The Sweet Songs of Keren Ann

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Eric Fougere / VIP Images / Corbis

Singer Keren Ann

It's always tempting to define most French musicians by where they fit on the Chanson Française spectrum, that openly defined yet traditional Gallic brand of dramatic songcraft made famous by singers like Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf decades ago. Is a band's m.o. to perform "chanson" with an ironic rock twist? Is that chanteuse doing classic chanson writ modern? It seems that French musicians can't just simply be musicians. But Keren Ann can, and she's not even French.

The 33-year-old singer-songwriter was born in Israel as Keren Ann Zeidel, grew up there and in the Netherlands until her family moved to France two decades ago. After two albums in French, she has since mostly recorded in English, and recently celebrated her new self-titled album's European release with a private concert at Le Réservoir, a small club on Paris' Right Bank. After adjusting her guitar and donning a harmonica holder, she launched into the new song "Lay Your Head Down," with her four-man band. As the song's opening steady drumbeat kicked up and the audience's excitement mounted, an insuppressible smile came over her face as she sang and she looked almost giddy. It was one of those moments where a singer connects with her fans, singing a new song that is really, really good, and everyone knows it's really, really good, which makes it even better.

This is what a musician works toward and is grateful for, particularly one who has spent much time building an international fanbase by touring heavily over the past few years. "It's great doing it the old-fashioned way," Keren Ann says by telephone, a few hours before going onstage in Orléans last week. "Touring and touring and touring." Which is something she'll be doing more of around North America starting next month, as the album, her fifth since her 2000 debut, hits stores Tuesday in the U.S.

Many musicians release self-titled records, and when it's not a debut, it's often is marketing as indicating a spiritual or artistic rebirth — or maybe just a new record deal. For Keren Ann, it's nothing of the sort. "I hadn't used my eponymous bonus," she jokes. Actually, she says she typically has a title in mind throughout the writing and recording of an album, but this time wanted no title at all.

Recorded in Paris, Avignon, New York, Los Angeles, Reykjavik and Tel Aviv, its scattered geography was a strong influence on the album, which builds on the eclectic styles of her previous work with fuzzy guitars, trumpets, harmonicas, cellos and a few handclaps. The choirs heard on several tracks were born of several days in Reykjavik writing for an Icelandic choir. She sweetly sings, like she does on all her albums, about intimacy, heartache and the lives of couples, both strong and weak. She says that the songs themselves, all in English, couldn't have been sung in any other language. "I spent so much time in an Anglo-Saxon environment that every story told, every emotion, had to be in English." Come tell me a story to unload your glorious grief, she croons on "In Your Back," where you are the valet of honor and I am the thief. While her English is fluent, her way of forming words is international; mostly North American, but also with a slight French curviness, a few of the hard consonants of Hebrew — and for certain words, what sounds like an Irish inflection. Maybe even a hint of Dutch traces in there as well. But when she sings, it's with the elocution of a modern American folk-rock troubadour.

That wasn't always the case; her first release, La Biographie de Luka Phillipsen was a catchy record filled out with electronic beats and sounds that make it good French company to Portishead. She followed it with La Disparition, stripping the sound down to simple acoustic songs. It was her third, Not Going Anywhere, her first in English, that got the interest of the hipster crowd on American shores, which continued with 2004's Nolita, named after her Manhattan neighborhood and imbued with her time spent there. In addition to her own albums, she has written for others, including octogenarian jazz and bass nova icon Henri Salvador, and a side project with Icelandic musician Bardi Johannson called Lady & Bird.

Detractors have complained that her calm, languid pop can be soporific at times, but to her fans she's making rich, dreamy music that takes its time. For the first few albums, her beautiful melodies were matched at times by the kind of fragile, whispery voice that has become a French tradition in the style of Isabelle Adjani, Jane Birkin and her daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg. But over the last couple of years, Keren Ann's has evolved into more expressive, fuller and more melodic voice. She says it's because she's now writing in keys she's more comfortable singing in, not to mention all that journeyman time doing show after show. "Sometimes, when you play an instrument, there's a change where something clicks and you feel a kind of freedom [with it]. I guess at some point, it happens for your voice." And it's her fans, both longtime and new, who are reaping the reward.