New York’s architecture is laid on an invisible foundation of stories. From Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Jonathan Lethem’s requiem for a Motherless Brooklyn, there are few cities in the world that have inspired as many tales of hope, love, loneliness and utter despair.
Although it’s early in the morning, you can already hear evidence of a few stories—or at least car horns honking—right outside Parisian singer-songwriter Keren Ann’s Lower Manhattan apartment. She’s still groggy from a delayed evening flight returning from a trip to Israel, but eager to talk about her music, her upcoming concert at the Atlantic Jazz Festival, and the city she now calls home.
The pre-recording for Keren Ann’s latest release, the languid and dreamy Nolita (named after her small neighbourhood, not far from the savoury smells of Little Italy), was completed in Paris, but she knew she needed to return to her studio and loft in New York to capture an energy found nowhere else in the world.
“The mood I was in when I was writing—of being surrounded by the city—I had to get back here,” she says in perfectly accented English. “Because you know how New York can be so overwhelming and intimidating and you can feel so small. At the same time it’s very securing and comforting for people who want to work on their projects here.”
So Keren Ann made herself a space, her own rabbit hole perhaps, where she could be completely immersed in the stories of Alice, the dreamy heroine and narrator of Nolita. With no time for decorating, she hung personal photos and posters to mark the loft as her own. “I needed to quickly find a space that could become isolated and a refuge in which I can be for days, or for weeks, or for months, working on the record, knowing that I have silence if I need it,” she explains. “But working in Paris and New York, there’s something that they do both have in common—quiet and calm, but you know that outside there’s a crowd.”
The singer, who is well known in France (in 2004 she was nominated at the “Victoires de la musique” awards for Best Female Artist of the Year), was born Keren Ann Zeidel in 1974, in the small Israeli town of Cesaree, to a Russian-Israeli father and a Japanese-Dutch mother. Keren Ann spent most of her childhood in the Netherlands before moving to Paris, her passport stamped with a collage of sounds from French pop to jazz to Yiddish folk music. She recorded two highly acclaimed French albums and wrote several songs on a bossa nova album for French icon Henri Salvador, before making her North American and English-language debut in 2004 with the gentle Not Going Anywhere.
Like her rich heritage, there is no simple way to describe Keren Ann’s music. Although there have been comparisons to Norah Jones—striking, dark-haired beauty, an ingénue taken with jazz classics, album deal with Blue Note Records—a listen to “Chelsea Burns,” off the French- and English-composed Nolita, suggests a closer kinship to Leonard Cohen’s turn of phrase and composition. She perfectly captures Cohen’s dark confrontations with “I was running out of trouble/You were running out of fame.” But as Chelsea burns and Keren Ann whispers, the melancholy harmonica kicks in, a treat for Cowboy Junkies or Margot Timmins fans. The simplicity of “Greatest You Can Find” suggests an attention to melody akin to Canadian singer Leslie Feist or Keren Ann’s idol Suzanne Vega.
Or you may hear Tom Waits, especially in the spoken-word track “Song of Alice,” performed by Sean Gullette. Keren Ann had specific intentions when she recruited the New York actor.
“Everything on this album is on her shoulders—she’s in every song in some way. I needed one more person, nobody else sings or speaks of Alice, I’m the only person that knows she exists,” the singer laughs softly. “But if I take someone from the outside to tell the story, to speak about her, it means that she does exist. At least I’m not the only witness.”
Like Waits, Keren Ann is a quiet witness to the tales of the city, although she suggests that she sees the shadows of New York through a different perspective than the gravel-throated troubadour. “I think all these elements exist in the record, but shown in a more feminine way.” She ponders the thought some more. “I guess that if a boy would speak about a scene about drugs, broken bottles, the alcohol, the scars—the girl would talk about the same thing but with other words. She’ll describe a bruise as blue on the face, or the blood, she’ll say that there was a different taste. So maybe it is the same scene, but spoken differently.”
Although the scene at Halifax’s Holiday Inn Select Common Room is far from the charm of Montmartre or the grit of Manhattan, Keren Ann already has a touchstone in the city. Jason MacIsaac of the European-press darlings The Heavy Blinkers first heard Keren Ann’s voice when the band was touring in France. By the time he arrived back in Halifax, he owned her catalogue, and was impressed enough to send an appreciative note through her website kerenann.com. After emailing across the continents, the two finally met face-to-face at the South by Southwest music festival last March in Austin, Texas.
“It’s just a sweet thing,” Keren Ann reminisces. “Jason left a message and I didn’t know anything about The Heavy Blinkers but I just thought that the email was so nicely written—like music itself—that I went and bought the record. I was blown away by the music. They’re incredible and I just didn’t know how I could be so long without hearing them.”
For MacIsaac, Keren Ann’s music evokes a mood that resonates with him personally. “She writes very cinematically and her French lyrics are a bit tragic and equally romantic,” says MacIsaac, who volunteered to distribute posters for her Jazz Fest concert, eager to introduce the French singer to local audiences. “There is a fragility to her music that is quite beautiful.”
A fragility that will grace the next Heavy Blinkers album, long distances overcome thanks to a little help from digital files and the internet. Look for Keren Ann’s vocals on a waltz written by MacIsaac called “Forgotten Fears,” a song that he describes as “a bit like Leonard Cohen’s ‘Dance Me To The End Of Love’ or Tom Waits’s more romantic offerings.”
But for now the song will have to wait, as Keren Ann prepares for her next trip. The following day she will once again get on a plane, this time heading north for the Montreal Jazz Festival. Sleep may also have also wait until she returns home again: a home that could be on either side of the world.
“When I tour in North America, my home is in New York, but when I’m touring I only get to spend two to three days a month here. But when I tour in Europe, my home is in Paris,” Keren Ann admits without a hint of weariness. “I guess I do share my time. I do feel very attached to the French surroundings still—the environment, my apartment, my friends. But it’s the same as New York. The time I get to spend at home is not much, but I’m always happy to sleep in my bed.”