Yasmin Levy can write songs only when she is sad. Should the Israeli singer-songwriter famed for the emotional intensity of her theatrical performances attempt to compose when she’s happy, it never works out: no matter how many days she spends at her piano, writer’s block strikes every time.
“For me, sadness is a gift,” she says. “I’d be miserable without sadness.”
So it is bittersweet to learn that Levy has a new album coming out.
Mujer, meaning woman in Spanish, was born from two personal crises, she says. The first was Covid and being stuck at home, unable to perform live music during successive lockdowns.
“Musicians were at home asking themselves ‘Who am I?’ The music was turned off and you felt that you were worth nothing, that you had no existence.”
The second trauma was getting divorced from her husband, the producer Ishay Amir. “The person with whom I thought I’d get old, broke my heart and my life,” she says. “I was totally devastated. I woke up one day to a different reality, the bottom had fallen out of my world.”
The combined effect of both wounds was that a previously unplanned album was completed in two days. It is, she says, the “easiest” she’s ever written.
It also proved a pivotal period for Levy, now 47. The mother of two children, Michael, 12, and Manuela, nine, she had to pull herself up and carry on.
“I said to myself, ‘Look, Yasmin, it’s either you go down, really down, or you stand up on your feet. Enough is enough. Don’t be a victim. Move.’
"And so I went from devastation to ‘OK, I have me and I have my kids, and they have me, and I’m surrounded by love.’
“It was the hardest time of my life, but I must tell you that it was a blessed time. I was born again. From being a fragile person, I became a lioness.”
The Yasmin of yesteryear was, she says, a musical dreamer who lived in a bubble and who relied on her husband for “everything” from going to the bank to chaperoning her on journeys.
“When I went on the Underground in London, he would hold my hand,” she recalls. “He led me all the time.”
And so Mujer is the most apposite of names for the new album. Each track is about a different woman, and she will perform two of them at her show at the Barbican next Tuesday.
As for the future, Levy is not interested in star collaborations or even collecting accolades, she says. Having navigated her way through crises, she wants to continue to prove herself to herself.
“When I became single, I started to manage my life and not count on anyone or any men. I built myself up from the very bottom. And I learned that I know how to calculate, how to think.”
She also embarked on studying law. And although she admits she doesn’t have the kind of bullish personality you need to fight in a courtroom, she does see a future role “helping people, to negotiate, to communicate”.
Levy plays a rare UK show at the Barbican on May 2 (Ali Taskiran Studyo Ltd)
For Levy is an empath. Her music has taken her around the globe, but it’s not the shows at the Sydney Opera House, the Carnegie Hall in New York, or London’s National Theatre where she starred in Yaël Farber’s production of Salomé in 2017 that she remembers.
It’s the people. The concert she remembers best took place in Azerbaijan 20 years ago. “The villagers danced for us, and brought us home-baked bread afterwards.”
The emotion and openness that punctuate her words also inform Levy’s straight-from-the-heart performances. She might describe herself as the funny one among her family and friends, but you’ll never hear Levy sing romantic ballads or chirpy songs about the sun and flowers.
“Some people touch you through happiness, I do it through sadness, even though I have tried all my life to avoid bringing sadness into people’s lives.”
Her first moment of sadness came when she was only a year old and her father died. Turkey-born Yitzhak Levy was a musicologist feted for collecting Ladino songs who told his five children (Yasmin is the youngest) that music should always be a part of their lives, but never become actual musicians.
It was too hard to make a living. He’d have known. As well as a scholar of music, her late father was also a singer-songwriter.
Her mother Kohava still is. She ignored her father’s career advice, but became a Ladino singer almost by accident. Levy was 17 and in Spain when a friend asked her to record a few songs in Ladino, the hybrid of Castillan Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic, Greek and Turkish spoken by Sephardi Jews.
A few years later, she made an album with funding from Israel’s National Authority for Ladino Culture. Then, in 2004, her debut album Romance & Yasmin, won her a BBC World Music Award nomination.
Levy has a huge audience in Iran (Ali Taskiran Studyo Ltd)
Next followed two more Ladino albums: La Juderia and Mano Suave. Sentir was a top world-music release of 2009. And her music has found its way on to Netflix by the way of The Club, the 2021 drama series about Turkish Jews in 1950s Istanbul.
But while she has played a part in reviving Ladino, Levy’s keen to point out her other musical influences.
She was also raised, she says, on the passionate music of Luciano Pavarotti, Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday, Argentinian tango, and flamenco. And from the start, she combined Ladino with Turkish influences and Middle Eastern instrumentation, flavouring her original songs with flamenco.
“From the beginning I wanted to combine Ladino with other sounds and influences. Ladino is my fountain, if you like, and while I have never forgotten an old friend of my mother telling her that if you identify as a Ladino singer people will treat you as something classic and niche, I don’t rail against that as I used to.
"I’m 47. I’m aware that I’m now the generation responsible for keeping Ladino heritage alive.” Meanwhile, her songs speak to fans around the world and for that Levy credits growing up in Jerusalem with its melting pot of cultures and Jewish, Muslim and Christian music.
Her inbox fills with emails from fans in Poland, Turkey and Syria asking why these songs “feel like home,” she says.
“The answer is that I grew up with Arabs and Christians, people from Morocco, Iran, Azerbaijan. I saw the way they dance, the way they play music, the way they cook. So it’s all inside me.”
And today, she works with musicians from Iran, Armenia, Egypt, Spain, Greece, Turkey and Poland. Their musical traditions flavour her scores, she says. “If I share my world with theirs, it makes a bigger world,” she says.
“That’s why I have all those colours in my music. And when I put together an Armenian musician with a Turkish musician, they don’t see each other as an enemy. They become best friends. And this is only thanks to music.”
In addition to bringing people together through music, she has long been an ambassador for Children of Peace, a UK-based charity helping children in the Middle East. “The hatred that we have, Palestinian and Israeli, is deep and big. The only thing that can affect change is putting young innocent kids together,” she says.
Her philosophy is already paying dividends in Iran, where she now has her biggest audience, and from where women have sent videos telling her they listen to her music in the car and in underground bars. Horrifically, some of them have been arrested for that.
“Precisely because they cannot talk, are not free, I’m trying as much as I can to be their voice. Music is my religion.
"All my life people who didn’t want any contact with me because I’m Israeli or Jewish, became my friend when they heard me sing. So God save us from the day that we don’t have music. It’s the only pure and sane place left in this world.”
Yasmin Levy plays the Barbican on Tuesday May 2 : barbican.org.uk/whats-on/2023/event/yasmin-levy