On the heels of critical success for her sublime debut U.S. album, Not Going Anywhere, released on Metro Blue Records, an imprint of Blue Note Records, Paris and New York-based singer-songwriter Keren Ann follows with Nolita, another intimate collection of quietly sung lyrical gems this time with more diverse, multi-textured soundscapes. Six of the 11 songs are sung in English; the rest, including the graceful yet urgent album opener "Que n'ai-je? ("What Don't I Have?"), in French. Recorded in Paris and New York, the CD, both beautiful and mysterious, pays homage to New York, her adopted home where she spent much of last year.
2004 was a pivotal year for Keren Ann, whose full name is Keren Ann Zeidel and is the daughter of a Javanese-Dutch mother and a Russian-Israeli father. In the late summer, she made her U.S. debut with the release of Not Going Anywhere (the English-language CD was her first album to be released overseas, the first two comprising originals sung in French). Self-described as her "very soft folk record," it made an immediate impact with critics and fans. The New Yorker noted: "Not Going Anywhere is well and truly written - a generosity at a time when technology makes it easy to release an album that is more wish than act...Like a series of epigrams, the music has a masterly brevity...The singing is quiet but drives the arrangements. It's the work of someone who has learned what she's good at."
Prior to its release, Keren Ann created a buzz in New York with an extended residency, beginning in May, at the Lower East Side boutique club The Living Room and showcases at Joe's Pub, where she unveiled her songs described by scribes as "luminous," "precise, not wispy" and "captivating." Her whisper-like voice was characterized as "refreshingly unadorned, lacking any studied vibrato or artsy phrasing" and full of "serene mystery and subtle melancholy: cool but never detached."
Concurrently Keren Ann was already working on Nolita. Earlier in the year, she spent February and March in the city. She returned to Paris and in her studio recorded pre-productions for each tune-guitar, drums, bass and some vocals. "But I had to get back to New York to fully record the songs," she says. "I had to get back to that atmosphere."
So, with her residency on the horizon, Keren Ann set up shop in the lower Manhattan neighborhood of Nolita (North of Little Italy), renting a studio and loft. "When I record, I need to feel a familiarity with the space," she says. "So I hung some of my things on the wall and recreated a home space for myself. I like the idea of having a calm, quiet room to work on my music while knowing that outside there's noise and a lot happening. It's reassuring to know the "everyday" continues even though inside the studio you feel so disconnected from it."
A few weeks into her residency, Keren Ann injured her hand, tearing ligaments in her thumb that required her to wear a cast. Initially she felt dismayed by the prospect of delaying the recording. "But a friend told me, It's not a big deal; it's just a change of plans,'" she says. "So I went out and bought keyboards and programming equipment that I probably wouldn't have used if I hadn't injured my hand. Naturally, I'd just play my guitars." While the original guitar parts remain, they are embellished with layers of colors and textures as well as cello, violin, guitar and trumpet parts contributed by new acquaintances on the New York scene. Keren Ann cites two examples: electric guitarist Jack Pettruzzelli on the longing "One Day Without" and jazz trumpeter Avishai Cohen on the quietly fingerpicked beauty "L'onde amre" ("Bitter Wave").
When asked about the melancholic vein in her music, Keren Ann hastens to note that it's not necessarily sadness. "I don't think the two have a direct relationship," she says, emphasizing instead a reflective sensibility. "When I think of melancholy, I'm thinking of vocalists like Caetano Veloso, Chet Baker, Billie Holiday. It's there with rock artists too, like Tom Waits, Blur, Velvet Underground. It's true, I'm doing melancholic music, but it's not down."
Keren Ann says that Nolita thematically returns to the feel of one of her earlier albums, 2002's La Disparition (The Disappearance): "The themes come back," she says. "I guess I get obsessed with certain things like absence, lust, longing. They come back through different stories and different characters. But I also like how it stays mysterious."
Nolita opens with "Que n'ai-je," a tune about a woman who is being stalked, according to Keren Ann, "either by someone she loved in the past or by who she herself was 20 years ago. The song is about that fantasy where people want to erase all the evidence of their existence."
The English-language numbers include the slow-smoldering "Chelsea Burns" with a country tinge (violin, mandolin and harmonica); the haunting title track about suffocation and burial; the optimistic pop melody "Roses & Hips," with its sweet sense of longing; the dreamy and indelible "For You and I," a collaboration with longtime writing partner Bardi Johansson (of Icelandic pop band Bang Gang, and Keren Ann's side project band "Lady & Bird"); and the fascinating end piece, "Song Of Alice," where actor/film director Sean Gullette gives a dramatic narration of a Keren Ann story about a disturbed resident of 23rd Street in Chelsea.
The tunes on Nolita add up to another remarkable outing for Keren Ann, still a Parisian and now also a New Yorker. "I like to capture moments," she says. "It's like a photograph. Ten years from now you look at the photograph and you don't remember it but rather the whole week or month around the photo. That's what this record is like. Thirty years from now, I'll look back at Nolita and remember that it came from the atmosphere I was longing for in New York."