Yael Naim Has a Story to Tell: The Interview

Yael Naim
She Was a Boy

Yael Naim is in Paris as we talk, in the middle of a tour that feels more like a vacation. All the while, her new album She Was a Boy is slowly being revealed to the faithful fans she has established across multiple time zones throughout the past decade. The album has already gone gold in France, a country she has come to call home and a place that has been delighted to call her one of their own. As evidence, this past February she was awarded with the Globe de Cristal for Best Female Singer. In other words, it’s been a good year for this young and gifted songwriter.

Yael takes it all in stride and looks forward to bringing her tour to North America where the album was just recently released. Her newest offering of songs, She Was a Boy, is an enchanting step forward in the journey of the songwriter who was escalated to worldwide fame after Steve Jobs hand-picked her song “New Soul” to launch the Mac Book Air in 2008, making her the first Israeli solo artist to have a top 10 hit in the U.S.

Along with the help from this unprecedented exposure, Yael has sustained a rewarding creative partnership with her musical cohort David Donatien; with whom she worked closely together for over two years on She Was a Boy. Together in their flat, often exchanging ideas and songs in a tradeoff fashion, mining out different versions and arrangements, the two labored to find the right vision and culmination for her newest song set.

“I write the songs and when they are ready, I make a quick recording of what I feel and give it to David and he will have some ideas and start recording things. And then when he works, I am inspired by what he has recorded and then I will record more things, glockenspiel, piano, bass, and then he will come back with more ideas. This is the spontaneous part and we’ll ping pong back and forth until we feel like it’s done,” Yael explains. “When we try to speak about music, we don’t always agree because we come from different music backgrounds. So, we’ll separate into different rooms, and then we’ll try our own version, as we see the song. It’s really inspiring, because I’m pushed much farther than if I was alone.”

This kind of collaboration, along with the influences of a childhood in Israel and a blossoming adulthood in France, brings an enticing musical diversity to the album. “Being from Israel and a Jew is complex already, but with France, there is a freedom and a mix of culture. I have met musicians from all over the world. In France, I found there is a lot of attention to the little details and to the quality of life. We tried to pay attention to the little details when we were producing our music,” Yael says.

The album’s strength is found in its attention to specifics, where the pursuit of a broad and varied world of musical details draws the listener into a seemingly borderless world of musical exploration, veering with playful ease between multiple emotions, influences and traditions. “My big influences are Joni Mitchell, and a lot of classical and Indian music, as well as Nina Simone and the personal blues and jazz of Billie Holiday. Other influences for me include Bjork, Nick Drake, and Sufjan Stevens,” notes Yael.

Joni Mitchell’s influence can be felt most closely on tracks like “Today” with echoes of that artist’s brilliant Ladies of The Canyon/Blue-era. Yael displays her unabashed admirations for the female troubadour and channels other female pioneers such as the folkish Billy Holiday styling of Karen Dalton and the hypnotic range of Indian singer Nina Virdee, all the while assembling together multiple vocal arrangements on tracks like “Never Change” and “I Try Hard”, that call to mind the dark and adventurous vocal pursuits of the late Jeff Buckley.

Along with musical influences, the sonic and production influences of various individuals were channeled into the making of the record as well. “David and I are really drawn to the natural sound of records by Tom Waits and [producer] Joe Henry.” Sonically, She Was a Boy feels homespun and intensely personal, yet methodically grandiose in its’ rich and diverse instrumentation: strings, singing saws, and lush guitars find their way alongside of delicate minute textures and Indian melodies in the title track and “Man of Another Woman”. The musicians that were called upon to execute these performances were culled together from musical associations and endeavors that extended back to a Joni Mitchell tribute that Yael was involved with a few years ago.

“We would play everything we could and then we had some idea of who to call,” Yael said. “After working with them on that {Joni Mitchell} project, we knew we wanted to have them on this album too. We recorded everything with them at home and then these musicians would come record there, but it was a part of life, hanging out with friends, record some music and then play Playstation.” The impressive list of contributors includes musicians such as Stéphane Belmondo, pianist Éric Legini, Thomas Bloch, as well as Spleen, Jacques Daoud and the enrapturing work of cellist Yoed Nir.

For fans of Yael’s previous work, She Was a Boy continues her tradition of intelligent songwriting and angular arrangements, which carefully revolve around her revealing and introspective lyricism. For Yael, the new album is just a part of the lifelong creative journey that began even from her days as a young girl growing up in Israel. “Songs are a way to express what I have felt,” she reflects. “A way to understand what happened to me or to other people. I usually have an instrument in my hand. It’s usually unconscious. When I feel something coming, I hit record. It’s spontaneous. After a few hours, it will be a song. She Was a Boy started like that. From a small step, I tried to discover the story. Music is about trying to understand what’s going on inside of you. And in that, I find that there is a story there to tell.”

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