Only the dark notes
Singer-songwriter Yoav is about to hit the big time. So why is he so miserable? Paul Lester finds out
The Edge, guitar-playing had come up against a brick wall. I wanted to do something different.”
So Yoav began writing songs to perform alone. “It’s an organic way of doing the stuff you normally do on a computer,” he explains. Not for nothing has he been described as Damien Rice and Timbaland in one man’s body.
And yet Yoav is conflicted at the moment. On the one hand, his career is going well — “beyond my wildest dreams”.
He has signed to a cool label, Field Recordings, run by Rollo Armstrong of dance icons Faithless, and he counts among his growing army of fans the likes of Tori Amos, with whom he is, at the time of writing, touring the States, and Armstrong’s sister Dido. On the other hand, he thinks the planet is in trouble and he sees stormclouds on the horizon. Hence the bittersweet nature of the album.
“There’s definitely a darkness,” he says, preparing to leave Nashville for Atlanta. “I feel the world’s a very beautiful place, but it’s on a knife-point right now. I’ve always been conflicted about relationships, but now there’s a broader feeling, a feeling of edgeof-the-21st-century darkness. One of my songs, Club Thing, is about the decadence of New York night life and the people spiralling down into it. Adore Adore is about the media and corruption. The idea of slowly losing yourself is a constant theme.”
Is he in danger of adopting a moralistic, finger-
YOAV SADAN DESCRIBES himself as “an outsider”. He is probably right. The 28-year-old Israel-born musician spent his formative years in South Africa before fate took him to America and then Britain. And musically, he stands apart from the mainstream, being probably the only singer-songwriter on the planet who provides his own rhythmic accompaniment, performing his songs on his acoustic guitar while simultaneously using it as a percussive instrument.
And what songs — sweet yet sorrowful, they run the gamut of dark subject matter from disintegrating personal relationships to dream sequences about a brave new world inhabited by monkeys and the living dead.
Sadan, or rather, Yoav — he uses only his first name — admits the feeling of alienation expressed in his music is a result of his childhood experiences. You can glean at least a sense of what he went through on his forthcoming debut album, the revealingly titled Charmed & Strange.
“I was the only Jewish pupil at this Anglican school in Cape Town,” says Yoav. His older brother and sister attended the local private Jewish school but found it cliquey, so his Romanian-born architect father and opera-singer mother decided they would try something different for their youngest child. It was not a completely successful experiment.
“This was during apartheid, but it was Cape Town, a liberal place where racism was not acceptable. Oddly, antisemitism was acceptable, though. So I got flak from some of my teachers, comments like ‘You people this’ and ‘You people that.’ But I didn’t complain. I was meek and mild and didn’t want to stand out, so I kept it in. I was miserable the whole time I was in school. But in a way, I’m glad, because it has informed what I write and how I look at the world.
“I’m not comparing myself to them, but that idea of the Jewish outsider dude up against persecution that you sense in Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan, who grew up hardly in the majority in Minnesota… I like that. It’s important for me to see things from the outside.”
Yoav does not remember anything about his time in Israel because his family left when he was two, but his memories of growing up in Cape Town are vivid. His parents, avowed traditionalists, would not allow him access to anything but classical music, so he would have to sneak next door to his neighbour’s house to get his fix of OMD and Wham! and, later, the “more aggressive” sounds of U2 and Depeche Mode.
“I railed against my parents’ ambitions for me to be a classical pianist,” he says. “It was my first rebellion.”
Then, when he was 15, the geeky boy with the bushy long hair, glasses and braces, “this weird kid who had never even had a girlfriend” was literally plucked from the crowd on to the stage at a Crowded House stadium gig and invited to sing in front of 15,000 people.
“The place just went nuts,” he recalls. “I got a massive ovation. That night, I went to bed convinced that music was my calling.”
The next stop on his journey to musical renown was New York, where, via a family friend, the budding musician was offered a “development deal” by Columbia Records.
One day, he had another life-changing experience in Central Park, where he had gone to “take mushrooms”, play some songs with his acoustic guitar and generally just “zone out”.
“Suddenly, I started banging out rhythms on my guitar and I got really into it. There was this school field trip of eight-year-old kids walking by and they started dancing to what I was doing. I was playing these crazy drum’n’bass rhythms and they were whirling around me like trance hippies! It was incredible. I felt like I was DJing with my guitar.
“There had been great guitar-playing since Hendrix, and many technical improvements, but apart from the textural innovations by people like [U2’s] wagging tone? “I hope not. There’s a fine line. I didn’t want to write a record of love songs, but I also didn’t want to make a preachy, political record. Wake Up [his apocalyptic vision of simian future rule] is about systems, nations and empires, all the things around us that seem as though they will be here forever but will really one day crumble to dust.
“I do think civilisation is racing towards something very dire,” he continues. Turns out that he wrote Wake Up in London, where he has a flat in West Hampstead. Did he write the more depressing songs here, New York or Cape Town?
“Definitely London,” he replies. “New York is edgy and hard and Cape Town is beautiful. But in London you feel the dark and gloom weighing down the collective vibe.”
Yoav’s career is “building in intensity, which is scary”, he reflects. “Many of my connections, my friends and family, are about to become a thing of the past because now I won’t get to see them very often.
“As far as the world is concerned, there is definitely a lot to worry about, but for me that — foreboding plus excitement — makes for a very exciting cocktail.” The single Beautiful Lie is out now on Field Recordings. The album Charmed & Strange will be released on January 21
Yoav feels alienated because of his difficult schooldays, depressed by the fate of the planet, but quite excited about his career prospects