A Homecoming for Folk Singer Keren Ann

By Noya Kohavi (Haaretz)

Published September 23, 2009.
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This month Keren Ann finished producing the second album of French actress and singer Emmanuelle Seigner, who is married to Roman Polanski. When Iggy Pop, who appeared on the album as a guest, asked why she had moved to Tel Aviv, she had an answer ready: “For love. What other reason do I have?” The singer, songwriter and producer, who has acquired a reputation as a woman without a home and with a suitcase and a portable studio, married an Israeli and moved here officially in March.

They married in New York, in February 2008. She says the wedding was small. That is an understatement. Only four people were there: the couple, the bride’s best friend and the groom’s brother. They spent two days at the Gramercy Park Hotel, and then she went on tour. “Our honeymoon was the end of my tour, on the way back from Los Angeles to New York via Tucson, Arizona; Austin, Texas; Louisiana, Georgia, West Virginia, Maryland.”

They originally planned to live in New York, but Keren Ann says in any case, she had planned to move to Israel at some stage, and she decided there was no reason for postponement.

Keren Ann was born in Israel, but until she was 11 her family divided its time between Caesarea and the Netherlands. Then they moved to Paris, and later she continued, on her own, to New York. Like some musical sailor, she has a studio in every port.

The image conveyed by interviews in newspapers such as New York Magazine, The New York Times, Interview and the Los Angeles Times is of a whiskey drinker enveloped by cigarette smoke. Her name has been linked with love affairs and a wild life of performances, but this image does not really suit the humid atmosphere of Tel Aviv. The Keren Ann of Israel 2009 chose to meet at midday at a cafe in the Tel Aviv Port.

She arrived exactly on time, on a yellow bicycle that she won in a lottery commemorating the city’s centennial. Her gold ballerina flats reveal a decorative tattoo at the bottom of one calf. She knows the waitress and is afraid to drink too much cava for fear that the lethal combination of sparkling wine and the midday sun will exhaust her.

“I had no intention of moving to Israel now,” she said, while adding that she always knew that one day she would want to. “We reached a situation where I was in New York, my sister in Sweden and my brother half in London and half here. I knew the time would come when I would want to live near my parents in Israel, because we’ve been apart for so long. It made me very sad, because I love them very much.

“And I still have all the opportunities. It’s convenient for me that I have a life in New York and in Paris too. There were entire years when I lived on the road, I switched countries and apartments and houses without any problem and I lived in hotels. For me the world is not so big and frightening. I was born that way.”

She has already completed the process — which she claims is humiliating — of obtaining official “returning Israeli” status (which grants certain taxes and other benefits). All that’s left is the bureaucracy of getting her driver’s license. “But that’s not urgent,” she says. “I fly to Paris more often than I leave Tel Aviv.”

At 35, with five solo albums, Keren Ann’s name is said in the same breath as those of Norah Jones, Suzanne Vega, Nico and Francoise Hardy, a close friend, and her songs have been played on such television series as”Grey’s Anatomy,” “Six Feet Under” and “Big Love.”

She got her first guitar at the age of 9. She says the first songs she played were those of Carole King, and that in keeping with the cliche she has always written songs. At first she preferred to have others perform her songs. In 2000, together with then-partner Benjamin Biolay, ex-husband of Chiara Mastroianni (daughter of Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni), she wrote the comeback album of French pop singer Henri Salvador.

Only when she was in her mid-20s did she realize that she wanted to sing her songs herself. Biolay wrote and produced some of the songs on her first two albums, “La Biographie de Luka Philipsen” (2000) and “La Disparition” (2002). Since then she, together with Biolay, his sister Coralie Clement and Carla Bruni, have earned places in the French nouvelle chanson stream, which includes those considered the contemporary successors of Jacques Brel.

At the start of her career she was compared repeatedly with Hardy, but that subsided when Bruni entered the scene. “It’s simply that [Bruni] is now filling the slot of the singer with bangs,” she said, laughing.

The production aspects of her musical work are very important to Keren Ann, who even describes herself as being obsessive regarding sound. She uses her full name, Keren Ann Zeidel (now it’s Keren Ann Zeidel David), only when she produces or performs on other people’s albums. She somewhat regrets the decision to use her full first name, but must continue to do so as part of her brand. “My greatest nightmare is to be called Keren. I hate that the most. Ann, which is what I was called as a girl, would be better.”

Her last album, “Keren Ann,” was released in 2007 by Metro Blue, a division of the legendary Blue Note label. The head of Blue Note heard a song she wrote for Salvador and told her to come and meet with him whenever she got to New York. Two years later, after moving to the city, she took him up on the offer. That album was preceded by two albums in English, on EMI: “Not Going Anywhere” (2003) and “Nolita” (2004). The online music magazine Pitchfork, which is concerned mainly with alternative music and is known for its tough reviews, rated her last three albums 7.5, 8.2 and 6, respectively.

The reviews of her latest album were so lyrical that she seemed to have cast a spell on the critics: Cue magazine said it makes her a leader in a one-woman field, and even compared her with Mazzy Star, Hope Sandoval and Nick Drake. Cue also described her presence as a combination of mystery and self-confidence without sounding condescending.

The Observer called her voice an enticing, gut-wrenching whisper. The New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote that her music is a cliche so well done that it makes us remember what made it a cliche in the first place. And yes, that’s a compliment.

