Israeli Singer Asaf Avidan on His Accidental Hit: 'Reckoning Song' Remix 'Changed Everything' (Q&A)

Photographed for the "Pop Goes the World" portfolio in THR's music issue, the soulful Avidan, often compared to Janis Joplin and Nina Simone, talks about why he's not "bothered" to be mistaken for a black woman, but is perturbed by the popularity of TV singing competitions.

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Like Adele, Asaf Avidan, 33, launched a career on the back of heartache -- a soul-crushing breakup that led to 2012's critically acclaimed album Different Pulses.

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"As I was piecing my shattered life together, these songs were like therapy," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. To that end, sweet revenge is having a No. 1 hit in 14 countries. Avidan's "One Day/Reckoning Song" began buzzing in 2011 after German DJ Wankelmut gave it an EDM remix, then it exploded into a continental smash, counting more than 150 million YouTube views. The hook bemoaning love lost ("I don't laugh and I don't cry/I don't think about you all the time") features a haunting vocal, which many mistake for that of a female soul singer. Not that Avidan, who spent his teen years in Jamaica (his parents were diplomats), minds comparisons to Janis Joplin or Nina Simone

"It's a huge compliment," he says. "I don't get bothered if they think it's a black woman, as long as the song moves them." World domination was not part of the grand plan, but now that Avidan has played for crowds as large as 250,000 and as small as an A-list Hollywood party -- like Jan. 11's Help Haiti Home gala, hosted by Sean Penn (the actor requested him as the musical guest) -- it feels, well, natural. "I didn't even think I'd play outside of Israel," he says. But a hit song "changed everything," says Avidan, who credits his success to two showbiz staples: hard work and luck.

Before kicking off his U.S. tour this February (he plays in Los Angeles on March 8), Avidan tells THR about his introduction to music, views on global music culture and why he won't become a guest judge for a singing competition.

How did you discover your voice?

It’s not like there was a "eureka" moment where you sit down and figure it out. I had a huge breakup about six or seven years ago ... and literally had nothing to grasp at. So I started to write these songs and explore vocalizing them to get it out of my system. It wasn’t just about writing the songs; it was about singing. I needed to get a lot of shit off my chest; I needed to really feel that physical pain. I needed to go higher and higher, and make it even harder for me to sing -- almost screaming kind of emotions that were bubbling up inside.

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Describe the music scene in Israel...

Pop, mainstream radio ... it’s a globalized world and it pretty much sounds the same. But I think the strength and the weakness of the music scene in Israel is the fact that it’s a very small country with a very small market. If you’re part of an alternative rock band and you need to tour, you can tour across Israel and go back and sleep at home each night. That’s pretty convenient and easy for somebody who wants to tour, but it’s also a weakness because there aren’t enough places. Nobody can really rise from being an underground alternative band into mainstream acceptance. I think it only happened very few times, and that’s one of the sad parts about Israel. If you want to tour outside of Israel, you have to take a plane. Israelis don’t tour in Jordan or Syria; they go to tour in the US or in Europe. It’s very expensive, and a lot of indie bands cannot afford to really start to try to have a career.

Musically, it’s just a lot of everything. Because it’s an immigrant country, there’s varied influences from either Western culture or Middle Eastern culture or all kinds of Northern African cultures. It’s a jumble of everything. I think [borders] are long gone. They’ve been dead for quite a while, but I think one should not stray too far from tradition. There are certain boundaries that I think should be respected from the old world. I think to pick up different colors and paint with them isn’t such a bad thing.

The "One Day/Reckoning Song" remix -- at first, you weren’t into it, but it seems like you came around to it.

The remix helped a lot, but it came a lot later. I started touring Europe around 2008. When the remix came out in 2012, I had already released two albums with Sony and was filling up venues -- pretty big venues, in fact, in Germany and other parts of Europe. I already had my audience. I’m not sure how much it would have grown; I was pretty content with the way things were going. The remix did change everything, but if you ask me to what I credit it, I think it’s a lot of hard work, endless touring and a lot of luck, because the remix could have stayed this one summer hit and then passed. But I was releasing a new album by the time the remix came out, and the album was very well accepted. It helped make it as not this kind of passing fad, but a real musician with a real fan base.

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The fact your song was used without permission, did that come up?

It did. At the start, I asked him politely, and then not-so-politely, to take it off YouTube and stop giving it to DJs. And he just completely ignored me. I didn’t really have time to be bothered with it because I was making a record at the time and I guess it’s for the best now. But if I had my way back then, I wouldn’t have let him -- I didn’t let him -- do it.

How was it resolved?

Sony got involved and really pressed me hard to let them release it. They just bugged me enough until I finally said yes. Up until a certain point in the chronology, it was completely illegal. But as I said, it’s a good thing judging by what it’s done to my career and how people react to it. It sounds naïve or something, but it would be almost rude of me to deny people who really love this version to have it. 

Many Israeli musicians' careers are a one-way ticket to the TV judges table -- be it The Voice, X Factor, Israel's version of American Idol, Rising Star. Is that something you would consider?

It’s funny that you ask because I just did an interview with a newspaper in Israel, and half of it was about how I kind of hate these reality shows. Reality is not even the word for it, but these musical contest shows. I really don’t understand it. I think anybody who considers themselves an artist wants to create something, and these shows are very far away from creating anything. They do cover songs with people with little talent and a lot of dreams, or even big talent but they exploit it. I don’t want to be part of it. It’s doing real, actual damage to our culture and as a society as a whole. It’s teaching people that music is about competition. It’s teaching people that music is about taking something that already exists and trying to do it over and over.

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin