Cinderella Song

After a Ramat Hasharon childhood and military service in the Israel Air Force musical troupe, Yael Naim headed for Paris. Within four days she landed a major recording contract but the album failed. Her latest album, with songs in Hebrew, is a chart-buster in France.

PARIS - When Yael Naim was a little girl, studying at the Ramat Hasharon Conservatory of Music, she saw "Amadeus" and decided that by age 30 she would write a symphony. "I've got one year left," she says now. But she may not manage to fulfill the goal she set for herself then. It's all the fault of the old vinyl records she discovered not long afterward - Aretha Franklin and the Beatles altered her plans. "I loved playing that kind of music so much that as soon as I finished my homework I would sit down and compose."

In the first song on her new album, she sings (in Hebrew): "I ran away to another place, so fast, as far as I could go, and I'm in Paris." Which is just what happened in real life. A few months after her discharge from the army, she came here and began to make music. Yet this doesn't quite explain how "Yael Naim," a record made by a young Israeli woman and sung mostly in Hebrew, instantly became the biggest-selling album over the Internet in France and is now in third place in in-store sales in stores, having sold about 60,000 copies in a month.

Naim was born in Paris 29 years ago but moved with her family to Ramat Hasharon at age four. Her father is an artist and her mother is a cosmetician. She has two brothers in Israel - one is a deejay and the other is an accountant. When she was a child, she would spend hours at the piano her father bought for her, and she began attending the conservatory at age nine. When she was a high-school student in the music track at the Yigal Allon School, she went to see the jazz great Wynton Marsalis at the Camelot Club in Tel Aviv and met a saxophone player from his orchestra who had settled in Israel. He recognized her talent and every month, when he appeared at the club, he brought her onto the stage to sing jazz standards.

The next stop, of course, was an army musical troupe. Naim sang as a soloist with the air force troupe, starting in 1996. "Even though it was the army, it was pleasant," she says. During her service, she was sent by the army to sing at a benefit concert in Paris. The organizers noticed her voice and took note of her name.

When she got out of the army, she was sent to another benefit concert in Paris. After performing a few songs at the piano she was approached by French producers who wanted to hear more. "I always had drafts of songs with me," says Naim. "They just happened to be looking for someone for a musical project and when they heard what I do, they were all excited and offered me a contract." Israeli recording companies had not been very enthusiastic about the music she made with her band, "The Anti Collision," but four days after landing in Paris, at the age of 21, Yael Naim had a recording contract with EMI.

Naim returned to Israel, packed a suitcase and went back to Paris. "I didn't know what would happen, I had a boyfriend in Israel, I thought I'd stay for a few months to record and then return to Israel." But the work on the album took over a year, and something else happened: The French-Jewish director Elie Chouraqui saw her perform and offered her a role in a musical production of "The Ten Commandments" that he was staging, and the show was a big success.

She continued working on her first album, with recording sessions in Paris and Los Angeles, where her producer lived. "In a Man's Womb" was released in 2001, but despite the best efforts by her and EMI, it did not do well. The songs got no radio play and no one bought the album. "The album came out when I was appearing in the musical and the music on the record was so different that it created a dissonance," she tries to explain. "I was also very young. I didn't have patience and I became disappointed very quickly. It was a time of growing up, and I also was trying to maintain my relationship with my boyfriend back in Israel, which made the whole thing that much harder."

The failure "shook me up and made me doubt myself," she says. And then she broke up with her boyfriend of five years. "I felt awful: I'd left everything for this record and it didn't succeed the way I wanted."

Her Cinderella story was coming undone. She describes a time of confusion, of major success and major failure all mixed together: "On the one hand I began seeing reality as it was, but on the other I'd also tasted success with the musical that exceeded all expectations. But it's one thing when you're succeeding with music that someone else created, and something else entirely when you're succeeding by virtue of something that you have created. I may have earned a lot of money and fame, but the personal-emotional element was missing, and that doesn't bring happiness."

So you weren't happy with your success?

"It can also be confusing, when success comes when you're too young, it can suddenly cut you off from reality."

What did you do?

"As always, I wrote songs. Some people cook or play sports. This is what I love to do. Sometimes I can't express myself that well in talk, so I write songs."

After the failure of the first album, Naim took part in several projects with other artists, and then returned to the stage, to another musical directed by Chouraqui - "Gladiator." For a time, she put away her ambitions of making her own music. She still played piano, but only as an accompanist to a friend who was a singer. At one of these concerts, she met David Donatien, a West Indian drummer. They began playing together and Naim got up the nerve to let him hear some of her songs. "I was very impressed," says Donatien, 36. He tries to explain Naim's previous failure: "Yael worked then with producers and arrangers and it blocked her music from really coming out. She didn't find Yael in the music that she herself created. People didn't realize what a complete artist she is: composer, writer, singer and arranger. They thought of her as just a voice that produces sounds. She lost herself in the whole thing. I told her she could do it all by herself."

