On the hit parade

A difficult to pronounce name hasn't stopped Yael Naim from staying on America's top 10 playlists.

Yael Naim 88 224 (photo credit: )
Yael Naim 88 224
(photo credit: )
From HBO to the Oscars to the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, Israelis were all over the place in the US last month. After decades of joking about their marginality, the country's entertainers now have a fun new parlor game to play: deciding which of the month's breakthroughs was most impressive. A case could be made for several contenders. Was it Ayelet Zurer, the veteran actress with a pivotal role in Hollywood blockbuster Vantage Point? Or was it In Treatment, the adapted Israeli TV series hitting its stride on HBO? Over on newsstands, bikini-clad model Bar Refaeli was posing - on the beaches of Caesarea and the Dead Sea, no less - for her second consecutive swimsuit issue, while the end of the month saw an Israeli film nominated at the Oscars for the first time in a generation. In other words, not bad. But despite a remarkable set of candidates, the most compelling success story was probably none of the above, with the distinction going instead to Yael Naim, a 30-year-old singer with a troublingly vowel-filled name. "I have no idea how to say it," wrote a blogger based in Florida, "BUT, she does have a phenomenal voice and... many people have taken notice." That, to the joy of Naim's record company, is a choice bit of understatement, akin in some respects to saying that Tel Aviv residents may have noticed the beach. Naim's English-language single, "New Soul," has been the surprise hit of early 2008, the biggest in a decade for an local artist overseas. (You'd have to go back to 1998, and Dana International's "Diva," to find a comparable Israeli hit in Europe; the song is simply the biggest ever by an Israeli solo artist in the US.) A piano-driven number that's equal parts bounce and introspection, "New Soul" has compiled a list of "firsts" that continues to grow. The first song by an Israeli to hit No. 1 on the iTunes singles chart, "New Soul" was also the first to crack the Billboard Top 10, where it remained for two weeks after earning the magazine's "Hotshot" designation at its debut. A presence for weeks on the Canadian and UK sales charts, the song is now soaring in Europe, ranking third this week on Billboard's list of the continent's "Hot 100." Well over four million people have watched the "New Soul" video on YouTube, with the clip generating the requisite talkbacks and cover versions to qualify as a bona fide on-line smash. And the single's success goes beyond pop charts and the Internet. Thanks to its use in a ubiquitous ad campaign for Apple's newest laptop, "New Soul" has become the rare song recognized even if listeners aren't sure where they've heard it, even if they don't know a thing about the person providing the voice. That's set to change in the coming week, however, with Naim scheduled to arrive Tuesday for her first US publicity tour. The trip, which will include appearances on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Late Night with Conan O'Brien, accompanies the in-store release of the singer's self-titled album, which has already attained Top 10 status among on iTunes and the Billboard downloads chart. "It feels sometimes like it's not real," Naim said Tuesday, speaking by phone from Paris. "It's really a pleasure, because we weren't looking for any success while we were making the music." The singer hasn't - to clarify - adopted the royal "we," but is making reference to her musical collaborator, David Donatien. Though she's the voice and face of their partnership, Naim is painstakingly careful about sharing credit for the pair's success, insisting via her record label that journalists talk to Donatien as well. (Members of the press, beware: She has no qualms about using the start of an interview to check that you and Donatien have indeed already spoken.) The relationship began in 2004, four years after Naim's arrival in - or, more accurately, return to - Paris. BORN IN THE French capital in 1978, she immigrated to Israel as a four-year-old, growing up with two younger brothers in Ramat Hasharon. A devoted piano student by the time she was nine, Naim fulfilled her IDF service as a soloist in an air force band, returning to Paris shortly thereafter and starring as Miriam in a stage version of The Ten Commandments. The path to success appeared partially paved, but Naim's debut album, an English-language collection called In a Man's Womb, proved a failure in 2001, despite the backing of major music label EMI. Discouraged by the results, Naim continued singing but hesitated to write - a reluctance she eventually pushed aside with Donatien's encouragement. It's Donatien, ironically, who bears responsibility for the inclusion of Hebrew on Naim's latest album, which features six tracks in English and seven in Hebrew. (French, Naim's mother tongue, didn't make the cut.) "The story is really special," she says of the linguistic decision. "When I started working with David, we found that the songs in Hebrew have a different kind of color, that the musical identity was found." Though certain verbal mannerisms suggest that French remains her dominant language - on several occasions, she concludes a thought with "so, voilà" - she