It was around 9:30 on a Monday evening as Yael Naïm’s band finished the opening song of its set. Naïm continued to play the piano, gradually feeling her way toward a new chord progression. On certain nights, Le Poisson Rouge, a sub-sidewalk-level venue in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, sets tables, club-style, throughout the floor. Only a few tables were out on this May night, though, and only on a small deck in the back of the house for a crowd of a few hundred people.
Naïm began singing, slowly, and as the lyrics piled up, the song became recognizable: It was a piano ballad cover of Rihanna’s summer 2007 hit, “Umbrella.” As the chorus kicked in, so did the drums, played by Naïm’s musical partner David Donatien, as well as a spooky organ, a heavy bass, and guitar fills, all of which lent the tune a drama the original only implies. “You can stand under my umbrella,” Naïm moaned, slowly. Then, on the next up-beat, the music dropped out and Naïm blasted into the silence at an octave higher than she had been singing: “You can stand under my umbrella.” It wasn’t a reprise, or even an homage, ironic or otherwise, but simply the next song in her set list, played the way Yael Naïm would play it.
As surely as you have heard Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” you have heard one of Naïm’s songs. “New Soul,” from her eponymous 2008 album, was the background music for the original MacBook Air ad. Rumor has it the upbeat tune, with its music-hall piano, archetypically catchy melody, and concluding chorus of “la la la”s, was handpicked by Steve Jobs. But the people at Le Poisson Rouge were not there to see a one-hit wonder; they cheered most loudly and sang along most prominently during one of Naïm’s few Hebrew-language tunes.
It is not a knock on Naïm to say that her sound doesn’t translate, even if the lyrics for the songs on her new album, She Was a Boy, are all in English. Naïm was born in Paris a little over three decades ago to Tunisian Jewish parents who then moved the family to a suburb of Tel Aviv. Two years ago, she was nominated Best Female Singer of the Year at Victoires de la Musique, France’s equivalent to the Grammy Awards; this year, she won it. The Poisson Rouge gig was her only New York stop on this tour and one of only three stops in North America. When an older couple approached people lined up on Bleecker Street before the show and asked who was performing and what sort of music she played, the best response mustered included references to other Jewish artists they also had never heard of—Keren Ann, Regina Spektor—and finally the statement that Naïm plays folk music like a Frenchwoman. The couple walked along even more puzzled than before they had arrived.
All fulfilled, ambitious people have, in their minds, some wilderness that they’d been lost in before finding the clearing of success. If you hang around a winner for even a short period of time, you will hear about that wilderness because the memory of disorientation drives high achievers to improve. At the concert, between songs, Naïm—who speaks English in an accent stuck on the flight from De Gaulle to Ben Gurion—gave to the audience an abridged version of her founding mythology. “Everything started 10 years ago when I moved from Israel to Paris,” she said, “and I started noticing: It’s kind of cold?” The cold lasted longer than the first winter months. “Then one day something incredible happened to me—I met David,” she beamed. “He gives me really helpful advice: ‘Yael—don’t be sad!’ ”
Naïm expanded on her story over breakfast at a boutique hotel on New York’s Lower East Side, with Donatien at her side. She wore a purple flower-print dress, black tights, a gray jacket, a thin blue belt with a pearl buckle, and a small adornment in her hair that looked like a red rose but wasn’t one. Her turquoise earrings matched her purse. She was fresh out of her teenage years when she was first invited to sing in Paris, she said, where she signed with a major American label under the simple first name “Yael.” “I came with my mother, and there were producers there,” she said. “I had a bad experience. I made all the wrong choices. I got into the system of trying to make hits, and I was really miserable.”
The wilderness requires yet greater displacement, and life provided Naïm with just that. “I had a boyfriend, and he decided to leave me,” she recalled, inviting sympathy and then immediately dismissing it with a wave. (She did exactly this at the concert as well.) “I was in Paris, alone.” She spent four anonymous years as a pianist, and then she met David. They clicked. She would record a song at her home on her computer, and he would come by and listen, give her advice, and perhaps add instrumentation—“like ping-pong,” she said. “And then I would be inspired, back-and-forth, and then we decided to be together.” (Naïm insists the pair are linked only musically.) They worked for two years to put out her first album as the artist “Yael Naïm,” now assuming her full name, with its ambiguity and confusing diacritic.
Now her story exits the wilderness for the urban equivalent of the lush, exotic jungle that adorns her newest album cover. This is the image of Paris she described: “the little streets in the center of the Marais, and the 18th, also, the feeling of little streets,” she mused. “A village inside Paris.”
