Blend it like Bedouin
07 September 2009
As a child in the late 70s through mid-80s, Lior Attar remembers playing soccer on concrete fields in his home city of Rishon LeZion, on the Israeli coastal plain 30 minutes’ south-east of Tel Aviv, and feeling a sense of community that made up for a lack of trees.
The singer-guitarist, whose family moved to Sydney when he was 10, introduced Australians to the mixed musical influences of what was for him a happy Mediterranean childhood, challenging our ears in concerts with an a capella
and his self-penned
, his eastern-inflected singing somewhere between Arab and Indian raga styles.
Once described by a radio station as a “pot scrubber’s hair with an angel’s voice”, in 2005 listeners would take to heart his song of growing old and companionship,
This Old Love
, when it was picked up by Triple J, making it a staple of Aussie wedding waltzes. Thus the career of the artist known as Lior was born.
His parents, however, had not been so happy with life in Israel. Attar’s father, Rony, an entrepreneur and ideas man working in IT, and his mother Ruth, a psychologist, both secular Jews aligned to the left, “were very savvy and they could see the political situation unfolding,” Attar recalls.
Rony and Ruth were “somewhat disillusioned with where Israel was headed politically and culturally,” says their musical son. Rishon LeZion – Hebrew for First to Zion – was founded in 1882 by Russian Jewish immigrants as one of the first Zionist settlements in Palestine and became a city in 1950, but the whole country was now lurching further to the right.
The couple packed off young Lior – born in 1976 – his older brother Amos and younger sister Yaelle to Sydney’s North Shore the year before the first intifada or uprising of Palestinians against Israelis began in the occupied territories in late 1987.
It was a wise move, given the bloody conflicts would be played out even in their home city: in 1990, seven Palestinian labourers waiting in Rishon LeZion to be transported to work were murdered by an Israeli gunman; in 2002, during the second or al-Aqsa intifada, a Hamas suicide bomber killed 16 Israeli civilians in a crowded Rishon LeZion club – although Palestinian deaths would prove much greater than Israel’s across both intifadas.
Attar, now 33 and who, like his parents, aligns himself to the left, is a supporter of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and co-existence, but “struggles” commenting from afar, admitting distance can both clarify and distort.
“It’s probably easier for me to sit here away from it all and make comments,” he says. “But, on the other hand, I’m not caught up in the fury of vendetta and I am able perhaps to look at it from an outsider humanitarian perspective.”
Australia was alluring to his parents because of its warm climate, dominant English language and multicultural reputation. “I do remember the first couple of years were tough for me because I was from a Mediterranean community,” he says.
“In Israel there was a close-knit community around you, and here there was a different sense of space – houses with gardens. I remember when I was in primary school I had to ride my bike here to go and see anyone; that was very strange. And I didn’t know English very well.”
Within two years however he understood Australia was a “pretty great society”, growing up “in the bush” around Killara, later studying at the University of NSW and moving to Bondi, where he was a “bad surfer”.
In 2003, playing a gig at a dive near Sydney University – “a pub that had live music for a while that quickly got superseded by the $5 steak” – he was seen by arts worker Nick Boshier, who was then all of 19, and the two men got talking after the gig.
At age 22, Boshier threw in his day job to manage the singer-songwriter. Attar meanwhile had independently financed his first album,
, on $20,000 raised from friends.
The album would go on to be certified gold by the Australian Record Industry Association and earn the performer three ARIA nominations in 2005: best breakthrough artist, best male artist and best independent release. The friends saw their investment back, plus some.
The recording and its reception were great achievements for someone whose parents had no known musical talent and whose own musicality had once been seriously questioned. “I couldn’t sing, actually,” he admits.
“I remember at primary school in year five, we were made to do choir. I remember singing and getting into it and thinking, ‘Oh this is pretty cool’.
“Then, after one lesson, my teacher called me aside and said, ‘Look, a few of the kids have been complaining about you singing loud and off-key, would you mind singing quietly?’”
He laughs. “Fortunately it gave me this resolve: ‘OK, I want to do this properly’, rather than going, ‘Oh, I can’t sing; I’ll move onto something else’.”
Attar picked up the guitar at age 11 and eventually his lyrics and style would be compared to those of Nick Drake and Paul Simon, but his musical heroes are Led Zeppelin, the Beatles and The Doors.
“I’ve never really been drawn into organised religion because music is where I source my spirituality,” he says, referring to his family as “cultural Jews”.
“I’m probably a humanitarian above all else.”
He “struggles” with the notion of God. Why? “I don’t know,” he laughs. “I think it’s always for me been an ‘I’d like to’ [believe] more than ‘I actually do.’”
Early last year, Attar released his second album,
Corner of an Endless Road
, which debuted at number two on the Australian chart and again was nominated for an ARIA for best independent release.
The album contains a duet,
I’ll Forget You
, with Adelaide-born singer Sia, whom he met in Los Angeles. Asked whether he would ever move to the US, Attar says he loves the lifestyle of Australia too much to give this country up to base himself anywhere else.
Attar teamed with Melbourne shadow artists Stephen Mushin and Anna Parry to make the video clip for
I’ll Forget You
, and the collaboration continued this year with the highly successful
Shadows and Light
tour – Attar playing guitar and singing while shadow puppets, light and images frolic around him.
On September 9 through 13, Attar will be resurrecting the
Shadows and Light
tour at Sydney Theatre – this time for the benefit of Youngcare, a charity for young people forced through disability or illness to live in aged care facilities.
Sydney’s loss meanwhile has been Melbourne’s gain: in 2007 he moved south because he married Melanie, a psychologist who works with children. “I love her for her honesty more than anything else,” he says. “She’s the toughest critic of my work, without a doubt. I know that if she likes it, I’m onto a good thing.”
The couple have a six-year-old daughter, Lucca, and a three-year-old son, Jem. Parenthood “has certainly put everything into perspective for me”, he says. “But I don’t think having children changed my outlook on being a compassionate person. That’s a motto I’ve always tried to carry and act out best I could.”