Singing it like it is

Caesarea-born singer-songwriter Keren Ann’s music is the story of her life.

Keren Ann: ‘I love taking different sounds and new ideas, and kind of listening and trying to find a new way around it.’ (photo credit: XI SINSONG)
Keren Ann: ‘I love taking different sounds and new ideas, and kind of listening and trying to find a new way around it.’
(photo credit: XI SINSONG)
Keren Ann is the next guest in veteran radio rock and pop DJ Yoav Kutner’s long-running Sippurim Bemono (“Stories in Mono”) interview series at Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem. The session will take place Monday at 9 p.m.
Kutner is a seasoned interviewer, but he may have his work cut out for him with Keren Ann. The Israeli-born singer-songwriter seems to have quite a few personas, and multilayered cultural baggage. Forty-year-old Keren Ann was born in Caesarea, but the family moved to the Netherlands when she was small. Her parents are Russian and Dutch-Javanese, and she lived in the Netherlands until the age of 11, when her family moved to France. For the last few years she has divided her time between Israel, Paris and New York. Clearly the artist has several strings to her bow.
“My education was very Francophile because my mom used to listen to a lot of French artists, so that is my first connection to French culture,” explains Keren Ann. That was subsequently augmented by Stateside sounds of the ’60s and ’70s. “I used to listen to a lot of American and Canadian singersongwriters like [Bob] Dylan and Joni Mitchell.”
While she dug their music, there was something more to the craft that drew the young Keren Ann to the genre.
“They have this way of creating their own personal biography along with the writing, and I later realized that this is what I do, although not intentionally.
Every record I bring out is sort of a chapter in my life.”
It is about the storytelling and identifying with the source material.
“There is something very personal about it. The structure of the writing and the fact that it’s autobiographical, even when I take someone else’s story and make it my own. You sometimes take different characters, like a writer, and work through them and make it all into your own story.
I feel that the American songwriting culture has this very personal thing.”
That certainly comes across in Keren Ann’s work. Her first two albums – La Biographie de Luka Philipsen and La Disparition, both in French – were cozy affairs.
The “Luka” in the title of her debut release referenced American singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega’s song of that name, but also Keren Ann’s grandmother’s surname.
She came to greater international notice when she released the third of her six solo CDs to date, Not Going Anywhere. The title track received generous airplay here, and elsewhere, and put her firmly on the global pop music map.
Spreading the inspirational web even further, there is a wistful element to Keren Ann’s output, which she puts down to her influences from this part of the world.
“Everything that has something to do with nostalgia, everything that has something to do with a chord progression that is sort of melancholic, I think I got that unintentionally through the ’70s singer-songwriters in Israel,” she notes.
“There is something in there that brings me a sense of comfort, of very deep melancholy. I know that people like Joni Mitchell have that, but I also know that bands like [early ’70s trio] Haneshamot Hatehorot (‘The Pure Souls’) and [late ’60s band] Hachalonot Hagevohim (‘The High Windows’) had that too. So I do think I have the Israeli stamp in my writing DNA.”
Keren Ann also has a penchant for jazz, which for example, comes through in Bright Stones, of her latest album, 101, released in 2011. Still that improvisatory leaning does not find its way into Keren Ann’s regular set repertoire. She says she generally makes recreational use of jazz.
“Improvisation can be for fun, when I play with friends, but it is not necessarily something I want to bring along to the stage. Especially in my world, when I play songs that have a structure, it’s nice to have a basic frame and you can move around it doing instrumentals.
“I love taking different sounds and new ideas, and kind of listening and trying to find a new way around it, and that can give a new direction to an old song, but I feel that if I want to take my songs and do them the jazz way it’ll have to be a jazz musician [who does that].”
Keren Ann is perfectly happy for other artists to take her work in different directions, even though they may not be the way she would choose to go herself.
“Every time I hear a singer-songwriter, who is not necessarily a rock musician or folk musician, that comes from a jazz or South American music culture, then I feel they gave it a certain light that wasn’t necessarily natural for me, but it is very obvious for the song, so I like it.”
In addition to all her wide-ranging cultural baggage, the languages she speaks and the instruments she plays – guitar and piano, and clarinet to a degree – Keren Ann often fills the role of record producer and also sound engineer. Presumably, the latter skills provide her with greater insight into what kind of sound she should aim for when she embarks on a recording session or plays a gig.
That may be true, but Keren Ann says she doesn’t let her various professional skills interfere with each other. “I don’t let the producer side get in the way of performing on stage,” she says, adding that her approach is very much of the here and now variety.
“When I am in the studio, producing my own record or someone else’s record, the most important thing for me is to have a result that corresponds to what I feel like [about the music] that same day. The possibilities are endless, and the idea is to give a musical expression to what you feel and what you emotionally want to put into a physical form. It is very important to understand that this is a process you need to go through.”
Then again, live performances are a different kettle of fish. “When you’re on stage you have the luxury of doing something different every night, with a band or a full orchestra. You can rewrite the arrangements and change things around.
That’s exciting. I love that. You can tell your story and also let the music speak for itself.”
The Beit Avi Chai audience will get to hear Keren Ann perform some of her songs, and ask questions.
For tickets and more information: (02) 621-5900 and