Travels in the Musical World

by Loolwa Khazzoom • August 8, 2012 • Jewish Multicultural Corner

This article was first published in The Jewish Independent, on May 26, 2006.

Born to a Javanese-Dutch mother and Russian-Israeli father, 32-year-old singer-songwriter Keren Ann Zeidel grew up in Israel, Holland and France, went on to live in Iceland, Belgium and the United States while performing in an even longer list of countries and now splits her time between Manhattan and Paris. Talk about multiculturalism.

“Where I live is driven artistically and musically,” said the singer, who goes simply by the moniker of Keren Ann. Still, Israel – where her parents now reside permanently and where she visits two or three times a year – remains close to her heart. “I am very attached to Israel as a country,” she said, emphasizing that the country’s history began with the generation just before hers – rendering everything new and possible. “What really turns me on about the country,” she observed, “is contemporary art – writers like Amos Oz, poets, painters. This country has a lot to say.”

So does Keren Ann, it seems. Her music has been getting a great deal of press in the United States.Interview magazine describes her style as evoking “the heavy-lidded cinematic romance of 1960s Parisian café life, layering hints of electronica and carnivalesque elements over a folk-rock foundation, which injects levity into even the most wistful lyrics.”

Growing up with parents from mixed Catholic and Jewish backgrounds, Keren Ann said, “I love religion and am obsessed by the Bible as a book. I think it’s the most beautiful book written.” But, she added, “I have different opinions about how it’s interpreted. I think some religions have a beautiful way of looking at it, others have a distorted, violent way. With regards to Judaism, I relate to Rabbi Cook and others who have interpreted it spiritually, but [I don't relate to it] in terms of rules. I respect some churches, disrespect others. Same with Judaism: some things I find beautiful, others I find violent and inappropriate, especially for modern times.”

Though she believes that, “We have enough rules as it is” and, for the most part, rejects day-to-day observance, Keren Ann does fast on Yom Kippur. “I love traditions,” she explained.

On the subject of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment in France, she said, “One very big problem about France is not just anti-Semitism, but racism. There is a very different kind of racism there. Israel has it even between its own cultures. In America, there are different ethnic beliefs, but people respect that in some ways, especially in New York. In France, it’s a completely different story. It’s very racist, but it’s hidden – racist not because of power, but because of lack of power and confidence. It’s a postwar feeling. Every French town, at the same time as being authentic and pure, is also aggressive and paranoid, as if the Germans are still coming to get them. It has a lot of beauty, but many issues are far from being resolved. Racism is one of them.”

And yet, she continued, “I have never experienced any prejudice for being Israeli. You carry what you are in a certain way, then you can provoke or not. There is nothing provocative about being Israeli.”

Her remarks raise the proverbial question about how “out” one can be in any given environment. Will someone wearing a Star of David or kippah encounter a different attitude than someone with no distinguishing marks? Is identifying oneself publicly, or confronting issues swept under the rug, tantamount to “provoking”?

Keren Ann is quick to admit she in no way carries the flag for Israel or the Jewish people: “I don’t think I represent any nationality or any ethnic group or religious group. I speak many languages, none perfectly. I have a Dutch passport, I live in New York and I have work being done in Iceland. I don’t go by religion or nationality, I just go by being a human being. I can’t handle the responsibility of representing a particular community. I can only represent my personal thoughts and beliefs.”

Asked about the thoughts and beliefs that drive her music, she said she is lucky to live in a time where there is so much artistic inspiration from which to draw: “I’m obsessed with a few things. I feel related to many people, many artists of my generation. I obsess with timelines, past, the attachment to love to longing.” She is not in a postwar generation, she continued, and “a lot of the art scenes where there is a big boom, very often are related to prewar or postwar times. In my case, it’s just that artists are lucky enough to be able to have so much at once: the Beatles, Mozart, Bjork. All these [artists] are part of things they get to listen to and appreciate. You’re in the middle of that, having your own subjective take on things.”

Songwriting, she suggested, is a form of architecture: “There are verses, choruses, melodies, words. You cover them with arrangements, orchestration, sound design. It’s a lot of fun but can go in too many different directions. I think something simple and direct is hard to do. That’s where I’m going now.”

With a 2007 album in the works, she said, “I have the chance to stay and work from home, which I haven’t been able to do for a while. I’m working on musical projects that don’t require me to be on a plane. I like the fact that I have a cycle of waking and working during the day, then sleeping at night.”

Meanwhile, though her new album Lady & Bird (out next month) includes simple, guitar-driven songs true to the chanteuse style that made Keren Ann popular, numerous tracks feature experimental-style electronic music that mark a departure from the musician’s critically acclaimed 2005 album, Nolita.

Fortunately, Keren Ann said, she has “an audience who follows each record, who takes an interest in how my direction changes.” Where she is headed from here remains to be seen.

Loolwa Khazzoom has published internationally in such outlets as theWashington Post and BBC News, Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire. She is also the editor of The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage.

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Loolwa KhazzoomLoolwa Khazzoom has worked with leading media outlets, including The New York Times, CNN, Rolling Stone, and ABC News. In addition, she has published two books and has lectured at prestigious venues including Barnard Center for Research on Women, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Harvard University. Loolwa is passionate about health, music, dance, multiculturalism, and Judaism.

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