Among the 200 or so songs Naim played for Donatien, nearly all in English and French, there were a few in Hebrew. Why would someone who wants to develop a career in France write in Hebrew? "I was homesick," Naim explains. "When I'd go to Israel, I felt like a tourist. My social and professional ties had started to dissolve, and it confused me. I didn't know whether I should stay here in Paris or go back to Isarel, or even cut off all my ties with Israel so I could really plant roots here. Or maybe go somewhere else altogether. I felt a need to express myself during this time in Hebrew, in the language that is closest to me."

It was these songs that excited Donatien: "I told her that this is what she should be doing. Because this is her identity, who she really is. She has to be who she is. I told her, 'These are the songs you will sing!'"

Three years of working together and recording in the living room of her apartment in the Eleventh Arrondissement led to her latest, eponymous album. Even though it bears Naim's name and photograph, she insists that it is the work of two people and that without Donatien, her producer and artistic director, it never would have seen the light of day.

You talk about a multiplicity of styles, but actually the album is quite minimalist.

"My first album was full of ideas and attempts to go in all kinds of directions. I was young. I loved making music but I didn't have a clear path. I also lacked in confidence. David told me to be more 'naked,' to expose myself in a more personal way, to build the songs around the emotion, with the guitar and my voice. He showed me that you don't have to pile too much on, but rather just work on the really necessary things. We spent long months working just on the skeleton of the songs, and then we delicately dressed them."

As the sales attest, the result was a success. In France, albums in exotic languages such as Hebrew are usually marketed as "world music." But this album is surprising not only because it's selling in the rock or pop departments of music stores, but because its songs, including the ones in Hebrew, are being played on the most popular radio stations. Since its release, over six weeks ago, Naim and Donatien have become a frequent presence on French television. The video clip for the song "New Soul" has been aired about a thousand times (and apparently gave the record its first big push), and the pair has been invited to nearly every talk show. Later this month they will be guests on the "Star Academy" program, the local version of "American Idol."

The album contains 13 tracks that range from pop to folk to melancholy ballads. The sound is clean, without sampling or electronic motifs. Naim reminds some people (in her sound as well as her look) of Norah Jones, or Tori Amos. The star attraction: her soft and warm voice, which has won accolades across the board. Critics have called it "hypnotic," "magical" and "of rare purity," while also mentioning Naim's "brunette beauty." (Her large, bright eyes are admittedly hard to resist, as is the smile that never seems to leave her face.)

Thanks to the rave reviews and her frequent television appearances, all the tickets for a three-week concert tour that ends tomorrow sold out well over a week ago. Additional dates have already been added for March, April and May. When asked to explain her huge success among the French, she just asks: "Where are all these people coming from?"

You really don't know?

"It's not the success that's making me feel like my life is changing completely. We also don't really get the sales data that's reported to us. At first, there was mostly a sense of relief. You say to yourself: 'Okay, it looks like things are going to be alright.' Since I've had the opposite experience, when you've been told before that radio stations don't want to play your music, that you should wait a few more months, I could really appreciate the speed and ease with which this record succeeded. And from that moment, when I suddenly had this feeling of peace, this sense that evidently things are going to be fine, I've just felt surprised all the time and am always asking myself: How can this be?"

By early November, "Yael Naim" led the list of legal Internet downloads in France, and was in third place at the FNAC music chain. Within a few weeks the album will be released in Israel. The Israeli audience, and undoubtedly the music programmers at Galgalatz, the Army Radio's pop station, will also fall in love with it. The next stage is distribution throughout Europe, followed by the United States and South America.

Exactly how did they convince the recording company to release an album, two-thirds of which is in Hebrew? "We didn't really convince them," says Naim. "We just worked on the album and when people asked, we said it was in Hebrew and that it was meant to be released in Israel." Naim says that friends and acquaintances came to listen and that their reactions gave her and Donatien a good feeling. People who didn't understand a word of Hebrew were telling her that the songs were beautiful and moving. "We were surprised to find that people who didn't speak the language could be moved by a song. It's amusing in a way, but it also really touched me to discover that this could touch someone who had no connection to Jewish or Israeli culture, or any other cliche you want to use. The songs simply touched them, in Hebrew. In the end, working on the album in Hebrew with David is what enabled me to reconnect with France. And it also ended up reassuring me about my connection with Israel. Now I feel connected to here and to there. It created something whole that allows me to be who I am."

Donatien thinks it is all very simple: "Good music is good music. The language doesn't necessarily matter. Many people listen to opera in German without knowing a word of German, and Cesaria Evora is very popular with people who don't speak Portuguese. Emotion can be conveyed regardless of language."

You didn't feel something lacking because it was in Hebrew?

"I don't speak a word of Hebrew but there's a beauty in this language. And actually, the fact that I don't understand the words but rather hear them as musical sounds enabled me to put them into a harmonic framework. To be honest, I wasn't surprised by people's response to songs in Hebrew. We have to be who we are when we create music. That's the only way it will be truly convincing."

Donatien acknowledges that the record company was a bit wary that the songs would not get the radio play so crucial to an album's success. "But the fact that there are several tracks in English reassured them. What's interesting is that while the songs in English got the album onto the radio, now it's the songs in Hebrew that are being played."

