October 20, 2018

With ‘New Soul,’ a new beginning

Yael Naim might need to have her head checked out.  Take her word for it.

“I don’t know, I think I should go to a psychologist,” she says on the phone from France.  “What’s wrong?”  she asks, perhaps rhetorically, and laughs.

No, she hasn’t suffered a breakdown on her latest tour, she’s talking about the origin of the title for her new album, “She Was a Boy.” Considering that her debut album 10 years ago bore a similarly gender-bending title, “In a Man’s Womb,” she may have a point.

“I feel like in the first album I was really young.  I arrived [in] Paris, I was still very dependent on my parents and under strong influence from my father, and maybe I felt like I’m a little girl in a man’s world, and I’m like in a man’s womb. It’s like I was not born yet and [hadn’t] become independent.”

Naim has since found her freedom. Now 33, the first Israeli solo artist to have a top-10 hit in the United States and a darling of Mac users around the world for her catchy song “New Soul,” Naim has found a happy balance in a life that once was heading in the wrong direction.

“The first album was the period when I felt like I [made] really wrong choices in my life,” Naim says.  She hung out with a bad crowd, was unwise in love and generally felt lost. “There was a period when I said, ‘OK, I will never make an album [again]; I just want to find a way to do music, but without the businessmen.’ ”

In the interest of meeting “more musicians and less … record company men,” Naim began taking gigs as a pianist.  It was on one of these gigs that she met David Donatien, who would become her frequent collaborator and producer.  “It was the best decision I ever made,” she said.

The two began to create new arrangements of Naim’s highly prolific song catalog, and it was from this partnership that “New Soul” came about.  It’s a simple, catchy song; sweet, melodic and positive — all qualities that led to its selection as the music for a MacBook Air commercial in 2008.  It is said that Steve Jobs himself approved the choice.

Within a few weeks, “New Soul” had shot up the charts, catapulting the once-anonymous Naim to stardom. “It was strange and amazing at the same time,” Naim says of her new-found notoriety. “It was so unexpected.” Naim and Donatien found themselves touring around the world and hearing audiences sing along to their music in countries as far away as Japan. “It was a gift,” she says. “It was like the universe said, ‘You did a good job, so here’s a big present for you.’ ” 

When asked whether she uses Macs herself, Naim laughs and says she has too many to count. But she also has a little secret: “ ‘New Soul’ was made on a PC,” she says, giggling. When the song became a hit, “Then we could afford to buy a Mac.”

Naim was exposed to music at an early age. “My father had some instruments at home … an old organ and a guitar, and he used to play and sing and make us really curious about music.” She started out training classically but soon was listening to The Beatles, and then Aretha Franklin and Ella Fitzgerald, and even Herbie Hancock. 

She desperately wanted a piano of her own, but her parents weren’t wealthy, so it was a great shock to her when, “One day, I came back from school and a real piano was in my room.”

Naim regrets that more of her Middle Eastern background doesn’t come through in her jazz- and folk-tinged music. “In Israel, there was a big influence from pop music … it’s a small country and, you know, people wanted to feel they are connected to the big world.” But when it comes to her parents’ Tunisian roots, or her own Israeli childhood, she admits she would love to explore her background more through her music.

“She Was a Boy” reflects Naim’s new maturity. “They want you to stay a nice little girl, smile and be naïve,” Naim says. “I listened a lot to Nina Simone … for me, she was a boy. And also Frida Kahlo was a boy. It was like women who were complete, they were not only feminine.”

Naim knows what it’s like to be tough. She once voiced the pugilistic niece of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Israeli tour guide on an episode of “The Simpsons.” Her character got into a karate-versus-Krav Maga battle with Bart Simpson, a match he lost. But Naim isn’t planning to cross over into movies like so many musicians before her. “I don’t like to play roles of other people; I’m too selfish. I want to be myself all the time,” she says.

Naim will be doing just that during her upcoming Los Angeles concert at the Theatre Raymond Kabbaz at Le Lycee Francais de Los Angeles on Nov. 4 and 5.  “We were in L.A. a few months ago, and it was amazing to me,” Naim says.

This time, she’s back with a pared-down group. “We wanted to purify a bit and get into something more essential.  We’ll play mainly the new album, with a few surprises.”

For a woman who once felt down and out after her first album flopped, Naim has seized her second chance with joy.  “It was like a restart, and when I wrote ‘New Soul’… it was like, OK, I did everything wrong, every possible mistake, but it’s OK … let’s start again.”