By Brian Ives
Over the last few years, Norah Jones has worked on a diverse group of projects: she was a guest vocalist on Danger Mouse’s Rome project; she then recruited Danger Mouse to produce her Little Broken Hearts album, which had a more modern sound than most of her previous work.
She worked with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong on an Everly Brothers tribute album, Foreverly, in 2013. Then in 2014, she collaborated with her friends Sasha Dobson (a solo singer/songwriter) and Catherine Popper (an in-demand bass player) in the group Puss N Boots, who released their debut, No Fools No Fun.
But her latest album, Day Breaks sees her returning to the piano bench, and doing a jazz-influenced album that is more like her debut, 2002’s Come Away with Me, than anything she’s done in the years since.
In this Radio.com interview, she discussed the enormous success of debut, how she followed it up, and what brought her back to playing piano.
You’ve done a few projects in the past few years: an album of mostly covers with Puss N Boots and an album of Everly Brothers covers with Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day. When did you finally decide to do a new Norah Jones album?
Well, it’s never that decisive, because I like to keep things open and loose and not put too much pressure on it. Usually when I make music it’s with the intention of seeing what happens, how these songs come through, and then it starts to take shape and become whatever it is.
But I did this Blue Note 75th Anniversary concert. It just got me really excited to play with [jazz saxophonist] Wayne Shorter and [jazz drummer] Brian Blade again. That was the first thought, like, “Oh, that was fun. I wonder if we can do it again.”
And then after that I started thinking about songs, and I started writing and just listening to a lot of jazz again, which is kinda where I come from. And then these songs took shape over about a year and a half, and some of them were in line with my original thought, which was to play with those guys, basically, and some of them were kind of different.
So then it came to the point where, “Okay, let’s just go in the studio and see what this is. Maybe this is a record, maybe this is two different projects. I’m not sure.”
So then I hired Brian and Chris Thomas on bass, and we did some trio stuff. And then I had Wayne and [jazz bassist] John Patitucci come in, and we did some stuff, and we just kinda pieced it all together.
This is the kind of music shouldn’t be labored over. You shouldn’t have to do twenty takes of these songs; you shouldn’t have to overdub the vocals and piano. That’s not how this music is supposed to be. So it really should be quick, and if it’s not, you move along and come back to it, or decide that the song isn’t working.
That’s a very “Neil Young” approach.
Well, it’s how music used to be, right? Now, we’ve gotten into these cycles of people taking years to record an album. And sometimes they’re masterpieces; I’m not knocking it. It’s just not the way I was schooled in music. Some records I’ve made have had more time and more production than others, but I think my favorite [method] is to do it like this.
But [making] my last album with Brian [Burton] — Danger Mouse — was pretty awesome because we did two months total in the studio of five days a week, so it was the most time I’ve ever spent working on an album.
So after doing all of these other projects, did you feel ready to sit down at the piano again?
I think I was ready to do it, yeah. I’m not sure if I overthought it too much. I just got excited to play the piano one day. I was doing this solo gig. It was for a charity event; you do a 30-minute set. So I was like, “Ah, crap, I don’t want it all to be the same tempo, and I gotta practice a couple songs to throw in there so it’s not all the same tempo,” ’cause usually the solo stuff I do kind of fills the same space.
And so I was practicing this song from my last solo record, and then I started playing more, and then I started writing stuff on piano, which I haven’t done a ton of, even on my first record. I only wrote two songs for my first record, and even they were written on guitar. And the rest of the songs on my first record are written by my bandmates. They were written on guitar.
And guitar is the driving force on all those songs, really, with a few exceptions. So even though my first record, it was considered my “piano record,” it still was very guitar-driven in a lot of ways, and this record is not at all.
I saw you a few times with Puss N Boots, there wasn’t even a piano on the stage, you just played guitar and you seemed to be having a blast.
Oh, yeah, I do. It’s so fun. I love both. I’ll do what is inspiring [at the moment], and that is the most important thing. I’m not gonna play piano if I’m getting bored with it and not enjoying it, and I’m not gonna play guitar if I’m not enjoying it. So I think that’s the key: just follow what is fun.
What I will say though, is the first time I started playing guitar live, I started enjoying it so much, because all of a sudden I was facing the audience. I’d never gotten to do that before.
It’s something that sounds silly, but I did a whole run of piano shows recently actually, and it was so fun, and I’m playing the hell out of the piano right now, and I’m loving it. But I did realize that one thing that is so nice that breaks up my shows when I do get up and play guitar for even just a few songs, I get to connect a little bit better. Because when I’m playing piano it’s hard for me to look around; I’m trying to watch my hands.
So it is really nice to have those moments. And it’s certainly less cumbersome onstage.
Another thing I noticed at the Puss N Boots shows is that you bantered with the audience more.
Yeah, it’s interesting. Sometimes I have a lot of fun at my own shows bantering with the audience. It depends on the audience and how drunk they are. At the Puss N Boots shows the audience is usually heckling us, ’cause usually Sasha [Dobson] and Cat [Popper] are heckling them. So yeah, it’s definitely easy to let loose a little more.
