At The Living Room last summer, chanteuse Keren Ann Zeidel sang so softly that the packed venue often fell hypnotically silent. Keren Ann—who performs under just her first and middle names—was sandwiched on the bill between straining neo-folk singers; her rapt reception at the Living Room served as a sort of coming out for the nomadic singer, who splits her time between Paris and New York. Within weeks of that show, she had evolved from a banter-challenged whisperer into a quietly confident performer, introducing her catchy French and English songs with enchanting anecdotes and poking good-natured fun at her keyboard player.
But Keren Ann gained more than simple self-assurance as a performer. As summer waned, the raven-haired, brown-eyed singer began doing numbers that drew out her inner Manhattanite. Songs such as “The Rose of Washington Square” addressed the familiar pop subject of failed love, but with a Raymond Carver–like compression of mood, stressing the closely observed torments of New York life. The songs retained tinges of irony while never revealing too much plot. For instance, you weren’t quite sure what “Not Going Anywhere,” the title song from last summer’s CD, was about. As she repeated the title fourteen times over the swells of a violin, you wondered, was she wallowing in eternal slackerdom or was she pledging loyalty through thick and thin? The answer, of course, was both—or neither, depending on how you heard it.
Last week, as she sat in Elizabeth Street’s tiny Lovely Day restaurant, the songwriter revealed a fraying red string around her wrist. “It’s not Kabbalah. It’s just a wish bracelet.” What’d she wish for? “I cannot tell; if I do, it won’t come true.” She may be pointedly evasive about what she wants, but she does provide a detailed résumé. Now 30, she began writing songs soon after she was given a guitar for her 9th birthday by her Javanese-Dutch mom and Russian-Israeli dad. She recorded two French-language CDs and wrote songs for the French jazz legend Henri Salvador’s hit comeback CD in 2000. Sans management, Keren Ann peddled Not Going Anywhere to Metro Blue Records, and received a contract in 2004. In addition to playing solo shows, she performs in the group Lady & Bird, “once a year in a church in somewhere in Europe”— a gig is planned for Reykjavik this May. She likes the freshness and itinerancy of her troubadour life, but she worries about how to sustain it over time. “I fear the idea that music is for the young, that I will get out of bed and not want to do music.”
She needn’t fret now. Nolita, her compelling eleven-song ode to obsessive, romantic Manhattan (recorded here and in Paris), is more than simply a feast for the ears. On repeated listens, it starts to feel like something that’s always been embedded within your genetic code. Still, like “Not Going Anywhere,” it’s also elliptical and puzzling. The atmospheric seven-minute title track sounds like it’s about a murderer burying a victim. In reality, she says, it’s about a recurring character who’s “burying lost love. There is also some of Alice in Wonderland inside her. And, to me, Nolita sounds like not Lolita.” The simple verses of all the disc’s songs are likewise full of complex layers of often-oblique influences—and fittingly, the sounds Keren Ann assembles on her self-produced CD elicit a far-flung range of musical references: Chet Baker, Astrud Gilberto, Françoise Hardy, Natalie Merchant, even Brian Wilson. But it’s always undeniably Keren Ann, soft-spoken, longing, strong, decidedly enigmatic. In another of the disc’s Gotham-centric songs, the countrified “Chelsea Burns,” passion and fear abound, but what is actually burning—the narrator’s life, the neighborhood, the Chelsea Hotel—is ultimately up to the listener.
It all works better in the songs than in conversation, where Keren Ann touches on many subjects without quite enough exegesis, from despondent pirates to agoraphobia to her penchant for seeking out solitude in Manhattan’s predawn twilight. “I like the mornings,” she says, “when no one is around. If Manhattan has many mistresses, I would like to be its mistress of the morning.”
The cover of Nolita features Keren Ann underneath a drawing of the Cheshire cat, the disc’s only overt reference to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. As she steps out into the chill winter evening and heads down Elizabeth Street, the image is strikingly apt: Like Lewis Carroll’s feline, she is more comfortable expressing herself indirectly than risking inelegance. It seems as though she’d be quite happy, at a moment’s notice, to vanish entirely beneath a gnomic smile, and run away to write and record.
As Keren Ann explores her New York identity, she still keeps one foot in the Old World, via the side project Lady & Bird. The band’s only other member is Icelandic pop star Bardi Johannsson of the Bang Gang—itself a duo, founded by Nordic surfer enthusiasts looking to “become the Beach Boys of the Arctic Seas,” as the band’s EMI Website explains. Like Keren Ann, the group has an ardent French following; its 2000 album YOU was a Gallic commercial and critical sensation. A South Korean company licensed one of its songs, “Sleep,” for a 1999 ad campaign; Citroën picked it up for a European ad blitz in 2001. Keren Ann and Johannsson released a joint CD in 2003 that includes, along with eight original songs, the bleak Lou Reed tune “Stephanie Says,” and “Suicide Is Painless” (a.k.a. the theme from M*A*S*H). Not exactly music to surf by, even in Iceland.