says she was better able to express herself lyrically in her second and third tongues, attributing her strong English to school requirements and the music she listened to as a kid. Israel, she recalls, struck her as "paradise" when she arrived, and like most Israelis living abroad, she's torn over the time she spends away. But France has also been good to her, and she says she's been happy to reconnect with an aunt ("a second mother"), and the grandmother her own mom left behind. Although she's now lived in Paris for nearly a decade, Naim has maintained her connection with the Israeli music scene, performing with the singer Din Din Aviv in Holon in 2006, and helping to compose the Enya-esque "Sodotai" ("My Secrets") for the performer the same year. ("Co-written with Yael Naim!" is the song's new tag on YouTube.) Remaining in Israel are her parents - both natives of Tunisia - and her two younger brothers. She continues to visit as often as she can, trying to return during France's extended summer holidays, as well as anytime she finds "there's less work." The "less work" approach may be a thing of the past, however, with Naim now in demand as never before. In addition to her American TV appearances, she's got a concert scheduled this month at New York's famed Bowery Ballroom, and will play three times at Texas's South by Southwest Festival, a prestigious industry showcase for up-and-coming performers. WITH A SOUND somewhere between Norah Jones and Françoise Hardy, she seems well-poised to exert a bit of staying power, and would make a natural fit among the young female songwriters who've formed an elite, unofficial clique in recent years - performers like Regina Spektor and Feist, who've drawn a rabid following with their poetic lyrics and exquisite musical craftsmanship. (Another member of this set, incidentally, and perhaps the most critically adored, is Keren Ann, another French-Israeli singer Naim says she's met in passing.) At the same time, Naim's latest album demonstrates a quirkiness almost guaranteed to preserve the interest of the mainstream. Nearly half a million YouTube fans have navigated their way to "Toxic," the singer's slow, piano-driven take on the Britney Spears dance track from 2004. Naim's version, her album's riskiest undertaking, is newly endowed with an atmospheric, almost ghostly feel, skillfully drifting between camp and art as it works to dislodge the image of a naked Spears, pre-meltdown, performing the song with just a bit of strategically placed glitter. (It doesn't quite succeed.) "The song was just a funny game in the beginning," Naim says. "I wanted to take a song that was the farthest from the music I listen to, and I just started to play with it... The music is actually very nice. I like this exercise of taking something really different and bringing it to the other side." To a certain extent, that's what she's doing simply by living in Paris, a city not known for its great love of all things Israeli. "I think it was really interesting for me to move here from Israel," she says, "because every country has its own reasons for supporting something or being against it. So I've learned a lot. In Israel I lived my reality and it was easy to speak about." Not, she continues, that it's harder in Paris. "In France, people have been so welcoming, I think professionally and also [to me] as an Israeli. I read in Hebrew on the subway all the time, and I've never had bad reactions from people. There've been nice discussions, even if we talk about subjects that are really intense." Her French record label, she says, was supportive of her recording in Hebrew, suggesting merely that she write "a few songs" in English so that "people could understand a little bit." Released in France in October, her new album proved an immediate hit, topping the downloaded albums charts and earning Naim a guest appearance on Star Academy, a TV song contest that regularly hosts performers like Beyonce Knowles and Alicia Keys. Atlantic Records, which had been keeping an eye on the singer from New York, completed a distribution deal by the end of the year, around the time Apple picked "New Soul" for its career-making ad campaign. A second single, "Too Long," has already been selected for release, and Naim, who performed in Germany for the first time this week, is gearing up for more American and European touring this spring. A trip to Japan is scheduled for September. Israel, perversely, is not yet on the itinerary; Naim's record has not yet been picked up for distribution. In the meantime, the singer plans to showcase her Hebrew work abroad, saying she wouldn't rule out the idea of eventually releasing a Hebrew-language single in the US. Americans, it's pointed out, are notoriously resistant to lyrics that aren't in English - though perhaps she'll take her place next to the belly-dancing pop star Shakira, the linguistic pioneer who introduced Spanish to the American Top 40 a few years ago. She's amused by the idea, pausing a moment to work out her response. "I'll tell you something," she says, after a laugh. "My songs in Hebrew and English went directly into those languages, and I don't like doing translations. I thought I might have to choose a language, but the record company said no. Here was someone telling us, 'You can put everything you are in the music.'"