Keren Ann: "You become a musician to be a citizen of something beyond yourself"

Written by
Jennifer Greenberg
She has compared music producing to painting, album tracks to pictures, so it was only natural that singer-songwriter Keren Ann's musical "artworks" fill the gallery walls of the Israel Museum at Jerusalem's 3rd Art of Jazz Festival.
On top of scoring films and theater pieces, writing an opera, touring the world, and being a mom, the Israeli success story will bookend this year's Jerusalem Jazz Festival with a collaboration between herself and the "Non Standards" project. We caught Keren Ann somewhere between L.A. and a quaint chapel in Lyon before she arrives in the Holy City to jazz things up.
Has music always played a part in your life?
In a passive sort of way, yes. I didn’t grow up in a family of musicians, but music was a big part of my upbringing. My mom was a Francophile, so I was cradled to French songs. Growing up, my siblings were into American folk music, which is where I was first introduced to storytelling—the assembly of words, stories, notes, instruments, arrangements.
Do you remember the first record to change your life?
Tapestry, by Carole King. I was captured by the frequencies of her voice and her piano range. While it didn’t make sense to me in terms of technicality at the time, it did make sense to me as a whole. From that moment on, I felt this connection to storytelling within music, way more than as a listener or observer.
When did you actively start songwriting?
Once I got hold of Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan my range widened. I realized, “This is what I want to do.” I was always attracted to storytelling, but because I grew up in a home where my dad's side spoke Hebrew, my mom's side spoke Dutch, English was spoken, but a very broken one, and French only came into the landscape when we moved, none of those languages were rich enough for me to develop a taste for short story or novel writing. Music became a great way to organize these stories into boxes.
And these stories are purely personal?                             
It's no secret that the more personal the story, the more common it becomes. In some ways, the records I produce are some form of diary keeping.
Does transposing these “diary entries” to lyrics help you achieve catharsis?
Yes. Only sometimes it takes a while. Sometimes things come out way later and other times you write things down first, then end up living out these subconsciously goals. I’ve tapped into a very instinctive form of songwriting. The lyrics that come to me are usually somewhere out there, but I need to address them–in a poetic way, a very accessible way.
Where does "sound" factor into this equation?
At the end of the day, everything is a matter of sound. When I prioritize sound over meaning, the end result is often more authentic because certain rhymes or chord progressions create comfort, which is exactly what we seek: a balance between the elements of a song.
Can you speak to the recurring theme of melancholy in your music?
I’ve never been touched by any form of art or expression or writing that didn’t contain melancholy. I think that melancholy is a comfort zone that we are brought up to understand and hold onto. That being said, melancholy can be very upbeat and rock and roll, too. In general, it’s a very versatile trait.
If every one of your albums is "another chapter in your life," the most recent being love, then what chapter is next?
These chapters are not strictly chronological. But there’s always a next album in the making–I've definitely started collecting bits and pieces. I constantly write, until a selection of songs become a record, a story, a well-rounded whole. I was brought up on vinyl so automatically, I’ll go for the “side A, side B” format when I’m choosing my track list. Very rarely do my songs end up nowhere. If not on my own record, they find their way into a film score or with another singer or some of the other projects I've got going on right now. I’m happy to put my mind into those at the moment.
On that note, let’s talk a little about the Jerusalem Jazz Festival coming up at the end of the month.
Avishai [Cohen, artistic director of the JJF] has been a long time collaborator and friend. He asked me if I’d be interested in doing this collaboration with the "Non Standards" project. I listened to the arrangements they made with Rickie Lee Jones last year and was sold. I figured this would be a great opportunity for me to stand solely as a singer–I'm used to having an instrument accompany me.
What is your instrument of choice?
The guitar. I feel a very strong connection between the finger picking and my voice; there’s always this comfort of knowing that in terms of soundscape I can fill a room with my hands and voice. There’s something organic, though, about singing "naked" and choosing a spectrum of arrangements that are less intuitive, which is what I'll be doing with the Non Standards. While the band will fill in my stories, melodies, and chord progressions with new textures and colors, the piano/drums/bass trio dynamic will be familiar [with the addition of Avishai on trumpet].
Is it difficult handing your original pieces–your babies–over to the hands of these jazz arrangers?
On the contrary, it’s a privilege. I’m very excited. We have two days to prepare the set and try and add new flavors to my existing repertoire. It’s all very ephemeral; the magic comes from performing the set for two nights, after which poof! It’s all gone.
You're right. There is an inexplicable magic that comes from marrying art with music in this fleeting environment. The performances themselves almost become temporary gallery exhibits, whereby they're on display for the festival goers, and then once they’re “taken down,” that’s it. All that remains is the musicians' and listeners' subjective experience.
That’s the way it should be! We’re in an era where when we go on tour, we can play as many as 60-100 shows, and although they’re never similar because the rooms, cities, mood, dynamic between musicians all change, every show is still based on the same arrangements. The real magic lies in doing something unique on each occasion. I’m actually going back to France tomorrow for an exclusive show in the Chapel of Lyon. As a musician, it all comes back to that melancholy, the act of holding onto something that has the potential to be magical, then disappears forever. I live for those moments.
You’re opening the festival with a show in the museum’s auditorium. Do you feel the intimate space will tailor well to your very personal subject matter?
I would take a small, intimate venue over a stadium any day. You experience something so special when you’re in proximity to the sound. It becomes your partner in crime alongside the people on stage.
What are you hoping to gain from this experience?
Technically, it will be very interesting to see how someone else works with my automatic chord progressions. There will, of course, be an untangling and retangling process. I’m sure I’ll learn a ton through this exchange—all of which I can bring with me to future projects.
What is your relationship to jazz? Is it an old friend or uncharted territory?
I appreciate jazz more as a listener. I admire Billie Holiday and Chet Baker. It’s not that jazz is a new language to me; the novelty comes from how this particular language will blend with my “laid-back rock-folk” style of writing.
Some have compared you to "Norah Jones for Velvet Underground fans"? Would you agree?
Oh, I love Norah! She is unbelievable. I think that it’s comforting for people to compare you to big names, but Norah and I are very different—in terms of how we approach narration and also musically. I feel more like a songwriter than a musician when it comes to composition, whereas Norah exposes a whole layer of blues and jazz the world needs.
You’ve been in France and the U.S., more so than in Israel these days. How do you find the crowds differ abroad vs. locally?
They don’t, that’s where the beauty lies. That’s where you connect. There’s no language barrier, there’s just this shared moment between people. You become a musician to be a citizen of something beyond yourself that has no identity through a nationality. Even though it’s strongly about experience and putting what you witness into words, these things stop existing when you're on stage.
A true testament to the cliché “Music is universal." What words of advice would you offer aspiring songwriters?
To always be the most organic, authentic, intuitive, and personal—at least at the beginning, then explore. If you want to create your own soundscapes, you have to trust that your own personal story—the one that you need to tell—is going to be the most solid one. Then, model everything you want to do around that.
Keren Ann performs at the Art of Jazz Festival on Nov 29 and Dec 1. Israel Museum, 11 Ruppin Rd, Jerusalem
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