For most 13-year-old Jewish girls, the biggest event of the year is their bat mitzvah. Though singer Yael Danon’s Jewish identity is important to her, her bat mitzvah may have been upstaged by a platform slightly bigger than a bima: that of “Israel’s Got Talent.” Appearing on the 2019 season of the show in the youth category, the young Yael made her mark on the the judges immediately with a cover of Coldplay’s “Fix You” in her audition and a stunning rendition of “Wonderwall” by Oasis later in the competition. She went on to win.
It’s a sequence of events that Yael described to me recently over Zoom as both “amazing” and something of a coincidence.
“In July 2018 I was in Israel just visiting family. All of a sudden, my dad finds out that there’s these auditions for ‘Israel’s Got Talent’ and he goes, ‘There’s this last audition. Do you want to go?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, of course!’ So I did.”
Coincidence or not, winning “Israel’s Got Talent” has propelled Yael’s career forward. Over the last few years, Yael has released singles in both English and Spanish, the most recent of which is called “Fomo.”
“And if it makes me selfish, I don’t care / Please don’t have a good time if I’m not there,” Yael Danon laments in the single, which drops today.
It’s a sentiment that the Jewish pop singer makes as musically catchy as it is relatable. For the 16-year-old, the fear of missing out cuts a little deeper than for most. As a teenager in the music industry, Yael is currently feeling some FOMO, or fear of missing out, about the fact that all her friends are at camp while she’s been in the US doing a music program to continue developing as an artist — a situation that almost perfectly aligns with the narrative of the “Fomo” music video.
“Fomo” and song “Teddy Bears,” are part of a larger project: her first ever EP, entitled “Diary Girl.” The seven-song, Olivia Rodrigo-esque EP is an energetic, no-skip collection of Yael’s innermost thoughts. In short, “Diary Girl” maintains a fun balance between sweet and tart, all in Yael’s powerful voice.
Yael’s transnational Jewish identity helped shape the forthcoming EP. “I have these mini identity crises,” Yael explained. “I was born in Panama, but my parents are Israeli and I go to an American school. And when I speak Spanish, I have a slight accent, and the same with English and Hebrew, too. It can be confusing, because it’s like where am I actually from?… I do feel very connected to both my homes, Panama and Israel,” Yael added, smiling.
Yael Danon chatted with Hey Alma about writing an EP that shares her diary with the world, her Israeli musical influences and what’s next.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
First of all, congratulations on your forthcoming EP, ‘Diary Girl.’
Could you tell me about your Jewish identity and background?
I live in Panama, where there’s a big Jewish community. I’ve been going to a Jewish American school since I was three years old, so I’ve been very connected to my Jewish identity. First of all, I’m a Zionist, and every morning we have prayers. And Shabbat has always been a thing in our family every Friday, as well as going to synagogue on holidays. So it’s a big part of who I am.
I’m surprised, I didn’t realize that there was a large Jewish community in Panama. What has it been like growing up Jewish there?
The Jewish community is pretty strong. There are three big Jewish schools; there are the more religious schools, and then the Reform community also has a school. The Jewish community in Panama is very supportive. I feel like everyone knows each other and when something happens, the community is there to help one another. So it’s very interesting. People often think, “Oh, you live in Panama? How is there a big Jewish community?” But there truly is a very strong community that has maintained a lot of traditions throughout the years.
So there’s a Reform community and there’s a more religious community. Which one are you part of?
My school is an Orthodox school — I’m not religious, but we do pray every morning. There’s not much of a Conservative community, but the people in the Orthodox community identify as Modern Orthodox, closer to Conservative. There’s a little bit of everything in Panama.
Your current project, “Diary Girl,” is an EP based on your actual diary. How do you feel about sharing your diary with the world, and what inspired you to do that?
I’m excited, but it is a bit nerve-wracking just because it’s pretty much my diary and it’s my emotions out there. This being my first EP, I really wanted to make it represent my most authentic self. I call this EP my identity, because it’s really how I feel.
