MUSIC Creating French mood with New York songs
Singer-songwriter Keren Ann blends cosmopolitan influences with 'luminous' results.
By SUSAN CARPENTER
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Music that's popular in France doesn't often translate to American audiences, which is why the weepy ballads, over-produced Europop and French-fried hip-hop that dominate the radio there infrequently land anywhere in the United States other than record-store import bins.
French musicians who do make a name for themselves here are usually underappreciated in their home country -- artistically respected but commercially missing the mark, the French equivalent of American indie rock. But what doesn't work in France may click with Americans, especially those with a taste for '60s-style chansons.
Over the next few months, several Parisian artists are releasing records here. Together they form a sort of retro French foursome, with Keren Ann channeling the guitar-centric romanticism of Francoise Hardy, Coralie Clement acting as sexed-up soprano Jane Birkin, Benjamin Biolay a new-fangled Serge Gainsbourg and Carla Bruni the superbabe turned singer a la Brigitte Bardot.
Of the four, Bruni is the most commercially successful back home, but Keren Ann is probably best known in the United States, thanks to a small fan base built around "Not Going Anywhere," her first English-language album, released last summer by Blue Note affiliate Metro Blue. Keren Ann's soft, lyrical delivery and gently cascading orchestration are easy to fall in love with. "New Yorker" critic Sasha Frere-Jones found "Not Going Anywhere" so "luminous" he listened to it more than any other album last year.
This week, the 31-year-old singer-songwriter returns with another gorgeous collection of hushed, unhurried melodies. Sung in French and English, "Nolita" is further evidence of Keren Ann's gift for channeling mood into song and her predilection for romantic tragedy. Layering airy vocals and horns over maudlin strings, her music casts a spell.
Keren Ann is based in Paris, but "Nolita" takes its name from the New York City neighborhood where she spent much of last year writing it: North of Little Italy. The release of "Not Going Anywhere" had brought Keren Ann to New York to perform and promote the record. She spent her remaining time writing.
"Who doesn't want to spend time in New York? Who doesn't want to spend time in Paris?" Keren Ann asked rhetorically, smoking a cigarette and sipping fresh-squeezed orange juice poolside recently at the Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood, Calif. "They're perfect for people who like to isolate and write and make their own calm environment while knowing that outside is a big city."
They're also great for people with a cosmopolitan upbringing. Keren Ann is not French ethnically. Born in Israel to a Russian-Polish father and Dutch-Indonesian mother, her full name is Keren Ann Zeidel. Her early years were spent in Israel and Holland. She moved to Paris with her family when she was 11.
It was Keren Ann's first time in France, but it was not her first experience with French music. That came much earlier and through her mother, who often played albums by Hardy and Gainsbourg. In their '60s heyday, Hardy was known as the French Bob Dylan, and Gainsbourg a seductive, melodic cad. You can hear traces of both in Keren Ann's music.
"I think the first attachment was for the sound, because I couldn't understand the language," said Keren Ann, who speaks Dutch and Hebrew in addition to French and English. "Francoise Hardy always said she searched for a British sound, and that's why her music is different, so it's a mixture of the French chansons, or way of writing, but it's the production that was really appealing to me."
Like Hardy's, Keren Ann's music transcends language. Whether her lyrics are in French or English doesn't matter as much as the feel.
"Sometimes you don't even need to know what they're saying. The mood and vibe is so joyous and fun," said Nettwerk Productions' Mark Jowett, referring to Keren Ann, Biolay and Clement.
"It's a really interesting time right now in French pop music. It's gone back to a singer-songwriter style, but rather than it being overly heavy, there's a lot of playfulness in the use of melody and arrangements."