By Danielle Cantor
Legend has it that when Apple co-founder Steve Jobs first heard “New Soul,” the song that would catapult Israeli singer Yael Naïm to international fame, he personally chose it, on the spot, as the soundtrack to the 2008 commercial launching the MacBook Air. Naïm had spent two years recording her self-titled 2007 album on a Macintosh computer in her Paris apartment, so it could be said she got quite a return on her investment in Apple products. Already a success in France, “New Soul” became an overnight sensation in America when the Apple commercial aired, and Naïm became the first Israeli artist to have a Top 10 single in the United States. (It peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100.)
Born in 1978 in Paris to Tunisian Jewish immigrants, Naïm moved at age 4 to Ramat HaSharon, Israel, where she grew up and served in the Israel Defense Forces as a soloist in the Israel Air Force Orchestra. After returning to France as an adult, she joined with percussionist David Donatien to arrange and record the 13 French, English and Hebrew songs that became her album Yael Naïm, released in October 2007 on the Tôt ou tard label. France embraced the work: The album won the Victoire de la Musique award in 2008, in the Album of the Year World Music category. Naïm was nominated for Best Female Singer of the Year in 2009, and then was awarded the title in 2011.
In November 2010, Naïm and Donatien released an English-language album, She Was a Boy, which borrows from a range of genres, world cultures and moments in time. The result is at once delicate and robust, mysterious and familiar and, in the words of more than one fan, “magical.”
Did you always want to be a musician?
We had a little organ at home and my father used to play guitar and sing, so when I was 10, I asked to start taking some lessons. When I started classical piano, I really felt that I would like to do this professionally.
What are your fondest memories from growing up in Israel?
School used to finish really early, so I could go out and play with other children. Children in Israel are really independent, a little bit more than in Europe, and so just having a lot of spare time to play piano and spend time with friends and be close to nature—to play outside—that was wonderful.
Were your parents supportive of your music career?
I was really lucky in this: My father always supported me. He didn’t push me; they were attentive, and when they saw I was serious about something, they helped. When I was 10, they didn’t have a lot of money, and when I started taking piano lessons, they wondered about trying to find a piano from friends or buying a new one. And they bought me a new one. When I was 12, I won a little competition, and my father helped me buy my first 4-track, so I was able to start recording myself very early.
Are you ever apprehensive about singing in a non-native language like English?
I’ve got three languages, but each is kind of different for me. Hebrew I can read and write completely—it’s my language—but when I was a child, I didn’t listen to a lot of music in Hebrew, so it was hard to associate Hebrew and music. It happened only when I left Israel and I missed home so much that I started writing in Hebrew. When I was a child, I actually listened to a lot of music in English—Billie Holiday, Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone—so it became the language of music for me. I was born in Paris and now I’ve lived here 10 years, so I’m supposed to feel very comfortable, but I never learned much writing in French; I just read a lot. So the French is just starting to come now. Sometimes it’s easy writing the music, but it can be hard not to control the language 100 percent, so I have someone make sure that it’s correct and there are no problems.
In the last 10 years or so, the music industry has become fairly saturated; everyone’s an “artist” today. How do you find and relate to your audience?
I don’t really think about audience; I don’t really look for them, either. You just live your life and what you do touches people—they are attracted to it in a natural way. It’s not something I try to provoke. The main thing that happened to me was meeting David Donatien, and he changed me. Before, when I was about 20 and had just come to Paris, I was a bit pretentious and I wanted to be a star. I tried to do music sincerely but I was always thinking about how to convince people that my music was good; all the kinds of pressure that you can put on yourself. And then things happened in my life—like my boyfriend left me, and the music didn’t work out at all. A lot of disappointments made me see that I had to become more humble and try to concentrate on something more simple and come back to my first dream—to do music and not be preoccupied with whether it would work or not, just to do it the best I could. David pushed me to stop going to work and meeting with management, and to put music first and start recording at home. So I think this was the main thing that made us, in the end, find the public, because for two and a half years we would just sit every day from 11:00 in the morning until 5:00 in the afternoon, and we just recorded my songs until we were happy with them. And then we met other people who wanted to help us. So it was like a snowball, at the end.
Do you stay connected to the Israeli music scene?
Sometimes I’m really connected and inspired, and I miss it a lot; and sometimes I go to other things, like right now I’m really into Bollywood music and classical Indian music—I think it’s very emotional.
