By Rinat Harash and Stephen Farrell
TEL AVIV – On a balcony overlooking Tel Aviv, a familiar figure in pink headphones sways to the beat as she crafts performances that look very different from the pre-pandemic past.
Eurovision Song Contest winner Netta Barzilai is instantly recognizable on the streets of the Israeli city she calls home.
More than 200 million people watched the flamboyant singer-songwriter win the 2018 pageant with the women’s empowerment song “TOY.”
With an extrovert performing style, the 28-year-old was building a career based on a personal bond with audiences when, as suddenly as international success arrived, it was put on hold.
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked far worse damage on lives, health and careers than an interruption of travel and live performance, as Barzilai knows.
But as she walked through the quiet streets of Tel Aviv, she reflected on how human connections had been ruptured, and the role that art and music can play in helping millions across the world live through the shock of change.
“I was promoting my new single in January in Russia and in Spain and I was planning to go to six other countries. And then everything stopped,” she said during a break from writing new material.
“There are more barriers now that we’re going to have to learn how to break. We’re going to have to find inspiration within, and look for a deeper content.”
After a whirlwind post-Eurovision year of touring the world and barely seeing her home city, then trying to build upon that success, Barzilai said quarantine was a chance to slow down and pay more attention to her immediate surroundings.
“I had nowhere to run, no bar to go sing at, no friends to meet and I just needed a way to engage with my fans and to engage with my audience,” she said.
The answer was at hand. She had already begun experimenting with a video podcast from the balcony room studio in her Tel Aviv apartment. So she adapted that, adding the coronavirus to the mix of talk and music, and working on an album for the post-pandemic era.
“Hey everybody. I can’t believe corona’s still here,” she declared in “I’m Blue”, Episode 4 of “Netta’s Office” which was posted on YouTube in May.
“I’ve been doing a lot of internet performances … it’s really weird for me to not feel the crowd, to not feel the people in front of me.”
The idea, she said, was simple.
“I figured out all I needed was this room … and people have been giving me this enormous hug (for) helping them through their anxieties, through their worries. Because this uncertainty can absolutely kill us.”
Around her flat overlooking a central Tel Aviv side street were reminders of the recent past: costumes and clothing, Eurovision paraphernalia and tchotchkes – trinkets and souvenirs – from her travels.
Her most recent release is ‘Cuckoo’. It was written before the pandemic but the words of the chorus – “I’m like a bird in a cage” – assumed new resonance upon its release in May.
“The melody turns inside in a loop … Like the melody is caged. And like this beautiful sad rhyme is caged,” she said.
Walking past Israel’s shuttered national theatre – whose website still bears the notice ‘Closed until further notice’ – Barzilai enthuses about the artistic, creative and financial importance to society of her profession.
“Yesterday I had a conversation with one of my former employees … He had saved up and it’s just about ending, and he couldn’t feed his children,” she said.
“[He’s] a sound man with three children, and our government and a lot of governments around the world don’t have solutions yet for the culture industry.” – Reuters