Podcast: Israeli pop star songwriter brings message — in Arabic — to latest single

Podcast: Israeli pop star songwriter brings message -- in Arabic -- to latest single

In this week’s Times Will Tell, Jessica Steinberg speaks to Eytan Peled, an emerging Israeli singer-songwriter whose first song, “Where Are The Days?” went viral, placing him at the top of the Israeli charts.

That attention put the US-born Peled in the perfect situation to write songs — primarily in English — for breakout Israeli artists Mergui, Noa Kirel and others.

He also writes and sings in Arabic, a language he first learned in high school, then perfected during his army service and while living in a northern Druze village.

Peled speaks about his path to writing and composing music, and his preference for singing and writing in English and Arabic, his native and adopted languages. Peled wants to bridge together Jews and Arabs with his music, bringing that message to Israeli mainstream music.

We listen to Peled’s most recent release, “Sakatna,” sung by Peled in English and Arabic, with an accompanying video made with star producer Stav Beger and set in a southern Bedouin village, complete with a hip-hop Bedouin dancer.

It’s an experience that Peled is looking for again, and he’s moving ahead on more of his own solo music and will be working on the Eurovision 2023 song for Noa Kirel.

The following transcript has been very lightly edited.

The Times of Israel: I’m here with Eytan Peled, an American Israeli singer and songwriter who writes music in Arabic, English and Hebrew. He writes music for major Israeli singers such as Mergui and Noa Kirel and will be part of the team writing this year’s song for Israel for the upcoming Eurovision Contest. With his latest song, “Sakatna,” which means falling in Arabic, Etyan sees this song as part of an emerging movement in Israel that is using art to bring together Arabs and Jews. Welcome to you, Eytan.

Eytan Peled: Great to be here, salam alaikum.

We’re very happy to have you. You have American roots. Wondering, by the way, were you born in Israel or born in the States and moved here as a kid?

I was born in the States, in Boston. I moved as a kid while I was growing up, moving in between Boston and Israel for my whole childhood till I was around 14 years old, 13-14 years old.

So that dual citizenship life. How did you learn Arabic? What’s the story on that?

Language is definitely something that I love. It’s a big passion of mine that’s first and foremost why I speak Arabic, because I really love languages and everything that comes with it. But I think it was kind of intuitive to me when I moved to Israel. I mean, they offer Arabic in high school and it’s something that you can major in in high school. And it really interested me. I felt like I’m in the Middle East and I don’t know, I found it kind of surprising that people don’t know Arabic here.

But you also write songs in it. That’s taking it a step further.

I did Arabic as part of my army service. I was in 8200, which is the intelligence unit, and I was a commander there of an Arabic unit. And the first half of the year my service was just Arabic from seven in the morning till 11:00 at night, just studying Arabic. So it was very intense. And since I finished my army service, I’m always looking for meaning in life and with what I do, and I just decided that I want to move my passion for Arabic to education. I felt like there’s enough people working in security in Israel who like Arabic, but there aren’t enough in education. So I moved to a crazy change in my life. I moved to a Druze village called Julius in the north of Israel, and I spent a year living with a pre-army program that brought Druze and Jewish youth together. And I lived with them and I would teach lessons in Arabic and in Hebrew. And obviously living and being immersed, being around inside an Arabic-speaking village is something that helped my language, also with my confidence.

And when I decided to start doing music, I mean, that’s a whole other story why I decided to start that, but it kind of felt natural to my path and what I do to incorporate Arabic in my music. I didn’t really think about it. It just seemed obvious to me.

You play guitar, do you play other instruments as well?

I played the piano for maybe two years. So guitar and piano and I produce a little. So, you know, today everybody’s like, doing all the instruments through their computer.

Tell us a little bit about your musical path. When did guitar-playing happen? When did singing and songwriting start for you?

I started studying guitar when I was in second grade in Boston. I remember Gary, my first guitar teacher, [teaching me] all the rock songs, but I was actually very shy when I was a kid. I mean, I always wrote songs. That’s something also that I’d always do in my room, but I’d never show it to anybody. The whole switching gear to actually decide to pursue music and singing in front of people and showing my songs only happened pretty late. Like, after my army service.

Where did you go for your trip after the army?

