It’s been four years since Israel’s pop queen Netta triumphed at the Eurovision Song Contest, bringing her iconoclastic fashion, indelible vocals and musical chops, and sheer Israeli chutzpah to international competition known as much for kitsch as for star making.
Netta, who goes by a mononym, makes her Washington, D.C., debut June 23 at Union Stage, one leg in a U.S. tour that stops in Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles. And while her 2018 Eurovision pop anthem “Toy” — with its girl-power refrain: “I’m not your toy, you stupid boy” — feels like eons ago, well, a global pandemic put the world on hold for a while.
Since, the singer/songwriter’s singles include her recent paeon to self-care “I Love My Nails,” her nod to feminist leadership “CEO,” a stay-positive message in the fun “Bassa Sababa,” and covers ranging from Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changing” to a unique version of “Mary Poppins’” “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
Looking forward to connecting with her D.C.-area fans and making new ones, Netta, 29, said in a phone interview from Los Angeles, “Everyone that comes to this concert is gonna have the time of his life.” She added, “It’s family friendly, for everyone. Seriously, come … you’ll experience something that is very pure. It’s connection between people. It’s music that’s very fun and energetic. It’s a party. And it’s emotional.”
Spirited and experimental — especially compared to the cookie-cutter standards of pop music — Netta is larger than life, a standout in this world where female singers conform to a body conscious, model-thin standard, whether they’re singing torch songs or female empowerment singles. She unapologetically owns and enjoys her plus-sized figure, tapping into Israel’s experimental fashion designers for colorful and eccentric outfits that accentuate her curves and emphasize her “big girl” status.
A beat-box artist, Netta creates an orchestra of percussive sounds using her voice and mouth with a microphone and a looper, the electronic device on which she records phrases then mixes and layers them into a full-blown ensemble — live on stage. She embellishes her outsized presence with ruffles, frills, sequins, big hair, inches long nails, crazy platform heels and whatever else strikes her fancy. Often with a wink and a playful nod, she has learned, that that she is often enough, without backup bands and singers.
“I tried to do a big orchestra thing with a bunch of musicians, saxophone players and all,” she said, “but I figured out that less is more in my case. I am too much,” she laughs. So instead of an orchestra, she brings her looper and two back-up musicians on tour to D.C.
Born in Hod HaSharon, Netta spent her early childhood in Nigeria, where her father worked as an engineer for Solel Boneh, the Israeli construction company. “I was in an international school,” she said. “There was one kid from Japan, one from England and three kids from Nigeria. We were seven kids in the classroom; there were no groups. It was the true definition of diversity.”
When her family returned to Israel, Netta was bullied. “We needed to leave Nigeria quickly without saying goodbye. When I got to Israel there were 40 kids in a classroom. I was the fat kid with the accent. I was also very sensitive.”
She continued: “I believed everything the kids said about me: That I am not worthy of love. That I am not worthy of being a social leader. I was very miserable.”
Her mother stepped in and signed her up for a children’s choir. “After a week I was given a solo. And when I opened my mouth, I realized that I have something unusual — when I sang people turned their heads.” This helped her survive her school years. “Whenever I needed people to like me,” Netta said, “I sang or did impressions. It was way to express myself. It became my defense mechanism.”
A stint in Israel’s Navy Band gave her performing experience, but also made her realize that singing became a crutch.
“When I turned 18 and all of the school people faded away, I had an epiphany,” she said. “I thought that what people think about you doesn’t make you. I realized I was missing all the fun and I really needed to start the process of loving myself. So I quit singing for a year in order to choose music again, not as a defense mechanism, but as the passion I needed it to be.”
Netta’s U.S. tour coincides with Pride month, which pleases her as much as her fans. “I always say that I’m a very straight girl with a very gay story,” she noted. “I feel a very natural connection with the [LGBTQ] community …. I create from a very, very gay place … my work is about being yourself, if that’s a kind of agenda, it goes really well with the values and the truth of the community. I’m not a gay man or woman, but I feel as close as I can be.”
Her other unapologetic driving force is her Israeli identity. While her songs don’t pay homage to Israel in ways earlier generations of Israel’s singers have done, Netta is adamant about claiming her nationality, wherever she tours.
“From the Mediterranean beaches to the unapologetic accent, to [some] words in Hebrew in my songs, I create international pop, but in a very Israeli way, from a very Israeli perspective,” she said. “I am not hiding. I am not ashamed in any way of where I come from. It’s the first thing I always say when I come to the table. I love where I come from. I work here in L.A. a lot. I do sessions and performances, but there’s something about living in Israel that I cannot replace.”
Netta, June 23, doors open at 7 p.m., show 8 p.m., Union Stage, 740 Water St. SW, Washington, D.C. Tickets: $20. https://www.unionstage.com/shows/netta/