Photo: Shai Franco

Q&A: Noga Erez – “I hope I will always be limiting myself in some way”

For Israeli artist Noga Erez, art is life and life is art. It allows her to become an open book and wield a fearless, resourceful pop vernacular with her partner Ori Rousso. While her debut album Off The Radar gave her a reputation as a firebrand, her second full-length KIDS takes on a more chipper disposition. KIDS is a panoramic, playful synthesis of the familiar and the cutting edge, intersecting many overarching concepts. Concepts that are extended visually in riveting ways in music videos like “VIEWS” and “YOU SO DONE”

Just before making her Late Night debut, Beats Per Minute did an elaborate Q&A with Erez, discussing the fruits of working with limitation, plus the relationship between the human and the artificial. And of course, much more stuff came up: like her music, Erez is a stirring interviewee who allows her own inquisitiveness to fully take the reins.

I noticed the visual elements of your live stream shows were very grounded. I mean, you could’ve thrown in some giant cartoon sharks in there for good measure. It was interesting how you used the skeletal environment of the studio as the backdrop. What was the idea behind using that as the setting for the show?

With the budget we had, which was basically based on our assumption of how many tickets we’d sell, we basically covered it to the last dollar. But how do you go past that? We made no money from the show. But you know, I love it when you can really see the hardware, when the illusion you’re trying to create is always broken by how it’s made, and that was leading the entire performance. This idea works in the favour of online shows, and we took that as the theme of the entire show. We even made everyone wear suits. Everyone was a participant in the show as well as a performer.

The weird thing was, I caught myself applauding between the songs, which was totally wild to me, because I wasn’t physically in a crowd. When I watch the stream of a Primavera show or something, I know I’m in the comforts of my home. But it isn’t happening at me – if that makes any sense. It got me thinking, how these livestream shows do serendipitously explore that grey area between performance and what’s actually happening. It’s showing the puppet shows with the puppeteers visible.

In the communication between artist and performer, there has to be a mutual energy going back and forth. Once one side of that energy gets shut down, something really strange and awkward happens. And you have experienced that throughout this past year, we did some very small live sessions at home. The song would end… and then there was no feedback. And you could really feel that. You appreciate that a big part of why you’re doing it. And it’s kind of hard to admit for an artist – but you do it for the claps. But when you have so many people involved, the human element becomes so strong; you see different fuckups in one take, things that weren’t supposed to happen. It’s really hard to say which show was better: the first one felt more rehearsed, well-edited and well-produced, whereas the second one felt so raw and human, which was also exciting.

Give or take, I’m not sure that human element you just mentioned would jump out as much whilst dancing with cartoon sharks. You use treadmills, robots and surveillance equipment, things people work and interact with on a daily basis. Putting those elements in an artistic framework really opens a wormhole of possibilities. The videos too all revolve around this very basic idea. In “Fire Kites” you at one point say “Those who buy smart equipment never learn to improvise.”

Just speaking for myself: I feel like I’m in a sweet spot in my career right now, in which my followers allow me to do these things. Nowadays, even more than ever before, you are your fans. They are the people who justify your existence. Right now in our career we have to realise where we stand financially, and what that allows us to do. That forces us to think very creatively. The same thing happens with our music videos: our budgets were not unlimited. We decided the dogma – the system – that we would have to work through was the fact that all the videos would have to be shot at one location. They would all be videos you could describe easily in one line or sentence.

Even when I have the means, I hope I will always be limiting myself in some way. As much as technology allows us to be limitless: I’m not a child prodigy who touches a piano and magic comes out. The computer has allowed me to make music, which wasn’t something accessible to me before. But the limitless choices can sometimes be confusing. Especially when you have limitless resources, it can result in something that’s very hard to relate to. I think that’s always a compass that an artist should have with them. How to make something relatable and make others feel like they can do it themselves.

The great thing about a video like the one for “YOU SO DONE” is that its simplicity can make it malleable for so many different questions. A relationship with technology, or a relationship with a person.

We’re working on the videos with the same director all the time. His name is Indy Hait. We worked with him one time in February 2020 for “VIEWS”. Since then we realised the language we want to speak with art in a very similar way. The main difference between us and Indy is that he is a director who says ‘Here’s a beautiful concept, whatever it means, let’s do it’. Whereas for Ori and myself, it’s always about how the visuals reflect the song or complement the song. What is the meaning behind all of it?

