Name: Mary Ocher
Current location: Somewhere in Southeast England (in a bus)
City you were born in or raised: Born in Moscow, raised in Tel Aviv
Job title and description: Artist, some say musician
Website links: maryocher.com
Tell us about your early childhood in Russia. How do you think it affected you creatively at such an early age? I honestly do not remember much of creative significance in that context, we’ve left when I was four. My parents claim they had bought me a toy piano and I tripped over it and hurt myself. Despite half of my family being quite a bit more science-oriented, art was generally encouraged as a thing of fundamental importance. My parents used to draw with me, read stories, do crafts.
Why did your family move from Moscow to Tel Aviv, Israel and how do you think that move affected your world view, especially this East vs West (or West vs The People) mindset? In 1991, on the verge of the Perestroyka, Russian citizens were allowed for the first time in decades to permanently leave the country. You must remember that during the Soviet Regime, people were rarely allowed to travel outside of the Soviet bubble, let alone leave it. Even on the rare occasion of travel to Czechoslovakia or they’d only be handed temporary travel documents for the length of said trip, given they had been found eligible for travel in the first place. My father was among the lucky few that could occasionally travel, albeit in a group and under the watching eye of an undercover KBG officer, while on tour with the theater. They were instructed that said agent was, in fact, an official from the ministry of culture.
It was a time of uncertainty and many chose to flock to either IL, DE or the US. The Jewish agency, the organization in charge of assisting Jews in immigrating to Israel seems to be painting a very different reality to the one you actually experience living there. Sadly my parents seem to have known very little of what was to come next.
How did the subsequent move to Tel Aviv influence your music and art? How did Moscow and Tel Aviv differ in their inspiration? Just like any child emigre, you learn to watch from the outside, to be excluded, occasionally made fun of, sometimes even endure violence. I grew up in a society that craves affirmation of identity—it taught me of the dangers of nationalism and indoctrinating children into violent, racist ideologies, to become obedient soldiers at 18.
I pass as a white European today, but these definitions are always prone to change—based on context when I walk around I know that I am and have always been a foreigner.
I have visited Russia several times as an adult, mostly for shows, and haven’t traveled much so far—just to Moscow, St Petersburg and the regions around them. From a state of turbo-wide-eyed-capitalism, there seems to finally appear little cracks of doubt in the forces of endless accumulation of goods.
Do you remember the moment in which you started writing music and being creative? For someone who was so young, how did your parents help foster your talents? I’ve been ‘creative’ as long as I can remember being conscious, with my parents suggesting this and that and sending me to various afterschool activities. Songwriting began at 11, the first subject covered was peace and an utter bafflement at why can it not be achieved … I still wonder the same thing.
Why Berlin? What was the impetus to move to such a completely different city than Tel Aviv? I knew nothing concrete of Berlin. Any place would have been better than living in Israel, that was clear since I was a kid.
How does living in Berlin shape your current worldview as a person and as an artist? Germany is arguably at the epicenter of the refugee and human rights debate. How do you bring that into your music? And you’d be surprised to see just how much racism there is—in certain parts of Germany more than others—but in Berlin as well. The German culture may still reflect upon the horrors of the Third Reich, which is partly why I felt at home there (finally, a place where being a nationalist is frowned upon), but the German idea of integration is stripping foreign cultures of their rights, symbols, attire and so on—and making them ‘German’ or ‘European,’ if you will. I’m still an onlooker, I observe.
Tell us about the creative process and the inspiration for your new album, The West Against The People. How did it differ from your past works? The album was to be completed within 6 months—it had to be written, recorded, mastered, pressed, designed and printed within the timeframe. It was wonderful.
How do you propose we make our voices heard if we don’t have a recording studio to help us? How can we resist against societal norms? A recording studio is probably far from the first thing that’d come up, considering that most recording artists refrain from using that privilege for anything bearing social commentary.
You should organize and go to the streets. It’s a symbolic act that encourages others to know they are not alone, the same way racist politicians encourage other racists to express their opinions out loud, suggesting that these opinions are accepted.
You should always vote—wasting your vote is helping the opposition. The only thing I resent about not having citizenship is not being able to vote.
You are known not just as a musician, but an artist, a poet, a documentary filmmaker. How do they all intersect? What are the unifying themes of your art? As a vocal artist, what is most important to you? I am mostly known for the music—making videos helps tie it all neatly together. As a kid I was obsessed with being a performance artist—I’ve been doing that my entire adult life and what seems important now is to be grateful for everything.
Do you have a favorite track off The West Against The People? Why? I do not have a favorite. But I do like the transition into the quieter songs on Side B.
Who or what are some of your inspirations as an artist? Certain mostly dead and aging 1970s punk rockers, newspapers (right and left wing, perhaps rightwing even more), the changing of seasons, particular prose and poetry.
Who or what are you listening to in your free time? I collect digitally and make playlists to DJ. Much no wave, early 20th-century novelty and vaudeville recordings, early electronic recordings, psychedelia, 1970s African and Southeast Asian recordings, old folk music, among other things.
Dream collaboration? Eno, Bruce Haack, Alan Vega… Two of which are dead. Scott Walker, Meredith Monk.
Can you offer one piece of advice to anyone who wants to use their art as a form of activism in the way you do? Yes, don’t listen to anyone!
You’ve toured all over the world. Tell us your favorite city/town to stop on tour and why: Hanoi is fascinating, although it feels a little as though parts of it are orchestrated for Western tourists, for which—even the poorest ones—it is still extremely affordable. It also features strange little nuances of that old Communist world, where women wake up at 5 am to do gymnastics in unison in the square to a voice coming out of a loudspeaker.
Is there anywhere you are dying to go tour that you haven’t yet? Why? The Middle East. I am only allowed to travel to Jordan and Egypt pretty much. Nearly all other countries are declared enemy states to holders of my passport. There is a certain suspicion, but also it seems, interest, or perhaps curiosity.
You’ve lived in quite a few parts of the world, all different from one another. If you had to pack up and move elsewhere, where would it be and why? This is a question I often ask myself. It seems I haven’t found such a place yet.
**Please note** The views and opinions expressed in this interview are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of a conversation.