Zen And The Art Of Subway Busking: A Conversation With iRO

Israeli-born singer, songwriter and producer, Ori Rakib, is known for a lot of things. Under the pen name iRO, he’s become world renown for his songcraft, winning an episode of NBC’s Songland in 2019 and going on to write a slew of genre-bending pop tunes for others. He racked up millions of streams with Macklemore, signed a publishing contract with Shane McAnally’s SMACKSongs and has played on stages around the world for thousands of fans. Yet, to a select group of frequent-subway-riders in Brooklyn, he’s no international music star at all—he’s the busker they see all the time.

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And it’s true—Rakib has been busking in the New York subway for years. At first, he busked as a way to cut his teeth, building up his nerve and improving his performance skills in a not-quite-hospitable environment. Then, he found beauty in busking and the connections he fostered while doing it. Ultimately, the experiences gave him the strength and know-how to really find himself as an artist. Yet, despite all of his prowess as a performer, Rakib never had the confidence to actually put those performances onto tape… until now. On February 10, he will release “Change Your Mind,” the first single off his forthcoming debut EP by the same name. 

Lush with shimmering synths, punchy drums, bombastic bass and Rakib’s crisp voice, “Change Your Mind” is a colorful explosion of expression. See, Rakib is the type of songwriter who’s all about intuition—oftentimes, his gut finds what he wants to say or create long before his brain does. While in the past, this dichotomy was a source of indecision, Rakib recently sat down with American Songwriter to explain how he overcame his doubts and second-thoughts. Now, he doesn’t worry about labels or superficial things in his way and instead follows what his heart wants to hear… and his heart has great taste. Read our conversation below: 

After spending your childhood in California, you moved back to Israel as a teenager—how did those experiences in your upbringing influence you? How did you get involved in making music? 

Yeah, when I was about 13, my mother sorta kidnapped—err, I say ‘semi-kidnapped’—my brother and me and brought us back to Israel. It was only a semi-kidnapping, not your typical, full-on kidnapping. In that period of time, I was always a serial optimist. Some friends called me delusional, even. I remember when I was 14 years old that I had a crush on Natalie Portman, so I tried to reach out to her. It’s funny now, but I was serious. In my eyes, it was such a possibility. 

I left high school when I was 16 years old and I actually wanted to study physics for a bit. My dad has a crazy story—he was born and raised in Egypt, he was in first grade when he was 3. So, I’ve always had these weird expectations from him and that definitely shaped me. It’s the classic story of a dad who’s an academic and a kid who runs away from everything to do with that.

So, I wanted to do all of these creative things. Then, one day—in my military service, I believe—there was this situation where I was at this show. Somebody said something like ‘Oh, I’ve heard Ori sing before.’ They heard me, one thing led to another, somehow I met some producers and then there was that ‘A-ha moment’ where I got a recording of myself. I remember calling my mom like ‘Mom, I think I can sing!’ In that moment, I kinda knew that that was going to be my thing.

In a way, do you feel that being a ‘serial optimist’ was actually the magic ingredient for your success? 

Yeah. In all honesty, if there’s one thing from my upbringing that I’m happy about, it’s that endless belief. When I look back at old videos of me playing on the street, I’m amazed by the nerves I had back then. I was doing something without really being ready to do it—at least not in a way I would consider to be ‘ready’ nowadays. I was jumping into the deep end. Then, to think about all of these things that happened to me—like going from playing in the subway to playing on stages around the world—well, there are a lot of times where I ask ‘Why me?’ It’s mind-blowing. So, yeah, for me, that belief is the heart and soul of everything. Be a little delusional!

You mention that you played in the subway—you’ve been busking for years, even as you’ve become successful. How did you first get into busking? What does it mean to you? 

Initially, it came about because I had just moved to New York and I didn’t really know what to do with myself. There were so many options and I found myself asking ‘Where do I start? How do I launch a career?’ A friend of mine said to me ‘Hey man, people play in the subway!’ And… that’s kinda how it started. It was really a spur-of-the-moment thing, I didn’t know what I was doing.