Keren Ann speaks very fast, almost without pausing, in a torrential mixture of Hebrew and English. Her accent is almost unidentifiable, and is evident mainly in her lilting intonation. She enjoys the mistakes she makes, when she catches them: In speaking of working with a harpist in Iceland, she called the instrument nevela (scoundrel) instead of nevel before laughing and attempting to correct herself.

“One of the most important things to me is not to have a French accent,” she says. “If I speak with an accent in the grocery store, for example, they immediately speak to me as though I were a little girl. There’s something about a French accent that apparently demands such an attitude. My plan is to speak just like an ‘arsit’ [a ‘tough girl’], and as soon as possible,” she said, bursting into laughter.

She learned her Hebrew from her father, Dan Zeidel, a sculptor turned businessman. “My father speaks amazing Hebrew, an old and charming Hebrew with a few words in Yiddish. Hebrew is very important to him.” Her mother was born in Holland to a Dutch father and an Indonesian mother. “She has a Dutchwoman’s Hebrew, with a strong accent,” she said. “When she came to Israel, she didn’t know a word of Hebrew. Now I understand how hard it was, she couldn’t even read the labels of the goods in the supermarket. But my parents returned here 19 years ago, so her Hebrew is very good now.”

In the Netherlands she went to an American school and spoke mainly English. In Paris she studied at the Israeli school part of the time, but she admits that as an adolescent she dreamed in French and English. “A few months after I graduated high school, at 16, my parents returned to Israel. Since then I haven’t spoken Hebrew, except for a few days a year.”

“My writing in English is more intuitive,” she said. “In French, there’s something romantic, dramatic, ‘end of the world,’ as in French films and in Baudelaire. My best French teacher was Serge Gainsbourg, both in terms of the language and in terms of production and arrangements. I don’t think any French performer was better. I learned a lot about the language through his songs.” As a teenager she also listened to such Israeli groups such as Haneshamot Hatehorot (a 1970s supergroup).

There is no language that she calls her own; her language is a mixture of Dutch, French, English and Hebrew. “Every language I speak is slightly broken, because I never went into anything deeply or learned the literature.” She says she hates translation. “Although I work with language and sculpt it, and although writing is important to me, for me language is almost a virtual thing. I spend my life far more in images and in sound. For me, language is secondary.”

One project she clearly enjoyed very much was composing and arranging incidental music for the French-German TV station Arte, after winning a four-year tender for which she submitted an intro for the news.

“I have several songs but I’m still waiting to find the right sound,” she said of her next album. “The truth is that I’m running away from it a little. The last time I recorded I also embarked on two years of performances. It’s great and amazing and of course it’s a privilege, but it’s a lot of time away from home.”

While she likes Zaza and Kicha studios, and the studio at Kibbutz Haogen that she used once, as in all her previous home bases she plans to create her own studio here. She brought some equipment with her and plans to bring more soon, when she finds an appropriate space.

This month she finished the recordings for Seigner’s album. She met the French singer last December. “It was very fast,” she says of the process, which peaked at Zaza studios in Jaffa. “I feel that I almost did the work of a director with her. I wrote the role for her and she remained the actress.”

Immediately after that, she began working on the soundtrack for a new film by director Benoit Petre, starring Jane Birkin. “The production people came to Israel. Every night they went out to clubs and restaurants. They spent an hour a day in the studio. They wanted to demonstrate their presence, but it was actually only an excuse to come to Tel Aviv,” she said.

The new Lady and Bird album, which is slated to be released in October, is called “La Ballade of Lady and Bird,” named after a song from the band’s 2003 debut album. On the album notes of that first CD they wrote: “Yes, we had a lot of sex while recording.” Since then she and her partner, Bardi Johannsson, have written music for dance and documentaries, and they are producing an album of arrangements of their works, singly and together, performed by the Reykjavik Symphony Orchestra.

Seigner’s album, which will be issued in November by Sony Music, is Keren Ann’s first project in Israel. “It’s a huge privilege for the work to come to me,” she says, without hiding her excitement. “I never imagined that so soon, instead of my having to travel abroad to work, the work could come to me. I didn’t think I could arrange a schedule for myself in Tel Aviv so easily. It’s my dream: to do yoga on Sunday and Friday and to go walking in the park.”

The fact that she came to Israel to perform in bomb shelters didn’t strike her as odd. She says when her family lived in Holland and Paris her father made sure the family came to Israel in times of war. “My father is a real Zionist,” she said. “I never understood why he wanted to grow old here. Now I do.”

When she performed in bomb shelters during the Second Lebanon War she found it hard to see Israeli youth in uniform. “When 18-year-old boys here are soldiers, all over Europe they’re going to festivals and drinking beer. There’s a strong emotional burden in that situation. I know I can’t change anything, maybe I can only bring another atmosphere for a few minutes.”

Keren Ann is afraid of becoming apathetic. She is used to talking about Israel from the outside. “In the United States or France, whether I want to or not, my connection to Israel is something people talk about” she said. “I never allowed myself to be an ambassador. I didn’t accept this role even when they tried to push me into it. But I belong here.”

She launches into a speech about the Jewish state which seems practiced. In Tel Aviv, of all places, her enthusiastic Zionism sounds somewhat anachronistic. “The fact that our parents chose to establish the Jewish state here is within me and I can’t ignore that. But when you live in Israel it’s part of everyday life.”


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