By Yara Alkurd, Ella Clair, Jake Amy, Emma Volard and Hugh Heller
The past eleven years have been really hard. As a Palestinian immigrant, painting on an identity without a picture to draw from felt nearly impossible, and I didn’t leave a war zone to get stuck in one in my head… People who have to start over in a place not built for them, but make it their home anyway, are my biggest inspiration. Talking to other immigrants allows me to explore and reflect on my own identity. And it’s complicated. Singer/songwriter and APRA award winner Lior immigrated to Sydney when he was 10. I sat down with Lior to talk about belonging, “hybrid” identities, and music collaboration. What follows is an abridged version of our conversation.
A lot of immigrants feel that they don’t belong in the place they move to, but also, don’t feel like they belong in their home country. Where is your home?
I certainly don’t feel a 100% sense of home and belonging in either Australia or Israel… for different reasons. I’ve accepted that there’s a large part of my heart which lies in Israel. And I believe any person would have a strong connection to the place they experienced their childhood, particularly a happy childhood. But I also know that when I go back to Israel, I don’t feel like, “Oh, this is where I need to be living”.
In Australia, I don’t have any ancestry or familial ties. I don’t have a strong connection with the origins of how “Australia” was created. But I also feel so lucky that my family did come here and that we can enjoy the privilege of living here. I love the inherent fairness that’s embedded into Australian society - a unique concept which I think is actually very hard to find in other places in the world. There is a certain authenticity and acceptance here. I mean, I think we’ve still got a long way to go, for sure, but there’s also a lot to like.
Have there been moments where you’ve been confused about your identity?
Yes. I regard my identity as being a “hybrid”. Having grown up in Israel, I have a strong sense of spiritual identity linked there. Referring to cultural practices, I am Jewish and that forms part of my identity (the religious side of it has never really appealed to me… I’m more interested in music, culture, customs, language and philosophy). My Australian identity is more linked with the immediate; loving where I live and the lifestyle I can have here. So my sense of identity constantly shifts. It’s a very hard thing to pinpoint. Music has been a great thing that helps define who I am, and can also be a source of escapism when I need it.
Y: Do you feel centred in your identity?
I do, because I’ve accepted that my identity is a thing that is composed of many fragments. I also think that family has become the backbone of my identity as I’ve gotten older.
Do you feel a sense of independence is intertwined with the identity of immigrants?
I’ve never really thought about that. I’ve always just put my independence down to being a really stubborn person, but it could very well be because I’m an immigrant. There’s a beautiful line in Hamilton; “Immigrants. We get the job done.” It’s a bit like that, isn’t it?
Y: I’m very stubborn as well and I’ve been wondering; is this at all related to being an immigrant?
As an immigrant, I often feel like the outsider. In the first few years of moving here, I definitely felt like an outsider… though I wouldn’t say that I ever felt “alienated”. And I think when you’re an outsider, you have two options; one is to stand tall and say, “Right, I’m going to forge my own path here,” or you can shrivel up into foetal position. So, perhaps that outsider thing does lend itself to being more independent.
What are the social/political responsibilities of an artist?
Big picture wise, artists are a mirror to society and have a place to occupy. They’re reflective of what’s going on. On a micro level, it comes down to an individual artist’s purpose. Some artists feel a lot stronger about being those reflectors of society.
Personally, I haven’t really been a “political” artist. Often we’re drawn to do things that impacted us when we were growing up. When you’re a teenager, everything is so amplified. For me, that is the way that art made me feel. Like there was something greater, a higher emotional plane perhaps, that took me away from the mundaneness of things. I regard myself more as an introspective artist - I’m interested in dealing with the human condition, relationships, and opening people through expressing vulnerability in my music.
In 2013, you collaborated with Nigel Westlake to create Compassion, an orchestral song cycle for voice and orchestra set to ancient texts in Hebrew and Arabic. What did you learn most from that experience?
Compassion probably resonated with audiences more than anything Nigel or I had ever worked on. It was surprising given I was singing in two languages foreign to most of the audience and people didn’t understand the words. I think people could feel what I was trying to convey, which was affirming and validating in a mysterious kind of way. There was definitely something spiritual embodied in the text and the music. I don’t know if it was a learning experience as much as it was a wonder. On a technical level, it was great to realise how much crossover there was with the Arabic texts and Hebrew language.
