Yael Naim

by Carl Wiser

Yael Naim grew up in Israel, but made the difficult decision to leave the country at age 20 after serving her obligatory military service (in the Air Force Orchestra). She moved to France and signed a record deal with EMI, but her first album, released in 2001, was a disappointment, and Naim decided it was better to preserve her musical integrity than to pursue stardom.

It wasn't until 2007 that she released her next album, which contained the surprise hit "New Soul," a song that became the first ever Top 10 hit in America for an Israeli singer when it was used in a commercial for the MacBook Air. Instead of cranking out some product to capitalize on the exposure, Naim took her time and kept writing with the help of her collaborator David Donatien. The next time we heard from her was in 2011 with the international release of She Was a Boy.

English is Naim's third language, after Hebrew and French, and it makes for some interesting phrasing in both this interview and in her lyrics (all the songs on the album are in English). Her unique perspective and refusal to follow industry convention make for something delightfully different.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): How do you pronounce your name?

Yael Naim: It's Yay-el.

Songfacts: That sounds so much better than how I've tried to say it.

Naim: In English it's like Yi-el.

Songfacts: Yeah, we always destroy names over here and make them sound harsh.

Naim: Oh. (laughs)

Songfacts: Here in America they started playing your song "New Soul" on the Apple commercial, and that made you very popular. How did that change your life?

Naim: Wow. It changed a lot of things. Because suddenly the album was released in I don't know how many countries, like the US and all over Europe and Algiers and Japan, Taiwan, South America, everything. So it was a blessing for us because we could travel and meet many wonderful people. Of course it changed the planning, because then I became very busy in making promotion. It was really extreme, because we lived two and a half years in my small apartment in Paris with just a bunch of friends and my family and music. And that's it. There's no career, not much work. And suddenly the music that we did for years and years had echo, and it was amazing.

Songfacts: Was there any down side to it?

Naim: Maybe just one little down side. But you cannot have everything. When I had a lot of time for myself and for the music, I was the only person to know about my music. And now that we tour and we released the album all over the world, there isn't time to be ourselves and to wait till inspiration comes. It's more like work and schedule and you have to fight to find time for yourself. It's really not a big compromise though. It's okay. (laughing) There's not much negative.

Songfacts: It's funny, because in America, if a small band got this kind of exposure in a commercial, the record company would make them put out other stuff right away and they would have made them tour to take advantage of that. But it sounds like you didn't, because you took another two and a half years to make another album.

Naim: Yes, of course. It was very, very important not to forget where we came from. I had this first experience with a major company when I was 20 and saying, "You should do this and this and this in order to have success and money and blah blah blah." And of course it's not an automatic thing in art. You have to start at the beginning. The beginning is to find something sincere and to have a real thing to say. You cannot invent it from nothing. So for us, it was people to listen, because the first album had eight ballads in Hebrew. We did everything on a very old computer, with a very cheap mike, and we did it with nothing, with no record company, no money, no one waiting for us. It was the most wonderful period of my life, because I was free, completely free. I didn't care about signing or releasing an album, it was really for myself. And it was amazing to discover that you can do things your way and have some success with huge things. I think we were like 7 on the Billboard, plus we got something that was really out of every expectation. So for us, the message that we received from life was just continue to relax and to do music that you like and just not think about every other distraction.

In religion, in school, people tell you if you do this, you get this. And then you're saving up for something your whole life instead of just enjoying what you get now. And so we didn't want to get into the system of starting to do something to get something else. So we decided to take the three years to enjoy the process of making music, because this is the real joy for us. And then to accept that maybe we will never have any more success, and it's okay. One time we've already made it. So that's it.

Songfacts: Interesting that you're not worried about being famous. It seems like you'd need some kind of ego to become an artist.

Naim: What? What are you saying?

Songfacts: Well, if you're going to be a musician and play in front of people, I would think that you would want to get your music to as many people as you could and you'd want to be famous. But it sounds like that was never the goal for you.

Naim: I think I was like this so much, like, when I was 20. If you can believe it, I was really intense, I wanted to be a megastar and very famous. And I was so miserable for the whole time. It was crazy, because when you want something like this, then it won't come. And even if you get it, maybe you will not like it when it's completely realized. I think the first thing is to find happiness, like doing the music and managing to do it with people you love and feel trust and to feel really happy about what you're doing and listening to it and being happy about it. It's really hard. And it's even harder to do it when you have a lot of people around. So I think sometimes it's better to be more humble and just want simple things, even if the big things come. It's like a tree or a baby begins with a small thing, and then it can grow. But in the beginning it grows like a seed.

Songfacts: Could you tell me how you go about writing a song?

Naim: It depends on the situation, but usually I find myself alone or with many, many people around but no one paying attention to me. And then sometimes I can hear something in my head and then try to play it, or sometimes just music that brings music. I will play to music all day and finally something will borne through this. And most of the time also it's because things happen to me in my life and then suddenly I have, like, this emotion that I need to let out. Sometimes it's hard to speak about things, so it comes out through the music.

Songfacts: Do you write the lyrics first when you're getting these ideas?

Naim: No, I usually start with the music. It's really more about music. And the lyrics, it's just like it comes from my unconscious. The moment I try to sing something it comes out with some lyrics already. And then I just record everything that happens, all the process of improvising a new song and I recall the whole thing. And then I listen to it and try to work on this material.

Songfacts: So when you're thinking about what you're feeling when these songs start, the music is how you're expressing your feelings?

