Wearing a silky black minidress, fishnet pantyhose and sturdy midthigh boots with big steel buckles and holding a brown, Western-style electric guitar as she approached the microphone, Keren Ann's look was as much a study in contradiction as her music, which was at times wistful, others coy and still others desperate. Her songs were simultaneously the perfect soundtrack for padding around the house on a rainy Sunday afternoon, gaily dancing with a friend in a bed of flowers or flinging oneself on the bed after an especially hideous breakup.
At her recent appearance at the Skirball Cultural Center before an audience of about 300, the singer-songwriter delivered this range of emotions in a quiet, yet commanding performance. Walking onstage with a secret smile and mysterious glint in her eyes, she stood silently before the crowd for a moment -- the stillness drawing attention to her like a magnet -- before picking up her guitar. An air of serenity enveloped the room as she began singing in hushed tones, accompanied by trumpet player Avishai Cohen and drummer Daniel Freedman.
"It was very calming, romantic, gentle," commented audience member Orly Sharon -- who first heard about Keren Ann in Israel. "There was a lot of feeling in the words and melodies.... She was awesome. I even had tears in my eyes."
For her encore, Keren Ann picked up the guitar and began softly singing in Hebrew.
"I probably did that three times in my life," she revealed later. "One time in Israel ... once in France and then at the Skirball. I don't really plan it. It's just what I feel like that day."
Born Keren Ann Zeidel to a Javanese-Dutch mother and Russian-Israeli father, the artist lived in both Israel and The Netherlands until she was 11, when the family moved to France. A few years after the move, the singer-songwriter began her musical journey -- singing other people's songs in a series of bands and writing music for documentaries.
It took a while for her to put the two talents together: "One day I had a bunch of songs that I'd written, and I needed a voice to sing them. I was not really confident in my voice, but the only way of getting this music out there was by singing it."
And so the artist began performing her own music.
After years of touring throughout France and across the world, she developed a following.
"It's something that came gradually," she said. "You make many records, one each year. At some point, people who saw you come with their friends, then those friends come with other friends. I've been touring and releasing albums for years. You have people who relate to your work, and the crowd becomes bigger."
Following the critical acclaim of her French albums, Keren Ann relocated again -- this time to New York to pursue a career in the United States. "Where I live is driven artistically and musically," she explained.
Her second American-released album, "Nolita" (2005), was a hit with music critics -- getting rave reviews in periodicals like People, Rolling Stone and Vogue and catapulting the then-31-year-old into the mainstream spotlight.
This month, Keren Ann is releasing "Lady & Bird," an album with more experimental and somber elements than "Nolita." With the exception of the recent Skirball performance and a few other isolated appearances, however, the artist intends to lay low and stay home writing music until the release of yet another album in 2007.
Meanwhile, the Skirball welcomed the chance to draw new faces to the center.
"She's multicultural, which we like here, and her music is good," remarked Yatrika Shah-Rais, Skirball music director. "She has a good fan base in Los Angeles, which is also why I booked her. I knew she'd appeal to another crowd -- a lot of young people, a multicultural crowd, new faces different from the world music crowd we get."
A successful musician in his own right, trumpeter Cohen was born and raised in Israel and now lives in New York. He has performed with such Israeli folk musicians as Gidi Gov, Arik Einstein and Shalom Chanoch, as well as American jazz musicians like James Moody, Bobby Watson and Dave Liebman.
While Israel is near and dear to the hearts of Keren Ann and those performing with her, it is not at the forefront of the Keren Ann image.
"I am very attached to Israel as a country," she remarked, but "I don't think I represent any nationality or ethnic or religious group. I just don't ... I speak many languages, none perfectly.
"I have a Dutch passport, I live in New York and I have work being done in Iceland. I don't go by religion or nationality. I just go by being a human being. I can't handle the responsibility of representing a particular community. I can only represent my personal thoughts and beliefs."
Loolwa Khazzoom (www.loolwa.com) is a freelance writer, editor of "The Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage" (Seal Press, 2003) and author of "Consequence: Beyond Resisting Rape" (Pearl in a Million, 2002)