You were the first Israeli artist with a Top 10 hit in the U.S.; do you think you opened the door for other international musicians?
I don’t think it was me who opened the door, but today, with the Internet, music can go everywhere. I think something opened up in general in music; people can come from a little town or a little country and export their music.
You work and record in your own apartment. Does the process ever become too much to handle, too claustrophobic?
Sometimes you need to take air, so when I was in Paris I would take a bicycle and call a friend to go out. But now I live in the suburbs, so I have a garden or I can ride my bike in the forest. It’s nice because when you’re at home, you can do whatever you want. When you’re tired you drink a coffee, you call a friend and go out, and when you’re inspired you go back and continue. I think it’s freedom. And the studio is very expensive; you need to take the sessions very quickly, and most of the time you work with a producer and other people who are not necessarily in an intimate relationship with you. Music, for me, is a very intimate thing. I feel like sometimes the studio process is kind of painful, because you take something that you wrote during an intimate situation, that reminds you of things from your life, and you come to the studio and people that you don’t know are there all the time. So I love the freedom that you can have working at home.
Who have been your musical influences?
It started when I was 10, which was really Mozart, Chopin, Debussy—all the classical music. My father listened to Elvis Presley. But I think the first important thing besides the classical music was the Beatles, when I was 12. It made me start writing songs and paying attention to the structure and the arrangement. And then later on it was Billie Holiday and all the jazz singers. Then Joni Mitchell was very important—I discovered her when I was 16, and she changed my way of writing and composing, and she made me want to be more personal and expose myself more, and to find my own words. Then the soul period: Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone. Then I discovered the rock and folk music, like Nick Drake, Damien Rice. Recently there’ve been Gnarls Barkley and Amy Winehouse; she was one of the biggest artists of our time. Indian music has always been an interest; it’s a completely different culture and way of composing. The cultures are different and you can hear it in the music. I feel like Indian music is more like water, because you can’t hold the notes. For me it is very close to nature—something that moves all the time, you can’t hold it. In our culture we try to control everything, to build square buildings, everything is organized in boxes. Sometimes life is not like this; you cannot hold everything. So I like the feeling that Indian music brings.
What do you do to stay balanced and keep your energy up while you’re on tour?
The first tour was a learning experience for me, because I’d never had voice problems, so I was just touring, having fun with my friends, running up on stage without warming up or anything. And in the middle of the tour, I started to get sick—like a cold—and then you don’t have time to rest and you get tired and you lose your voice, and it becomes painful. So for the second tour, I prepared a lot of things, like I made sure to eat things that were good for my health, not have anything like chocolate or candies backstage, because if we have it, we eat it, and then we feel bad. And then I warm up for one hour before the show—my voice and my body. I started to do yoga to be more connected and more calm. And this is the most important for a singer, I think—sometimes I let myself sleep until one or two o’clock. If I need it, I go with it. When I sleep enough, everything is easy; if I don’t sleep enough, it’s really hard.
Have you had any experiences with anti-Semitism or anti-Israeli artist boycotts in Europe, and worldwide?
No, I never have. Even the opposite—I was really surprised to see that people from other cultures come, and they like the Hebrew songs. And sometimes people speak with me in the street and say that they discovered the Hebrew language and they’re tired of the war and the hate that’s going on. I think people really try to separate their political ideals from individuals.
So do you consider yourself sort of a goodwill ambassador?
I think it’s hard to avoid in some ways, because everyone will associate you with whatever they want. I’m proud, of course, to have the Hebrew language to speak about something related to my culture that’s not only war. It’s important to have movies and music and art that express something else. Also, the people who helped me to make this Hebrew album are not Jewish at all, so in my life I’m surrounded by people from very different cultures, and I really don’t care if someone is a Jew or not a Jew, or Muslim, or anything. I think this can be a positive message of opening up, living together, and communities not closing themselves off.
Your music is cross-pollinated by various ethnic influences: Where in the world, besides your actual home, do you feel most at home? Where would you like to live?
I’m curious to try, for example, Brazil. I really fell in love with it because it’s a big country; there are a lot of areas and different cultures. Nature is very strong there; I love places with tropical nature. And the music is so incredible, and it’s everywhere. It’s like eating: People consume music like they eat, and it’s very high-quality. Also, I’d say Thailand. It’s incredible there. People there are really soft, tender. I think basically I miss good weather and the sea, because I grew up near the sea and the beach. Having the sun—this is what I miss the most. I’d like to have more nature and more water around.
