Exclusive: French Songstress Yael Naïm Shares Her “One On One” Cellar Session at New York’s City Winery

YaelNaim012-4_webIf you turned on a television in 2008, you’ll know the ad; ok, maybe the ooh-and-aah newness of the latest Steve Jobs creation- the Macbook Air- has faded away in your memory, but surely you’ll recall the vamping piano and shake of tambourine, and the sudden rush of enchanting pop vocals, floating whimsically: “I’m a new soul. I came to this strange world. Hoping I could learn a bit about how to give and take.” Those 30 seconds catapulted French artist Yael Naïm and her single, “New Soul,” into an international bestseller, practically overnight.

Naïm is a woman of many worlds– born in France to Tunisian parents and raised in Israel, she moved to Paris at 21, and soon began to hone her craft in earnest, but was prepared to devote her life to music no matter the outcome—even if it meant obscurity. And in many ways, the unexpected exposure hasn’t changed Naïm. She and her partner- romantically and creatively- David Donatien, still record in their Paris apartment, where they’ve worked as a duo for over a decade, sharing insights and influences.

Her latest record, Older, is a follow up to 2010’s She Was A Boy, and reflects the changes that affected her personally during the record’s creation, from the birth of her first child with Donatien to the death of her grandmother. The record, which was released in France in March of 2015, has already earned Naïm her second Female Artist of the Year award at Les Victoires de la Musique, France’s equivalent of the Grammys. Produced by Donatien and mixed by Michael Brauer (Coldplay, Grizzly Bear), Naïm will release Older in the United States via Thirty Tigers on September 2nd.

Today, Elmore is excited to premiere her full “One on One” Cellar Session at New York’s City Winery, featuring three tracks from her upcoming release. She and Donatien- who accompanies her on xylophone for the first two songs- have an easy chemistry, but Naïm quickly steals the show with her graceful incandescence. The set begins with “Make A Child,” a lighthearted piece that showcases Naïm’s flirtatious flits of falsetto, set to the rapid pulse of xylophone. For the title track, “Older,” her voice takes on a deep, earthy sadness for a slow rumination on aging, a reflection of her soulfulness, aged like the wine that surrounds the couple. “Now dream,” she lilts, against an undercurrent of electric guitar. For the final song, “Ima,” Naïm performs alone, singing the haunting, beautiful lullaby in French, Hebrew and English while she accompanies herself on the xylophone. Breaking format, the cameraman zooms in on her face, compelled, and as Naïm makes fleeting but intense eye contact with the camera, you can imagine her cooing her young daughter to sleep.

Connect with Naïm on her website, pre-order Older here, watch her and Donatien’s “One on One” City Winery Cellar Session performance, and keep reading below for our Q&A and a list of her upcoming US tour dates.

Elmore Magazine: Older releases soon in the US—congrats! Can you take us a bit into the creation of the record? In the decade that you’ve been in the music industry, how do you think your process has changed for crafting an album? How would you say that finding commercial success has helped or shifted the way you approach your work?

Yael Naim: The main change happened in 2004, before all this even started… I met David Donatien and together we decided to offer to ourselves the artistic freedom we always dreamed of, and to simply create the music we love. We had no record label, no money and we knew that there was almost no way to get this music released, ever. We recorded songs at home during two years, and the success which followed their release was a tremendous surprise. For us it simply proved that it was possible to isolate yourself, do something intimate and sincere and still meet some success. During the following years, composing and recording the two other albums we went on following our instinct, feelings and curiosity, and never tried to copy the success of the first one. We really try to renovate ourselves constantly.

EM: You and David Donatien have worked together for much of your career; What is the best– and worst!— aspect of collaborating creatively with your romantic partner.

YN: The best part is our intimacy. We are so close to each other in life and in music, that our music is the result of love and sharing. We love spending time together and building a world together. The worst can happen when one of us allows himself to be just himself, which means disagreeing on musical choices. We have two studios in our house, so each one of us is free to try any musical idea is wants when we disagree, and the process can be long and… noisy 🙂 but all of this is very stimulating at the end. As we never compromise, we take a long time to record and produce an album. It takes time for us both to be happy.

EM: Can you take us into that moment when you performed at the vigil for the Bataclan Theatre victims of the Paris terrorist attacks in November, 2015? How did those events fit into the context of creating your new record, Older? [You can watch her performance of  Jacques Brel’s “Quand on n’a que l’amour” at the vigil here.]

YN: This kind of event doesn’t fit to anything, and I hope it will never fit. It was just sad and shocking. When they called for the Vigil, I did not really hesitate. I had to say yes. I was invited to express and share this incredibly sad moment with a song. Being there was very difficult and moving at the same time. I’ll never forget these minutes, of course.

EM: You blend musical styles, from pop to jazz, but you also blur the lines of nationality, drawing on your mixed heritage and a variety of other influences, like Donatien’s Creole background. How do you define yourself as an artist? Do you think of yourself as French first and foremost, or do you look at your background and influences and view yourself as more of an international artist?

YN: We define ourselves as international pop artists. We love songs, and we just like to bring inside colors expressing who we are and what we love. Just like using different colors or materials in painting and creating something personal with it.

EM: Speaking of international exposure, you had a massive crossover hit with “New Soul” early on in your career. Have you found American audiences to be receptive of your work as a whole, or do you ever feel frustrated that they only have a small sense of your work?

YN: I’m so happy the USA discovered “New Soul,” I can’t be frustrated– we were lucky enough to get a massive hit in the world, and it was a first step into our music for a lot of people. Of course, the rest of our work has a smaller audience, but things change all the time and our music changes too. Our international career allows us to expose our new music, and I’m sure the US will be curious and surprised. Songs like “Coward” or “Make A Child” are very important to us and very different from the period of “New Soul,” and they might even seduce a new audience in this country.

EM: Can you tell us a little bit about shooting your One on One session at City Winery? Was it a spur the moment decision? How did you decide which songs to perform?

YN: We love recording intimate sessions, unusual version of our songs in unusual places, we do it all the time on tour. It’s a way for us to RE-discover our own songs and reinvent some fragility inside of them… this fragility moves us, like on the first day :).

United States Tour Dates:
9/12: San Francisco, CA @ Great American Music Hall
9/13: Palo Alto, CA @ Oshman Family JJC
9/15: Los Angeles, CA @ Hotel Cafe
9/16: Boulder, CO @ Boulder Theatre
9/17: Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge
12/7: New York, NY @ Highline Ballroom
12/8: New York, NY @ Highline Ballroom

For a full list of dates, head here

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