Asaf Avidan

by Corey O'Flanagan

On how the wolf-dog attack that nearly killed him informed his 2021 album, the very intriguing and philosophical Anagnorisis.



This episode starts off differently than most, with Asaf Avidan describing in harrowing detail how he was nearly killed by the wolf-dog hybrid he adopted. He survived the attack and recorded his latest album, Anagnorisis, with an eye on the big picture, questioning reality itself in very philosophical songs (perhaps we're just here as a point of reference for the gods, he wonders).

Born and raised in Israel, Asaf's audience is mostly in Europe, where he's had several platinum records and hits across 14 different countries. He has been compared to some of the best lyricists ever known, and once you get into his catalogue it's easy to hear why.

Asaf is a gifted songwriter and lyricist with a truly unique and amazing voice. In this episode, we find ourselves in a deep conversation that I think you will enjoy. The transcript from the conversation is below.


Breaking the USA

It's pronounced a-SAF aviDAN. In America I'm A-saf, in France I'm Azav - everywhere it's different, and I got used to the fact that it doesn't matter. I feel that if I were to change my name to "Jack Diamond" and release the same songs, they would be received differently.

I've hit this wall many times in my career. For one, I'm considered "world music" no matter what I do, even when I made an Americana album with Mark Howard. And then there is the need for labeling, which I see very specifically in America. Your radio stations are very separated: It's either AAA or alternative or pop, and in Europe there isn't that need for definition.


The Attack

Two years ago, I decided to take a sabbatical from touring. I had been touring for 10 years and I became very tired. I had an old dog whose health was declining and I thought this year would be a great time to bond with the new dog. I ended up getting a wolf-dog hybrid, which is legal over here. I've had big dogs my whole life and figured sure, why not?

It's very interesting as there's all of these rules that you're supposed to follow. Naturally, I didn't follow any of those rules and adopted an adult, traumatized, uncastrated male. I knew it was going to be problematic but we connected when we met and for two or three weeks it worked out perfectly. I had wolf trainers come in and they said how awesome our bond was.

I mistakenly introduced him too soon to my cat, and that is where it went wrong. I intervened too much when he went for the cat and he decided to change the hierarchy between us. He realized, hang on, I could be the alpha, and he didn't growl or give me any warning, but he just changed and started attacking me.

The first bite was just him checking to see how it would play out, and in my pain and fear he just carried on. I was really sure that was how my life was going to end. There was a point where he ripped my ear off, ripped my arm up and bit my leg. You hear yourself scream in that Spaghetti Western style voice... I just felt such betrayal and pain.

I don't believe in miracles, but he ripped by arm apart yet not a single nerve was damaged. There was a lot of muscle damage, but you can work that, and I did. I did a lot of physical therapy so I could play guitar and piano again, which nobody thought would be possible when they saw me. When I came to the ER, I was already thinking, What am I going to do with my life after this?

I had to hold my ear because it was 90% hanging off. My thumb was completely broken and my arm was ripped apart. I remember going inside the ambulance, and thinking that not only was I not going to be able to play music again, but that my face was going to be deformed and weird. Still, I felt lucky because we were fighting for minutes and there was a part where I was really fighting for my life.

So the doctors did an amazing job for the second time in my life, because when I was 20, I had cancer. So it was the second time modern Western medicine saved me, which is incredible.

When I came to writing my album a little while after, it was a very obvious metaphor to use for the different relationships I've had in the past.


Anagnorisis

It's a term coined by Aristotle about a moment of revelation of your true identity. For example, in the movie The Sixth Sense when Bruce Willis realizes he's the ghost, that's anagnorisis.

So I was reading this book by Aristotle and I stumbled upon that term and it was like a eureka moment. The way I create albums, I never sit down and say "I'm going to write an album." I write songs, but they're very stream-of-conscious, random outbursts, and then there's usually that anagnorisis moment when you see the matrix and see the lines between these dots and the thread that ties them all together. That was the moment when I realized all these songs that felt completely different texturally were part of a whole. It was a revelation, because I was trying to progress and understand myself because I was turning 40 and going through this process and thinking, Who am I? What am I, as we do in our mid-life crises. And the deeper I dived, the blurrier it became. There was a formlessness and an abstractness. I kept hating myself and feeling small and unworthy of my profession, because if I can't even depict my own self to myself, how am I going to communicate these themes to others?

But the blurriness was not the problem, it was just the essence. We are an abstract nebula of selves, and every time we try to impose a structure on it, we are inherently lying. Once I had that revelation, I could look at those songs and see that they were just different pieces of a mosaic.

I don't think I could have reached this album 10 years ago as it required a lot of self reflection and doing the archeological dig within yourself. Life has to bend you and challenge you. As you get older I think you let go of the need for comfort and as you take more and more shit from life you become more hardened and more numb to less comfort.


"Earth Odyssey"

I usually have a go-to genre of music. What defines me is kind of this folk, singer-songwriter with some jazzy blues orientation. My two pillars are Dylan and Cohen, then I have some Nina Simone and Billie Holiday in there. That's what I listen to and that's what I write into - that's the stencil that I work with. But on this album, I felt I was going through such a change that I didn't want to do that. I'd write a song and it would be very Leonard Cohen-esque with finger-picking guitar and rich metaphors with long verses, and I would puke - metaphorically. How could I be depicting a changing self with things that depicted me 10 years ago? It didn't make sense. So I was actively putting these mythological fathers aside and looking for new ones. 