Is there any decade in which you would have liked to live?
I think the ’60s and ’70s – 1972. I don’t know how many incredible albums were released between ’69 and ’72. Something about the situation in the world made people so open-minded and creative. It’s a period where I would love to go back. Artists were political and engaged in social issues. I think today—and I see it even in myself—that artists became more businessmen than people involved in society. Nobody wants to lose his public. I also love the sound from that period. There was something about it that was very natural; the music had good composition and artists that could sing incredibly… It was really creative. Also, I would love to go back to the 1960s in India. They recorded incredible Bollywood music with orchestras. That period of music in India is so beautiful and creative.
Do you take a certain approach when you cover other artists’ songs – such as your popular rendition of Britney Spears' "Toxic"?
I like taking songs that are really far from what I do. I did a tribute to Joni Mitchell and I really suffered with it, because I love her so much I felt like I couldn’t bring anything better or different than what she already did. I like it the way it is. But I really love taking Britney Spears or Rihanna, something with good composition and good production that’s really far from what I do, and it’s fun to play with it and make it different. It’s like taking a woman dressed with a lot of things that make her beautiful but cover her up, and putting her in jeans and a white t-shirt.
How did you feel about the exposure you got from the MacBook Air commercial in 2008, and about being associated with the product?
We felt incredible for a lot of reasons: I had spent two and a half years working in a tiny apartment with no record company, no management, no one working for us. We were so happy with what we did that after it, we were just happy to know that people were listening to something created in a very intimate setting. So it was like a miracle, because usually you’d have to make a lot of effort to make an album a success. It’s not something that usually happens by accident. For us it just happened, like “boom.” We hadn’t even started the tour yet. We were sitting at home watching on iTunes as it went up the chart. Nothing changed in our lives—our lives continued to be normal. It was only later, when we started touring the U.S. and Japan and going all over the world, that we started feeling the consequence. So we were very happy to be touring all over the world and having the public coming and knowing the songs, singing even the Hebrew songs. Near the end of the tour we were a little bit tired, but that’s normal, I guess. We didn’t have a problem being associated with the product, because we recorded everything on a Macintosh, so we felt it was close to us. We were completely OK with it.
What’s behind the title of the new album, She Was a Boy?
That time was the beginning of knowing who I am, really. It’s about trying to grow and not to escape from the truth, even if you don’t like everything you discover. It began to be a process of getting to know myself better, and She Was a Boy speaks a lot about this process. Inside me—and maybe other people, too—there’s a light side you are proud of and happy to show to other people, and a dark side—horrible things in your character that you can’t believe you’re doing or thinking. So you learn first to see it, then to accept it, and if you accept yourself, you can start to change it slowly and tenderly, and not just to avoid it and say, “No, it’s not a part of me and I don’t want to see it.” So She Was a Boy speaks a lot about this duality, this complexity, inside ourselves and also in life. Things are not always just good or bad. And for me, even politically—for years I felt I needed to choose if I’m for the Israeli government or for the Palestinians, that I had to be left or right. Then I started to see that the problem is really complex, and each side is responsible for something that they’re doing. Like in life, I create the situation I’m in.
The songs on She Was a Boy are about a woman who’s different, but she’s not necessarily different, she’s different in the environment where she lives and so she’s been rejected, because of course we reject what is different. It speaks about the way we look at other people and the way we accept ourselves. A lot of the songs speak about this and the fact that I left Israel to come to another place and I live in between two cultures all the time. The music itself, I think, we wanted to go even further in the arrangement to use more rare instruments, like marimba and string and horns, and to create something more rich. Traveling to Brazil influenced me a lot. This album was more dynamic, and also my life was more dynamic. The first album I was just sad, sitting in my apartment alone and crying after my boyfriend left me. The second album was traveling and discovering many things in the world.
What are you most proud of about your new album?
A lot of things. I’m really proud that, even with the success and the pressure to release a new album quickly, we took the time—it took three years—and we did everything at home like I love to do, having friends come and go. It’s a picture of a part of my life. And then I’m happy that we could use all these instruments, because it was my dream to have a real marimba at home, and to just play all these instruments and see what happens. I’m happy that I opened up the rhythm. I was trying to be very aerial with the harmony, and I was not connected to the ground. But the rhythm is something that connects you. I’m really happy about that.