NEW ALBUM "OLDER"
RELEASED THIS FALL
Music is anything but a job to Yael Naim and David Donatien. It’s entwined in every aspect of life for these musical and romantic partners, who recorded their third album together in their family home on the outskirts of Paris.
“We never agree when we work, we always fight. It’s intense,” says Naim, 37.
“Sharing a creation is one of the more difficult things you can do,” adds Donatien. “Not many people share a book or a painting.” Nevertheless, it’s now 10 years since they began their successful partnership, recording the first, self-titled, Yael Naim album on rudimentary equipment in her Bastille apartment, with her often singing in Hebrew, and watching its single, New Soul, become an unlikely worldwide hit following Apple advert ubiquity in 2008.
At first Donatien was helping her to realize the potential of her own songs. An earlier album recorded for EMI at the start of the 2000s, before they met, had been a disaster for her and was never released. “I was in my Alanis Morissette period. It was just bad, horrible,” she says. “I was working with people who were not good for me. Then I decided that instead of meeting music business people, I would try to meet musicians. I took a gig as a pianist and David was the percussionist. We immediately connected to each other. He was very calm, not pretentious. He was listening, observing, trying to see how he could help me.”
“I was surprised that she could sing, compose, arrange and play,” says the drummer. “She had other people telling her they would take care of everything. I felt she had something strong inside of her. It wasn’t about myself or my career, I only wanted to help her because the music was beautiful.”
Step by step, it has become a 50/50 project, just like another major collaboration – their two-year-old daughter. Strictly speaking, the name “Yael Naim” on the album cover is two people. Think of them like Bon Jovi, only their sophisticated chamber pop is a million miles away from Living on a Prayer.
This time, with Older, they literally met in the middle. Donatien’s home studio is in the basement of their current house, while Naim’s is upstairs. These songs began their lives on the Farfisa organ in the living room. The album’s centrepiece, Ima, is another coming together – it’s the first time one of their songs has included both lyrics in Hebrew, from Israel-raised Naim, and in Antillean Creole, the family tongue of Donatien, whose father is from Martinique.
They asked Leyla McCalla, formerly of Carolina Chocolate Drops, to sing the Creole lines. Other guests on the album include a children’s choir on Coward – a baroque, unorthodox composition that has had a big impact in France. Plus, on Walk Walk, there’s Meters drummer and funk pioneer Zigaboo Modeliste. “It was incredible to share our music with a guy who is part of history: the most sampled drummer,” says Donatien.
The guests reflect the journey of the songs, which cover the excitement and fear of new parenthood on Make a Child and Coward among others, and go on to explore the death of Naim’s grandmother on the devastating title track and the closing Meme Iren Song. McCalla was pregnant when she recorded her part, and the presence of the children and 66-year-old Modeliste almost shows the full span of human existence that Naim sings about.
Voices are the centre of the album, however – Naim’s, of course, but also backing singers 3somesisters, a band in their own right. Listen to them intertwining on the light-as-a-feather opening track, Walk Until, and swooping all over Make a Child. “There are voices everywhere,” says Naim. We were playing for fun. After a while it became a construction of rhythm and vocals and magical instruments like dulcimer and celeste.”
But if that makes it sound simple, listen to Coward, a classic-sounding chanson about feeling unready to have a baby. It has already moved on from its original form into two highbrow new versions – one recorded with US jazz pianist Bred Mehldau (“That was such an incredible day of music,” says Donatien) and the other with conductor Jules Buckley and the Dutch orchestra Metropole Orkest. They will appear on the single release.
Naim is at her most soulful on Dream in My Head, a swaying, grandiose song that could be a Bond theme if Bond was Parisien. Trapped is another one the piles the voices high, with Naim reaching dizzying heights on her lead vocal. She’s singing with more power and feeling than ever before.
“This album is very different from the last one. It has more emotion. What we lived was stronger,” says Naim, talking about its literal life and death themes. “Suddenly life disappeared and life appeared. My grandmother was my first loss as an adult. I’m singing about what kind of person you become once you are in front of big changes.”
Music helps her to process everything in her life. “There’s a relief you can have through writing music. Putting everything you go through into it helps you to go on.” She has had dalliances with acting, and at the height of her fame in the US was asked to voice a character in The Simpsons – invariably a sign of A-list status. She played the neice of Sacha Baron Cohen’s tourist guide when the yellow family made a trip to Israel in Season 21. Pretence isn’t her thing though. “I am the opposite of an actress: I have to be myself every second, or I suffer.”
Born in Paris but brought up near Tel Aviv by her Tunisian parents from the age of four, these days Naim mostly sings in English because she listened to English- speaking musicians growing up. She did 10 years of classical piano training, loved the Mozart film Amadeus and initially wanted to write symphonies, but at 12 The Beatles began to turn her head. “I started writing pop songs. I couldn’t have my own orchestra at 16 but with pop music, I was free to express myself how I wanted.”
Even her obligatory two years of military service in the Israeli army didn’t stop the music. She was made a singer in the Air Force big band at 18, touring the country performing to the soldiers. “We did pop music, Sting, Eels, whatever I wanted. For the person I was at the time, it was interesting, except for the fact that it’s the army and I hope that one day this system will be finished.”
Meanwhile, Donatien had grown up in a musical family near Paris and become an accomplished drummer. One uncle was a percussionist and another was a producer of Caribbean music. From the age of 16 he was touring with various bands.
Naim moved to Paris after the army at 21 and signed her first record deal. “I wanted to be a megastar. I thought I was a genius and discovered I was far from that.” What she did discover, with Donatien’s help, was that a hit is much more likely to happen when you stop chasing it. That’s still their attitude after their experience with New Soul, which took them all over the world at the end of the last decade. “It was an incredible bonus, but it’s done now,” says Donatien. “We don’t try to make a hit again. It changed us in a good way. We don’t have to worry about hits – we did it already.”
What they’ve done instead is make an ambitious, wide-ranging album that has something worthwhile to say about big subjects, whichever language they’re singing in. Their music-filled home has been opened up to the world, and the world will love it.