I went to South America for half a year, and I don’t know, I just had this kind of switch in my mind. I was like, this is the time to try all the discomforting things that I always thought are like, something that’s the opposite of every decision I had to make. Suddenly I would think about what’s comfortable and what’s not comfortable, and I’d try and do what’s less comfortable. So I just went out to the street. I’d take a guitar, I’d perform in the street. And I remember my first show in Brazil. I was just like, standing in the street and with like, 100 people watching me. And I was like, there’s something here.

So I came back to Israel and I just went all in with the music. I just started to work with producers, work on my own songs, and then my first song, out, was a viral hit here in Israel.

Let’s listen to a short piece of Eytan’s breakout hit, “Where Are the Days,” which went viral when it first came out. Eytan was also nominated as the Galgalatz 2020 Breakout Artist of the Year following this first single. Galgalatz is one of the hit radio stations here in Israel.

You’ve found a lot of success pretty early on. How did that all come about? 

I come to music from a place of meaning, for it to have a certain agenda and I have a certain thing I want to say. And I would say that when I got the opportunity to meet people in the music industry, I would say that people would be intrigued by it and curious about it. I feel like that’s something that opens some doors for me then, just creating music, and the music speaks for itself. But I think writing for others, that’s only after my first song that came out, as I said, it was, like, number one in the country, on Spotify and just everywhere. And so I got, like, a lot of people from the industry asking me to write for them.

I have kind of branded myself as an English songwriter, especially here in Israel. There’s a lot of international talent here in Israel and people trying to do international careers. And I help people with their accents as well, and just the writing itself. And I’d prefer to write in English than I do in Hebrew, that’s for sure.

Clearly having someone who actually knows how to write music and write songs in English is a big advantage. I imagine you also bring something else to the table, but it’s that cultural, that societal thing that’s so necessary when you write a song that’s really going to be able to hit it somewhere else.

Definitely, I feel that 100%. And then I said to myself, why do I not do this for myself in Arabic? And recently I’ve started to work with some native Arabic-speaking musicians who come to my sessions and try and help me more with my Arabic.

And yet you mentioned the fact that Hebrew, you do not feel so comfortable writing music in Hebrew. And that is fascinating because you’re essentially this trilingual guy. You live in Israel, I imagine you work in Hebrew.

I do write in Hebrew. I wrote eleven songs for the Israeli Hannah Montana, but I don’t enjoy it so much. I think that actually a lot of songwriters have said that Hebrew isn’t a very expressive language, but I think that 90% of the words in Hebrew you’re not allowed to use because they sound too high, they sound like too fancy or like too biblical. So you’re basically left with a small bank of words that you can use. Actually, if you were to take all the pop Israeli songs, because I do mainstream, so if you take all the mainstream songs and actually run through, they’re all the same words and also every word has a lot of syllables. So, like you say “leehiot,” [‘to be’ in Hebrew], so I could have said three words in English and I could only say one word in Hebrew with that. So it’s more like a puzzle, it feels more like a puzzle, like a lot of things sound cringy and every session I’ve ever been in Hebrew either, it’s like you’re laughing and having a good time and then it’s like Hebrew is a great language for writing those kinds of songs.

I think there’s a lot of humor in Israeli mainstream, but if you want to write something serious and honest, that’s actually a very hard language to do that. Some people manage it, more in hip hop in Israel, they manage to do that better.

Because of the way the music is fit to the words. Why is that?

Yeah, exactly. Because mainstream music has got to be catchy, right? And it’s got to sit on the beat and it’s got to be in a certain genre and it’s all very limiting. So at least in English, with those limitations, I like to find I still don’t feel like I’ve lost my expression. Like I can say 20 different sentences on the same melody, but in Hebrew I find this usually only one that works and you got to spend like 20 minutes looking for that one line.

It’s kind of like Wordle.

I was about to say Wordle!

Wordle is so different in English and Hebrew.

Yeah, definitely. And first of all, I do play Wordle. We have a family group and we do it every day. And definitely that’s what sessions in Hebrew feel like to me. In certain sessions, I’ve had good ones as well that are different, but a lot of them feel like that.

How does it work in terms of writing music and writing songs in Arabic? Are the words in Arabic more easily put to music or more difficult?