Naïm and her entourage seem to take Paris with them. During the interview, various members flitted in and out, greeting each other in French and with double air kisses. Donatien and Naïm behaved toward each other with an even greater ease; at one point, Donatien, in a casual T-shirt, sweatpants, and black Adidas sneakers, wordlessly grabbed and fished through Naïm’s purse in search of earphones. Their undeniable intimacy combined with Naïm’s denial of a romantic relationship lend great credibility to her insistence that they are equal collaborators—a conceit belied by the far smaller size in which his name appears on She Was a Boy’s cover. (He also wrote only one of the album’s 13 songs.) Most likely, they form a two-pieced jigsaw puzzle, and the piece that is her is far bigger yet needs that smaller piece—the piece that hems in and creates a context for the narcissistic, selfish, depressive personality she describes in her lyrics—to succeed.
Naïm and Donatien initially had trouble finding a label for their first album together, because the songs mixed English and Hebrew, and the Hebrew-language market isn’t that big. But the 2008 album Yael Naïm contained “New Soul,” which found its way to Steve Jobs (maybe) and thence to the Apple ad and thence to the Billboard top ten, which, as she put it, “changed everything for the world.” Suddenly, the album had a label. The week before it was released, according to Naïm, “New Soul” was the No. 1 download on iTunes. Two years of touring ensued, followed by the production and then the release, late last year, of her third album, She Was a Boy.
The most plaintive, most personal, and best track on She Was a Boy, is the ballad “Today”:
’Cause it’s been seven years since I’ve been looking for
And I was crying for more
It’s been seven years since I’ve been looking for
And I was dying for more
Today I’m celebrating our insanity
‘Cause we are loving unreasonably
We lost our hold
No promises, no signs of where to go
Just a pure moment of joy.
Naïm is a Tunisian-Jewish French-Israeli woman who is exotically pretty in a way that can pull off the combination of all those ethnicities and more—the cover of her album comes off as a convincing homage to the aesthetic of the German-Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Of Naïm’s two non-eponymous albums, one is named In a Man’s Womb and the other is called She Was a Boy, two unusually conspicuous articulations of malleable identity. Yet, in person, trying to get her to pin herself down on questions of identity is like playing checkers against an extremely conservative player. “I feel society now expects everyone to define themselves as something really simple and clear,” she said, “and it’s not really simple and clear.”
She Was a Boy’s first single, “Go to the River”—the only one with music written by Donatien—could offer a clue. It is the album’s most upbeat song in tone and content. “When you feel ashamed,” it begins, “go to the river.”
When you’re feeling sad go to the river
When you’re feeling blue inside, immersed and tied,
When you’re feeling stuck in pain, forever,
Go go go go—go tonight
Listen to “Go to the River,” from She Was a Boy:
One might expect those lyrics’ creator to have something in mind—the Seine? The Jordan?—as “the river.” “It’s a river inside a forest,” she told me. Which forest? “The river is the symbol of the nature, and the way nature decides,” she said. The closest she came to a hard-and-fast answer when it came to who she truly is, both that morning and the night of the concert, was in the song “Come Home.” The song has her family telling her to “come home,” unable to understand why she does not live where they do.
Such a shame
You’re feeling so much blame
And yet I’m still the same
And I no longer know how to explain
See I’m grateful as can be
’Cause you’re my family
Listen to “Come Home,” from She Was a Boy:
In the interview, she confirmed that the “family” in the song is indeed her family—she described them as “light-practicing Jews,” in presumable contrast to her nonpracticing Judaism—and “home” is indeed Israel. “The first years, when I moved to Paris, I felt I needed to compare them, and find which is best. It’s very different, of course. But I love each place for what it can give,” she said. But to suggest that the song is actually about that contrast gets too much down to cases for her. “As a child, just seeing music, and feeling, ‘Wow, everyone wants to raise children, to be healthy’—it’s like they’re saying we have some basic dreams for everybody.” She continued: “But then, there’s the education and everything that makes us think we are different.”
Naïm was referring to Israel. She acknowledged and even admitted that—as all Israelis do—she served two years in the Israel Defense Forces. “I was a singer,” she explained, dismissively. “My job was to tour and to sing,” she added, and then paused before continuing. “There was the first two weeks. They teach you to hold a gun—I hated it.” Seated on the hotel sofa, she held a heavy imaginary rifle in her arms. “A disgusting thing.”