Art By Or Rosenstein: Tel Aviv

Lyrics and Dreams: Inside the Mind of a Musician

By Sharonna Karni Cohen

Israeli Musician Totemo (Rotem Or) on community, lyrics and dreams

How did you get your start in the Tel-Aviv music scene?
I was a teenager who discovered early online communities for artists and musicians. I started uploading the raw songs I recorded with very poor equipment in my bedroom. I connected with some musicians and collaborated with people who are very good friends of mine to this day. It was this human connection that encouraged me to keep sharing my music.


You recently told Ryan Kristobak in an interview that you got the name Totemo (Rotem Or’s stage name) from a Dream, were any of your other lyrics inspired by dreams?
Dreams have a way of painting your day with a certain mood. I could feel as though I’m walking on a ray of sunshine just because I’ve had the most wonderful dream, or I could be extremely down because of a nightmare. I’ve written a lot of lyrics after having meaningful dreams, but not all of them have found their way into a song yet. However when they do, it won’t be so obvious. I’d probably give it a twist from actual things that have happened to me. Some sort of an interpretation.


Your melodies are very whimsical and soft, but the lyrics are strong and impassioned. What is driving that intensity?
Even though I tend to be vague in my lyrics, the feelings that inspired my need to write or sing are always very strong and focused. It’s not something you can easily describe in words. That’s why the outcome tends to become ambiguous. I definitely need this combination of words and music to convey a vivid and strong feeling.


Is there a form of art that inspires your music?
Nothing in particular. In the same way that there are good songs in any musical genre, I believe that all art forms can be inspiring to anyone, you just need to find the few that speak your emotional language.


In a lot of your songs it sounds like you are having a conversation with someone: ‘Knowledge that you think you hold,’ who/what is inspiring these conversations?
We’re all in a constant dialogue with someone, even when I’m alone I experience my thoughts as if I’m in a conversation. I suppose this is why it’s very natural for me to write my lyrics that way as well. Sometimes it is directed towards someone I had in mind when I write the song, sometimes it’s me on the other side of the conversation.


Obviously ‘Heavy as My Dreams’ is one of our favorite songs. You mention ‘fear’ a couple of times throughout the song. Is there a certain fear that you were struggling with when you wrote this song?
When I wrote this song, I was struggling with expectations. The need to reduce these expectations sometimes made me feel small, weak, and unworthy – as a way to (badly) cope with a possible failure in advance. Fear is the driving force of this destructive process.


What is your process for writing, do you have to be in a certain mindset or headspace?
There is definitely a ‘zone’, which is excruciatingly rare, in which new songs or breakthroughs are born. There is also a lot of ‘aimless play’ which is less muse, and more editing, trying new things, and playing around.


Is there a certain crowd that your music is geared toward?
Definitely not. I can characterize a certain demographic slice in our live shows, but there are always exceptions.


Who are the musicians that inspire you and why?
I love storytellers. Kate Bush is probably my first love, as well as Genesis. In past years I fell in love with Joanna Newsom, Julian Cope, and many more. I can feel their honesty and humanity through their music, even when they’re singing about the most elaborated situations they’ve never actually witnessed.


What has been your greatest challenge as an up-and-coming musician?
For me there wasn’t one great challenge, but a lot of little ones. To name a few: holding back when I want to share a new song but I know it’s not ready yet, understanding my limitations and asking for help or the urge to produce something creative when I’m out of any inspiration at that moment.


We have to ask, what is the last dream you can remember having?
I watched Blackfish last night. It’s a documentary about killer whales in captivity, and it’s quite horrific. I think it might explain the dream that followed: I’m walking the streets of south Tel Aviv, picking up a dog I’ve apparently left there. Then I’m walking with the dog and gradually, but also all of a sudden, as dreams do, I’m actually walking the streets of Manhattan. I arrive at this barricade of police and people, and I see there’s a giant giraffe – a whale giraffe – standing in the middle of the street, while police and armed forces are trying to bring it down. It eventually died, it was heartbreaking, and then I woke up.


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