of a sort, came after his mother gave him the guitar she bought in New York in the 1960s before moving to Israel. He was 14 at the time. She showed him a few chords and said that if he wanted to learn, it was a good time to start. He studied the guitar alone in his room, practicing chords and mimicking the style of folk greats like Simon & Garfunkel. “I didn’t write original music until I was 23,” he says. “Tamar started much earlier than me. So I was anxious to perform in front of a crowd that first time. But playing together felt very natural.”
After that, Tamar wanted to continue playing music together. Netanel quickly saw an opportunity to accomplish two goals: getting to know her better and playing together. As it turned out, romance was on both of their minds. They began dating and playing together simultaneously, getting to know each other through their musical compatibility. In July 2013, they began performing as a duo. In August of the following year, they were married. The couple now have a new member of the family, a boy named David, who is seven months old. Following the success of their debut album, Peace of Mind, which was released in 2015, they began working on their second album, Pure As Gold. When Tamar found out she was pregnant, her work ethic was such that she did not want to halt progress on the album. But morning sickness seemed to be 24 hours a day for the first six months of the pregnancy, and it became too difficult to work on the album. “Netanel carried me through the live shows during that time,” she continues. “I would be singing during a show, walk off in the middle to go throw up, and then come back. Netanel would play two songs on his own, while I was sick in the bathroom, and then I would come back. The audience had no idea, they thought it was just part of the show for him to play on his own for a bit.”
Recording the second album resumed when Tamar felt well enough. They recorded Pure As Gold at their home studio, where a wooden ceiling absorbed the sound well and the comfortable atmosphere lent itself to the unadulterated folk being created. Everything on the new album was recorded at their home studio, except for the drums. “Recording was a real challenge because we did it last summer, in July and August, when it was super hot,” Tamar says. “We had to close all of the windows with no AC because it makes too much noise and I was really pregnant. But it’s the biggest project we’ve done so far and we are really proud of it. We love intimacy in music and showing a personal point of view. I think we do that on this album.”
Pure As Gold has a more produced and robust sound. The album features a string quartet, as well as Tamar playing the mandolin and violin, and Netanel playing the Irish whistle. It was the first time either had been recorded playing these instruments. Despite being more upbeat, the album stays true to its name, and manages to maintain the duo’s acoustic heart, which has become the signature of their sound. “The lyrics are talking about our journey, which we are in the middle of now,” Tamar says. “It deals with questions that an artist has about hoping to be more successful. It also shows our worldview and tells our unique stories. There is a song that I wrote about being pregnant. Another one is called ‘The Flower and the Raindrop,’ and is about all the pairs of male and female in the world, the connection between these couples.”
Netanel is quick to add that this new album is one for the road and whatever journeys the listeners may take, whether inward or outward. When they finished recording, they began looking for someone to mix and master the album. They decided that they wanted someone from abroad. After listening to British singer-songwriter Passenger’s album Young As the Morning, Old As the Sea, they found contact information in the album credits for his producer, Australian Chris Vallejo. “We love Passenger, he’s one of our main inspirations,” Netanel shares. “He also was a busker [street musician] like us. When we wrote to the studio, we didn’t really think we would get an answer, but we thought we would try. We told Chris that our budget was small, but that we love his work. He got back to us and said that he loved our style and would work with us. It was crazy.”
As it turns out, the timing wasn’t right. Tamar & Netanel needed to release their new single “Light My Way” three weeks after the initial email contact, and the time difference between Israel and Australia made working together difficult. Then Passenger sent Vallejo another project to work on, which he was not expecting. That project became Passenger’s new album, Hell or High Water. “So Passenger won in the end,” Tamar jokes. They hope to be able to work with Vallejo in the future. The duo regrouped and decided to approach another producer of a band they both love and admire, Mandolin Orange, an Americana duo out of North Carolina. Their producer, Jerry Brown, is a veteran in the world of folk and bluegrass. “He works with a lot of artists that we love and so we contacted him,” Netanel says. “Again, we looked at the credits on Mandolin Orange’s album because we love their music and took a shot at contacting Jerry. He responded and even said that we sound like them, which was a huge compliment.”
