You’ll have to forgive Yael Naim if she’s at a loss for words. After all, she’s still trying to figure out how all this happened.
Born in France, raised outside Tel Aviv, Israel, she’s already logged time in the Israeli Defense Forces, done a turn as Moses’ sister in a musical version of “The Ten Commandments” and had one nightmarish run with a major label. And now she’s somehow wound up as the voice of Apple’s new MacBook Air, thanks to a near-ubiquitous commercial featuring her song “New Soul.” So, really, please pardon her if she’s still a little dumbfounded by the sudden attention she’s receiving.
“It’s all kind of a mystery, honestly” she laughs. “We don’t understand how something we made in my apartment could end up in Apple’s ear.”
Yet, somehow, “New Soul” did just that, and now Naim appears to be next in line for the same shot of fame that came to Leslie Feist, the Canadian chanteuse whose song “1234” was featured in advertisements for Apple’s iPod Nano. Pre-Pod, she was a critically adored, commercially ignored singer/songwriter. After? Well, she’s sold more than 500,000 copies of her album The Reminder and scored four Grammy nominations . So is Naim expecting to get much of the same? “Soul” is already one of the most-downloaded songs on the iTunes Music Store … but, aside from that, she’s not really sure what will happen.
“This whole thing is very special, because of the way we made the song, and so we didn’t have any dreams about big commercial success. So we are happy and surprised and amazed by how it grow and grows,” she said. “We are trying to not — how do you say it — to lose our heads, so we are a little conscious of everything that’s happening. But I suppose it’s a good thing because people will know the music. Honestly, we do not even know if we will get computers yet!”
That would be especially fitting, since “Soul” — and everything else on Naim’s self-titled album, which is due here in the States in the spring — was recorded on a single computer in her Paris apartment. Working with musician David Donatien, she spent more than two years writing, recording, scrapping, re-recording and building a collection of songs that reflect her heritage (she sings in French, Hebrew and English) and her past struggles. And in doing so, she rediscovered the passion for music that drove her as a child.
“I grew up in Israel [and] had a guitar with me at all times. There was also an old organ in my home, so I was always playing that. When I was 9, I began taking classical piano, and then I discovered artists like the Beatles and Aretha Franklin, who taught me about composition and voice,” Naim explained. “That was what made me the person I was, and then I lost that somewhere. When I put out my first record [2001’s In a Man’s Womb], it was a disappointment for me. I had just come to Paris, and I was too young, and the label was too big, and so I just didn’t think I could do this anymore.
“But, when I met David, he was the first one to tell me that I could produce and arrange my own music, and that I didn’t need to work with big producers,” she continued. “I just needed to come and sit down with him and make the music I loved. And that’s how I started to find my direction and my voice and look at things that happened in a funny way, which is what this album is about.”
And what started as an intimate project between friends suddenly became a smash in her native France, debuting at #11 on the charts and earning her heaps of critical praise. And now, from her Parisian apartment, she has taken to the airwaves in America, which is all the more reason for Naim to be a little bit perplexed by her sudden sorta-fame. So you can understand that, when MTV News called her in Paris, she had something else on her mind: making plans for her first U.S. tour, which, not surprisingly, is shaping up to be a rather intimate affair.
“I am trying to put it together now. I mean, my label here is. But I want it to be like the album. On the album, you can hear the sounds of the neighborhood in the background. It was like the music was all over the room,” she said. “So, this tour, the one we are planning now, we are going to make it like being inside my apartment. It will be small, but we will try to welcome everyone inside.”