Interviewing Keren Ann is tricky. It's not that she's not obliging. She is. It's not that she is stand-offish. She isn't. But try pinning her down and talking to her about where she's coming from and going to, geographically, musically, professionally, personally, and you get that distinct feeling of sand slipping through your fingers.
By the time we talked late last week (four cancellations, 10 days and two time zones later) chanteuse Keren Ann, born Keren Ann Zeidel, has moved on from New York to Berlin. From there she stops in England before she arrives in Israel on Wednesday.
Her peregrinations are part of a worldwide tour that started in February and won't stop until May 2006 when she will have taken in Japan, Canada, France and the United States among other places.
"I'm just trying not to get tired," says Keren Ann, although the intensity of the tour and the press hounding has clearly worn her thin. "I wake up and think, what city am I in? What place is this? What's the setup today?"
By all accounts, however, Keren Ann is used to being on the road. She jokes that she was "raised like a sailor" and things haven't changed much. Born in Israel to a Russian-Israeli father and a Javanese-Dutch mother, she lived in Tel Aviv until the age of seven.
From there her family moved on to Holland, and then onto France when she was a teenager. Nowadays she calls Paris and New York home, although as she says from her Berlin hotel room, "wherever I'm at I belong somewhere else."
Keren Ann broke into the semi-mainstream music world in February this year with Nolita, named after the Manhattan neighborhood that's nestled between Houston street and the shrinking Little Italy (North of Little Italy). Whimsical, lyrical and imbued with a sense of melancholy, the half-French, half-English album is in many ways an ode to the Big Apple post-9/11. The title track in particular haunts the listener with its sense of intimacy, pain, anger and loss. Other tracks, like "L'onde amere," evoke the fine balance between casting oneself out into the wide world willingly and simply being lost at sea. Think the eeriness of Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake with a twist of the twanginess of Velvet Underground and the Cowboy Junkies and you'd be getting close.
Since the release of the album, the singer, who is blessed with a soft, sexy, scratchy voice that owes as much to genetics as to chain-smoking, has been granting interviews to everyone from The New York Times to Gay City News. But she gives away little and remains a somewhat enigmatic figure and this interview is no different.
When she finally reaches Israel tomorrow together with a six-piece band, she will no doubt feel as much at home here as anywhere, and probably more so. Both her parents live in Tel Aviv, as does her brother. (The third Zeidel sibling is currently living in Sweden.) By her own estimation her Hebrew is "not bad," and one senses that she is being unduly modest.
She admits loving the language and becomes fired with enthusiasm when the discussion turns in that direction. "It's a language that grows old in a beautiful way," she says. "Some languages get vulgarized, and Hebrew could have easily become that way, but it hasn't. It's interesting, na ve and contains this urban poetry." This clearly isn't simply lip service to her native soil. One of the things she most likes to do is read contemporary Israeli fiction.
Etgar Keret is her favorite, and her sense of connection to the idiosyncratic, iconoclastic and widely translated author makes perfect sense.
"I love reading him, he's tremendous," she says. "Whenever he releases something I buy it and read it on the road. You know, wherever. I get lost in his stories and so sad when they end. They're short books that go by in a flash."
When she was last in Israel two years ago, Keren Ann performed a couple of impromptu gigs that her brother set up. This time, the set-up is much more official. She's booked to play at Tel Aviv's Zappa club on Wednesday and Thursday, and at Jaffa's Moadon Hateatron on Friday. Saturday night will see her at The Lab in Jerusalem, a date she added later in the day.
With her enthusiasm for the language and the country and Israelis' enthusiasm for her, does she intend to perform anything in Hebrew?
"I don't write songs in Hebrew," she says. "Last time I performed the 'Neshamot Tehorot' version of 'Cafe Etzel Berta.' But it was a last-minute thing. This time around, I've got nothing planned. I get very nervous about it. If I do something, it'll have to be totally spontaneous. Like, 'Okay, f-k it. I'll play it."
Ivri Lieder is set to join Keren Ann as a warm-up act and perhaps needless to say, most tickets are already long gone. Which makes one wonder what took her so long to come again. Keren Ann laughs about this quietly.
"I wanted to come with a full band and do it properly, and I guess I needed to be sure that I could fill the room," she states simply. "In retrospect I probably could have done it a year ago but I didn't realize." Either way, she's happy to be back.
"I'll be so euphoric," she says honestly. "To play in Jerusalem... you don't need to be Israeli to realize that it's not just any other city."
At the end of it all, when she finishes here, and finally ends her tour next year, she knows exactly what she's going to do next. "I'm going to take a month by a lake with my loved one and go somewhere I can't be reached by anyone," she says softly.