There is still evidence in my phone records that on May 12th, 2018, I texted a friend “ISRAEL IS THE CLEAR WINNER.” I was talking about that year’s Eurovision Song Contest, and I was right; Israel did end up winning the whole shebang thanks to one ultra-talented Netta Barzilai, whose AMAZINGLY catchy song, “Toy”, swept everybody off their feet. Fast-forward two years and you’ve probably heard it making the TikTok rounds, but even if you don’t know Netta from that, you might’ve seen her make a cameo in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams), which made its Netflix debut back in late June; while it’s a parody, it’s a pretty fun crash course in Eurovision culture (which escapes many Americans), and I would highly recommend watching if you haven’t already.
Netta was kind enough to hop on the phone with me last week to talk about how things have been going in Israel, which has had a very tough time during the pandemic, and about how she’s been trying to make the best of a bad situation by staying connected with fans online. We also talked about the aforementioned Fire Saga experience, how staying at home all the time has affected her famously eclectic wardrobe and more, so internet-eavesdrop on our conversation below for the full scoop, and be sure to grab a copy of her EP, Goody Bag:
So how have things been in Israel lately with the pandemic?
Well, the government just decided on a second severe lockdown.
Yeah, they closed everything. It’s very sad, especially for independent business owners. I don’t know what’s gonna happen to the country. Independent business owners and musicians and actors, all cultural industry workers…this is a dying industry. I truly believe, if you’re asking me, is that the only art that can exist is art that is funded by the government. And if that’s the case, then there’s no democracy anymore. We’re the last democracy in the Middle East, the first one, and I don’t know if this is gonna last after the pandemic, in my opinion.
It’s a super terrifying thought. I know we obviously have different circumstances here in the US, but we’re having the same sorts of conversations that, honestly, I never thought I would be having in my lifetime. It feels like a lot of things are crumbling.
A lot. I do believe that corona is speeding processes. I believe that the world is moving right, like right wing. Everything got so extreme, you know? The last twenty years it’s been a slow movement, but what corona did is it speeded things up. We’re at the tipping point; we can ask ourselves if we want to change and evolve. It’s a revolutionary point, like a crossroads, and there are a lot of rallies here. I hope they win. I hope the rallies in the US will get the upper hand. I believe in the power of the people. I believe in the good hearts that we have as human beings. I believe in the choices we can make. I believe in humanity. And the fact that this pandemic makes us further apart from each other, and we can’t hug anymore, we can’t be in communication…it pulls us away from our true nature. It draws us down. Because of that, art and culture is the most important thing that we need right now. We need to save art all over the world.
Absolutely. How has this all affected you as an artist? I don’t know if you’re working on anything actively at the moment in terms of songwriting; I know you’ve said in the past that songwriting doesn’t come super easily, or super quickly, to you. Do you feel anything has changed for you because of the current situation?
I think a lot has changed for me. I’ve stopped making a living, obviously, for almost eight months now. But I’m writing an album. Creatively I’m battling some demons, but it’s the only thing that makes me happy, getting in the studio to create. It sends away almost everything else. And I found a magnificent way to get to my fans; I really miss performing, and I don’t get to do it anymore, but I’ve seen such growth in my fan base despite that, being a TikTok sensation with 1.5 million followers right now. My song “Toy” has blown up in the US right now, two years after it came out. It’s crazy. I’ve founded an internet series called Netta’s Office where I’m sitting in my room and making music out of my followers’ comments, my fan base’s desires, and I’m giving them space, I’m giving them a platform. It’s been amazing. I’m going through stuff with them, I’m going through these things with them. It’s good we’re going through this pandemic in 2020 and not in like, 1965. [Laughs]
Right! Yeah, that’s been my thought, is it’s been an ideal time for people to connect around the globe. I know it’s very much a silver lining, and it’s not the same as being in a room together. Actually, I remember seeing you perform here in NYC at the top of the Standard East Village, and it was packed. It’s crazy to think that we have no idea when (or if) that kind of setup will ever be allowed again. But it is nice that artists are still finding ways to perform from afar, online.
You know, in Israel, it’s kind of disappointing to see an online performance. But when you actually interact with people during the performance, it helps. I wish that we could really figure out a way that we can get together again. I wish we could figure out a quick corona test that could test people in fifteen seconds and figure out if they have the virus or not. Because nothing beats true human energy in a room, when we all share and we’re all experiencing something together. I miss that, I can’t tell you how much. Seeing people’s faces, people singing with me, being with them, sharing the same air.
And you’re such a presence on stage, so I’m sure it’s even more impactful for you as an artist. Now, I will say that in spite of all the negative things that have come out of this pandemic, one of my absolute highlights was when Fire Saga came out on Netflix. I’ve probably watched that Song-Along scene like a million times now. Were you literally there with all the people, or did they edit it together to look like that?
It was insane. It took one or two thousand extras for this, English extras. It was insane. And it was me and Conchita and Loreen and Jamala eating breakfast together in a hotel. I don’t know what a Eurovision fan would give to sit at that table. It was so fun, like a crazy aunts reunion, like someone’s getting married and all the aunts are sitting at the same table. It was so funny! And when Will Ferrell asked me to do that, I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. He was one of my comedy idols, and he was so sweet and so considerate. He saw me on stage at the Eurovision in Israel and he told me he decided I had to be there. They prepared this crazy scene for me with the butlers jumping on trampolines, with fire coming out of their mouths, and with me coming out of a limo with this crazy, crazy couture leotard. It was one of my high moments, being in a Netflix film. If corona hadn’t happened, we were all supposed to be there on a red carpet in Amsterdam.
No, what a bummer! Even the Eurovision itself getting canceled this year was such a huge blow. I understood why, but still. It’s funny, I feel like one of the only American people…or, maybe now that people have seen Fire Saga there are more of us who are interested, but I feel like for years I was the only person watching it here in America. People don’t get it.
I think for good reason! Eurovision is a European thing, and maybe it should stay that way. [Laughs] It’s kitsch at its best. It’s like a fairy tale land where everything is good, and everybody has peace with each other. Everybody’s friends, and everybody sings about fireworks and love. I love this competition. It was one of my highlights, but I don’t know if an American can relate.
My boss and I were talking about this because she grew up in Serbia watching it, and we were wondering if the average American would turn that movie on on Netflix and understand what was happening at all. But it’s so good! It was a great film, and it’s so cool that you got to be a part of that.
Definitely one of my highlights.
Alright, closing question. You have an incredible sense of style. I know a lot of people have been grappling with getting dressed (or not getting dressed) during the pandemic, because obviously so much of our daily interactions take place in front of a screen from the waist up. I mean, for me, sometimes I’m like, “Why am I even bothering to get dressed today? I’m not going anywhere, and I’m not seeing anyone…” Has that affected you at all?
I can’t lie, it has. [Laughs] I’m doing the Netta’s Office series and wearing full couture and hair and expensive clothing, and underneath I’m wearing pajamas, and I’m barefoot. I’ve been dressing for Zoom, like news broadcasters and how they only dress from the waist up. But seriously, it does make me feel so much better when I do dress up. It is a bummer when you don’t go out with it; I miss it. I miss wearing heels. I can’t believe I said it, but I do. [Laughs]
Featured image by Eran Levi