Asaf Avidan recalls the “What the…” moment he sparked the first time he sang in public, when a half-dozen people in the pub stopped drinking and talking to stare in disbelief. The setting has changed for the mohawked singer/songwriter, a star in his native Israel who performs for hundreds of thousands at European festivals. But the high, grainy timbre of his voice still astounds, bringing to mind female singers like Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse, as well as Jeff Buckley and Jimmy Scott.
“Whatever people want to hear or think they hear, I can’t control it,” says Avidan, who makes his local debut at the Somerville Theatre on Feb. 22. “I didn’t realize there was anything special or different that I was doing with my voice. I needed to express a wide spectrum of emotions, especially emotions that had to do with pain and anger, and instinctively, I reached that range because it helped me portray almost physical pain.”
Avidan, 33, only discovered that visceral urge to sing and write songs in 2006 after he broke up with a longtime girlfriend, quit his job as an animator in Tel Aviv and house-sat for a friend in Jerusalem. “I brought this guitar, and I don’t know why I brought it because I wasn’t so much into music,” he says. “It was kind of a self-therapeutic process. When you don’t just write songs, when you vocalize your thoughts and you hear yourself sing these words out loud, it helps.”
Indeed, that voice acts as his conduit to depths of soul-searing introspection. “It’s almost like my heart is an archaeological dig,” Avidan says from Hawaii, where he takes a monthlong vacation each year with now-girlfriend and bandmate Mikey Bashiri. He still hesitates to call himself happy, preferring the word “content” to describe his life. “I’m pretty melancholy,” he says. “That [former] breakup is just an example of a long string of heartaches and loneliness that I had growing up.”
The son of diplomats, Avidan moved around, spending four years of his childhood in Jamaica. “There was no love or hate for [travel],” he says. “As a kid, you think it’s a normal life because that’s what you’re accustomed to.” He didn’t develop his taste for music until his teen years, when he followed the thread from Nirvana and Soundgarden to Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, then on to blues and folk, finally settling on the lyrical import of Bob Dylan and particularly Leonard Cohen. “He painstakingly chooses every word for two or three months,” says Avidan, who stopped short of embracing Cohen’s methods. “I really needed something immediate.”
Like Cohen, Avidan has branched from folk roots to a more modern sonic palette. After three albums with his folk-rock group the Mojos, topping the charts across Europe when a Berlin DJ remixed “One Day/Reckoning Song,” Avidan wanted to pursue different sounds.
Last year’s resulting solo debut, Different Pulses, complements the fragile mood cast by his vocals. “My life is like a wound, I scratch so I can bleed,” Avidan sings in the title track, surrounded by stark textures and snare rhythms in the vein of trip-hop pioneers Portishead.
“The idea was to make it as personal and minimal as I could make it, and it grew from there,” says the singer/guitarist, who experimented with keyboards and loops with producer/percussionist Tamir Muskat from Balkan Beat Box. “613 Shades of Sad” sports a spooky synth melody as well as rubbery guitar phrases that suggest an oud, partly because he put a sponge under the strings. It’s the only sound on the album that nods to his Middle Eastern environs. “I have been around,” Avidan says. “I don’t really feel this urge to define myself.”
In turn, while he spent 2013 perfecting his stage show with a band in support of the new album throughout Europe, Avidan says he’s touring solo this year to keep it interesting, for himself and the audience. “I like this idea of starting a song and not really being sure where it’s going to end,” he says. “I want people to go out of the venue feeling something, having gone through some kind of emotional arc.”
Asaf Avidan plays the Somerville Theatre on Feb. 22.