Yael Naïm Talks Musical Influences, Jewish Identity and More


French-Israeli singer/songwriter Yael Naïm still remembers where she was when her song “New Soul” played in an Apple commercial for a Macbook Air in 2008, launching her into unexpected success, though she’s been in the music game much longer than that.

With her latest release, Older, Naïm — who was born in Paris, where she now lives, but grew up in Ramat HaSharon, Israel — “soulfully chronicles life, death, and the transformation in between,” as the World Cafe Live eloquently put it. (Though no covers on this album, it’s worth a revisit to her self-titled 2007 release for an unexpected but lovely cover of “Toxic” by Britney Spears.)

Tomorrow night, Naïm will be in Philadelphia where she will perform at the World Café — and hopefully find time for a cheesesteak.

Naïm took time to answer some questions for the Exponent via email ahead of her performance on Dec. 6 at 8 p.m.

Listen before you go: “Coward,” “Make a Child,” “Ima”

Jewish Exponent: When did you know you wanted to be a musician?

Yael Naïm: When I started classical piano at the age of 10, I was completely overwhelmed by this music, and after seeing the movie Amadeus it became even more obvious that I wanted to be a musician. When I became 11 years old I started to write my first songs and at 12 I started to record them on a four-track tape. My choice never changed since then — only the musical path changed over the years.

JE: What artists and bands did you listen to growing up? What do you listen to now?

YN: I started with Bach, Mozart, Chopin, then the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake, Nina Simone. Now I really love Sufjan Stevens, James Blake, Son Lux, Laura Mvula.

JE: Your music has evolved over the years, especially with your latest release. What influences you and your writing today?

YN: The changes I experience in my life influence the changes in our music; after becoming a mother, something was released in me. Becoming aware that life is a story with an ending, and that we have to enjoy every single moment we have here on earth brought some kind of emergency to live, which totally infused the music.

JE: Does your Jewish identity impact your music or your lifestyle at all?

YN: How can we know about something like this? We are made of such a complex mix of things that everything counts. Where I grew up, what parents you have, your education, your friends, what you eat, your cultural background, and maybe something more mysterious, something like what your soul wants to become. Sometimes it allows to grow a bit far from where you were born, in order to find out who you truly are.

JE: Do you still live in Paris today? Do you go back to Israel often?

YN: Yes. My parents, my brother and lots of close friends live in Israel. I go there a few times a year.

JE: How does your upbringing and background influence your music and your life today?

YN: It makes me so curious about other people and other cultures.

JE: What do you see as the power and importance of music, especially today as so many musicians play a role in influencing public opinion?

YN: Music can open up your mind. As a child it made me become aware that even though people are different, we can all find some connections between ourselves. We are all scared in a way, we all love, and, although it’s a triviality, life can be so difficult.

As an Israeli child, being exposed to different music styles that result from different cultures and colors made me desire to travel and mix myself with other people instead of being afraid of the difference, to embrace these differences.  

Each artist has different priorities and, for me, freedom is one of the most important things in life. If an artist or a human being wants to be involved in the politics, then he should, if he doesn’t or if he wishes to express his feelings differently, then it’s cool too.

JE: I’m sorry if you’re tired of talking about this, but I have to ask about “New Soul” being featured in an Apple commercial that brought you some big success. (Though I remember finding “Far Far” before I heard “New Soul”). Do you remember where you were when you first heard “New Soul” playing on the commercial? What was that experience like for you?

YN: David [Donatien, creative partner and producer] and I were still sitting in my small apartment in Paris when we discovered the ad, and we were still sitting in the same apartment when one week after its release “New Soul” became No.1 on the iTunes top in the U.S. and in many other countries. It was so crazy and unbelievable that intimate ballads (mostly in Hebrew) that we recorded with no money and no label in our small apartment became some part of a kind of absurd meaningless dance. It was a miracle. Do what you love, don’t calculate, just do it, and anything can happen.

JE: What do you like to do when you come to Philadelphia?

YN: Eating a cheesesteak! And If I have time, going out to listen to the next Erykah Badu in one of your clubs!

JE: What are you looking forward to about your performance at the World Cafe here?

YN: I always look forward to playing in a club, where you get the chance to meet people. Looking forward to meet the people and play here our new album, Older.

For tickets to the World Cafe performance, visit worldcafelive.com.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0740


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