Interview: Taking the desired path

Having overcome personal hardship, local indie musician Rotem Or stays true to herself on her new album.

Musician Rotem Or (photo credit: DANA VEXLER)
Musician Rotem Or
(photo credit: DANA VEXLER)
Rotem Or, or Totemo as she is also known, is a true indie artist. The 30-year-old makes original electronic music that is both fearless and vulnerable; dense and bare. With the upcoming release of her new album, Desire Path, Or has several shows throughout Israel. This evening, she will play in Jerusalem at HaMazkeka. On June 22, she will play at Kuli Alma in Tel Aviv, and at Wunderbar in Haifa on the 29th. Rotem sat down with The Jerusalem Post to talk about her day job at IBM, recording in a studio on her porch, and singing in the shower.
Can you talk about your background?
I’m an air force kid; both my parents used to work in the Israel Air Force. So I grew up on a military base for most of my childhood, until we moved to Modi’in. We moved there when I was 12. That’s also when I started getting into music. I learned to play the guitar and keyboard. I used to record myself in my room, playing songs very low-fi. Then, I did the usual course, you could say. I went to the army and then studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I got my degree in psycho-biology, which is a double degree in psychology and biology. It was really interesting but I’m not doing anything with it right now. All this time, the music thing was on the low.
I released my first album, Hard Magic, in 2012. That was fun.
How did you go from having music as an interest to doing it for a living?
I’m actually not doing it for a living (laughs). I have a day job where I work for IBM. I think most musicians in Israel have day jobs. Music was always there. I was always writing songs and recording myself, but things needed to boil, to get to a certain level of readiness.
That’s what happened. I did everything myself for that first album, which was cool and also very hard. There was a lot of independence and a lot of freedom, but maybe I got a bit scattered. But I regret nothing, it was a great experience. I’m proud of that album.
You had a home studio?
Yeah, on the porch of my Tel Aviv apartment. I think it was the smallest studio in the world! Then, after that first album, I signed with a label called Anova.
They’re one of the only indie labels in Israel. They have a sub-label called Bldg5 and they released my previous EP in 2014. Since then, I left the label. This upcoming EP is being released independently.
So with ‘Desire Path,’ you’re kind of going full circle, by releasing it independently like you did with ‘Hard Magic’?
Yeah in a way, but it’s different now. Both of the EPs (the previous one and the new one) were produced in collaboration with Roi Avital. He’s a genius and I love him. In that sense, I feel I’ve found a balance between the freedom I need and structure, which I didn’t necessarily have with my first album.
Can you talk about your creative process in terms of writing and recording?
I don’t have a certain way of doing things. Just last night I was in the shower. You know how everybody sings in the shower? So I was singing and I found myself stuck on this sentence that formed into a melody that was original. So when I went out, I recorded it into my phone, and maybe I’ll use it some time.
That’s just one of those moments that don’t happen very often. Most times, I write the lyrics first and then go to the guitar or the keyboard. Usually there is some time that passes between those two things. Something that has changed over the years, is that I feel better about editing. When I first started recording, I thought, ‘Okay this is the moment I was in and I was in the zone. I’m not going to touch it because it’s perfect.’ I no longer have those emotions regarding the first draft. It’s a draft and it’s okay to work on improving it. That did not come naturally to me.
Who are your musical inspirations?
I love music and I love a lot of genres, so I don’t want to constrain myself too much. But my parents would listen to Kate Bush a lot while I was growing up. I love her, she’s amazing. They also listened to a lot of progressive rock like Genesis. I also love Leonard Cohen and Simon and Garfunkel. There is some new stuff as well, like The Books, who are a duo of ambient music.
There is always something good in every genre.
Your new single, ‘Seesaw,’ has a very lyric-centric video, in the sense that you display the lyrics prominently on screen. It seemed like you were talking about accessing the truth inside of everything as a process of remembering what we’ve forgotten.
That’s the big idea, it’s just like you said. This concept is inside of everything and we just need to be reminded of that from time to time. That’s exactly what it’s about, so thank you for saying that. I was in a Vipassana meditation. I initially did a course in 2012 and did it again recently. It’s amazing and it reminds me that something is there and I just need to clean my head and clear my thoughts until I get to the core; to myself; to the thing that I forgot. Everybody has that moment, which is usually quite serene, where you realize that everything is okay.
Where are you touring for this new album?
The first gig is in Jerusalem, then a week after in Tel Aviv, and then Haifa. Then we’re performing in the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Poland. I’ve heard really good things about the festival, so I’m excited to go. We have another show in Poland, and then Berlin. I’m so excited.
I read that you recently battled with breast cancer.
Yes, thank God they found it in time and it is out of my body. I’m good now, but it’s not that simple. You’re never quite over it. I don’t look at anything the same way and not necessarily in a good way. It has brought a lot of appreciation for life, but also a lot of fear and anxiety. So I’m trying to balance and the music is a big help with that.
Was the new album recorded after that experience?
Yeah, we started about a year ago. There is only one song that was written before I got the news, and I added a C part because I felt I needed to do that to make it present and appropriate for what I was going through. Music was an outlet; just thinking about the future and writing when I had nothing else to do. It was my lifeline.