NEW YORK (JTA) – Musicians not so long ago would be regarded as colossal sell-outs for licensing their work for use in a TV commercial.
But in following a trail blazed by such titans as the Rolling Stones and U2, the French-Israeli singer-songwriter Yael Naim has little reason to be ashamed that she is best known for a maddeningly catchy tune featured in the current MacBook Air laptop ad.
Those who’ve watched even a moderate amount of television lately have probably heard the song, “New Soul.” It opens with a jangly piano line as a disembodied hand pulls a sliver of laptop from a manila envelope.
More than 1 million YouTube viewers have watched the 30-second clip. Another 4.6 million people have watched the longer, full-length video of the song in which Naim’s apartment decorating session morphs into a sort of impromptu dance party on a river raft.
Last week the song was the eighth most popular download on the digital music service iTunes, and last month Naim became the first Israeli to crack the Billboard Top Ten, ranking ninth in the United States for sales of “New Soul” in the second week of February.
Naim, 30, says she rejected other offers to license the song before Apple came calling. Besides the priceless exposure afforded an artist whose last album was a commercial disappointment, she says there’s something natural about her music being featured in an ad for a laptop.
“We really make a lot of music with computers,” Naim told JTA. “We made this album on a computer. So it’s part of the music process.”
Of course, Naim is not the Rolling Stones. Prior to the Mac ad, she was a relatively unknown songwriter still licking her wounds after the 2001 debut album flopped.
Now she’s seemingly everywhere.
In the last month alone, Naim has been featured in USA Today, Time Out New York and the New York Daily News, and she has performed on Conan O’Brien’s late-night show, the CBS “Early Show” and at the major music industry festival South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.
Last Wednesday night she wrapped up her first U.S. tour, a jaunt through three cities that finished at the sold-out Bowery Ballroom in New York City.
When Naim performed “New Soul,” which she did twice in the course of a barely hour-long set, the Bowery audience burst to life, a spontaneous chorus belting out its addictive melody.
“It’s nice,” she told JTA the morning after.
Naim was born in Paris to Tunisian immigrants in 1978 and moved to Israel at the age of 4. Not particularly religious, the family celebrated holidays and had big dinners on Friday nights. But her family was interested in the arts – her father’s Beatles records that diverted her interest from classical music – and Naim served in the Israeli army for two years as a singer.
“I had a really great childhood because it was a country with summer most of the year and children are really independent in Israel,” Naim said. “Growing up like this, in this kind of freedom, made me really curious about the world and about other cultures and just being a human being first.”
Her new album, “Yael Naim,” was released March 18 in the United States. Recorded in her Paris apartment with musical partner David Donatien, it took more than two years to complete. It was Donatien, a percussionist from the West Indies, who encouraged Naim to sing in Hebrew, something she had resisted because she didn’t think anyone was interested.
“When I heard this song, I thought that it was really true and really personal,” Donatien said of Naim’s Hebrew music. “It gave her a great identity.”
Naim calls her decision to sing in Hebrew a “huge release.”
On the album, a collection of ballads that could be the perfect soundtrack for an afternoon stroll by the Seine, Naim sings in a mixture of Hebrew and charmingly accented English, with a smattering of French. The one dissonant note is the strange inclusion of a mellowed-out cover of the Britney Spears hit “Toxic.”
In concert, though, Naim is buoyant and playful, and the music has a slightly coarser edge.
Flitting around the Bowery stage with an almost girlish glee, Naim was clad in a loose purple dress and leg warmers, and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the attention. She crossed her legs demurely as she played guitar, her porcelain face framed by long dark tresses, her crystalline voice soaring over sparse arrangements of percussion and guitar with mild electronic inflections.
In the coat check line after the show, one Israeli expat enthused about Naim’s interactive style on stage, explaining how she was bringing an Israeli performance style to American audiences.
“It’s going to spread like wildfire,” he said. “Just wait.”