Expect the unexpected

Oren Lavie has no illusions that more than four and half million people are going to buy his debut album The Opposite Side of the Sea. But what does he know? The Tel Aviv-born singer/songwriter also didn’t expect the inventive …

Oren Lavie has no illusions that more than four and half million people are going to buy his debut album The Opposite Side of the Sea. But what does he know?

The Tel Aviv-born singer/songwriter also didn’t expect the inventive stop motion-style video for the album’s first single, “Her Morning Elegance,” to become a viral sensation. Since its release in January, it received over – you guessed it – more than four and a half million hits on YouTube.

“I wasn’t totally surprised at the success of the video on YouTube. We knew we had done something very good, but the explosiveness of it was surprising. We didn’t know how quickly or how massively it would break,” said the 33-year-old Lavie on the phone last week from his home in Los Angeles.

But he might have had some inkling as to the allure of his lilting sophisticated folk songs. Compared favorably to distinctive musical storytellers like Tom Waits, Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen, Lavie focuses on simplicity – a piano or guitar slightly embellished by strings and melodic arrangements. “Her Morning Elegance” was licensed last year by Chevrolet for one of its Malibu ad campaigns, and another song, “A Dance ‘Round the Memory Tree,” was played over the credits for the film The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.

How an unknown Israeli singer came to the attention of such influential power brokers is a story with an international flavor that involved a lucky break and that took Lavie to London, New York, Berlin and LA. But it started in Tel Aviv.

“I grew up surrounded by theater and listening to all kinds of music, especially classical. We had a piano at home and I taught myself to play,” said Lavie, who added that in his teens, he caught the theater bug. After attempting high school acting roles (“I got bored by it”), Lavie settled on being a playwright.

While serving in the Air Force entertainment troupe during his military service, Lavie wrote and directed a play, ,I>Sticks and Wheels, that upon completion of his service he submitted to the Acre Festival of Alternative Theater. Not only was it accepted, but it ended up winning the Best Play and Best Director awards in 1997. Shortly after, Lavie decided to test his mettle in London and study theater directing at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.

“I moved for a number of reasons. Most of the playwrights I liked were British. And I felt like I should go to the source, be surrounded by theater and other directors. There’s such a rich history of theater there and a lot to study that you couldn’t study in Israel,” he said.

“I was there for about three years and directed my own play at a small theater off the West End. It got good reviews, but it was really a small-scale production,” he added.

Feeling the need to seek greener pastures, in 2001 Lavie headed for New York City, where he found himself concentrating more and more on songwriting.

“In New York, it became more difficult to work on things that required long stretches of time. Writing, producing and directing a play can take months, and with New York being extremely aggressive, I couldn’t spend the time and focus on something so long term,” he said.

“I had been sneaking in songwriting for a long time, always trying to find the time to finish a song here and there. I had been collecting songs all along, but mysteriously my theater career took off first. But after a while, I started spending more time writing music.”

Next stop Berlin, where Lavie holed up and began writing songs in earnest with the goal of making an album. He found the setting there to be a perfect muse.

“Berlin is very underground and a sleepy city – lots of unemployment and confusion. There seemed to be a lot of stones unturned, unlike New York and London which are cities so explored. I thought it was a good place to start something new. I decided to record a small, quiet album of songs I had been collecting over the years. The main reason was to mark the closing of a period, and, in truth, I just didn’t want to forget the songs in time,” he said.

“Certainly being in Berlin put me in the right frame of mind. It slowed down my rhythm enough to make an album that is also slow – and not trendy.”

A simple project turned into three years, and finally, in 2007, The Opposite Side of the Sea was released on a small European label, where Lavie said it “received some lovely reviews and sold at least 20 copies in just under six months.”

Lavie was about to put his music career aside and start a new theater project when his lucky break occurred. The album began to be played on DJ Chris Douridas’s program on influential indie-based LA radio station KCRW. “I’ve never been so motivated to help an artist get his music out into the world until I met Oren. He is incredibly special. It’s rare every song in an artist’s catalogue moves me like Oren’s do,” wrote Douridas, a 27-year radio veteran, on Lavie’s Web site.

Lavie and Douridas became on-line friends and decided to try to get the album released in the US, “if for no other reason than to make it available to listeners who expressed interest through KCRW,” said Lavie.

Simultaneously, the Chevy licensing deal popped up, as well as a nicely placed slot for the commercial on the 2008 Grammys telecast – ironic, since at the time Lavie didn’t own a car or a TV. However, the exposure further upped the number of fans inquiring where an album could be purchased or downloaded.

“All of this was happening while I was still in Berlin. So I decided that the next step might be to move to LA for a while and see how I could build on this,” said Lavie.

With the seed money provided by the Chevy ad and the Narnia film, Lavie and Douridas decided to start their own label in order to release The Opposite Side of the Sea in the US.

Named Quarter Past Wonderful – after a song on the album – the label enabled Lavie to retain total control over his career. And that meant creating the video for “Her Morning Elegance,” which ended up becoming the YouTube sensation.

Late in 2008, on a short vacation in Israel, Lavie devised the concept for the video, scripted in the form of a short movie using the song as more of a background soundtrack.

The video – produced with Tel Aviv-based husband-and-wife team of Yuval and Merav Nathan – animates the fantastic dream of a sleeping woman without ever leaving her bedroom, using her mattress as the canvas of the dream and her bed frame as the dolly of her journey.

“It was shot in two days using one still camera, one angle, two actors and a budget of near-zero,” said Lavie.

The video’s stunning popularity has catapulted Lavie into the big leagues. Earlier this month, he performed “Her Morning Elegance” on The Jimmy Kimmel Show, accompanied by a life-size, Muppet-like puppet nuzzling him throughout the song. Lavie laughed that he was trying to break out of any pre-conceived mold that listeners might have that he was just another humorless singer-songwriter.

“Because my music is quiet and slow, I enjoy breaking that image. The idea of performing with a puppet was about not taking myself too seriously, which was the same idea as the video. I was thinking ‘What kind of performance would be unexpected?’”

Now, with the album finally available in the US, Lavie is adamant about not forgetting his homeland, where fans have had to be content with only the YouTube video. The Other Side of the Sea is being released here on April 1st.

“Releasing the album in Israel was unexpected – a quick decision because there was so much interest from the media, and from people who watched the video on-line. People were asking ‘Where can I buy the album?’ and it was a little unfair that it wasn’t available there,” said Lavie.

While his schedule is fully booked with shows in the US, he said he hoped to perform here before too long. And despite the sudden surge in his profile, Lavie was confident that he wouldn’t be hounded by paparazzi or fans on one of his visits back here to see family and friends.

“I don’t think people will recognize me,” he laughed. “The video is the celebrity, not me. Maybe a small fraction will know who I am, but basically, I’m still an unknown.”

But that may not be true for much longer.

Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.