Arts and Culture

A new soul comes of age: An interview with Yael Naim

Yael Naim in 2007 became the first Israeli soloist to have a Top 10 music hit in the United States, and four years later the star of the Paris-based musician continues to rise. (Zoriah)

(Moment Magazine) — Yael Naim burst onto the international music scene when her 2007 single, “New Soul,” was handpicked by Apple for the MacBook Air’s debut commercial. The song, fresh off her first album, thrust the then-obscure 29-year-old artist into the limelight. When “New Soul” peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard charts, Naim became the first Israeli soloist to have a Top 10 music hit in the United States.

Four years later, the star of the Paris-based musician continues to rise. Named Best Female Artist at this year’s Victoires de la Musique ­— France’s equivalent of the Grammys — her eclectic style, stunning vocals and lyrics of love and turmoil continue to capture worldwide attention. Moment’s Daphna Berman caught up with the singer-songwriter while she was on break from her world tour to promote her new album, “She Was a Boy.”

Moment: What is the story behind New Soul?
Naim: It is about a period in my life when I was very desperate and sad. I discovered that I was making the wrong choices, making a lot of mistakes. I was very pretentious when I was younger and so at one point, my conclusion was that I needed to be less pretentious. If before, I used to think that I was an old soul, that I came to earth many times, that I knew everything about life. During the period in which I wrote this song, I came to the conclusion that I am completely new; I am a new soul, and I came to this world to learn about how to give and also about how to receive and how to function. The conclusion of the song is that after this life is over, I will feel like I still don’t really get it. It’s not a happy ending because there are still things I don’t understand. But that’s OK; it’s part of life and it doesn’t have to be heavy. Just accept that you need to learn new things and that things don’t have to be perfect.

How did Apple discover “New Soul”?
When the album was released in France, it was a really big success really quickly. And then for some reason the song got on the radio in Los Angeles, and the guy from the Apple agency heard it and decided to call the radio station to find out what artist it was. The rest is history (laughs).

How did the song affect your career?
It changed everything. Starting from the day it was released — even before the U.S. commercial — we started to be on the top of different charts. After a week it was No. 1 in many countries. It was amazing for us because we recorded everything in my small apartment in Paris with no budget, no record company, nothing. We worked for 2 1/2 years and there were a lot of ballads in Hebrew on the album that were totally not commercial. It was a huge present for us to have this tiny project be such a huge success.

Where do you say you are from?
I’m French and Israeli. I was born in Paris, but my parents moved to Israel, where I grew up. My parents are Tunisian. But I don’t know Tunisia and I don’t speak the language. I just eat couscous sometimes. I feel most comfortable in Hebrew for reading, and in Hebrew and French for speaking.

What was it like to move to Paris?
In the beginning, in 2000, I felt very much out of place for a lot of reasons: the weather, I didn’t have friends and the mentality here is very different from the Israeli mentality. Then after four years, I think the minute I found myself musically, I found home. I found people who were close to my heart and I felt at home. I travel a lot to Israel, and now I feel like I have two homes.

What does being Jewish mean to you?
I’m Jewish and I am proud of what I am. But I’m not a religious person, even though I am spiritual. But it’s not related to any particular book. I see so many cultures that believe they have the only truth. I don’t feel this way. I take my Jewish background as more of a cultural thing and I love it.

Has Jewish music influenced you?
You can’t escape who you are, and I am Jewish and Israeli and French. Everything that I am gets into my music. For example, I love klezmer music and I love the songs that are sung in the synagogue. So yes, I’m sure it somehow gets into my music, but it’s not conscious.

How about Israeli music?
Only after I left Israel did I start to listen to Israeli music for the first time. Suddenly I was missing home desperately and started to listen to music that connected me. I listened to Israeli radio and started to collaborate with Israeli artists. Also, my Israeli boyfriend was leaving me at the time and so I started writing in Hebrew. Much of my first album was in Hebrew.

Which musicians have influenced you?
Joni Mitchell was very important. And the Beatles, because of the way they go in many styles and don’t have any limits in the creative process. And then there are artists like Nina Simone, whom I love, because she is very deep and she is somewhere between classical and jazz, which is my background. I love Herbie Hancock and folk music, and classical Indian and Bollywood music.

Your music has been compared to that of Regina Spektor and Norah Jones. Do you agree?
There is a generation of musicians who are kind of close to each other. Norah Jones is really soft and jazzy, which is not really my taste, but has some similar points. Regina Spektor plays the piano, has brown hair and wears similar clothes. We have feminine voices and a similar sensitivity and so maybe we’re seen as similar. Really, there are many differences.

Your songs, even those in Hebrew, are very popular in France. How do you explain people listening to songs that they don’t understand?
France is a country that has opened its doors to artists from all over the world. The African music scene here is very developed, as is the Arabic music scene. Also, take opera — people don’t always understand the opera they are listening to. They just connect with the music, and for those who really want to know, they can check to see what it’s about. It’s not necessary to speak the language.

What is “She Was a Boy” about?
My first album was about separation and discovering that things have not happened as I wished. The second one is a happy period in my life. Something opened up. There is more energy in the music and more curiosity to discover the world. I started to learn about myself and realized that there are light sides, but also dark sides and to accept this complexity inside myself and others. Musically, the first album had more folk influence, whereas the second has pop and New Orleans influence.

(This article originally appeared in Moment Magazine.)