ABOVE: NORAH JONES WITH DANGER MOUSE. PHOTO COURTESY OF NORAH ABRAMS.
With the 75th anniversary of the iconic sunglasses manufacturer, Ray-Ban underway, INTERVIEW celebrates the NEVER HIDE moments of a few influential leaders in art, fashion, music and film. We’ve met quite a few characters over the decades, but here are some of our favorite interviewees and icons, artists who never shied away from marching to the beat of their own drum. Here we talk to Norah Jones:
Ten years ago, when Norah Jones was a mere 22, her first album, Come Away with Me (2002), won five Grammy awards and went “diamond.” Yes, there’s a level above multi-platinum; it’s called diamond, and it means an album sold over 10 million copies in the US alone (approximately 20 million in the case of Come Away). Jones was at the forefront of a new old-world jazz trend; a very adult-seeming alternative to the juvenile pop-rock dominating the charts in the early 2000s. As Dimitri Ehrlich noted when Interview first met Norah in March of 2002, “[Norah] has what the world needs now: Music that works like a time machine, transporting listeners to an era long before anyone had every thought of SUVs.” How did a 22-year-old have such an old soul? “I’ve always listened to older music, like Billy Holiday or Ray Charles, so maybe that has something to do with it,” offered Jones.
With such success in a genre apart from her contemporaries, Norah could have easily fallen into the typecasting trap—dismissed as niche singer, a passing trend. She didn’t. Over the past 10-years, Norah has diversified and expanded her musical tastes. “My first two records are so simply constructed. The reason isn’t because I wanted to make simple music. It’s because I don’t really have the chops. I can’t roll like the R&B singer. Your limitations create your sound,” Jones told us in May of 2007. “It’s so great when you discover somebody’s music…I was probably 21 years old before I really listened to Neil Young. I’ve always known who he is, but I never really checked out his music because it was just there. But once I did, it was like “Holy Cow! He’s got all these classic records that I can rediscover!” she continued.
Norah also made her film debut alongside Natalie Portman in director Kar Wai’s My Blueberry Nights (2008). Did acting change the way Norah approached music? “It didn’t really change the way I think about music-I guess because I’m already so into that world and my thought about music change all the time anyway,” Norah told us in February of 2008. “[But] I do feel there are similarities between my music and the way that Kar Wai makes his films. Not all of his films, but some of them, like In the Mood for Love, are very much like ballads. The way they move slowly but subtly-there’s a lot of care and attention to the little things. A lot of my music is slow and subtle. The subtly is what I enjoy about making music,” she continued.
On May 1st Norah will release her fifth album, Little Broken Hearts, produced by Danger Mouse, best known for his mash-up of Jay-Z and the Beatles, The Grey Album. How is that for musical gumption. But enough history! We caught Norah a decade after our first meeting, to talk about her new album, her 21st century sound, her father and how it feels to have reached the 10-year milestone.
EMMA BROWN: A decade is quite an anniversary. Do you often think about how much time has passed between Little Broken Hearts and when you released Come Away With Me in 2002?
NORAH JONES: I don’t think about it that much, but it’s kind of funny that it’s 10 years. I can’t believe it sometimes. It’s like, “Wow.”
BROWN: Do you feel different?
JONES: Yeah, I feel different, but also the same. I think it’s like anyone [aging from] 22 to 32. Everybody goes through that period.
BROWN: I feel like it’s a lot weirder thinking that ten years from 22 you were 12, than ten years from 32 you were 22.
JONES: Time has a different meaning, almost.
BROWN: Are you afraid that, with a title like Little Broken Hearts, everyone is going to assume that your new album is autobiographical and ask you really personal questions?
JONES: People ask that anyway. This is a very personal album in some ways, but it’s also not a diary. There’s been a lot of thought put into each song, and each lyric, and crafting these songs. It’s named for one of my favorite images of the record, which is in the third song (also called “Little Broken Hearts”). The lyrics tell a story about this army of hearts that are coming after the people who hurt them with knives. I thought that was a great image. It’s kind of cute, but also sad.
