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It’s been a busy winter for French-Israeli singer Yael Naim. The tiny 29-year-old was little-known in France last October when she released a self-titled album she’d recorded in her Bastille living room with collaborator David Donatien. The pair was surprised when it went gold on the French charts, but nothing prepared them for what would happen when Apple tapped Naim’s cheerful English-language song, “New Soul,” for its MacBook Air television commercial. Within a week, the song climbed to the top of the iTunes chart, taking Naim with it. Now, Atlantic Records bumped the Stateside release of her album up two months to today, which will be quickly followed by outings in 17 other countries. And, on Wednesday night, Naim will bring her breathy, wistful voice to Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom, before she returns to Paris to launch a European tour.
“It’s amazing,” marvels Naim, sitting in Austin’s Driskill Hotel, where she and Donatien are performing as part of the South by Southwest music festival.
“In one year, we had so many things happen, we can barely believe it,” says Donatien.
It’s not the first time Naim has had a whirlwind affair with the record industry, but last time, there wasn’t such a happy ending. She was 21 when she returned to Paris from Israel, where her family had moved when she was age four, to perform in a charity concert. Producers from EMI happened to be in the audience and, on the spot, asked her to stay and record an album.
“It was a complete disaster,” remembers Naim. “It was the system: It was a big company with big expectations. I was really young and I got confused by the melding of big business with the music, which sometimes doesn’t go so well together.” After rushing her to produce 2001’s “In a Man’s Womb,” “nothing happened,” she says. She split from the label and supported herself for the next few years by singing in French comédies musicales.
When she decided to embark on her latest effort, Naim took the process more slowly. After meeting Donatien in 2004, the pair worked daily in her living room for the next two and a half years, despite not having a record deal in sight. “People laughed at us because we were working all the time but not producing anything,” says Naim, who sings in English and Hebrew.
“She first showed me 200 songs,” explains Donatien, a Paris-based percussionist and producer. He helped edit down her songs and forced her to focus on the basics of her technique — Naim also plays guitar and piano.
After one false start with a small record company that shut down, Naim and Donatien got an offer from Tôt ou Tard, a Parisian indie label. “We didn’t expect any label in France to be interested because of all the songs in Hebrew,” says Donatien. (Eight of the 11 songs on the album are in Hebrew.)
“I always wrote in English, but after four years in Paris, feeling far from home, [singing in Hebrew] was a way to reconnect to this part of myself,” explains Naim. “It’s not a sexy language, so it was really because I wanted to say something very simple and sincere in my first language.”
Naim’s melodic singing style has drawn comparisons to singer-songwriter Leslie Feist, whose song “1, 2, 3, 4,” was featured in Apple’s iPod Nano campaign and who was nominated for four Grammys this year.
But for now, the soft-spoken Naim is just happy to be starting her tour. “I think we will give a lot of energy now in performing,” she says. “It’s another level of creating.”