The first time I went, there was already someone playing at the station, so I actually got onto the train. My first time busking, I was one of those super obnoxious guys who plays on the train. I remember going from Bedford to 14th Street and back. I made, like, $40 and I was just shocked by the experience. Afterwards, I realized that I had left my winter coat at the station and by the time I got back, it was gone. I was like ‘Alright, I’m going to keep doing this until I make enough money to buy myself a new winter coat.’

Like with anything, in the beginning it’s just about trying to find your voice, searching for validation. Beforehand, I don’t think that I could’ve been described as ‘qualified.’ I barely played. I did it before I was really ready. But, as artists—and as human beings—we always criticize ourselves. So, in the beginning, it’s all about putting yourself out there and figuring it all out. Plus, the noise levels in the subway help—technically speaking, you’re just trying to beat that noise. If you slowly work on that over time, the space alone helps you get better. It’s like training.

Then, once you’re past that first stage where it’s not really about being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ anymore, you start to realize how many lives you are able to touch by just going out there, opening your mouth and singing. I knew that something would happen every time. I didn’t know what it was going to be, I didn’t know who would listen, who needed that particular song at that particular moment. But, I think the beauty of it is that you are singing for people, for individuals. They feel that you’re there for them, in a way. After I made that connection, it started to feel like a job, like a purpose. I don’t want to say that it felt like ‘enough,’ but I will say that it felt like I was living the dream. I was looking at the streets and the city in a different way. I felt like it was my calling, I was fulfilling my purpose by constantly going out there and doing it. It was almost I had a boss telling me to get out there every day. Plus, it’s a full ecosystem of things. I would get inspired, I would write, I would earn enough to cover my bills and pay my rent.

I’m sure that the subway is an interesting environment to test out new original songs in. What was that like for you? 

Definitely. There’s a phenomenon where you’ll play a song that people love and then they’ll hit you up like ‘Hey, where can I find this song?’ Then, four years later, you still don’t have a recording of it for them… that definitely ties into why I’m finally putting out this music. I had so many songs and it became this thing. I would develop a relationship with the people who would then develop relationships with the songs. When you play at a specific time—like at midnight—the same people tend to ride the train and you start to recognize the faces. There were several people who would ask me about these songs that they grew to love and I just never had versions available for them to listen to, they’d just have to come to the street to hear it. 

So, yes, you really do figure out what works and what doesn’t. When you’re playing on the street, you’re not carrying a name with you. You’re not a brand, you’re just a guitar and a voice. People don’t know you, you have to get them to stop in their tracks. In these big cities, people are always moving, so if they stop, that means they’re feeling something. 

I felt this once I started playing in Brazil—I would play a big stage in front of tens of thousands of people. I would come back to New York thinking ‘I’m the king of the street! I’m back!’ Then, I’d be playing and really just singing my heart out and nothing would happen. There’d be 30 minutes where not a single person stops. I’d think ‘What happened?’ and get lost in my own head, like, ‘Did I lose the magic? Did I lose my special touch?’ Ultimately, you just have to remind yourself why you’re doing it. Once you do that, the magic just happens. It doesn’t even matter what you’re singing, all that matters is if you’re feeling it. 

Your press release mentions that you feel that ‘now is the right time to properly introduce the world’ to your music—why now? What do you think changed in your own process where you finally feel ready to share recordings? 

For starters, as a creative you sometimes get so into creating that it becomes urgent. Especially right now when there aren’t really live performances and you’re just writing one song after the other, when you get an idea, you have to get it out there. Then, you kinda just move on to the next idea. So, you’re constantly creating, but there is this full-circle idea of making something and then putting it out. 

