Blessed with a voice that has sparked a thousand analogies – ‘like a sigh’, ‘like melting honey’, ‘like a warm breeze through a cedar forest at moonlight’ – the French-Lebanese singer Yara enchants all those who hear her.
Little wonder: her self-penned lyrics tell of love and its origin, whether in desire, loneliness, or obsession. Her music, as spacious and acoustic as it is epic and orchestral, is at the service of her expressive voice. A vocal instrument imbued with feeling and experience – the Paris-based Yara has lived several lives – and something more mercurial, something glimpsed.
It is with the tender soul of a poet, and a cosmopolitan’s multilingual ease, that Yara releases Just A Dream Away, her first US release, on 29 August.
“I almost never dared to think that one day I might make a beautiful, timeless record featuring artists I adore,” says the former fashion designer in her fluent, accented English. “Just A Dream Away has exceeded my wildest imaginings.”
Here, then, are songs bolstered by some of the finest musicians currently working in any genre, anywhere. Here are star guests including Brazilian singer-songwriter Chico César, Palestinian oud player Adnan Joubran and the iconic American singer James Newell Osterberg Jr, otherwise known as Iggy Pop.
Here, vitally, is Oscar-winning composer, musician and producer Gabriel Yared, lending the same virtuosic vision that created soundtracks for such unforgettable films as ‘Cold Mountain’, ‘The English Patient’ and the cult 1992 classic ‘Betty Blue’ to 10 of the 12 tracks on Just A Dream Away.
These songs are the fruit of a two-year collaboration between Yara and Yared, both of whom were born in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut. Dazzled by that gold-and-fire voice, nostalgic for a country ravaged by a 15-year civil war (1975 – 1990), Yared set about composing tunes intended to compliment Yara’s unique aesthetic. To present her as an artist whose musical influences – Middle Eastern divas Fairuz and Um Kalthoum, French heroes Serge Gainsbourg and Francoise Hardy – found echoes in her wordplay, in the transparency of her feelings.
Yara then applied lyrics as deftly as a master painter with a canvas: “Images have always come easily to me,” says the mother-of-two, whose imagination was nurtured by stories read by candlelight as a child, from the stacks of notebooks she continues to fill with poetry, and from a literary sensibility inspired by French scribes Rimbaud and Verlaine, and contemporary wordsmith Boris Vian.
Recording sessions took place at London’s legendary Abbey Road Studios, where a sprawling cast of over 40 musicians was configured in different-sized groups to suit the song. The astoundingly beautiful results first found home on Yara’s domestically released sophomore album, 2018’s Indéfiniment.
But it is here, on Just A Dream Away, that they spread their wings and fly.
Tracks from Indéfiniment were cherry-picked, and three songs were re-recorded at Sunset Sounds in Los Angeles to further enhance that burnished velvet voice, their lyrics translated from French to English with the help of British singer-songwriter Ed Harcourt. Now operating under the aegis of her own company, Yara Music, Yara added two non-originals: ‘Just A Dream Away’ by American composers Stephen Dorff and Michael Jay, which she recorded in English and English/Arabic fusion. ‘How’ by John Lennon, which she also recorded twice, making history as the first artist ever authorised by Lennon’s estate to translate and interpret the song in (Lebanese) Arabic.
“I love to sing in different languages,” says Yara. “French. English. Lebanese Arabic, my mother tongue, which is soft and sweet. Because of the war I grew up changing schools, leaving Lebanon to live in other countries – Egypt, France, Italy – and coming back again. Adapting to other cultures is something I am used to.”
She flashes a smile. “Although having lived in Paris since I was 18, and being married to a Frenchman [couturier Olivier Lapidus], I am very much a Parisian. Now when I dream, I dream in French.”
Along the way, the dreams – the daydreams - of this relentless optimist shifted from fantasy to reality. The younger of two children born to an architect-turned-sculptor father and a mother who painted colourful Fauves-style abstracts, Yara quietly knew that one day she would be on the stage. Dreaming came readily to one who’d dodged a sniper’s bullet aged seven (“I bent down to my schoolbag and it went over me”); who played guitar and piano and wrote and wrote and wrote. Who after arriving in Paris to study fashion, attended acting classes on the side, her Bellucci-esque looks heightening her considerable aura.
Ever prismatic, Yara initially made her name as a designer. A stint as assistant to the celebrated Oscar de La Renta and employ at fashion houses including Dior led to the launch of her label Y by Yara, whose exclusive range of jeans, embellished with Ming-era silk embroidery, she personally delivered to the chic boutiques of Paris from behind the wheel of a truck.
“I like difficult things,” she says, her dark eyes flashing. “I like facing challenges.”
So it was, in 2010, that Yara’s mettle was tested by an incident that fate might have foretold but that no one could have foreseen. “A straightforward operation on my collarbone went wrong and I lost the use of my hand,” she says, holding up slim, elegant fingers adorned with large authentic rings. “Suddenly I was unable to work in fashion. And I could no longer play my guitar.”
Yara had released her eponymous solo debut the previous year, her voice, with its now trademark mix of vulnerability and strength, sending ripples through the French music industry. She’d always sung at home, for herself, for her husband and daughters. But with the accident came clarity: if she was ever going to take her music, her passion, to a wider audience, the time was now.
“I always used to say that in another life I might have been a singer and lyricist. I realised this was what was on offer, and what I had to do.”
Yara’s blossoming has included memorable performances at leftfield venues including Silencio, the Paris club owned by film director David Lynch, and at the 2018 London Jazz Festival, her outfits constructed with a stylist’s eye, her jewellery including a miniature guitar on a chain around her neck. Her videos, too, have a strong visual sense – and the camera, unsurprisingly, loves her.
Serendipity has graced Yara’s renaissance: the Abbey Road sessions were further distinguished by the fact that the white two-piece suit worn by John Lennon on the cover of the Beatles’ Abbey Road – the Fab Four striding over the road’s zebra crossing – was designed by Yara’s father-in-law, French couturier Ted Lapidus.
Each special guest on Just A Dream Away had been Yara’s first choice: Chico César, lending sumptuous Portuguese language vocals to the shimmering, bossa nova-infused duet, ‘Saudade De Voce’. Adnan Joubran from Le Trio Joubran, three brothers renowned for their powerful performances on the oud, the signature instrument in Arabic music, lending swirling clout to ‘Depuis Toi’.
“I have an oriental side that is very emotional and the oud captures this very well,” says Yara. “My European side is more self-contained, reflective. I like to think my music is a bridge from one to the other.”
And Iggy Pop ? Only the voice of Yara could tame the so-called godfather of punk, who croons alongside her – in English and in French – on ‘Encor Encor’ with a tenderness made all the more delightful for the tune’s curiously familiar music: Yared’s theme from ‘37 °2 le matin’ – or in English, ‘Betty Blue’.
Just A Dream Away, then. A work crafted with love, for love and in testament to love. Rewarding repeated listening. Drawing dreams closer, within reach.
“Dream big,” says Yara. “When you dream big, you catch a star.”
“JUST A DREAM AWAY”
Ref album : YM02777
UPC : 377001441679
Label : Yara Music
© 2019 - Yara Music