Just keep swimming: Malka Spigel revisits her 1993 Hebrew solo album

‘Rosh Ballata’ at the 20th Tel Aviv Piano Festival

MALKA SPIGEL: In Israel at the time, if you were not technically a ‘player’ then you weren’t considered a proper musician (photo credit: STEFAN ORACLE)
MALKA SPIGEL: In Israel at the time, if you were not technically a ‘player’ then you weren’t considered a proper musician
(photo credit: STEFAN ORACLE)
‘I’m not a fan of nostalgia.”
The words flow so freely from Malka Spigel’s mouth, yet they carry such irony, especially due to the nature of our exchange. While the multi-faceted singer-songwriter has been involved in too many musical collaborations to keep track – including her grand debut with Israeli rock icon Berry Sakharof and the group Minimal Compact, and a long collaborative history with producer and life partner, Colin Newman (of the British post-punk band Wire) – she has chosen to return to her inaugural solo album for her double bill at the 20th Tel Aviv Piano Festival this week.
“I’ve performed Rosh Ballata in Israel once before, when we released it,” Spigel explains. “I don’t really remember much about the performance, but I have a feeling that it’s going to be quite different this time around. After all, I’m a different person; I have more experience and opinions on how things should be done.”
For Spigel, revisiting Rosh Ballata an impressive quarter of a century later has never been about looking backward.
When asked if any of its songs resonate more with her today, she answers without hesitation, “The whole record! I was amazed just how at home I felt when listening back. [The album] felt as much like me now as me then.”
A soothing notion for one who does not like to wax nostalgic.
Rosh Ballata first came to fruition in 1993 when Minimal Compact parted ways. The album marked many new beginnings, one of which was Swim – an independent record label created with her partner, Colin Newman.
“Indie labels were quite new at the time, but we went for it. We released a ton under the Swim label in the 90s before the concept of self-producing became popular, and even more after that.”
The album’s synth-pop roots swam against Spigel’s usual rock current, as did her Hebrew lyrics, heading East in more Westernized waters. The choice to produce Hebrew lyrics came about through a suggestion from Sakharof’s manager.
“Before that, I had never thought of doing such a thing,” Spigel admits.
Most often found with a bass in one hand, pick in the other, the seasoned veteran was a bit of a late bloomer. It was not until leaving her native country of Israel for Amsterdam that she even picked up a bass or believed in the possibility of music as a career path.
“Growing up, I had friends who were musicians, but I was just a girl who was a music fan. In Israel at the time, if you were not technically a ‘player’ then you weren’t considered a proper musician,” she sighs. “I never imagined that I could achieve that, until I moved to Amsterdam.”
After settling into her European apartment with future bandmates Sakharof and Samy Birnbach, Spigel gained insight into a fresh and inviting musical world where people could express themselves even without the “technical chops.” She attended weekly gigs, jammed with her roommates, and fully immersed herself in her creative environment until Minimal Compact naturally formed.
Despite its Israeli makeup, the band never thought of themselves as Israelis. Therefore, although they quickly gained momentum overseas, they had a more delayed projection in the Middle East.
“We were doing it for the world, so I think it took a while for people [in Israel] to realize that we had become quite successful. Our Israeli fame grew after we stopped playing.”
This gave Spigel’s Hebrew album even more significance when it was released 25 years ago, and in catching her just moments before her first festival rehearsal with Gil Luz and Uri Frost, she sounds as eager as ever to dig right into Rosh Ballata again for the Tel Aviv Piano Festival.
Working in the studio has become second-nature to the power couple. “I am more intuitive, [Newman] knows the production gear inside and out, and best of all, there are no egos in the room because he’s my husband. We complete each other as we stack building blocks to come up with a final product,” she explains. 
They may have mastered the studio process, but building blocks can be harder to stack for a live concert – a reality of which Spigel is well aware. Their challenge now lies in adapting the program to both a live auditorium (inside the Tel Aviv Museum of Arts) and a more intimate no-frills concert venue (Ozen Bar).
Spigel will also have to reacquaint herself with that naked feeling of being bass-less, as she has chosen to rely mainly on her voice for the performances, singing up front and center.
“It doesn’t come naturally for me, but I love to do things that challenge me, no matter how terrifying.”
Just before sending her off to rehearsal, there was one more question I had to ask regarding the piano element inscribed in the festival’s name. In 1994, Spigel launched an instrumental project called Immersion. I could not help but wonder why Spigel had not considered incorporating this fitting (and not to mention recently relaunched) instrumental project into the lineup.
“Wow. Mixing piano into Immersion would be extremely interesting. I bet it would work really well,” I can feel her head churning all the way from Brighton. “I guess I’ll have to come back next year.”
Malka Spigel will perform at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on October 27 and due to popular demand, she will also perform at Ozen Bar on October 31.