Photo of Yael Naim by Isabelle Chapuis

By Paul Freeman [September 2016 Interview]

“Older” and wiser.

Already a star in France, her home base, and Israel, where she grew up, pop-folk singer-songwriter Yael Naim became a global sensation when Apple used her song “New Soul” for its Macbook Air commercials in 2008. The delightful ditty couldn’t help but put a smile on your face and a bounce in your step.

Naim’s new album, “Older,” offers equally irresistible, infectiously rhythmic tunes, such as “Walk Walk,” which is being used in Apple’s “Shot On iPhone” campaign. But the record draws from a far wider palette, both emotionally and musically. The remarkable work, as moving as it is engaging, shows an artist of sophistication, eloquence and depth.

Life was changing all around Naim as she wrote the album. She and David Donatien, her partner in love and music, welcomed a daughter. Her grandmother passed away. And the Paris terrorist attacks were unnerving the populace.

“It’s like taking a picture of my life,” Naim says. “It was a very special period, because I was meeting death for the first time, losing someone very close. And also becoming a parent for the first time. So suddenly becoming aware that one day we just disappear.

And I guess I went through periods of some panic or some fear, because it made me ask what I’m doing with the time I have now - am I really enjoying it or using it the way that I should? And maybe becoming a parent was like leaving some kind of freedom or some kind of life that you know and going to the unknown.

“And the other side of fear, I realized that it was happening, so I had to grab what I can now. I have to be more present in what’s happening. So it was between really dark mo-ments and very explosive moments of joy. Songs like “Coward” or “Trapped” were really born in hard moments and songs like “I Walk Until” or “Make A Child” and others were born in the other extremity of like, “Ah, life is so good!”

Vocalist/guitarist/pianist Naim, multi-instrumentalist Donatien, and their band are cur-rently touring the U.S.

They have a house near Paris with two studios - hers and his. “When we produce our albums, each one of us loves to have our space and freedom. So we can work together, but we can also take a shot where each one can produce and arrange it the way he wants it and then we exchange… or fight,” Naim says, laughing. “We may agree or not agree.

“It depends on the song. Most of the time, I write the songs by myself and compose. But for the last album, we composed four songs together, accidentally, and it was very strong. Each one of us hears something different, when we listen to a song, evidence of what the song should be. We both have an idea of what we want it to sound like. And if we speak about it, usually we fight. But if we just start to do the music and hear things together, then we can just interact and I can edit or he can edit - take out or add some-thing. It’s like sculpture. We can really shape the material and start to sculpt it. And I think this is why we are very long in making an album. It takes us like one or two years to make each album, because it’s the time it takes for both of us to be like, “Okay, now I’m happy,” at the same time.

“This is how our music was born. So we don’t know any other way. There are some songs that we happen to finish alone. Sometimes David will produce other artists or I can do a side project with other people and produce things by myself. Each one of us can do something alone. But the mix of both of us, he pushes me much farther than where I would go alone. I could be happy about a song after two days. But if I’m working with David, it will happen after two months,” she says with a laugh. “We push each other farther. It’s good - each one of us will not let the other settle for the easy way. It makes it interesting for us.”

Photo of Yael Naim by Isabelle Chapuis
Naim was born in Paris, to Sephardic Jewish parents who emigrated from Tunisia. They moved to Israel, when she was four. Before she immersed herself in Beatles music, then in such artists as Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell and Bjork, she was enthralled by classical music. In fact, it was watching the movie “Amadeus” that originally inspired her.

“It was a shock, as a child, to see a genius who’s writing symphonies, but his personality in the movie is completely rock ’n’ roll, not what you would expect a classical guy to be. There was something really wild about his personality and the genius and the richness of the music, so for me it was like, “Okay, this is what I want to do in life. I want to write symphonies and have a wild life and live the way Mozart did… except the way he died,’” Naim says, breaking into laughter.

She was a soloist in the Israeli Air Force Orchestra before she launched a singing ca-reer. Her debut album, “In a Man’s Womb,” was released in 2001. Naim sang the song “You Disappear” for the film “Harrison’s Flowers.”

She teamed with Donatien and after two years of recording in her Paris flat, they re-leased her 2007 “Yael Naim” album.

