Netta Barzilai – “I don’t sing beautifully”

Israel has won the Eurovision Song Contest several times since first participating back in 1973, with their most recent triumph twenty years ago when Dana International snatched the crown at the Birmingham NEC with her iconic disco anthem “Diva”.

But 1998 was a long time ago, and Israel has been waiting for a victory for as long as the UK has. This could be about to change. Welcome to the stage Netta Barzilai!

A compelling blend of Bjork, Yelle and M.I.A, Netta stands out from the pack and is justifiably one of the favourites to win on Saturday 12 May, should she qualify from her semi final (Tuesday 8th, BBC Four). Her track “Toy” is a mixture of quirky vocal loops, maneki-neko, Pokemon references and chicken dance moves (which you can – and should – learn, and yet despite all this it doesn’t feel gimmicky in the slightest.

Along with Moldova and Norway, this is the entry you’re going to remember then the voting starts and you’re five Caipirinhas in on Saturday night.

We caught up with a very excitable Netta ahead of the opening ceremony…

Hey Netta, according to your lyrics you’ll be “taking your Pikachu home” – so which other Pokemon are in your squad for the finals?

This is an amazing question and I’m glad you’ve asked it! Bulbusaur because he’s sassy and he’s a good friend and his vines would help me reach whatever I want.

Also, Jigglypuff as he can sing and that could help me to sleep, as I’m having trouble sleeping because I’m over excited about everything that’s happening. Also he paints on peoples faces when they’re asleep which I’ve done too. Finally… Snorlax. He’s fat and amazing.

Toy is peppered with pop culture references – is that important to your musical style?

Of course! I am a very poppy little girl. I wasn’t allowed to be poppy at first because y’know in my mind, pop stars are thin and beautiful and light, and I’ve never felt beautiful, skinny and light.

When you are a big girl you are told to think of yourself certain things: that if you are a musician you have to have a “big mama” voice, you have to sing Adele or Aretha Franklin. People expect to be “moved” by your voice in that way. I fell into that for a very long time.

[I was told] dress like you have nothing to celebrate. Dress in black. Dress big. Short skirts are not for you. Short sleeves are not for you. You’re not sexy or beautiful. You’re funny – that’s what you are. And you are a good friend. Well I am here to break that because this is a great evil that is done in the word to so many people.

People are locked in this state of mind and when I decided that this [Netta gestures to herself] is who I am then that was that. I always wanted to explore pop culture in my music and I didn’t have a chance because being me and presenting that music… it’s not existing.

“I don’t sing beautifully or grandly or in a very moving way… I am me – which is not very beautiful at times, and not very organised or regular.”

So you’re being true to yourself now? 

Yes. When I went on to HaKokhav HaBa [Rising Star – Israel’s version of X Factor, where the prize is a chance to represent the country at Eurovision] I told them how this is going to happen. I wanted to be me and I told then “we’re both gonna need balls to do it this way”. The biggest mainstream show is going to take a chance on this big girl who makes funny noises with a looping machine.

A little history was made in Israel when I won and they chose me over a lot of standard, more conventional but really, really amazing artists.

“Toy” really stands out from the pack this year – what are the influences behind it?

I don’t sing beautifully or grandly or in a very “moving” way. I am me – which is not very beautiful at times, and not very organised or regular.

I’m very hard to take in but it’s worth it to be me. I love bands like Die Antwoord – they’re amazing, amazing, amazing – the sounds are like “what am I hearing? I love it/I hate it” [Netta laughs] this is the wave that I would like to pursue.

Your performance is going to be very memorable – how’s it come about?

I see my music as a visual thing. When I’m on stage I am very expressive with my face and through my performance – kind of like an actress but not really, it just rises up from inside with the music.

I work with an amazing team – I have a stylist and a hairdresser and make-up artist who are always wondering what I am going to do next! This was so hard for them because they are very big in the industry and they were doing a lot of super models before me and it took time for them to understand what am I dreaming about… what am I inside?

For me, I learned not to be afraid to say “hey – let’s do it this way. I’m a pop star” after so many years singing the blues. And for them [my stylists] not to be afraid to put a short skirt on a big girl.

Have you had any words of encouragement from Dana International?

Yes! She’s spoken to me. She’s so funny and peculiar in her own way. She says that she’ll jump in the fountain if I win! People jumped in the fountain when she won – it’s a very happy gesture. She is amazing. She changed so many things in the world and I have so much respect for her.

First published on The Independent 7 May 2018.

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