‘I believe that songwriting is an approach’ | Interview with Yotam Ishay

The Country is a track from Yotam Ishay’s debut album Opus 1. Read our interview with the Israeli pianist and composer below!

Describe your sound in three words please!

Melodic, Mellow, Folky.

You are working on a solo piano album to be released soon. Would you like to tell us a few words on this? Taking into consideration that your debut album consisted of music created a few years back, how do you think your sound has changed, if at all?

Of course! I’m super excited about this one. I recorded the entire album on the piano in my hometown, Afula, during the lockdown here in Israel. I feel that this is the most intimate & authentic setting for my music since a lot of my pieces were written on my “whispering” piano at home.

The album is going to be split into 2 parts. The first will be dedicated to songs written by other composers that I love so much that I made my own arrangements for them. The second part will be released a few months later and will include some of my own compositions that have been waiting to be released for a while, and will include some incredible guest musicians.

As for the sound – the change is more of the setting itself. Most of the album will have a focus on melodies and atmosphere.

Where do you mainly draw your inspiration from? And who is your favourite pianist?

So hard to choose! I love Brad Mehldau & Tigran Hamasyan.
I feel that Brad has the most beautiful ideas and sometimes I can’t do anything else while listening to his music. I can say that about Tigran too. I also love Chilly Gonzales. Especially for his melodies and his unique, truly modern approach to musical form.

As for inspiration – I draw from artists that I love listening to, from emotional experiences that I witness, from hearing some fractions of melodies. Sometimes these fractions are actually memories that are expressed in a new shape, which I transform into my own pieces.

Given that you have received much of your music education in Israel, could you describe to us the experience of being in Berklee College and Boston? Is songwriting a talent or a skill?

Honestly, I believe that songwriting is an approach. I began composing pretty much from the moment that I first touched the piano, even though I had no idea what I was doing. By the time I got to Berklee, I was 25 years old and already had some of my sound/voice in music. Of course, I had many influences, especially in Boston. Berklee is a place where I met people from countries that I would never imagine that I’d have the chance to meet. I got to stretch my musical style to musical influences that were new to me. Indian music is one example. I was a part of the Berklee Indian Ensemble for 3 years where I got to collaborate with Shankar Mahadevan & Zakir Hussain. That influenced my style deeply.

Do you prefer to write alone or collaborate with others? What is the greatest challenge/benefit of working together with others?

I mostly write alone, but much of my inspiration comes from other musicians. Up until now, I managed to keep the writing process somewhat virginal and straightforward. I have zero criticism towards myself when I’m having an idea for a piece or a song. I keep the critical mode for later in the writing process. For me, the moment of the initial inspiration for a song or a piece is a holy one. These couple of minutes of inspiration is are the source for the entire piece of music.

A good example of collaboration is the piece “Abba-Ji” that I wrote for (& played with) the legendary Tabla master Zakir Hussain. Hussain was going to receive an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music, and I was called by Annette Philip (Director of the Berklee Indian Ensemble) to compose a piece that would be intertwined with a story to be told by Hussain about his late father, who was a Tabla master himself.

I felt very inspired by the humility showcased in the story by Hussain and worked together with Philip towards creating this piece later called – “Abba-Ji”. The piece was later performed in Klarman hall at Harvard Business school.

How do you spend your day when you are not making music?

I mostly take long walks in the fields next to my city. It’s very calming and helps me start my day in a positive way.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a musician?

I’m not sure but it would definitely be art. Maybe visual art. To this day I love looking at visual art and I feel very inspired by it. Sometimes I even write music based on it

What is the biggest stereotype about Israel and its people?

Not sure. Maybe that we have chutzpah which is bravery that borders with rudeness. It has advantages because it helps you find your way through obstacles but can also make you appear rude.

Thanks Yotam!

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