Globally known songwriter and performer, Netta (born Netta Barzilai), moved with her parents from her native Israel to Nigeria as a three-month-old infant. When she was school-aged, her folks enrolled her in an international school where students had myriad different backgrounds. There were kids from Japan, Mexico, Nigeria, South Africa, and other nations. As Netta says, there were all sorts of cultures and languages. The principal was American and he always carried a guitar. The place celebrated diversity, not monoculture. Netta remembers the Beatles and African gospel in her airwaves.
Videos by American Songwriter
Videos by American Songwriter
Later, though, her parents moved back to Israel when she was 7 and homogeneity kicked in. Suddenly, she was one of 40 ”white kids” in a classroom, and she was immediately just “the fat, uni-browed kid with the accent, who is also very, very sensitive.” This jarring juxtaposition, in a way, fuels every song the artist creates now. For Netta, music became a lifeline, a light source. And this is perhaps most obviously displayed on her newest single, “CEO,” which came out three weeks ago and has already amassed more than two million views.
“I wanted to be the Che Guevara,” Netta tells American Songwriter. “Create this revolution that people understand no matter what position they’re in, they’re the CEO of their own story.”
Netta describes a difficult life growing up. Because of her brutal entry to school and social situations in Israel at 7, she learned quickly to recede. If she was not to be let into any of the groups at school, she would make herself self-sufficient (“I built my own team of one,” she says). This path, though, is a quick way to a callous existence and, in her heart, Netta is not that type of person.
“I found myself blaming all kinds of people,” she says. “Blaming circumstances, blaming the times, blaming anything. But I was busy doing that and not rebuilding, which is something I needed to do.”
Music was in her life early on. Even by three years old, Netta says, she was an “enthusiast” about it. But it was a little later until she realized she had talent. She’d sung around the house and her mother had complimented her voice. But she never believed her mother. It took an outside validation to make it clear. Netta remembers being in first or second grade, in the school choir. The conductor singled her out and asked her to sing and all the other kids turned, in awe, when she did it.
“I figured out right then and there that I got something,” Netta says, “and it was leverage.”
But the ever-internally-vigilant Netta didn’t stop there. She loved music so much and saw that it had such an effect on her that she gave it up for a whole twelve months. She decided to do that in 2011 at 18 years old—now 10 years ago. She gave up singing, wanting to make sure that if she picked it back up it was because she loved it, not because it was a tool for merely outside validation.
“I needed to love me for me,” Netta says. “I needed to choose music as something that I chose to do and I love to do, not as a defense mechanism. So at the age of 18, I stopped singing for a whole year. I left school and everybody faded away and I needed to cleanse.” She adds, “I didn’t like me, I needed to love me.”
In Israel, every citizen is required to undertake military service for a certain period of years. For Netta, she chose to use one year of that time as a volunteer in Tiberias, Israel, working with kids. She lived in a commune, she says, but because of her experience as a young person disconnected from the group, she was not a help at the commune. She implicitly refused to do her chores, she says. They told her she was unbearable to live with.
“Because I was never included as part of anything,” Netta says, “I didn’t want to. But I chose to change. It was really, really a big moment for me.”
In the same way Netta chose to change at that moment, these days she similarly chooses to participate in music every day. To work in music means, essentially, to always be in flux. Such is the life of an artist. It’s not easy to change, for anyone. We like the way things are, we seek comfort. But to be creative is to muck everything up and find glory in small victories in new songs and fan interaction (Netta says she bursts into tears when she gets fan art).
“It’s not a comfortable profession,” Netta says. “Every morning I have to choose it.”
For the past year or two, Netta says, she has been battling “control issues.” Like many performers, COVID-19 upended her world and it took her a particularly pointed amount of time to rectify it all in her head. In 2018, Netta won the prestigious Eurovision Song Contest with her song, “Toy,” representing Israel. From then, she had big ideas rooted in big hopes. But COVID changed all that, without any hope for evading its destruction.
“It brought acid rain over everything that we planned,” she says. “And melted everything away. So, I needed to manifest control back into my life.”
Netta sought high and low for inspiration and clarity. She got spiritual readings, she explored numerology. Eventually, she found solace in a phone number she was assigned. Some people had found her old number and had begun pranking her. So, Netta got a new number and the digits portended something meaningful. The numbers in her telephone number displayed a sign, she says, one comprised of vulnerability, stability, and creativity. Also, when sung together, they offer a sticky, staccato sound: 9789789.
“My mother taught me I need to sing numbers in order to remember them,” Netta says. “Immediately, I became obsessed. I don’t know why I don’t know how.”
But reciting them in music worked. She began to regain control and, thus, “CEO” was born. To cap off the effort, Netta spent six months learning choreography and undergoing conditioning work for the intricate dance moves in the video. It’s another example of how hard of a worker she is, even for the smaller details. Netta, who’s written about 60 songs, says these days she doesn’t plan. Her plans never work out. By letting go of control, she’s gained more of it. And whether a new album comes out sooner or later, her music will continue to tell her rich, triumphant story.
“It’s better than drugs,” Netta says. “Music can make you feel so strongly. It can move you into action so quickly, it can change your life. And I’m talking about when you’re not even making it. I am a sucker for moments when I listen to something and it changes me. It changes my day, changes the way I see stuff, changes my mood. It just has this power to change people. It’s a very, very beautiful weapon.”
Photo courtesy Shore Fire Media