Older and Wiser, Singer Yael Naim Still Feels Like a New Soul

The death of her grandmother and birth of her daughter influenced the French-Israeli's latest album, 'Older.'

Isabelle Chapuis

Yael Naim visited Israel during the Passover holiday to take a break from her activities in Paris and prior to a European tour. Her fourth album, “Older,” was just released in France and Germany, although it’s not officially available elsewhere yet. However, echoes of French magazines’ enthusiasm for the disc have already crossed the Mediterranean.

Isabelle Chapuis

The album was made during the most emotional period in her life. It encapsulates 10 years of intensive creativity with partner-percussionist David Donatien, the death of her beloved grandmother, and adjusting to a completely new situation following the birth of her daughter. “Strangely, it was the arrival of a new being into the world that caused me to understand that the time will come when I won’t be here,” she tells Haaretz. “I had two choices – either to become depressed because we all die some day, or to want to live in the present. The recording was written in that context: it permeated the lyrics and the mood.”

Naim was born in Paris in 1978. When she was 4, her family immigrated to Israel and settled in Ramat Hasharon. She studied in the music track at the Alon High School and afterward performed as a soloist in the Israel Air Force band.

At 21, she came by chance to Paris, where she sang at a fundraising event – which led to her being signed by a record company. “In my childhood I dreamt about New York, about England – places where I listened to the music that came from there. To arrive at a different place without intending to do so is like a dream come true,” she observes. “During the first four years I lived on a Paris-Tel Aviv axis and really suffered.”

In May 2004, she decided to settle permanently in Paris. She began playing with other musicians, which is how she met Donatien. “I established a second home with a lovely apartment in the 11th arrondissement, and David told me, ‘Sit on your ass and record materials to the end.’ He started as my coach, and we soon formed our own ‘band.’”

During the first years of their artistic activity, she released two albums under the stage name Yael. These included folk songs in her mother tongues, French and Hebrew, and also English. How well does she speak the three languages? “I write easily in Hebrew and English, but my French isn’t perfect,” she admits. “I have the speaking mistakes of an immigrant, and my writing and reading are not at a high level. That’s due to laziness, and also because I didn’t go through the French education system.”

That Apple ad

Naim enjoyed a significant breakthrough in 2008, when Apple chose her song “New Soul” for an advertising campaign. The song went to No.7 in the Billboard Top 100, making her the only Israeli to enjoy a Top Ten hit in the United States. It also topped the French charts for 14 weeks, ultimately selling two million copies.

Thanks to the launch of the MacBook Air, her dulcet tones were heard all over the planet, and she is not about to belittle what the commercial placement did for her. “Ads open a window of opportunity for artists whom the radio doesn’t play and for songs that are not outright hits,” she notes. “It’s a shame, but it’s really an interesting phenomenon. Two years later, I dubbed a character in an episode of ‘The Simpsons’ [“The Greatest Story Ever D’ohed,” when the Simpsons visit Jerusalem]. In both cases, these were offers that we received and approved. I had a lot of fun participating in the episode, because I became part of history and enjoyed every moment. Offers continue to come in, and we evaluate them.”

Her album “She Was a Boy” (2010) went platinum, and led to her winning female performer of 2011 at the Victoires de la Musique in France. In 2013, the French government made her a knight of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

When asked if the choice of the title “Older” refers to getting old or growing up, Naim says it represents so many things that have happened to her. “I’m 37; I feel that I’ve changed, that my body has changed. I don’t know if I’ve aged, but I’ve arrived at an advanced age. ‘Older’ is a song that I wrote about my late grandmother, about the past 10 years, about becoming a mother.”

In the song “Ima” (“Mother”), the only song on the album where Naim sings in Hebrew, she is accompanied by Leyla McCalla, a U.S. musician who’s the daughter of Haitian immigrants. McCalla lives in New Orleans and plays banjo and cello on the song. “I wrote ‘Ima’ after the birth of my daughter,” recalls Naim. “Leyla sings her part of the song in Creole, which is David’s mother tongue. We filmed the video for the song in my garden. [Leyla’s] a charming woman: during the recording she discovered that she herself was pregnant.

“Later, we wanted people from all over the world to take part in the song ‘Make a Child.’ We put a request up on Facebook and people recorded themselves. After sifting through them, 20 were used on the final recording. I don’t know whether it’s particularly innovative, but it was really fun and made me want to get more people to participate in our work.”

‘Make a Child’ wasn’t the only cooperative effort to excite Naim. Veteran drummer Zigaboo Modeliste plays on the song “Walk Walk.”

“He was the drummer in the [1970s] funk group The Meters,” says Naim, adding that his beats have been used in dozens of hip-hop samples. “Today, he is an older man, over 70 [he is 66], and had completely disappeared from the scene. Suddenly we heard that [producer] Mark Ronson had done something with Erykah Badu and him, and we realized he was alive and kicking. We contacted him and he came to our house; we ate roast chicken and went upstairs to the studio. He was part of music history, and it was amazing to hear his stories and learn from his life experience,” adds Naim.

Musical fusion

U.S. jazz pianist Brad Mehldau is on another song. “After we recorded the album, we asked him to play a version of the song ‘Coward’ with us. The fact that he agreed to play with us is a dream come true, because he’s among the greatest pianists in the world. We traveled to Amsterdam for the recordings, and the soundman who worked with us suggested we record another version with the Dutch Metropole Orkest – the most famous pop orchestra today. The French electronic artist Rone released his own remix, and that’s how we got a single with four interesting versions of the song.”

As an Israeli living in France, how did you feel during the terror attacks at Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Hyper Cacher supermarket in January?

“Usually, I’m there and it happens here [Israel]. In this case, I was here and it happened there, right in the neighborhoods where I hang out. In any case, it’s terrible. I myself feel very safe in Paris. The displays of anti-Semitism are part of a big problem in Europe, along with racism against Arabs, Gypsies and blacks. In all groups that don’t know each another, everyone is afraid of everyone else. Afterward, those attacks led to people uniting and taking to the streets. It’s possible that I’m supposed to be afraid, but I’m not fear invites certain things. A lack of fear invites other things.

“I grew up here in Ramat Hasharon, and the music I heard came from all over the world – from places that I was curious to discover, from people who were different to me. Today, I have Muslim, Christian and black friends, from all religions and ethnic groups. They’re all curious; they teach each other and share feelings. And even if they don’t agree, they continue to communicate – because the moment you stop that, you start talking with your hands. The people who helped me in this industry weren’t Jews and weren’t connected to Israel in any way. Music can be a social experiment showing how the world could be. I support interracial integration, just as I believe in musical fusion.

You openly supported [French Socialist President] François Hollande and performed at his 2012 victory ceremony in Bastille Square. Is it easier to be involved in the politics of a foreign country?

“The change is far from perfect, but I had a feeling that first we had to throw out the government of fear, and the system of divide and conquer that was Nicolas Sarkozy’s specialty. Many artists felt as I did. I also followed the election campaign in Israel: what makes me sad here is more the social problem. I hope that a new situation will be created here, along with pressure on the two governments to create change, and a rapprochement between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Would you consider returning to Israel, or is there no way back when you’re successful?

“I’ve built a different life there. But I need my family and to be in Israel a lot every year, in order to be really happy.”