At San Diego's cramped Casbah club in August, she's strikingly pretty as her inky eyes peer across the 10-foot expanse between the stage and the crowd, a curious mix of typically standoffish scenesters and older, Dockers-wearing professionals. Only weeks earlier, she played for the Cowboy Junkies' less tattooed fans at a more sedate venue a few miles away. A month later, she will headline the 2,500-capacity Olympia in Paris. Overseas, she's a big shot, and she's rapidly becoming one stateside, too, even though, on this night anyway, she still has to sell her own merch.
From her publicity photos, I expected a morose, Ally Sheedy-in-The Breakfast Club type, but in person Ann's stage banter and easy smile make her seem open, approachable. ("She's so ni-ice!" squealed one exuberant fan post-show.) Nor does the singer sound like what I anticipated from her records, which are more classic '60s jazz than the haunted, stripped-down, almost psychedelic melodies she plays live. But that's part of Ann's charm: Just when you think you've got her pegged, she throws you a curve. From her looks to her music, her nationality to her fan base, she doesn't just blur the lines; she demolishes them.
Defying easy categorization probably comes easy to someone who's fluent in four languages and lived in Israel, Holland, and France before her 12th birthday. Ann was born to a Dutch-Javanese mother and a Russian-Israeli father who "spoke English to each other," she explains via phone from the New York apartment she sometimes calls home, "but a very weird English. And a lot of Hebrew, too, because my father really wanted us to know the language." She's also fluent in Dutch, retaining a vaguely European accent whose exact origins are hard to pinpoint.
Ann's name has been tossed around with the likes of Carla Bruni, Coralie Clément, Nouvelle Vague, and other figures in the so-called French Invasion. But despite her Parisian address, her first two albums sung en français, and her multiple French Grammy nominations, the girl is not, strictly speaking, French.
"I do feel French," she says, although she now splits her time between Paris, New York, Iceland, and Brussels, and is even looking at property in Maine. "I spent 20 years in France. I do still have an attachment there, and musically it's a very big part of what I do. But I don't feel that I belong to a French era of today. There are some great things [being done in France], but I just don't feel that I belong to a particular scene of music."
Her disassociation from any one scene is part of the reason for the craze over the mellifluous chanteuse, whose heterogeneous music has captivated critics from some lofty corners (the New Yorker called her last album "luminous"), as well as those lower to the ground (music bloggers have been posting about her for the better part of a year). Part Suzanne Vega-meets-Dido, part Serge Gainsbourg-meets-Chet Baker, Ann pulls from influences both classic and modern, jazzy and indie, with spoken-word and electronica flourishes salted in. While her latest CD, Nolita, wouldn't be out of place in your parents' collection, it'll also earn massive cred when you play it at your next hipster loft-warming party.
Ann seems comfortable wearing whatever persona critics try to zip her into: the sophisticated Parisienne, the stylish Lower East Sider, the Next Norah Jones (with whom she shares a home on the Blue Note record label). On Nolita, she even plays with multiple personalities on tracks like "Song of Alice," a spoken-word piece -- written by Ann but read by filmmaker Sean Gullette -- about a mentally unbalanced drifter who sets the Chelsea Hotel on fire.
"A big part of [Alice] is me and vice versa," she explains cryptically. The Alice personality, whom Ann calls her "narrator," also appears on Nolita's cover art, which features two Keren Anns -- one ghostly and translucent, one more earthly -- superimposed on each other. She says about the figures, "One is me, one is Alice. ... When you choose to write, you choose to live many different lives."
Some have interpreted "Song of Alice" as a reference to Alice in Wonderland -- a theory supported by the Cheshire-like cat also depicted on the cover -- but Ann won't cop to it. "It's not necessarily Wonderland. It's more neighborhoods of the city. Twenty-Third Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues in New York, right near the Chelsea Hotel, is full of rock 'n' roll stories. Alice was just wandering around in that neighborhood. The big cat is the cat of Alice, which also relates to many different lives. Every Alice has a cat."
On another song, "La Forme et le Fond," Ann becomes Lola, Barry Manilow's favorite feather-bedecked showgirl. Back at the Casbah, she explains to the rapt crowd how "Copacabana" provided the unlikely inspiration for the melancholy tune, saying, "I've been dancing to this song since I'm, like, 5, and about two years ago I read the lyrics and realized it was, like, the saddest song of all time. This song is from the point of view of an old Lola looking back at her youth, at her very fresh feathers."
Looking back on the past year of Keren Ann's career, which has kept her on the road most of the time, some may see a taxing mess of airport terminals, interchangeable hotel lobbies, and lonely stretches of autobahn, but the singer is used to life on the road. "I was brought up going from one country to another," she says. "I still do that [while] touring. It's a mixture of feeling lost everywhere but at the same time very easily feeling at home everywhere. It's this sort of nonbalance that at the end of the day is a balance."
"I know people who have lived in the same town for 15 generations and just belong to one place, and they have exactly the same feelings and emotions as I do," she explains. "I think that feelings are something that you can have anywhere."