Netanel planned on going to North Carolina to work on the mix with Brown, but in an act of kindness, Brown suggested that he save the airfare and they try to work remotely in what is called unattended mixing and mastering. They would send Brown the songs and he would call once he had finished the mix to get the okay to move on to the next song. “He did a great job, so in the end we saw that it all worked out for the best,” Netanel adds. “All of his equipment is analog, which we love. It’s what James Taylor used. Because of that, the sound of the album is older and classic while still being modern.”
PREPARING NOW for their album launch show at Jerusalem’s YMCA on June 7, Tamar & Netanel are busier than ever. Choosing the venue was an onerous decision, although there are not many large, live music venues in Jerusalem. They decided on the YMCA because they wanted something unique; a place where the audience could have a memorable experience. The venue seats 600, which is large by any measure and not easy to fill. “We hope for the best, even if we don’t fill it,” Netanel explains. “Of course we hope a lot of people will come, but the most important thing is the experience. We are filming and recording the show because we want to release a live album in the near future. This show is our biggest production yet.”
The concert will also feature special guests Children of the Field, an Israeli folk trio, as well as a string quintet that will play special arrangements of some of the duo’s songs for a more comprehensive sound. While Tamar & Netanel plan on continuing to tour to promote Pure As Gold after the YMCA concert, there is a shortlist of planned dates. The rest of the tour will see the couple going back to their roots, with stripped down, acoustic arrangements and small performance spaces. Once August hits, the plan is to rest for awhile. They deserve it.
“Jerusalem is our home, so we wanted this show to be in Jerusalem,” Tamar says. “Being an artist here is not the easiest thing, but we insisted on staying and creating here because it’s important for Jerusalem to stay relevant in the arts, for young people to create and fulfill themselves here.”
Next year, the duo would like to embark on a Hebrew project. Nothing specific has been planned yet, but the horizon looms brightly ahead. With an audience comprised of both native Hebrew and English speakers, and lots of couples, Tamar & Netanel have the ability to travel between cultures effortlessly. “Most of the time, the melody comes first and then the lyrics,” Tamar says. “So we follow the feeling of the melody all the way to the lyrics.”
You could say that their audience follows the feeling of the melody as well, and somehow, they find they’ve come home. It is in this intrinsic sense that Tamar & Netanel are a Jerusalem folk duo. When asked what they love about Jerusalem, it is the feeling of home that they describe, the qualities of a small village, the warmth and welcoming of Jerusalemites, and the natural beauty. “We love that Jerusalem is surrounded by mountains, forest and desert,” Netanel explains. “Nature is such an important part of Jerusalem. You can connect to a lot of different sides of the city. We live near the forest, and we love it. The whole city is so simple and yet so ancient. You can walk on a street that is 2,000 years old and maybe you’re just going to work on a regular day. It’s crazy. We’ve gotten used to it, but it gives us a connection to the ancient. We talk about that spirituality in our songs, as well as daily life events. Because that’s Jerusalem.”
It is fitting then that Tamar & Netanel will introduce their new album at the YMCA, a beacon of coexistence in Jerusalem. They have discovered that their music touches everyone, regardless of religious background. There is something universal and transcendent about their sound that breaks through barriers the way only music can. They tell a story of a priest from Louisiana who purchased one of the singles from their first album, Oh Lord, on iTunes. He then asked if he could use the song in his Sunday Mass. He told them that it simply touched his heart. Their debut album is still selling in 30 countries, including Saudi Arabia, Japan and Morocco. When vacationing last year in Rome, another couple from France recognized them from YouTube, much to their surprise. It seems the melody is spreading.
“In the modern world, if you can make someone happy, more at ease and allow them to forget about their day-to-day problems and struggles, that’s the greatest gift you can give,” Netanel says. “To connect to the moment is the holiest work you can do.”
To purchase tickets to the show at the YMCA, visit: