Yoav Sadan: Pop hits on tap

Drummed out on his acoustic guitar, Yoav's songs have drawn comparisons with Justin Timberlake and Jeff Buckley. He tells Alexia Loundras why he moves to a different beat

"I've always felt like an outsider," says Yoav Sadan, absentmindedly tapping the guitar beside him. Barefoot and scruffy, the musician looks uncomfortable sitting on the fashionable black sofa of his management's office.

The Israeli-born, Cape Town-bred musician is used to not fitting in. "It's been a recurring theme for me," he says. His music eschews pigeonholing: it's been compared to everyone from Justin Timberlake to Led Zeppelin, Jeff Buckley to Pharrell Williams. His debut album, Charmed & Strange, marries emotive song-writing with dancefloor energy. And intriguingly, every note, melody and rhythm of this coiled, intense music is teased, banged, looped and layered by Yoav on the strings and body of his trusty acoustic guitar.

The Timbaland-esque rhythms driving the addictive tunes have got music fans buzzing ahead of the album's April release. The deliciously dark single, "Club Thing", has already reached No 1 in Denmark, while hype is growing in the blogosphere over his haunting cover of The Pixies' "Where Is My Mind". It seems UK industry bible Music Week were right in predicting that Yoav would be one of the breakthrough acts of 2008.

"I'm delighted that all this is starting to go the way I always hoped it would," he says. "Truth is, I was having doubts for years." Growing up, confidence was decidedly thin on the ground. He was a self-confessed ugly duckling whose childhood in South Africa sounds like a premise for a Woody Allen film. "I was the only Jewish kid in an Anglican boys' school," he says. "My parents wanted to try something different with me. But I became the slightly uncoordinated Jewish kid in a very sporty, old-style British establishment. I didn't have many friends. I just sat in my room and played guitar. Music was my escape.

"My brother, who's older than me, played me 'I Am The Walrus'," he says. "I'd never heard anything like it and was blown away." But such music was an illicit pleasure. The only sounds allowed at home were classical or opera.

"My father couldn't condone what he called 'light' music," he explains. A Romanian Jew born in 1933, Sadan senior fought in the wars that led to the establishment of Israel. "We clashed a lot," he says. "He was set in his ways, and wanted me to be an architect – to him, becoming a rock star wasn't a realistic career choice. But I never lost my obsession with music."

The young Yoav would get his pop fix of Wham!, The Police and OMD at his neighbours or wait until his parents were in bed to listen to smuggled tapes and practise on his brother's old guitar. By the time he entered his teens, Yoav had joined a band and was sneaking into nightclubs. Music was the forbidden fruit and Yoav devoured it, graduating from pop to indie, then hip-hop, grunge, dance and electronica. He spent hours alone in his bedroom, writing songs and feeling sorry for himself: "Oh, I was a top wallower," he remembers, brightly. "But the guitar was my lifeline."

Aged 15, Yoav went to a Crowded House show and found himself performing to 15,000 people. "It was one of the first gigs after the cultural boycott. The band were inviting a member of the audience on stage to sing and before I knew it I had been volunteered. I sang 'Into Temptation' and the crowd were roaring. I remember going to bed with the biggest smile on my face, knowing this was what I wanted to do with my life."

The bubble burst when, aged 17, Yoav took his demos to London. Every label turned him away, so he returned to South Africa and enrolled at university. That was when he was scouted by a modelling agency. "I was insecure about the way I looked, so it was a real surprise that I should be considered cute."

Emboldened, Yoav underwent a conscious transformation. "I'd been a little over-protected as a kid, so I tried to force myself to do things that I'd been afraid of," he says. He taught himself to surf and experimented with drugs: "I explored things almost shamanistically," he says. "I learned to enjoy myself."

Just as Yoav was beginning to lose himself, fate brought him back on course. A cousin in New York sat next to a Columbia Records executive at a fundraising dinner and happened to have one of Yoav's demos. The exec listened on his way home and called the singer the next day to offer him a development deal and the chance to move to New York.

Once there, Yoav became obsessed with trying to write a radio hit. But while his days were spent polishing his "straight-ahead singer-songwriter pop", by night Yoav hurled himself into the city's clubland. The most inspiring discovery was a Central Park drum circle. "There were drummers from all over the world – Mali, Morocco, Cuba. The rhythms were incredible. There'd be three-year-olds and 80-year-olds dancing to them." He realised that he'd lost sight of his original aim. "I'd been so obsessed with trying to be a success that I'd forgotten what music is really about; the joy, the passion of it."

But then Yoav became disheartened that his own music bore no relation to the dance music and tribal rhythms that were exciting him. Sitting alone in Central Park one day, he had an epiphany. "I started tapping out rhythms on my guitar," he says, demonstrating on his guitar. "I looked up and there were a group of young school kids and they were dancing! I kept changing the beat and they were going crazy! I felt like a DJ playing to a club. It was a revelation."

He began writing songs to the pummelling of his guitar. Using loop pedals, he learnt to make dance music on an acoustic; his hands flying from conventional chord playing to hypnotic drum and bass rhythms. The result were songs that marry the lyrical sensibilities of a troubadour with The Chemical Brothers' instinct for a dancefloor hook.

"I always loved pop music that walked the line," he explains, "music that sounded new and different, but that stuck in your head the first time you heard it. And that's the kind of music I always hoped I'd make." It took him a while, but he got there. After five years in New York, Yoav parted company with Columbia when they deemed his new sound too unique. But it was their loss. He returned to the UK and, this time, was snapped up immediately.

Now, with Yoav sitting on the brink of well-deserved success, even his father is beginning to take his career choice seriously: "He seems really proud of me," he grins. "But he does still keep asking me if I'm getting paid."

Charmed & Strange is out on Field Records on 21 April. 'Club Thing' is released on 7 April. Yoav tours the UK in April. See www.myspace.com/yoavmusic

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