In all of the years that I’ve been playing on the streets, there are all these songs that I’ve come to love. You develop and you change and sometimes your sound changes too. I learned that all of this reasoning that I had—all of these conversations I had with myself about why it wasn’t the right time—was just a bunch of bullshit. So, now I’m calling myself out here: now is definitely the right time. It’s realizing that I want to feel that way again. I don’t want to live in this perfect world where everything has to be right, where it’s about ‘Wait for that release’ or ‘Wait for the right label or team of people.’ All of these reasons just ended up being a big ‘STOP’ sign for my life. 

In a way, by leaving behind that desire for everything to be ‘perfect,’ do you feel creatively liberated? Like you can just follow your gut without worrying about the external stuff? 

I do feel liberated, very much so. My songwriting has always been very versatile, genre-wise. It took me years to understand that instead of apologizing for it, all I had to do was be like ‘Oh, that’s part of what makes me who I am.’ I think that a lot of the time—especially when you go into these label meetings and stuff like that—everybody just wants to box you in something. They want to be able to say ‘Okay, he’s an alt-pop guy.’ I had so many different influences in my writing that I think people were, at times, confused by that. They were like ‘Wait, where are we supposed to fit you in?’

I think that with this EP, I had the opportunity to just do what I feel. If you’re a triangle and someone tries to fit you into a square, it just doesn’t feel good. So, it’s about finding the peace within yourself, the confidence to be like ‘Hey, this is me and I’m going to put it out.’ That’s what made the busking thing so epic for me. I was pretty much just standing naked no matter what. 

The songs on this EP have such lush, imaginative arrangements—how did you approach creating them? Do you demo while you write? 

Yeah, definitely. Some of them came about from… well, word vomit, to be honest. At least at the beginning, each one of these songs mostly started out as a freestyle. So, the essence of what I was trying to say came about before I even knew what I was saying or knew what it meant. So, that was really interesting to me. 

A source of therapy in my life is getting tattoos—I like getting them because I used to have a problem making decisions. For me, getting a tattoo is like my therapy in regards to that because you’re making a choice—it might not be something you’ll always like, but at least you’re making a choice. A decision is a decision, be it the best or the worst. You learn from it, it takes you to a place you didn’t know you could go. So, it’s a way to connect with and trust those instincts.

With ‘Change Your Mind,’ we got to a certain point—me and Jonnathan, who produced it—where it felt so close, but the chorus wasn’t quite there yet. We were having those conversations, like ‘Oh, is it us? What could this be?’ But we just kept fighting for it. I think we rewrote that part more times than I’ve ever rewritten anything—it took, like, six different choruses to get it right. Then, months later when I heard the master for the first time, a friend of mine was showing it to me on his computer and I was listening to it through the phone. It made it feel like I was listening to it on the radio and that was, for me, the first time I ever really understood the song. It’s because I needed it—that phrase, ‘Change your mind,’ was calling out to me. It was like ‘This is the time where you need to grow, you need to realize that this is a new situation. You can’t fight it with an old perspective—you need to adapt or else it’s going to hurt.’ So, that was a moment where it turns out that what I wrote in the past was the exact thing I needed to hear in the present. 

It’s amazing how music can access those deeper emotions that sometimes we don’t even recognize in ourselves.

For sure, we have this deeper… well, I don’t know if you call it ‘knowledge’ or ‘ intuition’ or whatever, but there’s something there. 

Honestly, these past few months have been extremely hard for me. My wife and I came to Tel-Aviv with her father, thinking that he was No. 1 on the list for a heart transplant. We had so much hope, but he ended up passing away. It’s funny in a way because, subconsciously, I wrote an entire album preparing for this. All of these songs, looking back, I understand where they came from. He was a tough music critic, but he loved these songs. He loved them. He was like ‘When are you going to release them?’ So, part of me feels like I’m putting these out for him too.

Sometimes you can get carried away with a result-oriented life, but then you risk losing the essence of why you’re making music. It happens—you’re thinking about your future or all these other ideas or numbers or how to get more streams. Then, there’s that moment where you hear a song and you’re like ‘Oh my God, music is so powerful.’ It’s beautiful. 

Listen to “Change Your Mind” by iRO below:

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