I find Arabic to be a very rhythmic language, so it brings out different phrasing for me. I kind of like to move between languages because it keeps me creative. I think about different ideas in every language. So that’s something that’s for sure. Arabic is, I find, my most creative language. It’s very creative for me since it’s not my native language anyway.

Let’s talk about your song, “Sakatna,” and we’ll first listen to some of it.

First, let’s talk about the video for a second, which is visually beautiful. It’s incredibly contemporary looking and yet it’s totally desert and Bedouin. You’ve got the sand, you’ve got the pickup trucks, the Mitsubishi pickup trucks that are often driven by Bedouin in the desert in Israel, very identified with Bedouin clans in the desert. And then you’ve got this very cool dancing dude in his headphones and his colorful turquoise clothing that is Bedouin in its design and yet colorful in a way that I’ve never seen a Bedouin man wearing, and he’s dancing around this classically white, pure white, Bedouin living room. Who is this and what was the vision here?

Well, I can say from every music video I’ve done, I’ve learned a lot. And this is the first time I felt like I’m ready to bring in something extra into my clip, like what I spoke to about my agenda of mixing the languages in my songs and wanting to I want to bridge different cultures and open eyes to different cultures, especially here in Israel. So I was ready to do that with this clip. And what I did was first of all, this is the first time I worked with a producer on this song.

Stav Berger, who is very well known.

Yeah, he did the Eurovision with Neta [Barzilai] and done a lot of major hits here in Israel. And I feel like it was also with the production and also with the clip. The first time I heard the song when he sent it to me, which is very special, when a producer sends you a song for the first time and you get to hear kind of like a finished version. I just had the idea for the clip, which I don’t have. That’s the only time that’s ever happened to me. And I just really imagine this Bedouin nomad was wearing like Beats headphones, like really modern headphones. And I was like, wow. The song in the production really brings together Oriental, Middle Eastern kind of culture when it comes to music. And it kind of clashes that with modern, like more electronic music. And I just really wanted to bring something visual that kind of shows that like a Bedouin who’s trying to break out the boundaries of like he wants to keep his identity and culture, but he also wants to break into something more modern, which I feel like is something that many different cultures feel.

But I definitely felt that also when I lived in the Druze village, I felt that a lot with people there, like, people who live in more traditional cultures and who have that kind of clash with wanting to be more modern, but also keeps respectful to their culture and to their identity. And so that’s what I did. I took my photographer called Daniel Tayuri, who I’ve been working with for a long time. We drove to the south of Israel near Arad, and I just took my car a week before the clip, I drove into a Bedouin settlement.

So I just took my car and I went for a full day into multiple settlements that have probably never seen somebody Jewish. I spoke to them in Arabic, and I told them about my idea for this clip and what I want to film. And at the end of the day, I met this amazing guy called Haliel who just said, come to my house for lunch. You talked about the living room in my clip. It’s his living room.

Two weeks later, I was there with my full crew, and we were filming in their settlement as well. It’s very important for us, for him to walk around with us, also because people see us, and think maybe we’re from . . . like there’s a lot of dispute around these kind of settlements and whatnot.

Sure, they think that you’re coming to bring them something a little more from civil society instead of arts and culture.

No, but he was so awesome. It was just so beautiful. He has, like, horses and sheep, and he let us just, like, you know, he just welcomed us, like, into his home so nicely. And then for the clip, I wrote out an ad for looking for an actor. I said, I’m looking for an actor. My first call was the actor of the clip. He told me he’s 21 years old. His name is Adam Labed. He’s Bedouin, and he wants to be a hiphop dancer. And I was just like, I couldn’t believe that. It’s like, wow, I didn’t even know that there’s going to be this kind of dancing in the club. But then I was like, of course, it’s got to be that.

He’s really awesome. I’m very inspired by him. It’s like, resonates with what I want to do. And that was very special. And the dancers I brought three dancers to dance debka. I wanted him to dance hip hop and the dancers to dance like the more traditional Arab dance. But an unknown fact is that these dancers are Jewish Yemenite. So it was like a mix of all cultural things. Yeah, it was awesome. I really enjoyed that. And I feel like it really touched a lot of people, like, everybody that saw the clip, and I got really great responses from it.

