Fans of Israeli pop star Noa Kirel won’t be all that surprised to learn that, for her English debut, “Please Don’t Suck,” the 20-year-old interpolates a song written a half-century before her birth — 1954 barbershop ditty “Mr. Sandman.” Kirel is, if not an old soul, then certainly mature beyond her years in the minds of those who’ve been following her rapidly ascending career, with the smarts, confidence, charisma and talent to forge her own path.
And that’s exactly what she’s done in her home country, where the singer is currently serving out her two-year mandatory military service in the Israel Defense Forces. That means days away performing for troops in the IDF musical troupe, although she’s hardly out of sight or out of mind. To the contrary, in Israel, a country whose population currently hovers around 9.3 million, Kirel is everywhere — from Instagram to magazines, streaming services and radio, YouTube, television, advertisements and, undoubtedly soon, TikTok.
Indeed, “Please Don’t Suck,” and its accompanying hot pink-themed, ponytailed, dance-heavy video poking fun at lame guys, is tailor-made for a bite-sized homage, from its lyrics to the symbolic, if a tad overused, lollipop. And then there’s that “Mr. Sandman” melody underscoring the verses — credit co-writers The Monarch for coming up with it — making the song instantly memorable. Her label Atlantic Records hopes Kirel’s relatable non-intimidating cool — think: Israel’s own Ariana Grande — will translate to international success.
Like Grande, Kirel got her start on television, participating in kids shows and theatrical productions then graduating to reality singing competitions, like “Israel’s Got Talent,” where she served as a judge in 2018. At the same time, Kirel has been releasing hit songs and videos, a few of which have been criticized for being too provocative or overly sexualized for someone of her age.
To hear Kirel tell it, she owns her choices, from visuals to fashion to hair, makeup and dance moves, which is how she can make a Hebrew banger like “Million Dollar,” a song about having an unapologetic sense of self-worth, not sound like she’s bragging.
Kirel spoke to Variety from an undisclosed location, and in uniform, ahead of her U.S. debut.
Was there a lot of music in your house growing up?
Noa Kirel: All the time. I would be singing and dancing in the living room, and I’d make everybody sit and watch me and clap their hands at the end. I always listened to American pop music like Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez and Beyonce. And the English language works well with my voice. For the audience that listens to me in Hebrew, it will be different for them, but a good different.
You signed with Atlantic last year. What drew you to the label?
I felt a connection right away — like they understood me, what my goals are and what I’ve been doing for almost seven years in Israel. It’s hard to explain, but the energy in the room felt right. I always dreamed about an international career and, even though I’m 20, I know how to deal with success and how to work hard. And they just felt that I’m ready. And I did, too. I mean, let’s go!
What was your reaction to hearing the melody of “Mr. Sandman” open what would become your first single?
When I heard it, I was, like, wait, I know this song! I worked with producers the Monarch. We wrote the verses and everything felt young and cool and super catchy. With the “Mr. Sandman” [interpolation] at the beginning, it makes you feel like you know this song and you know what’s gonna come.
You’ve weathered your share of criticism, like when a judge on “The Voice Israel” said your music was “junk” and a “danger to art” in the country. How do you handle that?
You know, when I started, there were no young girl singers in Israel. I was 13 and, at the beginning, it felt weird for people. Not coming from America like a Britney Spears or a Beyonce, it was hard for people to understand me. So I did take a lot of criticism and a lot of things were said about me which was hard to hear at 13, 14. … But I thought that a day will come when people understand everything — that what I’m doing is right and it’s what I believe in. So my way was not easy, but it made me who I am today.
Did you have a strong support system?
My family is amazing. They’ve been with me in the worst of times and they have my back. I think success is hard without parents and that base of family and home. It’s really important because it’s a big world and it can be a bad world sometimes. And I know that I always have my family looking out for me.
You mentioned Britney Spears, who also got a lot of heat initially for her age and how she dressed. In the video for 2015’s “Killer,” you’re wearing an outfit that looks like it could have come from the “Baby One More Time” shoot. Was that your own styling choice and are you in control of your image?
Yes. I have to be. And I think you can see it on the screen, you know? If somebody tells me to do [something], you will see it that it’s not authentic to your audience. They know everything — that is one of the things that I learned during this year.
Americans seem to love Israeli television, and musically, producers like Omer Fedi and Johnny Goldstein are charting major hits in the U.S. for artists like 24kGoldn and Black Eyed Peas, respectively. Why do you think Israeli talent is coming to the forefront now?
Israel is a very small country and development happened very slowly. Now there are so many talented people here — actors, singers, everything — and it feels like the right time for an Israeli artist to break through. Of course, I’m talking about myself. [Laughs] I feel like this is the right time for me to do it and to represent Israel in a different way.
Are you considering incorporating Hebrew into your lyrics?
Not at the beginning, but maybe after I can add a word like “Yalla.”
Who do you want to work with musically?
Chris Brown, Justin Bieber, Jason Derulo, Ariana…
You have a project in the works with Picturestart, can you tell us anything about it?
It’s a movie that tells my story in a different way, with a lot of action and music and dancing and new songs. A little like “The Bodyguard” but more fun. I’m so excited about this one.
How do you balance your professional life with being in the Army?
It was really important for me to join since [there’s] nothing I can do as a normal kid, so the army is a good thing for me because you’re equal with everybody else. It’s been an amazing experience. And I’m performing to soldiers with my songs and making and I get to serve my country during this crazy time in my career. Also, [I can] be an example to young kids and show them that you can join the army, serve your country and have your life and your career, whatever it is.
Israeli-Palestinian relations have long been tense but flared up significantly in May. What was the experience like for you?
I can’t talk too much about it but I can say it’s very hard for both sides of the border, and it’s always scary to be in this position. I’m not [here] to talk about politics too much because I really want to focus on the music and on the songs. I’m just hoping for better days. I think we all are.