I love when an audience yells at me. I know sometimes they cross the line, and sometimes people think it’s obnoxious, but my favorite thing is a drunk, rowdy audience, ’cause it just makes it so much more fun.
I think people didn’t always get the idea that you have a sense of humor. Even when you were playing with the Little Willies, it seemed like you were trying to get away from the vibe that was set by your first album.
I don’t think I was trying to run away from that so much as I was trying to keep things fun for myself. Because there was a certain point during my first record where I kinda stopped enjoying myself. I think it was partly cause of the weird wave of success, being known all of a sudden, that was just a little freaky. But also the music became so… I don’t know, people took it so seriously.
And I thought, “This should more fun.” So that’s always been my way; I’ve always been trying to keep it fun, and that’s why I’ve followed different paths, and not just do something that sounded like the first record over and over. That didn’t sound fun to me.
The day you released Feels Like Home — the followup to your debut, one of the best selling debuts ever — you played a bar in Brooklyn with a covers band that became the Little Willies. It seems like you’ve never really sweated the idea of having to follow up the success of your debut.
I think for me that follow-up was so important to not sweat, because I thought, “You know what? F— it. I’m gonna do what I love, and if it’s a success, it’s a success; if it’s not, it’s not.” The way we made the first record wasn’t engineered to be a huge success. So I knew that if we overthought it and tried to make some crazy follow-up it would be stressful, and it probably wouldn’t have ended up being very soulful.
And we had already amassed a bunch of songs playing so much that year with my first record that we’d had a bunch of new songs we already were playing live and wanted to record. So we kind of holed up upstate and tried to push all the B.S. out of the room, and any pressure that was on us wasn’t there. We just made music and tried to see how that was.
I think I also did it pretty quickly, because the GRAMMYS happened, and then we were still on tour for like another six months, and then we went right into the studio and did it. I think we did two different sessions over a couple months.
And I thought, if we take a bunch of time off, then I will overthink this, and I don’t want to overthink this. I think if I’d taken a lot of time to think about it, it would’ve been the worst thing for me.
You’ve collaborated with a lot of artists over the years, and you’ve worked with Willie Nelson a few times. Talk about working with him.
I still get emotional when I see Willie play. I hold so many memories attached to all of them. And also just seeing him live so many times, it’s a specific sound, that band, and hearing [his sister] Bobbie play piano and Mickey [Raphael] on the harmonica. I can’t really hear Willie without Mickey’s harmonica, you know what I mean? It’s all very nostalgic at this point, but also it always has something fresh. It always makes me happy.
I feel the same way every time I see Neil [Young] play, who I’ve seen enough times now to not have that feeling of, “I’m gonna cry now!” I think the first four times I saw Neil play I cried.
I feel like they’re having fun playing music, and that’s what you want at any age, but especially if you’re gonna be doing it and you’re older. I think that’s what keeps them going, and they’re being creative. Neil was having so much fun on that tour we [Puss N Boots] opened up on; you could just tell. He was just smiling up there, playing with those guys. He loved it.
Speaking of Neil, you cover a pretty obscure song, “Don’t Be Denied” on your record.
Yeah, I’ve covered him before. I got turned on to that song maybe five or six years ago, and I’ve enjoyed turning a lot of different people on to it as well, because it’s not that well-known. When we opened for him he was playing it, which was like this crazy treat.
And I did a Neil Young tribute show shortly after that, I was like, “You know what? I wanna do ‘Don’t Be Denied,’ but it’s kinda hard to sing those lyrics; I’m a chick.” He’s saying, “When I was a young boy, going up to Winnipeg.” I was like, how do I make this work for me?
And so I changed it to third person for that tribute show. And then I thought, “I kinda wanna record this song; let’s just try it when we’re in the studio.” But that song wasn’t really the obvious choice for these sessions, but I still wanted to try it.
And then we were in the studio, and I kinda was like, “All right, it’s third person, but I still…can I just change it to ‘she’?” And then it became Anchorage, which is somewhere I moved when I was young. And so I just kinda had to personalize it a little to own it.
Do you think he’s heard your version?
I doubt he listens to that stuff. I’m sure he doesn’t have time to check out everybody’s versions of his songs. But he sat in with Puss n Boots at the Bridge School Benefit, thanks to Sasha and Catherine, because they were like, “Neil, you gonna sit in with us?” I didn’t have the balls to ask, but they did, ’cause they’re hilarious. And he did, and it was awesome.
Early on, you weren’t comfortable talking about politics, but I was wondering how you felt about the election.
I’m still not comfortable talking about it. And I don’t know why. I think it’s because you can admire someone, and then the next day they can disappoint you when they talk about politics.
I think I express myself much better through writing. And I think that song, “My Dear Country” that I wrote in 2004, I’ve been singing that at shows recently, and it’s so funny how it just sounds like I wrote it about this election. It’s banana town out there.