Interview with Yael Naim – Babel with a True Heart
In a world bombarded with trials and tribulation, finding sane and good-hearted souls is truly a blessing. To find that those people also make the music you’ve come to use as an antidote for your hectic day is priceless. I discovered such a person when I watched French-Israeli artist, Yael Naim, perform on stage at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City. The house was packed with an eager audience waiting in anticipation to sing along to their new favorite Mac tune. Yael’s idiosyncratic voice (which mixes the soulfulness of Norah Jones, the tenacity of Fiona Apple, and the power of Tori Amos) floated through the ballroom. The innocence of her stage persona radiated a feel-good vibe into the crowd, causing even the most hardened of New Yorkers (including the mullet guarding the stage door) to turn to their neighbor, throw their arms around them, and sing hopeful lyrics into one another’s faces (a scene you might only imagine seeing at Disneyland in “It’s a Small World”). Her performance had everyone leaving the ballroom wanting more– more good music, more good feelings, and more time in her presence.
Yael Naim. You may recognize her name, or you may just recognize the infamous “la-la-la-la” refrain from her song “New Soul,” recently featured on a MacBook Air commercial. Either way, she’s made an impact. It was rumored that Steve Jobs, the CEO of Mac Computers, personally picked out the song. “It’s not a true story,” Yael admits. “What happened is that one guy from the Apple team heard “New Soul” on the radio in L.A. He was so excited that he called the radio station to figure out what it was and he played it for his team. Then they proposed to add “New Soul” to their ad, and [Steve Jobs] said yes.” It’s no doubt that with the success the MacBook commercial has brought her she will become the sensation in the US that she already is in France. Yael attributes the recent success to her producer, drummer, and good friend, David Donatien. In fact, Yael refuses to interview without him present because he played such an integral part in the making of her album.
Yael first met David when she returned to her birthplace of Paris after living in Israel for 18 years and serving two mandatory years in the Israeli army. On a serendipitous occasion, they were both asked by a mutual friend to play at a show. Yael was playing piano, and David was playing percussion when a little improv session during rehearsal led to a moment of clarity between the two. At their next meeting, Yael had David listen to five songs she had recorded and arranged herself. “I discovered her words and how well she could play. I was really impressed by this, it was really incredible,” David says. “We decided to meet again a few weeks after. Then she had me listen to 200 songs of hers.”
Not only is she multi-lingual, but can also play piano, guitar, and sing like an angel. On top of being a talented musician, she is also an excellent performer. She was first discovered in the French hit musical, Les Dix Commandements (The Ten Commandments) as Moses’ sister. Her prolific talent had David exclaiming, “Who is she? She is really crazy!”
He decided to help her start a new project. They worked together for two years, recording in her small apartment in Paris. Yael says that recording in the place she lives gives an intimacy to the recording process. “For me it’s important, any time I have an idea, to just get there and do something. Even if it is just one hour. I get very frustrated if I cannot do anything, because it’s not next to me.”
Yael’s self-titled album, which features songs in French, Hebrew, and English, received “Album of the Year” at the French Grammys in January 2001. She is also recognized as the first Israeli to have a Top-10 Billboard hit in the US with “New Soul.” The majority of the songs are in Hebrew, which David encouraged because Yael had strictly denied herself to release any songs in Hebrew before their collaboration. Her debut album In a Man’s Womb, released in 2001, flopped in the US, despite the fact that most of the songs were in English, but managed to get some play time in France. Yael says she never felt quite right about it. The Hebrew songs in her new album reveal a more genuine side, which is the reason why, even with the language barrier, it has fared well in the US.
Through her songs she travels from optimistic, to melancholy, and back again. Planted among them is a cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” “In the beginning, it was just a joke,” Yael confesses of her inspiration behind the choice. “I wanted to take something that is from a different musical universe…and see what would happen if did it my way… take all the external packaging away, you know, what covers it, and just find the composition.” She was able to overcome the stigma of Britney Spears by stripping the song down to a soulful melody, infusing the over-produced pop version with a sense of taste. “It’s a good song,” she defends, “and an interesting exercise for us to arrange it like this.”
Musically, she and David want to continue to be curious and do new things. “We’ll just naturally choose the songs that touch us the most, and see what is the best for the emotion of the song. This is what we look for, it’s the emotion. So it can mean everything,” Yael reveals of her future endeavors. Atop the list of future endeavors is collaborating with up-and-coming artists like Kevin Michael, who Yael recently sang with on French television program, Taratata. “It’s really only now that we’re beginning to collaborate a little. Kevin was the first, I think,” David explains, lamenting that they would love to do more collaborating if they could find more time. Which won’t be soon, because on top of a tour in Europe, where they will play at the Brussels Botnaique-Rotonde (an equivalent of Madison Square Garden), they “will have a lot of promotion to do because the album is [being] released in eighteen countries,” David says.
Yael’s innocent originality can be seen in her video for “New Soul”. In the video, she occupies a small apartment decorated with pictures of her band members and walls painted like a forest. A serene feeling overwhelms her, but curiosity quickly takes hold, and she realizes that she can knock the walls down. The barriers fall and she is floating in the middle of a lake surrounded by the very same forest that was painted on the apartment walls. “It was a mix, like everything we do between us,” Yael says of her and David’s idea behind the video. “We were in the apartment, where we recorded [the] whole album, and David said, ‘oh, I think I see some water and nature around. I feel that we have to be in nature.’”
“It really represented the fact that we were closed for two and a half years, but, in fact, we were not closed because this work made us really open after it. Once it was released, I felt really connected when the walls fell, like the world is here,” Yael says. “And also, in the clip, you can see our friends, people who played on the album; people that are close to us. Something that is really important to us is to have a musical family, and a team that is really close to our hearts.”
Yael welcomes the world with open arms and a rejuvenated grace, extending her musical family to the likes of you and me. With the love that she spreads through her music, the discovery of good-hearted people will emerge from every ear blessed with the sounds of her soul.
Text and Performance Photos by Anjuli Bhattacharyya