Yoav is an Israeli-born South African now living in London whose music, played entirely on acoustic guitar, encompasses genres that are traditionally non-acoustic – trip hop and trance amongst them. Following his sell-out headline show at London’s 93 Feet East, Yoav offered answers to questions about his nomadic lifestyle, debut album Charmed And Strange and touring with Tori Amos…
Your background so far takes in Israel, South Africa, the US and now London. Where do you most consider yourself to be at home’ and why? In a match would you support Israel, South Africa or somewhere else?
At this point I don’t totally feel at home anywhere. If I had to choose, I would say Cape Town as it is where my folks live in the house I grew up in. I do have a soft spot for Israel as well.
Where have you enjoyed your best performance reaction from an audience so far?
Montreal has always been good to me. I played Copenhagen last week and the audience went ballistic. I got a bunch of standing ovations opening for Tori Amos across America, which is quite rare for a support act.
Your music, despite being played on acoustic guitar, in structure and atmosphere comes closer to trance. How did you come to develop musically in that direction, with that instrument?
I would also include triphop, hip hop, drum ‘n’ bass and other traditionally non acoustic genres. When the “Summer of Love” hit Cape Town in 1998, I wanted to be a DJ, but didn’t have the money to start a record collection, so I started exploring the guitar to try and make the sounds I was hearing. First with echoes, then percussively, then using sampling to create beats and keep adding to the soundscape every four bars. I have found ways to make all sorts of synth sounds on my guitar – very inspiring for songwriting.
Your MySpace page suggests your music is “alternative/indie/pop” – is that an accurate description of your music?
I am not sure there is an accurate description of my music as it crosses a lot of different genres. I think I write pop songs, albeit left of centre pop… in the way that Beck, The Cure, Depeche Mode and Björk are pop. Even though I write and perform all my music on acoustic guitar, I would not consider my sound to be “singer/songwriter”.
“I wasn’t about to change my name to Johnny Jones just to be normal and pronounceable.”
– Yoav on nomenclature
Which pedals/gizmos are essential for your shows and why?
Got to have my delay pedal to create trance-like echoes and washes. Got to have my sampler to make my backbeats and create the arrangements of the tunes live.
What in particular do you do to your guitar to make the rhythms in a live setting? Are there any special modifications?
I have a little microphone in my guitar that I flip to when I am doing certain percussive tricks on the body of the guitar, or when I sing into the soundhole. My guitar has some unique scratches from my strange playing style that allow me to make record scratch effects.
Some people have suggested that the sounds made during your gigs can’t all come from you playing live, but you have an extensive set of pedals and dials at your disposal. Is anything pre-recorded, for the record?
I have one loop that is pre-recorded (all on guitar) as the timing of it is integral to the track and building tracks live always means that they are different every night. A couple of other tracks have a foundation that I build on – also for timing reasons, as I play with a timed echo over the top of them.
Aside from classical, which artists were you listening to and/or most influenced by growing up?
My earliest songwriting influences were Paul Simon, Lennon/McCartney and Sting. That was the start of the journey.
South Africa has long been on the superstar DJ circuit. Does their accessibility compared to artists in other genres in that part of the world contribute to their influence?
There was a period of time (1998) when Cape Town had its “Summer of Love” where we all discovered the music, the parties and the drugs of club culture. I was just out of school ,so that time has definitely left its mark on my music.
You’ve become known by your first name, rather like Björk, Madonna and Cher. Are those fair comparisons? Did you consider an alternative performance name?
Well, I wasn’t about to change my name to Johnny Jones just to be normal and pronounceable, and my last name is even more strange, so it seemed natural to go by my rather unusual first name. I see myself as more of a Björklike/Becklike music-making entity rather than a confessional singer/songwriter. And Cher?… hmmmm, perhaps not.
How did you come to meet and work with Marius de Vries (who produced your album Charmed & Strange)?
I had been a fan of Marius’s work with Björk and Massive Attack and Madonna‘s Ray Of Light for a long time. I had heard that he had somehow heard some of my tunes and was into the sounds, so I made a nuisance of myself and found out where his studio was and organized a way in to play for him live. He wanted to make a record right off the bat and suggested after hearing me play that I make my first record just with voice and guitar.
Why did you sign to Field/Island?
Part of my management team also manages Faithless and so Rollo Armstrong heard Beautiful Lie and Club Thing while I was still making the record and took it in to the boss of Island, who loved it. Field is Rollo’s imprint at Island and is set up to do more artist development stuff than the big labels seem to do these days, and Island has a great heritage (Bob Marley, U2 etc) so I am proud to be there.
You headlined only your third UK show, at 93 Feet East, and the venue was sold out. Did it surprise you that you’d be playing to such a large audience so soon in London?
A bit surprised in the best possible way as not many folks know me in London town and I have yet to start my radio campaigning. Word of mouth seems to be spreading like wildfire and the response to the show was thunderous. Most exciting as London is a tough crowd, as I say, if “Rockstar 101” was a computer game, London would be level 10.
Do you collaborate with other writers, artists and/or producers beyond de Vries? If not, would you like to?
I made much of the record with Ian Davenport at my management’s studios in Oxfordshire and it was a true collaboration. Much experimentation with guitar sounds and beats and vocal styles as we had time to play around with. I would love to send a library of sounds created from my voice and guitar to Aphex Twin and I would also really love to do something with Andre 3000 from Outkast. Playing on a Björk track would be rather special as well. Mark Bell and Flood are a couple of producers whose work I admire.
What do you make of comparisons between your music, especially Club Thing, and that of Justin Timberlake?
My music seems to be hard to classify and there are a lot of different kinds of songs on this record so there have been some strange comparisons all round, sometimes to artists I have never heard. Club Thing is certainly a pop tune and was inspired by wandering clubland New York City which was (and still is) dominated by tracks produced by the Neptunes and Timbaland, and in that they create a lot of the sounds around Justin Timberlake, I’d say it’s a fair comparison.
What do you like and least like about living in London? What’s surprised you about the city?
I love the sense of history. Just wandering around you feel the weight of everything that has happened here. On the flipside, it can be a very alienating, grey, cold unfriendly place – depending on how I am feeling on any given day. I guess the scale of it is surprising – London goes on forever. High street after high street.
If you could take just one of your own songs with you to banishment on a desert island, which would it be and why?
A lot of my songs are quite urban and civilization inspired. There Is Nobody seems most appropriate for obvious reasons.
You’re supporting Underworld at the end of February at the Roundhouse. Is it the biggest venue you’ve played?
I believe the Roundhouse is about 7,000, which was about the most people I played for, opening for Tori Amos. When I was about 15 years old, Crowded House came and played a show in Cape Town for about 12-15,000 and by total happenstance I ended up on stage doing a killer rendition of Into Temptation with the band. The audience went wild and it was then written up in South African press as a setup (ie. the band take me with on tour everywhere, planted in the audience to pump up the crowd). Anyway, that was a big rush.
Why do you think people who’ve yet to hear of you should give your music a spin?
Because it’s catchy and it’s from the heart and it is brand brand new – you’ve truly never heard anything like it.
Yoav’s album Charmed & Strange is out now through Field/Island.