Not just a candle in the wind

14-year-old Israeli singer Liel Kolet shares a stage with former U.S. president Bill Clinton while singing a rendition of “Imagine” at the 80th birthday party of Shimon Peres in Tel Aviv last week.Fourteen-year old Liel Kolet could easily be mistaken …

14-year-old Israeli singer Liel Kolet shares a stage with former U.S. president Bill Clinton while singing a rendition of “Imagine” at the 80th birthday party of Shimon Peres in Tel Aviv last week.Fourteen-year old Liel Kolet could easily be mistaken for your average Israeli teenager. She sports fashionable oversized sneakers and low-rider cargo pants, she speaks a mile a minute, she likes best to hang with her friends, and she can easily rattle off all the latest videos on MTV.

But the ninth-grader – who hails from a kibbutz in the north of the country – sets herself apart from the pack when she opens her mouth and sings. The owner of a truly amazing voice, Kolet has turned into an overnight sensation throughout Europe. Since her professional debut just two years ago, she has performed at massive venues alongside singers Elton John and U2′s Bono and entertained world leaders.

Last week, in an impressive display of self-confidence, she spontaneously invited former U.S. president Bill Clinton to sing a duet with her at the gala 80th birthday party for Shimon Peres in Tel Aviv.

As she began to sing John Lennon’s “Imagine” with an 80 member youth choir at Peres’s party, she approached Clinton and said, “I heard that you like to sing, and I’d like to invite you to join us.” Clinton accepted the invitation and joined in on the chorus.

“I wasn’t afraid for a minute that he would refuse,” Kolet said afterward.

In another coup, she was recently selected for 2004′s European “We All Have a Dream” tour which will include top artists like John, Sting, and Lionel Ritchie.

How did a young Israeli kibbutz teen end up hobnobbing with some of the top names in the music biz? It all started three years ago when Kolet, at the ripe old age of 12, won a national singing contest sponsored by BravoTV, an international network that hosts contests around the world for talented youngsters. She flew to Italy to represent Israel in the international part of the competition. Although she failed to win first prize, was voted the crowd’s favorite performer for her rendition of Israeli legend Ofra Haza’s “Le’orech Hayam”.

The Bravo producers, it would transpire, felt Kolet could go far and so they called Irit Ten-Hengel, who has worked in the music industry for more than a decade, to tell her of this Israeli sensation.

“I was shocked by her ability,” Ten-Hengel, now Kolet’s manager, told ISRAEL21c. “She has a vocal range of seven tones. The only other singers with this capability are Mariah Carey and Celine Dion.”

“I was looking for a young artist to promote,” relates Ten-Hengel who previously worked at Polygram and Sony before setting up her own company, Yodan Productions. “I was looking for the next Ofra Haza.”

The late Haza was one of few Israeli artists to make a career for herself outside of Israel. Kolet, although not keen on such comparisons, is on her way to continuing the legacy.

“I liked Ofra Haza so I think ‘wow’ when people compare us. She was a great artist,” Kolet told ISRAEL21c during an interview at Ten-Hengel’s Jaffa apartment. “But I’m Liel. I am not trying to copy her. I’m not Ofra. I am who I am.”

Kolet released her debut album, Bat Kinneret, last year in Israel and has a much-requested video clip on the new national all-music television station. But she’s still relatively unknown in her native country, as she performs mostly in Europe on the elite concert circuit. In Israel, her debut album only sold 4,000 copies and thus most people have no idea who she is when she walks down the street.

“Liel is being groomed for the international community,” said Ten-Hengel explaining that she has set up meetings for Kolet with one of England’s hottest producers, Nitin Sawhney, and Paramount in the US, for November. In the meantime, Kolet’s schedule is pretty much booked.

In October, she will sing before Prince Albert in Monaco and German President Johannes Rau in Berlin and in November she will perform at the International Shanghai Festival in China and at a fundraiser at the Cradle Auditorium Center in New York. She also has scheduled concerts for next year. In January, she has been invited to partake in Monte Carlo’s “One Heart for Humanity” concert which will also feature Lionel Ritchie, Sting and Elton John; in February, she will sing at Los Angeles’s yearly Hollywood Gala; and in April she will set off with other top musicians on the aforementioned European tour.

“I feel it’s an honor to be representing Israel,” she says of all her concerts abroad. “Not many singers have the chance to do this. I didn’t think I would get this far so quickly.”

With her powerful voice and the ability to sing in seven languages (English, Italian, German, French, Arabic, Spanish and Hebrew) as if she were fluent in them all, comparisons to other singers is actually an affront to the talent Kolet holds. “I prefer singing in English,” she says, although her spoken English is still rough. “I love this language. It’s easy to sing. In Hebrew all the “khh” sounds are not very pretty. Everybody thinks Italian and Spanish are pretty but I think English is.”

Although still very much a child, Kolet puts in the long hours it takes to be at the top of her game. She attends regular school, and practices guitar and voice training in the afternoons. She still lives at home with her parents and brother and sister on Kibbutz Kinneret in the North, but commutes to her grandparents’ home in Tel Aviv so as to be closer to the recording studio.

“I don’t lose out on anything,” she says effusing a sense that she’s been asked this before. “I hang out with my friends and I sing. I do both. My friends are very supportive. The kids who don’t know me get excited that I meet famous people but my friends are used to it and they’re happy for me.”

Kolet’s repertoire includes original songs and covers like “You’ve got a Friend,” “If that what it takes”, “Memory”, and “Jerusalem of Gold”. Ten-Hengel makes sure Kolet sings only what is relevant to her age. “She’s 14, she has to sing something she believes in and not about ‘I remember love from years past’.”

Kolet sways from the latest trend of young musicians who tend to show their midriffs while on stage. She dresses conservatively, and simply stands with a microphone and sings.

“There are only a few people who can sing on stage and not do a Britney Spears act,” says Ten-Hengel. “Because of the high tones she sings, Liel keeps audiences captivated and she makes people cry.” For the most part, Kolet says she likes the attention she gets.

“I like meeting the press… I think it’s cool to have my face in the newspaper. My favorite part of the music process is performing. I like to sing face to face. I don’t think most kids my age could handle it.”

But Kolet also admits that there are downsides to fame.

“People want to get close to me because I’m famous. I don’t know if they really want to be my friends,” she says. “Sometimes people call to my kibbutz to tell me they love my songs. I don’t know how they find my number.”

As for the future, Kolet has her dreams, including meeting her idol Celine Dion, and perhaps, one day, reaching her status as a singer. “I hope people will not just see me as a 14-year old little girl but they’ll see that I’m a good artist. I hope people will connect and love my music. I hope one day I’ll stand on a big stage in front of thousands of people and sing my songs.” Then, as an after thought, she adds: “And I hope to get an MTV award.”

About Viva Sarah Press

Viva Sarah Press is an associate editor and writer at ISRAEL21c. She has extensive experience in reporting/editing in the print, online and broadcast fields. She has jumped out of a plane, ducked rockets and been attacked by a baboon all in the name of a good story. Her work has been published by international media outlets including Israel Television, CNN, Reuters, The Jerusalem Post and Time Out.