“YOU SO DONE” was strictly an Indy Hait idea. He came to us and said ‘Let’s do a video with a robot’. Ori and I were like ‘But we don’t want robots in our videos!’ So at first it didn’t feel cohesive to anything we’ve done before. Then we realised we wanted to talk about a relationship, and that has to do with violence. And this violence isn’t necessarily coming directly from another person. It also comes from inside, that’s always the case with a traumatic experience. You experience something once or twice, and then it remains with you as an inner voice that continues to be violent after that specific case has happened. For that to be able to exist in a visual world, a robot all of a sudden felt like an extremely genius idea. And it wasn’t even the intention!

The weird thing about today is, because of technology and social media, it seems we experience these things on a much more immediate level. In the past, you could convince yourself the trauma wasn’t trauma, maybe as a trite coping mechanism, even though it clearly was. Through these shared testimonials, it just stirs everything back up in this super alarming, urgent state.

What you just said resonated with me. When you can speak out about anything that has happened to you, or just look it up, you can realise so instantly that other people have experienced it before you. It now has a definition and a name. Your personal experience then gets boxed into the common experience. Even if I went through something from which I had time to process alone, and figured, ‘Well, that was okay with me, I can live with that.’ And when that experience gets discussed in such an extreme way, the entire experience changes. What people had to deal with before – the loneliness of experiencing these things on their own – without knowing how they should feel about what they went through, is in my opinion a much worse situation than what we are experiencing today.

That’s a very good counterpoint. It can feel intrusive to read these stories in real time, but it does allow people to identify the toxic elements of certain relationships more readily and clearly. In the past, you had to maybe internalise that, and that’s probably even more toxic.

I don’t know what this ‘communal pain’ will do to humanity, but I heard for sure that many people are getting comfort from hearing other people’s stories. It’s a very human thing, regardless of the means in which we have to do it.

Were the semi-acoustic session performances you did last year a way to veer a bit from that reliance on technology and machines?

No, that was mainly our way of saying that with this album, we have actually written some proper songs. Our productions are a huge part of our music, but on Off The Radar you couldn’t really tell the song apart from the production. For the songs on KIDS, when you play them with guitar and vocals acoustically, they actually work as songs. That was a huge achievement we wanted to celebrate.

So we got the machines out and only had the humans to play, changed the production completely to see if it still worked. It was entirely an experiment. But what we never thought would happen was how accessible it made the songs for other people. This specific decision we made – for both artistic and experimental reasons – made our audience much wider. We have a portion of our audience that listens to those versions, and enjoy the songs without feeling as if something’s hurting their ears.

I read somewhere that KIDS was originally supposed to take on a different direction, but then the pandemic happened and the process distorted it into something else. Is that a fair assessment?

You’re almost right. We were supposed to go on tour back in March 2020, and the same with Off The Radar, we thought we would be mixing half the album while on tour. We were fine with that, we thought we had a great album. But when the pandemic started to happen we didn’t realise we got more time than we thought we were going to end up having. At this point Ori and I were able to take a step back from the songs; just take a minute and not listen to them.

The one thing an artist can never have is the perspective of a listener, which is just insane. You will never hear your own songs the same way as the rest of the world hears them. So we put the songs aside and we came back to them with fresh ears. We knew which songs needed to be improved. That’s so hard to do when you’re caught up in the process of making an album. You have about four songs on KIDS that were changed. At first it was an album that had some great singles, and it became one without any song that shouldn’t be there, or that you could replace with something else. It brought the album to the next level for me.

Are there certain things you need to be triggered by in order to perform a song lyrically? Buzz words, or maybe even channeling another piece of music?

I have to be honest with you about the lyrics; usually, we’d improvise gibberish and melodies over a beat. Ori is an incredible beatmaker who can create an atmosphere that’s a good surface for us to create out of. More times than not, one of us would take the microphone and mumble some gibberish, and every now and then you would get something really nice out of that. “YOU SO DONE” at the beginning was “YOU SO DUMB”; then comes the point where you need to look for intention. That’s when we start communicating the theme between us.

Ori and I are able to make these conversations because we are partners in life as well as partners in music. That intimacy is where we unearth stories we tell each other. I discovered so much about Ori through us writing songs together. And it goes the same way backwards. That’s usually the process. For everything that sounds a bit too dark we’d search for something humorous. And to anything that sounds kitsch we would add some darkness. It’s always about mixing the right ingredients, to make sure that the music doesn’t lean too heavily towards one single emotional landscape.

I read how “VIEWS” came from this offhand remark about boobs, something banal and stupid. You said that being partners in life and in music, and how those two things can become the exact same thing. Is it sometimes an imperative to switch that symbiosis off? Because literally anything can become a song in that type of environment.

We both never experienced any separation between them. Those two elements in our lives have always been together. We never searched for that separation. Whenever I read about couples working together or creating together, a lot of times I’d hear things like ‘there have to be boundaries between things’ or ‘create separately’. But with us the strategy is the opposite. There is nothing about our creativity that’s not involved in our relationship. Everything is blended together.