Naim: Yes.

Songfacts: That's really interesting. Can you give me an example of one of the songs on this new album where a song came to you?

Naim: Okay. Like for example, "She Was A Boy." I was on vacation in Greece, and there was a lot of my family around. It was a big mess of children crying and a really huge mess. And we were just sitting, like, during the day before going to the beach. I was just playing something and recording from time to time, and something came out. And it's really funny, because I heard the complete song in my head, and then I started playing it and it was like this song already existed or something really strange.

So I recorded it, and it came really like it is now. Except I felt really strange about the beginning - I was singing, "she was a boy, it wasn't easy for..." and in the beginning I resisted, saying, why do I want to write about a girl who was a boy? But at the end, I discovered it was a song about judging people.

On "Come Home" it was just the opposite. I was completely alone in my studio, in my room, and just starting to sing this, "come home..." like thinking about my family and everything that I've been through since I left Israel. This song came, and I was in the condition to record it immediately, so I started recording it with the backing vocals and some rhythm and the piano and guitar and the beginning of arrangement. And then when David listened, he loved it and then he added some things, like, in the arrangement and I started working, too.

On some songs like "Never Change," it's a very simple moment that just comes, and then I forget about it. I forget at least for one day and I discover it again and say, "Wow, I forgot this." It's like moments, you know?

Songfacts: So, are you telling me that in "Come Home," the words are about real people in your family?

Naim: Yes. Most of the song speaks about my life, like what happens to me. And some other things that people who are close to me had happen to them and it touched me in one way. So "Come Home," it's exactly what happened to my family. In fact, to try to go far somewhere to be more independent and to discover who you are, even if it's not what your family expects you to be. And then you have a struggle because you don't become what you've been expected. My family tried to block me to what I was before and to tell me, "Why do you change? It's not the way we educated you." And then I started the whole process about learning to know each other again and to tell them not to worry, I'm just changing and growing as a human being and having my own life and opinions. And I do different choices to be happy.

I learned a lot from them, and I think they learned something maybe from me. And it was a happy end, now everything is okay again.

Songfacts: Was it difficult for you to leave Israel and your family?

Naim: Yes, it was a very strange night. In the beginning, I was not conscious that I was actually really leaving. I thought it would be just a few months: I would do my project and then come back. And time starts and I notice that it's better to follow music, that much more is happening in France than in Israel; possibilities of meeting people from different cultures in music. So I decided to stay, but I was really sad in the beginning because, of course, I missed my family, I missed a lot of friends here, I missed the weather. This is the thing that is the most hard: I can see my family when I want, I can see some friends when I need, but the weather is a really hard thing.

It was, again, like happiness and sadness mixed together in the same thing.

Songfacts: Some of the other songs sound very personal on the album. For instance, the song "My Dreams," is that a specific person you're singing about?

Naim: This song mixes a few stories that come from my life. I mixed a few situations when I felt it could be in a relationship, it could be just people around, and it could be also countries - like a political situation - so I feel it's about someone having his way in his dreams and feeling that someone else pretends to be wanting his happiness, but he's taking from him his dreams. It's hard for me to explain, because it's a mix of a few stories. There are some songs like "Come Home" that are really specific to something that happened. And some of them, like "My Dreams," are more like a therapy. It's something that's more unconscious that you feel, and it comes when you notice that you feel in different situation.

Songfacts: Is there another song on the album that's very important to you?

Naim: "Stupid Goal" is about the material side of my life. When I was 20 I came to Paris with big dreams and the dreams were kind of empty, because it was dreams about what I could have one day. I thought, One day I will be very happy, I will have success and money and whatever. And I thought about all of the goals that we set for ourselves. Meanwhile we wait: Okay, one day we'll be satisfied and happy. And sometimes I feel that we're just missing life, you know, life is happening now.

Songfacts: Yael, have you ever been to America?

Naim: Yes. Many times.

Songfacts: What do you think of it, and what was your experience like here?

Naim: I have many, many experiences. It's so big and such a mix of cultures that you can mix and have many experiences. I have some good ones and less good ones. What I loved is the sensation of freedom and meeting a lot of people from many landscapes. In America, we met wonderful artists and wonderful people in small villages - or in small places in deep America. New York, of course, is interesting for the art. Maybe the negative feeling I could get was the feeling that if you are strong, the sky is the limit, you can be the star or whatever. But I feel there is not much compassion for weakness. So then it puts people in a lot of pressure and a lot of pretending because you have to be strong all the time, all the time, all the time. So maybe more compassion for weakness, for weak people, and to help each other more. Of course it's only a general thing.

Songfacts: The last question I have for you, I'm wondering if there's ever something that you can say in one language that you can't say in another language in your songs?

Naim: Let me think of it. I think I would not say it in the same way, because the language has its own mentality. You know, Israeli is very direct. So there is something very simple for me in Hebrew, very intimate. English is really musical, something really free. You can have a lot of freedom with this language for music. French is maybe more fragile, like the lyrics are really important. Maybe it would be more difficult for me to say something simple in French.

Songfacts: When the words come to you, what language do they come to you in?

Naim: Mostly in English, and then second language is Hebrew. It depends if it's something that happened, the time or the period. And French really little, I don't write a lot in French. I would like to write more, but it doesn't come naturally.

We spoke with Yael on April 15, 2011. Get more at yaelweb.com
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Comments: 1

  • Brian Shephard from Port St Marybrilliant. There is a lot of simple sense in this interview but it goes really deep
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