David Bowie had just passed away and I began digging into his discography, and it just seeped in there. There's something I love about characters, and David Bowie goes through them and manifests some version of himself in them. I love that idea and loved the idea of vocally presenting myself in different voices, because there are voices that are sometimes harmonious and sometimes contradictory, and I wanted to play with that.

I thought about "Space Oddity," which is a takeoff on "Space Odyssey," so I thought about Greek mythology and The Odyssey. I got to thinking about how we are always projecting our voyages onto the seas and the skies, but what about dirty, dusty earth? The journey of life. So it became this song about the meaninglessness and hopelessness, but everybody keeps singing as the world is spinning into oblivion. It's a hymn to our powerlessness, and that's what I wanted to do with the album: I wanted to dive into that universal, inherent core of what it means to be human, which is to be afraid of mortality, invisibility and meaninglessness. I read a lot about prehistoric art, like cave paintings, and I see these sublimations of that one primal fear of knowing our own selves and suffering from it. Being intelligently conscious. I really wanted an album that lives that truthfully.

Everything we do as a society or as a species, everything we create, we give it a meaning. We believe in these things. In the Yuval Noah Harari book Sapiens, he says there's nothing fundamentally different between veganism and Nazicism. I got thinking about it and he's right: It's setting rules and moralities for ourselves that we believe. We can look at "weird" religions like Scientology or whatever and say, "Oh, they're crazy," but then when you start to dissect your own moral compasses you realize that each and every one of them is just as prone to deconstruction. Everything that we believe in, everything that gives us this sense of meaning, is all based on us.

I talked to my shrink and I told her I feel like if I don't want to drown in an ocean I need to puke my own earth to have an island to stand on. You have to create your own everything. With this album, I began digging into this idea that nothing is real and everything is just a decision or upbringing that we have been fed.


Visual Lyrics and "Lost Horse"

My animator background helps with my visual lyrics. I start off a lot of the songs by having visions. My whole artistic nurturing was through a frame, so I often describe a landscape or a visual, grotesque, David Lynch-ian kind of thing. So I have these weird images to riff from.

The lyrics for "Lost Horse" are about how you really believe in something while you're living in it, but with time you get a different version of it. 

This is a thing I don't like to do... Nothing made me sadder than realizing "Chelsea Hotel" was about Janis Joplin blowing Leonard Cohen.1 That's such a beautiful song, I didn't really need to know who it's really about, and after I heard the story, it kind of ruined a part of the song for me. What I love about songwriting is that for the artist, it's very specific. He or she has a clear image, but they write it in such a way that it's abstract enough for anyone to funnel their own life into it.

Because of that I don't want to give too much away for "Lost Horse," but it started with another weird, very real experience where I literally lost a horse. A pack of wolves chased my horse and she got scared and ran off a cliff into the sea. It was such a huge, dramatic moment, yet at the same time a tiny natural moment of the hunter and the hunted and a death. In a split second something that was meaningful and beautiful was dead. It's the duality between the grandeur and the patheticness of it.

I was looking for her body for three or four days and returned to the house after and I had so much emotion. For four days I had a goal - to find the body - and suddenly I gave that up. I sat down and wrote the words "lost horse" on a piece of paper, and just bawled. It was obvious that I wasn't weeping just over my horse, but rather about the idea of loss, how entropy always wins - the second law of thermodynamics. So every version of myself that I dreamed to have was lost, every relationship and every friend. I began writing the song in that mood and I wrote about this love that I just lost, this relationship. 

The title is very specific about my lost horse and the verses are very specific about a relationship that I had, but the chorus needed to be something more than that, so "what we are is sundials for the gods," meaning we are these decaying bodily things for the gods to have some point of reference for how time passes, because the gods don't age or die. So we live this trench of a life as just examples of entropy like everything else in the universe. But that was my mood at the time. Other times, love is the only answer and only reason.

Artists and art are tools. I don't think that art is created when I create a song, it is created when you as the audience translate it through your own prism, that's the art. What I'm afraid of is that I need to be a tool for the audience, an instrument you can look through and find what you need to find. So it's a bit dangerous to give too much away of who I am and what I am.


"A Man Without A Name"

This song represents who I am musically. If you listen to my first albums, they're really all Americana, folk or blues music. My parents are both Israelis, but they lived for 10 years in New York and met there in the '70s. When they came back to Jerusalem and had me, they brought back their vinyl collection from the States. Lots of Zeppelin, The Doors, Muddy Waters, Hendrix, Joplin... everything. My dad was more into jazz so there was a lot of Billie Holiday also.

Growing up listening to these kinds of records, that was just the music that interested me. As a teenager it was my grunge years, but I kept going back to the same roots. So if you're into what I will call good music - which sounds so pretentious and obnoxious - it leads down that well of early-American blues and the birth of singer-songwriter folk and rock. So my first albums, that was the music I wanted to make. As I made more albums there were more colors to the palette. There's too much of a narrowing down when you choose a genre, it gets boring.

January 20, 2021

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More about Asaf at asafavidanmusic.com

photos: Paolo Santambrogio

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