“It’s a dream I almost gave up on along the way”, says Yael Naim about her first album released by Tôt ou Tard. Without meeting the multi-instrumentalist David Donatien, to whom she dedicated two years and who illuminated the artist with his talents as arranger and director, it’s true that this project would have been forgotten at the back of a cupboard. Blessed with an unsettlingly pure voice and an incredible agility at composition, the Israeli singer with her jet-black hair fumbled a long time before succeeding with this collection of ballads that meander through folk and pop, with an elegiac frugality and multi-coloured fantasy. If the creation of this record was long and painful, the birth of its author as an artistic personality seems even more miraculous today, in a domain where everything seems to have been already sung or played. To the point where with Yael Naim music that was once simply beautiful has now magically found a lost grace.
Born in 1978 in Paris, Yael spent a large part of her childhood in Ramat Hacharon, a small town not far from Tel Aviv. Her Tunisian parents went to live there when she was four years old. “I remember there was a little organ which I’d tap my fingers on all the time. My interest in the instrument was so obvious, one day I got home from school and there was a real piano in my bedroom.” Ten years of conservatory and classical piano lessons followed. “After I saw the film, Amadeus, there was only one thing I wanted to do and that was to write symphonies.” Her idyll with classical music quickly revealed another. “At home my father would play his Beatles records and that’s how I discovered Sgt Pepper and Abbey Road, aged 12. And also when I forgot my classical ambitions.” Yael began composing songs which helped get over her timidity… With adolescence she discovered a voice and leant towards a vocal clarity by listening to Aretha Franklin. Aged 18 having come across a Joni Mitchell record she dared to push herself even further with her own lyrics. Music never left her and her curiosity never waned. In a jazz club in Tel Aviv she met Wynton Marsalis’ musicians and performed some concerts with them. Even the two years of military service (which Israeli women are obliged to do) didn’t stop her musical journey and she managed to form a group called The Anti Collision who played in clubs around the country. “After all these years everything was a bit chaotic inside. My classical education, my love of pop, the jazz, the folk... I didn’t know how to bring it all together, but I knew I wanted to write songs.”
It was an invitation to a charity concert that brought her to Paris in 2000 and saw things really start rolling. During the show, she was noticed by producers and four days later she had signed a contract with EMI and had an album on the boil. Her name really began to circulate after she was spotted by director Elie Chouraqui who asked her to play the role of Miriam (Moses’ sister) in the Ten Commandments and then she was approached to do the original sound track for the film, Harrison’s Flowers... “I hesitated but I don’t regret having accepted because it was an amazing thing to live through for two and a half years.” Her first album, In a Man’s Womb, recorded between Paris and Los Angeles was finally released in 2001. For her it was a failure, “A huge deception because I’d given everything up for it. I suddenly lost a lot of confidence in myself which really led me to question everything.” So the young woman with the golden voice was plunged into a period of disillusion concerning her record, the end of a relationship and a career ranging from jobs to survive (another musical, Gladiator) to edgier collaborations (the album Ready Made FC).
Then there was the meeting in 2004 with David Donatien who was accompanying a friend on stage they had in common. A West Indian drummer, David had spent the last 15 years working with an extraordinary variety of people from Bernard Lavilliers to the electro musician Junior Jack, from Wassis Diop to Malia. As changeable with instruments as he is with genres, he moves from traditional drum kits to electronic tools. David has always made a point of not stopping at just the one vocation of rhythm, but throws himself into the role of arranger too. His skill and imagination has literally made Yael’s musical universe bloom by giving a direction to her music and an aesthetic to her songs. Equally it was David who encouraged Yael to sing in Hebrew, something she had strictly denied herself up until now. Their complicity and complementary styles are such that now they prefer to present themselves as a group.
To begin with this album was meant to focus solely on guitar and vocals. But little by little Yael and David padded out the sonorous architecture and formed a team. Xavier Tribolet (drums), Laurent David (bass), Voed Nir (cello) and Julien Feltin (electric guitar) joined them as well as S.Husky Huskolds for the mix (Tom Waits, Fiona Apple, Me’Shell Ndegeocello). The instrumentation is pretty minimalist here yet incredibly colourful with the participation of the brass section, the Mellotron, the cello and some programming. Recorded in the young woman’s flat in Paris the 13 songs contain a part of Yael happy (Endless Song of Happiness) and melancholic (Paris, Lonely) existence. Some of them, like Yashanti or Lachlom dive into dreams, others like Baboker bathe in the serenity found at the break of day. Shelcha looks at a love with no future. The most outrageous is of course the cover of Britney Spears’ Toxic. Listening to these little marvels could possibly remind us of old friends like Tori Amos or Fiona Apple. Yet the ensemble isn’t witness to excessive borrowing or exaggerated sonorous marking, but quite the contrary revealing a sincerity and absolute musical clarity. In fact it is quite astonishing how something that sounds so familiar could seduce our ears with such a nude and original beauty. Perhaps it is due to the dominance of Hebrew, a language so rarely sung in this context, that comes across as universal as Cesaria Evora’s Portuguese Creole? Or is it the simply the very freshness exhaled by the personality of this young woman who discovers in New Soul - sung in English with a contagious optimism – that she is “a new soul, in this foreign world, hoping to learn a little”? “It was when I was really young that I sincerely believed to be an old soul reincarnated and I could even say it gave me a sense of superiority over others. But then as I subsequently did everything the wrong way round I concluded that it was actually my first time on earth and that I should learn to be a more humble.” On Far Far, she herself delivers this other perspective, that of a little girl who chases her dreams but who can only achieve them by accepting the “beautiful mess inside”. In short both her own personal history and that of this simply magical record.