In her melancholic, dream-like songs, which she sings in a precise, spellbinding voice, Keren Ann often ponders and explores the nature of true love - its enormity, its capacity to obsess, even, as she says on her new self-titled disc, to leave someone “ruined and wracked.”
Fortunately for her heart, the 33-year-old Israeli-born, New York-based French singer-guitarist does not depend only on firsthand experience to grasp love’s sometimes painful lessons.
“As a listener I have been able to be completely transported, completely hurt by stories in song, especially songs by men” says Keren Ann (Zeidel) during an interview from Paris.
“Men can be mysteries to women, just as women can be mysteries to men. I listen to music and learn how to live.”
Asked for examples, she mentions Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” and Springsteen’s “Across the Border.”
“Songs by Dylan, Springsteen, Lee Hazelwood, they taught me not to fear emotion in life or in songwriting. ... If you feel (a song) has been lived, it takes you someplace and tells you something real, a truth. ... This is how I am able to be very honest and at the same time protect myself.”
For the record, her “ruined and wracked” turn of phrase appears in the song “In Your Back,” one of the strongest cuts on “Keren Ann,” her fifth disc. The singer says she wrote it to one of her favorite performers - the star-crossed jazz trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker, who died in 1988.
But perhaps “Keren Ann’s” most remarkable track is the ambitious “Liberty,” a delicate, six-minute balancing act that manages to sustain a gossamer mood and lyrics about chasing a promise of love, sometimes almost self-destructively.
“I just got back from Hamburg, Germany,” Keren Ann says. “I was there for two days, doing a series of interviews, one every 20 minutes, and the winning song (among interviewers) was `Liberty,’” she says. “In France, `It Ain’t No Crime’ (a jagged, sassy, torchy blues stomp) was the one people really liked.”
Asked about “Liberty’s” subject matter - specifically the line “Fell asleep blameless then woke up old, drunken and missed” - Keren Ann says, “It’s not just about a one-night stand, but the whole journey, maybe a period of time when you just must go through something.
“In my case it was not being able to love fully, or feel completely free. I had to go away, see things I didn’t have. I had to lose track of time, be completely lost, not because I needed adventure but this is where life (was taking me) this time. ... You learn you can go through anything.”
As complex as “Liberty” is, “Lay Your Head Down” is simple and upbeat, with Keren Ann capturing, in a Suzanne Vega-like voice, a moment of happiness marking the return of a faithful lover.
“It’s good to finally have one of those,” she says with a laugh. “I was trying to write a song like this for some time, one that is very luminous, very open. I wanted this song for a while. I’d been asking all along, `Where the hell are you?’”