KEREN ANN interview
By Alexander Laurence
Keren Ann is a talented songwriter that has worked on numerous projects and
has released five solo albums. She was born Keren Ann Zeidel in Israel, and
later lived in the Netherlands and France. She worked with Benjamin Biolay in the
early days and created two albums with him: La Biographie de Luka Philipsen
(2000) and La Disparition (2002). At this time her albums were only sung in
French. Her first album with English lyrics was Not Going Anywhere (2003). Also
in 2003, she did the Lady & Bird album with Bardi Johannson, of Bang Gang. She
broke away from the collaborations and produced her first real solo albums
with Nolita (2004) and Keren Ann (2007). Keren Ann has traveled worldwide and has
now, in early 2008, embarked on her biggest American tour ever. I got to talk
to her at the beginning of the tour with Dean & Britta (of the band Luna).
AL: Where are you now?
Keren Ann: I am in Toronto right now. We were in Montreal last night. Then we
go to Chicago.
AL: Some people don’t like to tour in the middle of winter.
Keren Ann: Yeah. You can tour in Spring in a van. In a tour bus you can be
quite comfortable. It’s a different tour. You can bring all your belongings. You
can eat all the time.
AL: What do you bring with you on tour?
Keren Ann: Basically I have a few books and a few DVDs. Sometimes I bring
nothing and buy those things when I am traveling around. Usually that is what I
AL: I saw you play three years ago with A Girl Called Eddy. Have you been on
tour all this time?
Keren Ann: Yeah. There have been a lot of tours. I have been on tour since
this past April. I have long breaks in between. I did North America, then
Europe, then a small tour or Europe, then another part of Europe, and then the USA
again. I am going to Europe again, then South America and Asia. I like doing
intense tours for three weeks, and then going home for two weeks. I like going
to North America and France. There are certain regions of France that have
great wine. Every place has its own charm. You have to be open and look for it.
AL: Since you have been on TV in France, and not so much in America, do you
feel like you have to play more in America?
Keren Ann: It’s been pretty much the same. You need patience. You start with
thirty people in a venue. Then it grows into a hundred, three hundred or a
thousand. Sometimes a bit more. You need patience. I have toured just as much in
France as the rest of the world. You need a hit on the radio. If you don’t you
have to be constantly touring. I am not on the radio in France either.
AL: You have a few songs on TV shows in America. Does that help?
Keren Ann: Everything helps. What you do is build a fanbase and not thinking
about it too much. Just work and make records. Make the music you love. You
are in this business because you are a writer. In my case I also love the
production part. Anything to do with sound and orchestration is also an obsession. I
do the job that I love to do and then I tour with it. You can focus on TV and
the radio. You can make concessions. Or you could not think about it, and
tour and make records, and your life can be really good.
AL: What about Benjamin Biolay? He was involved on the first two albums, but
not so much after that. What happened to him?
Keren Ann: We used to write together for tons of people and artists. At some
point you keep writing the same song over and over again. You come to a point
where you have done together what you wanted to do musically, and you want to
go into another direction. I wanted to go into sound and production. I wanted
to write my own stuff. He wanted to work with other artists. I had no interest
in that. I have already done that. I worked with this British actress, Sophie
Hunter. It was a great experience.
AL: What do you think of Charlotte Gainsbourg? There was much written about
her and then she disappeared. She never did any shows.
Keren Ann: She is actually an actress. She is a fantastic actress. She sings
like an actress. When you don’t sing your own stuff, you sing like you are in
theater or movies. Making a record for her is like being in a movie. It’s not
like her life revolves around the music and the songs. It’s not her life she
is putting out there. It’s a part of her personality. She is doing it very
AL: When I have seen you play you had different musicians. One time it was a
trio. You had the guy from Polyphonic Spree playing French Horn. Another time
it was just you playing solo. Another time it was a duo.
Keren Ann: For this tour it will be a trio: there is drums, bass and guitar.
There are three of us. I like to change it up. When I do the record, it is
made for the record. It is like doing a film for the year. You want it to sound
great in ten years. You work very differently when you make the record. When
you are onstage you want to explore the stage. You have many different
ingredients. There is the venue, the audience, and the mood you are in that day. You
have the interaction you have with the musicians that you choose. It’s nice to
be able to give your songs different designs every time.
AL: How do you start to write a song?
Keren Ann: You can’t really explain it. There are so many ways to write a
song. You can come up with lyrics and melody and they go well together. You
finish the song. You want to make it into a song with verses and choruses. You
choose a beat. You choose an arrangement. You can also say that you have written
some poetry and then you are creating a mood and giving it some physical form.
There is not one way of writing a song. It’s the wrong way to look at it
because writing a song is something instinctive. You have to love writing a song
and architecture. You have to give it a form. You have to understand also that
certain melodies will give an attitude and a mood. If you change a bit of the
lyrics or the phrasing, it becomes a whole other atmosphere. It is my job to
create a sonic landscape. I like to create ambiance and atmosphere. The writing
is the intimate part of it. It is a sketch. The production is the whole
AL: Were any songs on the new album a result of a quick inspiration? Was the
original idea for the song not too different from the end result?
