French Israeli Apple songstress turns serious with Older album

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

The success of the MacBook Air was not only good for Apple — it also propelled into stardom Yael Naim, a French Israeli singer-songwriter whose song, “New Soul,” was used in ads when the product was released in 2008 and made her the only Israeli to enjoy a top-10 hit in the U.S.

At the time, Naim lived in a tiny apartment in Paris, and “New Soul” was part of a self-made album. On Naim’s web site, she describes the song — which reached No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 — as “whimsical,” “modest” and “catchy,” feelings evoked by many folksy tracks she has released in the past 15 years.

Presently, though, the 38-year-old finds herself exploring heavier issues: the death of her grandmother, giving birth to a daughter and approaching the middle part of her life.

Yael Naim says her shows are “intimate.”

She sings about these struggles in the suitably titled “Older,” her fourth album that she is performing on tour in France, Israel and the U.S. She will be at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco on Monday, Sept. 12, and the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto on Tuesday, Sept. 13.

Naim said the album represents a turning point in her music.

“We all have to die someday,” she said in a phone interview. “Most of the time, I don’t really think about it. But to give birth and to lose someone close suddenly obliges you to think about it and to realize it.”

Naim described writing “Older” as a relief.

“Those moments in life when you are panicked or discovering you are a coward are difficult,” she said. “When I write a song about these things, I’m relieved because I can express these emotions without fighting with anyone.”

One song was particularly hard to write. “Make a Child” is about the moments she experienced before having her daughter.

“You can make a child, but you’re gonna have to undo everything you are, everything you thought that you knew,” Naim sings in that track.

She wrote the song with her partner, David Donatien, a percussionist she met early in her music career, in 2004. Donatien performs alongside Naim during tours.

“We wanted the energy to explode in the song,” Naim said about writing “Make a Child.” “It was fragile to find a nice balance and make both of us happy.”

Born in Paris in 1978, Naim moved at age 4 to Israel, where she settled with her parents — Sephardic Jewish immigrants from Tunisia — in Ramat HaSharon. At age 10, her parents surprised her with a piano, which led to her interest in classical music and composition.

Two years later, Naim started writing songs. She studied music at Alon High School and, after graduation, performed as a soloist with the Israeli Air Force Orchestra.

Her singing career began in 2000 when she sang at a charity event in Paris. Her performance caught the attention of a music director at now-defunct EMI Music, which signed her to a record deal. She then appeared in the French film version of the Ten Commandments before releasing her first album, “In a Man’s Womb,” in 2001.

Naim considered the album a personal failure, and it would be six years before she released another. During that time, she met Donatien through her work with other musicians, and she gives credit to him for reigniting her interest in creating music.

Together, they recorded 13 tracks for her second album, “Yael Naim,” released in 2007 with what remains her most famous song, “New Soul.”

In addition to piano, Naim plays guitar and ukulele, and many of her songs sit in the folk genre. She said her tours tend to be “intimate,” with Naim joined only by Donatien and a bassist.

 “The three of us know each other very well, so it’s a very intimate moment between us and the audience when we perform together,” Naim said.

She tours for two years after making each album, something she hopes to pare back in the future.

“It’s very hard to create new music — it’s possible, but it’s very hard — when you’re on tour. My dream would be to maybe tour a little less and make more music and release more albums,” she said. “Three albums in 10 years, to me, is not enough music.”

Yael Naim, 8 p.m. Monday, Sept. 12 at Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell St., S.F. $36. Also 8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 13 at the Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. 8 p.m. $55-$65.

Saul Sugarman

Saul Sugarman is a freelance writer.