The following year, Apple’s use of “New Soul” from that album planted seeds of stardom internationally. “It changed everything,” Naim says. “It was so unexpected that it would have that much impact. When we released this song in France, it was kind of a success already. But we were not even yet starting to tour. We were still really in my little apart-ment and recording on a PC. And then suddenly, this Apple thing arrived and in one week, we became like number one everywhere. Everything was exploding everywhere.

“And it was in the next few years that we really were able to see what it had done, allow-ing us to travel all over the world and meet really interesting artists and having success, commercial success also. For us, it was kind of a nice lesson of life, to tell us to continue doing what we love and that everything can happen, if you really take time and do what you like and not worry about the result. So we took the same approach for the second and third albums, stayed quiet, at home, doing our music. And one day we have more success and one day we have less success. But it continues.”

There is discipline in their creativity. “First, when we wake up in the morning, our job is to go into the studio in our house. So every day, like people who go to the office, we go to our studio. And we do what we love to do. So I could play my instruments. I could listen to music. I could finish a song that I started, but then suddenly another one arrives. So the fact is, to be, every day, from 10 to 6, and of course, sometimes at night, every day doing music, brings more music.

“And for me, there is this way of doing music, but there is also of course like, something emotional happens in my life and then, to write about it, it’s a way of liberating my emo-tions. So most of the things that happen to me emotionally finish by being expressed in song. That’s just the way I’m used to doing it, since I was a child.”

The song itself dictates in which language Naim will write. “I never translate. I hate translating a song. A song comes in a language and that’s it. It stays there. So most of the songs come in English. Sometimes in Hebrew. And very rarely in French.”

Her diverse cultural background is a benefit. “I know it’s very enriching for us. Also we’re in a period where, with the internet, even if you don’t have that kind of background, you can be exposed to so many cultures. And living in a big city, you’re also exposed to many people. So for me, it’s like having a lot of different colors to use. The more I can have, the more I like it.

“For example, I’m crazy about Bollywood music from the 60s. They had like total free-dom, because they brought the classical Indian music and the Arabic music and the American pop music. And they put everything in a blender and created a new planet - the way they sing and the arrangements, it’s kind of crazy,” she laughs. “And I like to try to make a big milkshake.”

Photo of Yael Naim and David Donatien by Isabelle Chapuis
She sees music as a force to bring people together. “It’s what happened to me as a child, because I was raised in Israel and, in Israel, no matter what child you are, you are raised with a lot of fear. Even if you want peace, there is fear. When there is war, that’s the atmosphere.

“But as a child, I remember hearing music from different cultures. And before I was un-derstanding anything about politics, I remember, as a child, my conclusion was, okay, human beings from all the cultures are good and I’m curious to meet them, because no matter what the color of their skin or where they live, there is incredible music that people are creating, coming from all over. And I wanted to go to all these places and meet these people. So it gave me the curiosity to travel and to maybe live somewhere else and to meet many different people. So it was very important to me.”

Her music is having a positive effect on people all over the globe. “It’s really nice, at our concerts, whenever we have an Israeli person and a Palestinian person saying how much they liked the music. That’s amazing, because it creates a common ground.

“We usually go out to see the people after our concerts and it’s interesting, because this album was particularly speaking about hard subjects like losing someone or becoming a parent. It was really touching hearing people’s stories. They come up and give us their stories. So it was very interesting to see that we are not alone in these kind of feelings, like in feeling that you are completely a coward in certain situations in life. So it was like a nice ending to the therapy,” Naim says, laughing.

“Older” bravely displays Naim’s coming-of-age as an artist, examining different subject matter and diverse lyrical and melodic tones.

“When I write, it’s what I am at this moment,” says Naim, now 38. “So it grows with me. And having a child or losing something creates a big change in life. And there’s really before and after. So, of course, something happened in the music, too. And maybe I let go of something, not feeling the need to control everything. That can be liberating.

“Also it’s the third album we’re doing with David, so with each album, we grow together. So it’s not only me, it’s us and the music that we share. We find new textures. After 12 years of recording together and living together, we’ve gotten to maturity.”

For the latest news on this artist, visit: www.yaelnaim.fr.