Keren Ann: I had both. I had songs that came out really fast, melody and
lyrics. I would write a little of the song, go to sleep, wake up and finish the
rest of the song. Some of those songs were “Where No Endings End,” and “The
Harder Ships of The World.” All I had to do was produce them with the same
ambiance, or atmosphere, that I had imagined them visually. I had an idea, and I had
to get to this idea, without changing it by the production. There are some
songs that took more time. These songs depended more on sound and production. I
did more exploration. On one album I need the balance of all ways of making
songs. I need a prefect balance of melodies, lyrics, sounds, and production. If
a song is too luminous in terms of the melody, the lyrics will often have a
more sober side to them.
AL: Is there any humor in your music?
Keren Ann: No. I like songs with melancholy. I like songs with beauty and
deepness. I am not a sort of person who listens to anything funny. I do not enjoy
songs with cursing in a cheap funny way. The first thing about a song is that
it has to be real, be lived; it has to be emotional, and melancholic. I don’t
mean sad. Melancholy is sort of a comfort. Melancholy has a sort of beauty to
it. This attracts me to every other form of art, like cinema. I like to laugh
at things like South Park, but I don’t think there is anything like South
Park in music, unless it is parody.
AL: Do you buy a lot of guitars and gear?
Keren Ann: Yeah I like guitars. I like to choose ones with different sounds.
I have a new Gibson guitar for this tour. You saw me with the Gretsch before.
I rarely tour with the 1967 Chet Atkins Gretsch anymore. It is very precious.
You can’t carry it around on tour. I keep it at home. I keep it only for
recordings now. I used to tell myself that this guitar needs to be played but I
changed my mind about that. You want to take care of those guitars. I usually have
one favorite guitar. Right now it’s my Martin Acoustic. I have an Epiphone
too. I am a gear freak. I am a nerd when it comes to technology. I like
pre-amps, compressors, and old microphones. I like the mixture of analog and digital.
I work with Pro Tools. I like to play around. You can travel with hard drives
today. You can have your songs in progress with you. I worked on a project
with a choir, and then I booked them another day to work on one of my songs. I
have a good recording studio at home. I usually start things in a studio then
take them home.
AL: You mentioned that you have some books with you on tour. Are there any
writers that have inspired you?
Keren Ann: Right now I am going into modern Israeli writers. I started
reading in Hebrew, which I haven’t done in many years. I am reading books in Hebrew,
that I have read previously in English or French. I would recommend a great
abstract Israeli writer named Etgar Keret. He has done amazing work for the
past ten years. I like Amos Oz. I am also reading some classics like Ray
Bradbury. I am reading The Martian Chronicles.
AL: Do you have any favorite artists?
Keren Ann: I am inspired by the Impressionists. I am totally into Rembrandt,
Van Gogh, and Paul Cezanne, and Chagall. I like many artists in the 20th
century. There are some amazing contemporary photographers. There is the work of
Elinor Milchan (elinormilchan.com). She is fantastic. She has a series of
photographing light. She does research with everything to do with light photography.
How to catch certain colors in the light. It’s quite impressive. There is a
Hebrew painter Rughi Helbitz. With contemporary art you have to know yourself
very well. You can be disappointed with so much crazy stuff that doesn’t get to
you and you don’t understand. It’s doesn’t seem to be emotional and you just
AL: How does spirituality enter into your work?
Keren Ann: I think spirituality is very important. The most important thing
with spirituality is to know your beliefs and to stick to it. To be open to a
live tradition. To not go by a nationality or a religion. I came from a
traditional but not a religious family. We get together for a dinner once in a while,
but we don’t pray. I pray in my own way and I have my own way of believing.
You should be able to find your identity first, without nationality or rel
igion, and once that is solid, you can have any belief that you like.
AL: Are there any bands that you like?
Keren Ann: The people who influenced me ten years ago still influence me
today. But with this album, I got more into listening to contemporary pop
classics. I listened to a lot of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. I was listening to
repetitive music and writings for choirs. I have been to choir music. I learned in
a very soft and emotional way to listen to repetitive music and find the
beauty of it. I believe that the beauty of repetition is something that is not
explored enough yet.
AL: Some of that music is psychedelic.
Keren Ann: I agree. Psychedelic is definitely a good word for it. Some people
think it’s trance music, but there is always an aggressive connotation with
trance music. I think music has the power to be beautiful no matter what state
you are in.
AL: What is going on with the Lady & Bird project?
Keren Ann: We still do tons of stuff. We have done music for documentaries.
We haven’t done another studio record. We are doing this big thing in June 2008
in Iceland. We are working with an Icelandic orchestra. We are working with
an eighty-piece orchestra. We are doing something separate and something
AL: Did you tour as Lady & Bird?
Keren Ann: What we did was play a show once or twice a year at a church
somewhere in the world, with a choir.
AL: What should people expect on this new tour?
Keren Ann: I will be playing songs from the last three records. We are
playing for an hour. We are playing with Dean & Britta. It’s fun. I am enjoying this
AL: Were you a Luna fan?
Keren Ann: I met them in New York. I was playing at Sidewalk Café. They
brought me a record. I thought they were fantastic. We kept in touch over the
years. I never got to see a show of theirs in New York. I was out of town or
playing a show. I think it is good match.