NEW YORK — “Does anyone here speak Hebrew?” isn’t usually the call-out that gets the biggest response at downtown, tastemaker rooftop parties. Consider this another example of how Eurovision Song-winner Netta Barzilai is forging her own path. I was lucky enough to see her in a rather intimate (read, cramped, sweaty, exuberant) setting — her first performance in the United States.
The entry to “The Standard, East Village,” as this rather chic hotel is very specifically called, is a bit of a trick. It appears to be a ratty tenement building in need of a paint job. (You’ll still find a few of those sprinkled around this mostly gentrified but still endemically edgy neighborhood.) When you walk in you’ll see the building has been hollowed out and, surprise, it is attached to the sleek, glass, unusually-shaped towers next door. The carpeting ramps up to a mirrored desk like it’s leading you to Oz.
And if you go there on the right night (around three times per month) and smile, the person behind the desk will simply ask, “Are you here for Annie O?”
For the past seven years The Standard, East Village has hosted “The Annie O. Music Series,” a word-of-mouth salon curated by recording industry vet Annie Ohayon.
It’s free and anyone can come, but you kinda-sorta need to know about it first. The listings aren’t hidden, but they aren’t exactly trumpeted around town, either. You are supposed to RSVP, but I didn’t see anyone checking names. Just a lot of elegantly dressed professional people and twentysomethings in appealing summer garb (and me, just off an un-air conditioned subway looking like a pachyderm at spin class, but let’s not get into that). And on this particular night, a cadre of gorgeous gay Israeli ex-pats, too.
Ohayon is a French-Moroccan living in the United States for “ages” who once worked in the Israeli foreign press office. But she made her mark on the artier side of pop music, working publicity for people like Lou Reed, Phillip Glass, The Cranberries, Peter Gabriel, Annie Lennox, Ornette Coleman and many others. Now she is working full time for The Standard and having a ball.
“These days where budgets for labels are limited, we provide a space, we provide sound check, we provide the engineer. It works for everybody,” she tells me.
The series has become renown for launching acts. I ask if she’s got a favorite and she says this is like “choosing a favorite child.” A 44-song Spotify playlist includes Maybird, Lo-Fang, Rebecca Jordan, Okyeame Kwame, Big Thief and more.
Netta’s first gig is definitely part of a planned push to keep her relevant post-Eurovision. Her 50-minute set is just after a live interview with AOL Build. She hits “The Today Show” the following morning.
Weirdly, few are discussing her during the 21st-storey outdoor schmooze-and-cocktail hour prior to the performance. Eavesdropping, I get the sense that many here are just talking shop. One guy is booking a classic rock warhorse on a tour, fretting the intricacies of reminding potential ticket-buyers of the artist’s old band for name recognition without leaning on it too hard. (Conclusion: it’s not an easy needle to thread.)
I ask a woman (who turns out to be on Netta’s American management team) if there are a lot of significant movers-and-shakers in the music biz up there on the roof with us. She simply says “yes,” implying that the last thing she wants me to do is press her for specifics.
I left her alone and, pushing past the lithe young people taking rounds of selfies, I got a drink. (Joke’s on me: the music series is free, but the bar is typical New York prices.)
Inside the penthouse room, Netta situates herself in the corner with her loopers and digital gadgets. A good 100 or so people squeeze in to watch her. “You look gorgeous!” a young club-going kid with an Israeli accent shouts. And she does. Her reflective dress and the pink-orange-lavender lighting look wonderful against the windows and clouds.
Netta explains how just nine months ago she was still waiting tables and singing blues, but her whole life has turned upside-down. She has the blush of youth but loads of self-confidence. Someone asks, “How do you speak English so well?”
“I watch a lot of TV,” she chuckles back.
Then she spits beats into the mic and offers up a blues wail, looking giddy as a child (and almost a little surprised) when her machinery turns this into the foundation for her next song.
She covers “Rude Boy” by Rihanna and Ke$ha and “Barbie Girl” by Aqua, plus a slowed-down (and simultaneously hilarious and haunting) version of ubiquitous ’90s club hit “What is Love?” by Haddaway. Also, one Hebrew song that I think translates to “Papa Can I Have Some Money?” which is dedicated to the parents that helped the 25-year-old get her high tech equipment. Naturally she wraps things up with her international sensation “Toy.”
Annie O. tells me that she doesn’t always cozy up with the artists like you might think.
“I am super discreet,” she says. She also has no comment when I ask how the music industry is expected to survive in an era when everything is an inexpensive stream. “I don’t really get into that.”
Luckily, she does ask me the one question I was hoping for. “Would you like me to put you on the email list?” Next time I’ll take some more selfies.