What does Compassion mean to you?
For Nigel and I, Compassion was actually trying to present a message of the wisdom of compassion, which is something universal and humanitarian that’s applicable to all human beings. But also, we tried to make the work more poignant by drawing from two worlds that have had such a volatile history over time, and tried to find common ground as well as conveying how important those messages [of compassion] are within those religions. In both languages, the word for compassion constitutes one of the names for “God”. It's a reflection of the importance that both religions put on the trait of compassion.
In a broader sense, Compassion is a hugely important and musically very powerful piece. The orchestration that Nigel did is amazing and so multi layered. I find new things in it all the time. I’m really proud of the melodies that I constructed and the texts that I sourced. On a performance level, it's really uplifting and exhilarating to stand in front of an orchestra playing music of that dynamic. It’s also great to step onto a stage and feel like you’re 100% behind the message that you’re delivering. I know that most people don’t understand the words I’m saying, but a literal understanding was always printed in the programme.
The premiere of Compassion was actually in Sydney on the night of the elections where Tony Abbott won. I had so many people after the concert saying, “I'm so depressed about the outcome of the election, but I’m so glad I got to spend it here, listening to this.” There was this sense of brotherhood and sisterhood to Compassion.
Y: And what does the word “compassion” personally mean to you?
The seed of it was the hymn that I sang in the last movement called “Avinu Malkeinu”, which I originally looked into because I was developing my singing for the piece. I went back to traditional Jewish melodies just to experiment with new styles of singing. This hymn is sung on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, and it’s about forgiveness. But, it also has this line in it that says, ‘Instil me with a greater sense of compassion so that I can be liberated’.
When I was singing it, I was thinking “oh, wow, what a beautiful line”. To say that compassion is the way that we can become freer within ourselves. That just lit a flame of being drawn to the idea of compassion and then reading about it.
The final song of my second album Safety of Distance, I won't go into the story behind it, but there's a line saying, “Compassion is the measure of a man.” It became a central theme in my philosophy and lyric writing. As well as being the most important virtue that I have, and what I think is the central thing that defines what it is to be human.
In your opinion, what would happen if radio stations explicitly played music made by immigrants for three months?
I think we can form connections with so much more music than we think, but we rarely give that music more than one fleeting listen. I think there could be a gateway to a greater appreciation of music and culture if people were repeatedly exposed to new music, gained insight into how it’s made and what’s important in it.
Hip-hop is a great example. In ‘90s Australia, it was a marginalised art form, and people would often be dismissive and judgmental of it. As people slowly listened to it over and over, they became more accepting of it. Now, artists such as Hilltop Hoods are mainstream and draw enormous crowds. It only took 10 to 20 years for people to look beyond their superficial judgments of it…
What’s one great initiative that you want to see more of in the Australian music scene?
More support for young artists - the first few years are really tough for emerging musicians. I’ve been involved in a program through APRA, where we go to schools and work with budding songwriters. An artist and producer team up and spend a couple of days collaborating. I’ve been a mentor for quite a few of them now, and have seen the impact it makes on a lot of young artists, which is great. These programs are really successful, and I think there’s so much to be gained through programs like that (and just general music education). I’d like to see permanent initiatives rolled out in high schools. Sadly, I don’t think that’s on the agenda for this government.
Y: Ever since coming here, I’ve felt that I am always a step behind everyone. Initiatives like that in high school learning would be very helpful.
Yeah, I do think that if you want to be an artist, you have to figure it out for yourself and as you go. It was interesting going into these high schools as a mentor because the students were like, “Oh, this guy’s doing it. It’s possible... Maybe I can do it as well?”. I saw so many light bulb moments. Some of those moments are ones that light a spark to make students believe that they can go on and do it.
Any advice for emerging artists?
It would’ve been good to listen a bit more to people that were in the industry and not think that just because I was doing it on my own, I knew everything.
Keep up to date with Lior here
We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other First Nations people who have read this article.