Why didn't you release the album in Israel first?

"I used to think that I would never make a record in Hebrew, because it's not enough," says Naim, describing her way of thinking from a few years ago. "I said: It's not international, it's not in English. But with this record we were already in contact with record companies in Israel, and I said to myself that maybe, one day, after the album comes out in Israel, it will also be released, on a small-scale, in France. You know I'd been in the opposite situation after signing with EMI, with an album in French and English, and they did everything to make it succeed, with the whole public relations thing and everything that goes with that, and I was quite miserable in the middle of all that. So this time I wanted to go the opposite way."

But in the end, the album came out first in France, and it's a big hit.

"Pretty amazing, huh?" she laughs.

All the articles about Naim play up her Israeli background. While she's not the first Israeli to make it big here - there have been Rika Zarai, Mike Brandt and Keren-Ann in the field of music; and Yael Abecassis in acting, to mention just a few - the attitude toward Israel and Israelis is not always sympathetic here. "I've never encountered any hostility," Naim says. "Just the opposite, you could say. Other people may experience that but I read books in Hebrew on the Metro every day and I meet people from every ethnic group and people are just curious to hear and to get to know the Other."

And when you say that you're from Israel?

"It's only opened doors for me. I don't hide my being Israeli. I say it in every interview. I put out a record with songs in Hebrew. The people who signed me have no connection to Judaism or Israel."

About the songs, by the way - they're very personal, depicting her experiences after the release of the first album. "Far Far" is about "a little girl who prayed that something would happen to her and every day writes more and more words," while the Hebrew song "Yashanti" ("I Slept") includes the line, "I slept alone and dreamed that you were with me." Like several other songs on the album, it describes the breakup from her boyfriend.

"I felt confused during that time," she recalls. "I was going around in a daze, full of fears, after the trauma from the first album and the breakup. You blame others and then you suddenly realize that you're to blame. As I was writing, things started to come out. The texts aren't lighthearted, but I like that they touch on the simple truth without prettifying it or over-dramatizing it."

There are some sad songs on this album.

"I don't think of it as sad, but rather as a truthful analysis of what was. A summing-up."

Yes, but in one song you sing, "If I have it so good here, then why am I crying again?"

"It was good. On paper, everything was good. You can't complain. Things that you've dreamed about your whole life are actually happening to you. When you tell about them, all anyone can say is 'Wow,' and you yourself are also thinking, 'Isn't this great?' And then it suddenly hits you that happiness doesn't come from the places you expect it to. Everything that happened to me was the opposite of what I expected. I got the dream - the contract with the big important record company and the money and all that. And there was no happiness. And then I'm sitting at home every day and making music with someone who's not a big producer, with no record company behind me, but with freedom. And suddenly I find that I'm happy. And everything that came afterward was just the opposite of what I expected. I didn't expect success. And now it appears to be coming."

In "Paris," Naim sings: "I ran away to another place, as far as I could go." What was she running from? "I dreamed of going to New York to make music. Because all Israelis dream about going to New York," she smiles. "I had this dream of 'America.' Just because the artists I always loved came from there. My feeling was that if I ever wanted to do things without musical compromises, it had to happen abroad. At the time, I'd met with record companies in Israel. And it would always get to this point when they tell you, 'It can't be done.' That's the reality of a tiny market. I felt like there would always be a limit to my dream."

So that's why you came to Paris?

"I hated Paris at first. I felt out of place. I didn't know people. I didn't know the culture or the music. I didn't know how much there was to do here. At the same time, though, big doors opened to me here: Because of the contract with EMI and because of my music in general, which was appreciated. So I stayed."

In one song you talk about the coldness of Paris. Was it a physical or emotional coldness?

"The temperature was a shock to me. I think when you grow up in a warm place like Israel, you can really become sad from a lack of sun. Physically sad. I didn't have an easy time with the winter here. And of course, when you're not surrounded by close friends and family, and the boyfriend you love is far away, then the emotional cold was also hard to deal with, but the place itself is not necessarily at fault. I mostly missed my boyfriend and my dear childhood friends - [singers] Aya Corem and Din-Din Aviv, with whom I grew up. I suddenly found myself without this warmth. And meanwhile, everyone in Israel was always asking me, 'When are you coming back?'"

So when are you going back?

"There are times when I miss Israel and then I make a lot of trips. Four or five times a year. And there are times when I feel cut off from it and that my life is here now."

And in the future?

"The future," she laughs. "I've stopped trying to plan anything to do with the future. Because everything that's happened to me has been the exact opposite of what I thought. I never thought I'd live in Paris, or make a record in Hebrew. All I want right now is for there to be a natural continuation of what's happened so far. That is, to stay here and keep making music. But that doesn't mean that's what will happen."

So, you're become wary of dreams now?

"I woke up from the dream after the first record. And that's what made me make the second: You're doing what you love and whether or not it succeeds just doesn't matter. My dream now is just to keep on having this feeling."