The first release – my single “Teddy Bears” – was really amazing. And the whole process has been, too. It’s been almost a year and a half since we started work on the songs, so finally seeing everything come to light and people being able to stream the songs makes me so excited. And now we’re releasing “Fomo” which is also very, very exciting.
Which is your favorite song off of the EP?
“Best Friends to Lovers,” as it’s the most relatable.
Can you tell me a little bit about the writing and recording process for “Diary Girl”?
Some of the songs were collaborations with co-writers and producers, and other songs I wrote by myself. For “Teddy Bears” and “Fomo,” the producer Joel Iglesias, co-writer Valentina Preciad and I were thinking about scenarios that we see throughout my daily life that I feel like I could talk about that I hadn’t talked about yet. We started discussing the idea of the toxic ex who gets a new girlfriend and treats her the same way, and that’s essentially how “Teddy Bears” came to life. And “Fomo,” as you can guess, is about the fear of missing out. For me, summers are when FOMO hits especially hard, so the timing of this release is perfect; we didn’t initially plan that we were going to release this song for summer.
And for other songs, I write stuff that happens to me on my notes app, like, OK, this happened to me today — kind of like my diary. I actually don’t trust my diaries anymore because I lose everything, so having it on my phone is very helpful. And I just started writing things that happened to me. And eventually, I’m like, “Oh, this could be a song.” So I find the chords on my piano that I think match what I’m trying to say, and then I usually call my producer and we’re like, “Let’s do this.” But the process is different for every song, depending on how I feel at the moment.
That level of creative freedom sounds amazing. And how did the pandemic affect the production of your EP?
The pandemic is very terrible and heartbreaking, but as an artist, it did help me in some ways. Before the pandemic, I mostly performed — doing performances every day, I didn’t have time to sit down and work on my songwriting. Through the whole pandemic, I just wrote songs and wrote songs and wrote songs. I wrote like 40 songs that year. And I was like, “Wow.” I knew I liked songwriting, but it was like I discovered a new passion for it. I feel like now I can say that I love both [performing and writing] equally. During the pandemic, songwriting has really helped me open up — it’s a type of therapy, also.
So is your goal to tour with “Diary Girl?”
First of all, it’s already so amazing that it’s finally coming out and I’m releasing this music that I’ve been working on for so long. But the main goal with this is definitely be able to perform with my songs, eventually to tour or do festivals with the songs from “Diary Girl.” That would be the dream for me.
In the music video for your next single “Fomo,” I love the detail of one of the actors wearing a Star of David necklace. Was that an intentional wardrobe decision?
Actually, it was his necklace. The actors are my friends, and I feel that’s part of the concept of his whole song. I truly didn’t want to use actors that I’ve never spoken to, because “Fomo” and the video are so personal. With the video, we did obviously have a director, but because they’re my friends everything was very organic. We just had so much fun for an entire day — there was a camera there, but I feel like everything was very representative of my actual life, and that’s why I wanted the actor to keep his necklace, too.
Who would you say are your big musical influences Jewish, or otherwise?
My more general influences are definitely Coldplay, Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo. For Jewish influences, I’ve actually listened to a lot of Middle Eastern music. I definitely like listening to Omer Adam. As a young girl, my parents would make me listen to Idan Raichel, so I think that somehow stuck — everything I listen to, I take with me. I definitely listen to a lot of Israeli music.
I know you’re trilingual — could you see yourself writing future albums or EPs in Hebrew or Spanish?
I have released music in Spanish, but doing more is always a possibility. It’s something I’d love to do, I’d love to play around with the languages because it’s a part of who I am.
I will say that the whole production of “Diary Girl” has been pretty international. Some of the vocals were recorded here in Panama, but I’ve worked with producers from Miami, LA and Israel.
With “Fomo” out today and the EP coming out at some point this year, what is next for you?
Throughout the year, we will be releasing more songs from the EP. So by the end of the year, or even before, the whole EP will be out. And throughout, I’ll definitely be sharing more stuff that I’m working on on my social media. Right now, I just finished a songwriting program at NYU, and soon I’m starting a five-week program at Berklee College of Music for performance. So that’s the plan for now.