Lior: a light in music shadows

should be at least as big as Guy Sebastian. Even Shannon Noll. There are plenty of catchy pop hooks in two self-penned albums of beautifully lush tunes. A killer smile and soft-centred lyrics woo the girls and gays, while his self-deprecating charm on stage wins over most blokes. Young (but experienced enough to have something to say), attractive, impossibly likeable, prodigiously talented; the Israeli-born singer-songwriter should have the music world at his feet.

But Lior seems almost determined not to be popular. He writes music radio stations generally won't play - too soft and sweet for the alternative kids, too symphonic and smart for the commercial pop set. He plays on Sunday afternoon arts shows on television and performs with symphony orchestras. He's rarely ever seen on red carpets.

And his latest tour will hardly add to (or subtract from?) the cool factor: a concert set to a shadow puppet display. It is yet another misstep on the road to stardom, an infuriating example to record executives of putting artistry before profit and popularity.

How utterly refreshing.

Lior is mid-way through his Shadows and Light tour, a collaboration with the Tailem String Quartet and renowned shadow artists Stephen Mushin and Anna Parry. It's taken him to the west coast, New South Wales central coast and the Sydney Opera House, with shows later this month in Brisbane, Cairns, Darwin, Launceston and Hobart, and in Melbourne, Bendigo and Canberra in early May.

As strange a show as it might seem, the visual melds perfectly with a soundtrack (drawn from his breakthrough debut album Autumn Flow and 2008 follow-up Corner of an Endless Road) strong on narrative and sentiment. Like the shadows themselves, the songs have an ethereal quality to create what Lior promises is a magical experience.

"We managed to create quite an intricate and magical world, yet one that was kind of really innocent at the same time," he told Australian Stage Online from his base in Melbourne ahead of the Opera House gig this week.

Lior talks of the puppetry as a "visual extension" of the songs; the creation of a "live magical world". And he's more than happy the audience is distracted from his personal performance.

"The interesting thing to me is I've never done anything where the audience is not looking at me for a lot of the time," he says. "Which is kind of nice, really."

There's something quaintly innocent about shadow puppetry, and juxtaposed against adult stories of love and loss is a unique audio-visual experience. Lior became a fan of the art form at a show by Mushin and Parry, and used their work in a film clip for his latest single I'll Forget You.

"When I saw their performance, one thing I noticed was how much I was smiling at this world," he says. "There's a sort of innocence; you can kind of understand how this thing has been done [even] if you don't understand certain intricate details of what they're trying to do.

"Particularly today when virtually anything is possible with visual effects etcetera, there's something almost childlike and innocent and wonderful about using an art form that is kind of quite primitive. People can understand how it's done but at the same time they're full of tricks and innovation and there's certain things where you go ‘wow, how did they do that?'. And that's kind of something really wonderful as well.

"The best thing is seeing the smiles on people's faces and the amount of cameras and mobile phones taking photos."

Lior brings smiles to faces with or without puppets. His concerts have a Jekyll and Hyde quality: the ability to disappear into a song while, after strumming the last chord, banter comfortably with the crowd. The casualness is at least partly an act, he says, though a heavy touring schedule (particularly a serious of solo man-and-guitar shows) has honed the seemingly effortless delivery.
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"A lot of that is about having really meaningful lyrics to me," he explains. "I think when you've got lyrics that really express something really important and meaningful to you when you're performing the song you can actually wholeheartedly immerse yourself into the lyric and the feeling you were having when you wrote that lyric."

Lior's story is one you wish there were more of in the music business. The proverbial overnight success in his late 20s (which typically came after years of honing his writing and performing), his self-financed, independently-released debut album organically grew the audience it deserved. Triple J named it one of the best albums of the year, and the achingly romantic single This Old Love not only found a place in the front half of the Hottest 100 in 2004 but became an instant bridal waltz classic.

The song - "we'll grow old together / and this love will never die" - encapsulates the success of his song writing: lyrics often balancing on the edge of sanguine only to be pulled back by rich arrangements, a beguiling voice and irresistible charm. (Lior insists he's not sick of the song yet, but looks forward to "when there are 15 other songs that are good enough" to drop it from the playlist.)

Built on traditional ternary pop but infused with a spiritual (yet secular) connection with his Jewish heartland upbringing, Lior describes the follow-up album: "Think Led Zeppelin jamming with Nick Drake at a teahouse somewhere in the Middle East." It's the sort of vivid imagery, and enigmatic sound, that has made the artist an indie favourite with the loyal fan base to match.

The artist talks of a "loss of innocence" in writing the heavily-anticipated second album, but Corner of an Endless Road remains fiercely independent and is perhaps even more of a musical cocktail apart from the usual pop formula.

"I know getting swept away with too many commercial considerations can really dilute your art form and that is something I try really hard not to do," he says.

"When I was younger and I had a few songs on Autumn Flow that I had on demo and I sent that around to the record companies that was the one criticism they all came back with: we don't know how to categorise this, it's neither here nor there. I kind of believed that was always my greatest asset.

"I do enjoy falling between the cracks, I have to say."

He says it's about not underestimating the audience: "How many people out there really have open-minded palettes for music?"

Quite a number, judging by the sell-out shows across the country.

Lior's Shadows and Light is currently on tour. Visit:

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