Tell us about what it is to be an American, though. I imagine you are one of the few in the music world that you revolve in.

Definitely. Yeah.

What’s that like? And what’s that like to be who you are in that milieu?

That’s a great question. I feel like it has so many advantages, of course, but I also feel like it actually has some disadvantages in Israeli culture. For me, it’s been a learning experience for me, especially in the music industry. I’m an independent artist. I do have now, like, some record deals and some, like, things that maybe I’m gonna get into the more, like, structured music deal. But I’ve been independent for, like, two and a half, three years. And doing business here, I’m very polite. I try to as polite as I can. And this culture can be also aggressive sometimes, and you can’t take too many things to heart. And I’m like I’m very polite now. How do you say, I’m sensitive? So I had to develop some thick skin while I was doing the music, especially in the industry. And also now I just spent a month in Los Angeles. It was my first time spending time in the US in a while. And I was just thinking about that question you asked me. I was thinking, like, whether I find myself more American or more Israeli.

And I don’t know. It’s the first time in my life where I really feel like, kind of split. There are certain things I feel more American and certain things I feel more Israeli. I think it’s all about just taking what you like. Especially what I feel right now at my age is just kind of reflecting on it and taking what I love about both cultures and incorporating them and the stuff that I like less. Leave behind.

Tell us a little bit about the Eurovision song. Is it really a room full of people working on this? 

I can say, first of all, in general, music writing is a room full of people a lot of times, which is awesome. I enjoy creating music with lots of people. I mean, it’s got to be the right people, right? It’s all about the chemistry with people. So I think for the Eurovision, they wanted to work with people that have already worked with her [Noa Kirel] and that she feels comfortable with. So actually, we haven’t started writing it yet, but we all know each other and I was very humbled.

Noa Kirel, I will mention, is a very well-known artist here and who is, as we mentioned before, trying to break out into more international platforms. And that’s unusual because usually the Eurovision singer is not necessarily someone who’s so well known.

First of all, I’m a big fan of her song. I’ve been working with her for a while and I know her family. I love her very much.

She’s the first Israeli to sign an Atlantic record. She’s like, this is a huge label in the US. And, I mean, we haven’t really sat on it yet. I’m sure we’re going to brainstorm it. I think what I wanted to say before also about writing songs is I really believe in music is something therapeutic and something that honesty has a big power. And so I really would love it for the song to be something that’s honest, even though it’s mainstream. Something that’s honest and feels right and real to her. Because I think that Eurovision is such a huge stage watched by hundreds of millions of people. And if it’s not a song that you really feel, then that can affect your performance. Even though she’s like a top professional. But I really feel like for her, that’s something that could be amazing in English. Don’t want to break through that kind of honesty and send a text that’s real to her. So that’s where I think I can bring myself to the table with that. Because that’s something I love doing with artists.

I love sitting with artists and just talking about real things with them. I feel like people don’t do that so much. Right? I mean, you would think and music, that’s what people do, but not really interesting.

So then, final question for this podcast of ours. What are you working on next? Give us a sense of what we’re going to be hearing from you.

Because I write for other people, I’m all over the place. I do a lot of things. So I got a few projects going on. I’m doing more songs with Stav Beger. I’m very excited to continue that with the Arabic and the English and maybe also the Hebrew. I got a song in English in Arabic that’s coming out with him. I want to film a music video in Jordan. So I’m very excited about that.

Yeah. That’s the next kind of dream that I’m going to be soon. Besides that, with my own music, I got a whole rock project going. Like a more indie alternative, which I really love. I mean, I think that’s more the music I grew up on. And I really want to show people that side of me. And when it comes to writing for other people, I just came back from Los Angeles and I’m really focused on writing, like, international songs. I want to get like I’ve met a lot of amazing creators there. I really found that I don’t know, I felt like I fit in the sessions there. And that was a nice feeling to feel.

You can live in both worlds. 

As I told you, I like to write in English, so I’m looking more to write in English for mainstream songs. Maybe, like a song for Billboard, I guess that would be, like, my biggest trip.

That’d be pretty exciting. We’re going to listen to some of your music at the end of the podcast. And we thank you so much for being with us at the Times Will Tell.

Thank you so much for having me. I had a great time.

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