Last updated: April 29, 2013

Efrat Ben Zur - interview with the singer, writer and actress

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For Israeli singer, writer, and actress Efrat Ben Zur, it's difficult to stay off the stage. She’s been an important part of the local art and pop scene, either as a musician or a member of the Guesher theatre.

Recently, she decided to embark upon a new adventure – the creation of an album based on the poems of Emily Dickinson. In addition to singing, Ben Zur also composed and co-produced the music. Robin, released in May, includes some known poems, such as One Fainting Robin (or If I Can Stop), but the collection was mostly constituted through a selection process that was based chiefly on the personal connection Ben Zur felt with the poems.

The result is a musical wonder, dreamy and airy, but also heterogeneous in the atmospheres and the worlds it creates, some bright and chirpy, others more ponderous and thoughtful. Yet, all are dominated by Ben Zur’s light-infused voice and the rich string sound of the band playing with her.  

Talking to Ben Zur is an ideal interview experience. Questions are almost superfluous, considering her eagerness to talk about Robin. All that was needed to get her going were short remarks, and at once, she was ready to embark on an exploration of her art.

On the time that passed between her second album and the release of Robin and how it affected her...

“It’s been six years since the release of my previous album, but a similar period of time passed between my first and second album. So maybe it’s a matter of inner cycle. The truth is that the songs for Robin were ready already three years ago. But to make an album is to go on a long, arduous journey. You can say it’s wonderful, but it’s also very difficult. No label wanted to have anything to do with it at first. Only after we recorded three songs they started showing interest.

This is the reason why we decided at one point to record songs at home. This made the creation process more profound and free of stress. This also pushed me to take up the role of the producer, which in retrospect led to the creation of something very special.

So all this period, between my second album and Robin, was not devoid of creation. I appeared a lot with Guesher, I played in two seasons of Timrot Ashan , and my daughter, Anna, was born. I also had a concert with Karni Pastel, a wonderful cello player, and we performed at the Israeli Piano festival.

But it is true that time has elapsed between the second album and this one. And just as in life I’m in a new place, so musically, I’m not the same Efrat. I’ve always loved performing, but I’m also very afraid of it. Before going on stage, I’m very nervous. I can even tremble, but still, I really like this, standing up and singing, bringing my work to the audience. I love this connection with the public. So, I think that in this respect, with time, my inner core has accumulated more mass, more substance, and I feel this is reflected by my presence on stage.”

How it all happened...

“Emily's poems have been lying on my shelf for years already. One evening, when I was in a very particular mood, I looked at them again. Either they fitted my mood perfectly at that specific time, or I was empty enough to contain her poems, but the fact is that I had the sudden urge to take up my guitar and to create the music for them. The first poem I took up was Bee, about a fly writing to the bee, telling her he is waiting for her return. I´ve already read that text before, but this time it touched me more than ever. Maybe because the way it expresses passion, longing. I immediately took up my guitar and started writing the music.

But somehow, the text in Hebrew seemed too formal for me. In English, “Bee, I´m expecting you” sounded more organic and receptive to music. Maybe because the original language of the poet is simpler, in the sense that it is more primary. In retrospect, I realise that many of her texts are written in a simple manner. They can also become more complex, of course. Dickinson changed metres, and so forth, but her way of describing things is very straightforward, like in How Lonesome the Wind, for example.

In previous times, I wrote the songs. But this time, the lyrics are not mine: they are the work of a great poetess, whom I did not personally know; they are in English, a language which is not my own; and they belong to another period. I therefore feel that this experience is not wholly mine, and this gives me more room and a new kind of pleasure. I feel as if I’m wearing the magnificent gown of another woman, and slowly, I´m learning to fit into it and to turn it into mine. In this sense I feel, for the first time, a strong link between my being an actress and my being a singer.

There is a certain sense of place emanating from these poems. A bewitched place, something mysterious. All these things meant a different, more close involvement on my side, going as far as determining with the outmost precision how the cover of the album should look. When you feel so connected, even the exterior, the envelop, becomes important. This is why I was very careful that everything will be true to how I felt during the creation process.”

On the work process...

“After working on the two first songs, that magical night, I went to order Dickinson´s poetry book in English. The book arrived only after three weeks. At that time I also ordered the autoharp, and both arrived at the same time. It made the music writing a new experience because I didn´t know that instrument yet. Also the search for poems that touched and awakened me was a new experience.

Some texts are complicated to compose to, or maybe the English made me lose my way. Others didn´t touch me as much. I therefore chose poems that really appealed to me. But it is clear to me that if I were to open the book again, I would find ten other poems to work on.

When this was finished, I called Omer Hershman, with whom I produced the album and we recorded some of the songs. So this part was relatively short.

The problem came later, when we needed to find a source to finance it, until finally Anova, the wonderful label, agreed to take us on. But all in all, a long time past till the album came out – about three years. But I don’t see it all as a negative experience. There was a lot of frustration, it was hard, but at the same time, during this period, we knew what we had was good and that we needed to stick to it. Time also gives depth, volume, mass to the creation. When I finally arrived to my goal, I had a very good understanding of what I was doing, what my connection was. Because many things you understand in retrospect – what touched you, what you know about the author, and so forth.”

The musician and the actress...

“I am both an actress and a musician, and I feel that somehow, these two intertwine. I don’t separate them enough.

But as a musician, my creation process is more intimate. Theatre is a complex world. There’s a director, in my case Yevgeny Arye (the artistic director of the Guesher theatre, m.b.), who plays a predominate part in the whole conceptualisation. Also, as an actor, you are first and foremost a tool, surrounded by many other actors.

In my encounter with texts as a composer, I become the director of what I do. This allows me to do what I think is right, invent a world for the text, give it what it deserves. This makes the encounter more intimate. It makes the creation more complex, but it also gives me more room to express what I want - taking a song and creating a whole story out of this encounter.

I need to do something I can identify with completely, otherwise, I’m constantly in conflict with reality. Having something for which I’m responsible from A to Z allows me to be calm. Although I have to say other people helped me work on this album, such as Omer, but also Assaf Shatil, Karni Postel, and Giori Politi. This partnership is also important and touching for me, giving me the will and the strength to do things.

On Robin and the future...

I would really like to travel with this album, go out to the world with it. I believe that this album belongs there. I don’t have any plans to conquer the world or anything like that. But I believe it needs to go to festivals that are suitable for it, to get out of here, to open up, to be opened up. It needs space. Also because it’s written in English, with poems by a writer who’s known throughout the world. And I believe it’s a good album, which many people can enjoy.

This is the place where I am right now. I really enjoy it and I don’t know what comes next, but I don’t really feel like moving on to anything else. It’s like having a baby. For a while, you just want to be there with this child, enjoy the moment. You don’t want to be taken away by other things.

To listen to and buy Ben Zur’s Robin:

More info, videos and music downloads:

Morane Barkai
Morane is a freelance journalist and editor based in Amsterdam.
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