I always wanted to live my life that way: to have the work I do be incorporated into my personal life. I think that was my hippie vision of how I wanted to live. The fact that we can write songs about what we’re going through – even going through together – is so comforting. There’s always something you can look back at in retrospect and say how stupid you were back then.

The video for “NO News On TV” sort of riffs on the notion of a detached environment without worries. I read one article about the studio space the two of you run, and it’s kind of like a jolly playground of instruments, equipment and toys. I imagine it sort of awakens the kids in yourselves in a way.  But like in the video, complacency can become a pitfall here as well. How do you fight that?

Ori and I do have conversations every now and then about leaving the gear alone and just writing a song on the guitar. Or for one week, we’d focus on me not coming to the studio at all. We also want Ori’s musicianship shining without me being there looking over the shoulder or vice versa. But the challenges never cease to present themselves. With all this being described as this ‘ideal partnership’, and us being in this playground of synthesizers.

But in the end we are a couple of complex people with some fucked up brains. We have to deal with that all the time! [laughs] Every single day one of us would be coming to the studio when the studio was the last place you wanna go to. Almost every single day, we had to deal with that. For me especially, the studio is always an ambivalent environment, because it’s not always creative. Finding a way to work is not to ‘challenge ourselves’, but more about solving the issue of it not being ideal.

It sounds like you channel that mentality in “Story”, where you act out this couple’s quarrel in the music video, making the choreography almost a John Wick film. First and foremost, it looked both really fun but exhausting to make.

The making of the video and the song is a perfect example. Well, the thing is: we wanted to have a gun fight happen between us. All the violence happening is with a humorous angle. Being in a relationship, sometimes you kind of feel like you can’t avoid a fight. But other times you have to provoke a fight in order to get things moving. We dig into our past and bring that into the relationship – even if the relationship is going great, we still have those things happening.

“Story” is the second chapter of “YOU SO DONE”. The first chapter is about me having this exceptionally traumatic experience of a past relationship, going into a relationship that’s so good. It’s a win, it’s a therapy. Yet I keep bringing the “YOU SO DONE”-experience into “Story”, and you have to avoid that. The making of the video was also us rehearsing this: as a couple it was such a good experience, because we got to be so physical about so many things within ourselves in an artistic way. It was great. I think it made us better as a couple.

Relationship therapy session and music video in one, woah, talk about two birds in one stone.

The record opens with the sound of a page being turned, which also suggests this storybook type of outline. Do these small details serve as a narrative purpose?

When you talk about the greater concept about the album, it reflects on how we pass stories, traditions or traumas from one generation to the next. Eventually the songs go in many different directions, but the arc is that we have something from past generations. It was an interesting perspective for Ori and myself to look everything through. It’s on a very small scale when it comes to relationships between parents and their children.

And it goes back to the larger scale of how we design humanity as a whole. You can’t say it’s a blank page: that a baby who comes into the world has nothing given, from genetics to anything. But the first thing that happens to them is the ways their parents choose to tell them about the world. The stories are how they filter experiences from the world. That is so extremely influential. That page turn is the page the mom decided to turn, and that small action is so influential.

Kids these days are exposed to so much more than when I was young. “Candyman” sort of seems to be touching on elements of horror, of the monster-under-the-bed kind of imagery. It kind of makes me wonder what kids can teach us about processing the perils of this world, since they pretty much grow into it organically. It seems to be less of a rude awakening.

I think just by looking at kids, there’s a lot of knowledge there that adults should have. The openness, and not being judgmental towards other people. We are the ones teaching our kids to see color and gender and weight. They don’t come with that knowledge. To answer your question, to me that’s the most important lesson kids can teach us. “Candyman” is a horror story song that talks about a situation Ori and I were in when his mom was becoming increasingly sick. She had cancer and she passed away, and a lot of this album is inspired by being with her in her last moments, and what she left behind. That specific experience describes a family coming to a hospital, a place where people basically die.

And everything that gets into that situation: you need the health system. And you find out how systemic it is, how banal it is and how much of it is not just your own experience. It’s other people’s experience as well: other families are in the same situation right now. What’s so insanely unacceptable about it: experiencing the loss of a parent is so incredibly traumatic, and so important. But at the same time, it happens to all of us. Most of us will have to say goodbye to a parent. It’s the same with an album. You get to make this thing, share this experience with other people, and then you get to say goodbye to it. It’s like a growing up process, the fact that it’s not happening the way it was supposed to.

Noga Erez’s KIDS is out now on City Slang (read our review). You can find her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.