Closeted in a Parisian apartment for two years, Yael Naim and David Donatien perfected Yael’s songs in Hebrew and English, which culminated in a commercial and artistic success (Victoire de la Musique 2008, for the Album of the Year World Music category). Following the use of the song “New Soul” in a promotional advert for Apple’s MacBook Air, it entered the top ten on the United States sales chart. Strength and fragility, a trek around the world (jazz, variety pop, classical), and a soul-searching journey of self, here the voices and melodies vibrate within the compositions of Yael, and so does the listener. Their latest, emotionally-charged album “Older” was released this past September, check it out on iTunes or listen to “Ima” from the album in 360° view below.
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Sean Ritchie: So, to start it off, I know you were born in Paris, France. Was that where you grew up? I saw you were also Israeli as well.
Yael Naim: Yes, I was born in Paris. When I was four we moved to Israel. So, my whole childhood was in Israel. For me, it was incredible, because we were 10 minutes from the beach. It’s warm weather. I don’t know how it is [in America], in France work finishes at 4-5 p.m., but in Israel we finish at 1 p.m. You have only one day free, but [you have extra time each day]. When everyone’s free in the afternoon all the children play together outside. I had a lot of free time to develop my piano and music. Things I love to do. It was really nice. Very independent free time.
SR: One of my friends got back from his Birthright trip a little while ago, and he was posting pictures of everything all over social media. It really is a beautiful country. If you had to pick one location or destination within the country to send a first-time visitor, where would you send them to get a real sense of the country?
YN: Personally, I really love Tel Aviv. It’s not a big city, it’s small, but really cultural. It’s really amazing to go to. There’s the beach, nightlife and very good food. Then, there’s the touristic things. When I visit other places I don’t like to go the Eiffel Tower or the other touristy stuff. I like to see how the people really are and the culture.
SR: Right, kind of get ingrained with the locals. So, you just said there’s a lot of free time in the afternoons to practice music, but gave you your first real start, inspiration or motivation to start practicing music and performing?
YN: There was a few steps when I was nine. We had incidents at home and I started to ask for lessons, just playing instruments. When I first got my piano, my parents bought me a piano for my room, I started with classical music. I was 10 when I decided that I wanted to be a professional musician. In the beginning I wanted to create symphonies, and be Mozart. Then, when I was 11-12 I discovered The Beatles vinyl. I then started composing songs.
As a teenager, I still wanted to work the classical and jazz music, but I didn’t want to play music that was written by someone else. I wanted to play my own. Slowly, slowly it became my own songs. My first experience performing was at 12, but my first professional performance was 16. I started performing around clubs in Israel. I did some small touring with other musicians. Then, I went [back] to Paris when I was 20, and I got signed four days after I arrived. I already had my songs and demos. I started really early.
SR: That’s amazing at how you built momentum over time, and then all of a sudden everything fell into place. So, to tie it into travel a little bit, how does music and travel fit together and really complement each other?
YN: Yeah, very strange. I really love travel and I live to travel. When I was young I wanted to discover other cultures and music. When I went to Brazil it really changed my perspective about percussion and rhythms. I used to not like rhythms at all. Suddenly, I fell in love with Portuguese music, with rhythms. We used to travel to the West Indies a lot for vacation. I used to walk on the beach there. It was a really peaceful atmosphere. But, for me, the touring part, is harder. It’s being in a new place each day. You don’t really have time to visit. I really love being in one place. I love traveling, but then I love staying in one place. Touring isn’t the most inspiring thing for me.
SR: I can understand that, but one of the biggest things for me to see with artists is being able to spread your sound, bringing people together. They may come from different background, walks of life, languages, but everyone’s congregating in one central space, sharing your sound. How cool is that to be able to travel the world and perform your music? How special is that?
YN: It’s really magical. Even if you dream about it, I don’t think you really realize that it happens. It happened for us really fast. When “New Soul” came out it really exploded, and became number one in so many countries. Suddenly, we found ourselves playing music that we recorded in our apartment. With no budget, no money — nothing. Then, suddenly we are in the [United States], Brazil and playing all over Europe, with people singing the songs that were done in my apartment. It was really extreme with people knowing the most intimate songs all over the world. Even songs in Hebrew, people who don’t speak the language, were able to sing the words. It was really magical to tour and bring people from all the religions and cultures together.
SR: Incredible, to fast forward a bit, I wanted to touch on your latest release “Older” that came out in September. What about this album was special or maybe different from the rest of the work you put out?
YN: It was special, first because we change so many times in life. You are always recreating yourself. This album was very special, because at the time that we made it someone very close to me died. It was my grandmother so it wasn’t a tragedy [with her age], but it was still really someone close. Then, I became a mother [shortly] after. It was the first time creating life like this.
My whole life changed suddenly. I became aware that my time is counted. It brought up the questions of, “What am I truly going to do with the time I have now while I’m alive and in good health?” It was very emotionally [charged]. It was filled around a time of morning, but also around a time of joy with childbirth.
SR: Really is amazing to hear that. Now, I know you have a show tonight at World Cafe live in Philadelphia and another at Highland Ballroom in New York on Thursday. Have you been to either one of those cities before? If so, what was the experience that you had?
YN: I’m not sure I’ve been in Philadelphia. I’ve been many, many times in New York [City]. We come here very often. I almost moved to NY, before I made my first album. I really love NY. I have friends here. There’s something new to discover each time. You discover music. It’s a very inspiring city, of course. Maybe one day I’ll be here more than just coming for a tour.
SR: Fantastic. I actually live in New Jersey, so I live right outside the city. It really is an unbelievable place.
YN: Yes, but sorry, I’m just being told by my management that this will be my third time in Philadelphia!
SR: Well, that tells me right there you travel a lot!
YN: I’m known, but I’m known to have a bad memory.
SR: Me too, so it’s okay! I don’t want to keep you on the phone too long, but lastly to wrap this up, I know you’ve traveled the world and have been many places. Are there still two or three destinations that you still want to hit? Why?
YN: Yes, I would love to go and discover India correctly. I’ve only been there one week to work with a Bollywood composure. I would really love to discover a lot of aspects of that country, like the meditation and yoga part. I would love to stay there a long time and learn a lot of things. Then, maybe Iceland. I’m not a fan of the cold weather, but I would like to find some time where it’s not too cold. I would love to see everything with the color-filled sky. I would love to go somewhere without any artificial lights at night.