BROWN: I heard that when you debuted the album at SXSW, you played the album in its entirety.
JONES: Yeah, it was really fun. I didn’t know how else to do it. I’ve never done that; I’ve never played a whole album straight through. [SXSW] seemed like a really nice opportunity to just do the new songs—it’s about new bands.
BROWN: Do you feel like your songs need to be listened to as part of an album rather than individual entities?
JONES: I don’t think they need to; with this album more so than anything else I’ve done. Little Broken Hearts really paints a picture—the album as a whole—whereas my older albums, I could probably pick five or six songs if I had to. When I played Little Broken Hearts for people in the beginning, friends or family, it was really hard to just play a few songs, because I felt like none of the songs really represented the whole album. When you put [the songs] altogether, it makes sense.
BROWN: Did you get a nice reception at SXSW?
JONES: Yeah, the audience was great. I don’t know what I expected, I don’t think I expected anything; I was more concerned with remembering all of the lyrics. It’s hard when you’re playing your first show with a new band. We were all just hoping to get through it and have a good time and we did so, the audience was great! It was quiet, but they were also enthusiastic.
BROWN: Can you tell me a little bit about working with Danger Mouse?
JONES: I worked on the ROME album with him about four years ago and we got along so great and worked together really well, so I thought it would be fun to do something. When I asked him, he sent me the Broken Bells record, [as] an example of him doing it with somebody he liked, James from The Shins, just sort of playing all of the instruments and writing together, and he said, “I’m up for doing something like this and I got a ton of time.” Going into the studio with Brian was so exciting because I had no idea what to expect or what new things I could try. It was like, “What’s this adventure I’m going on, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
BROWN: And what was the first song you guys came up with?
JONES: I don’t know. I think the first song we started was the song “All a Dream,” it’s the last song on the album. That’s one of the first ones we started, but we didn’t finish it until the end of the session.
BROWN: Would you work on multiple songs at once?
JONES: Kind of. We would concentrate on one song for a day or two and then when we got the point where we really liked it, but didn’t have anything more to work on, then we would move onto another song. Lots of the songs were finished or mostly finished. Some of the songs we had to go back and finish the lyrics on, but they were mostly done by the time we were done, and then we’d go back and tweak them.
BROWN: Did you guys have a song that you listened to throughout recording the album?
JONES: In the beginning he would play some stuff. Sometimes we’d listen to Violent Femmes, because we both loved that bass sound they had on that one classic album [1983’s Violent Femmes]. But the further we got in the studio, the more excited we were to work on what we had been working on the day before. I would come home and listen to Neil Young, but it was hard for me to listen to something new that I’d have to really pay attention to.
BROWN: Interview is all about artists, musicians and “creative thinkers” interviewing their musician and artist friends. Whom would you most like to interview?
JONES: Oh gosh, I don’t know. I have all of these people that I love. It’d be interesting to interview my dad, because he’s got all of these stories. Sometimes he’ll tell me them, but he’s my dad so I don’t want to bug him. [laughs] Maybe Willie Nelson—it’s the same thing, we’ve hung out a lot, but you never want to bug people to tell old stories unless you can tell they’re up for it.
BROWN: When you know someone in a certain way, like a parent, it can be sort of unsettling to hear stories from their past.
JONES: Yeah, but it’s also interesting, you get to know them better. It’s hard for me to pry with people I know. Like my dad, I know my dad. [laughs] When we’re hanging out we mostly just hang out, I’m excited to spend time with him, I don’t want to grill him about something that happened 70 years ago. But when you get them going, it’s like you’re getting to know some part of them that’s still there but kind of hidden.
BROWN: Is there anything that you found out from talking to your dad that you would have never guessed?
JONES: He had a really interesting early life. He traveled a lot, and I remember he said that he was in New York on tour when he was 20 and he would go to Cotton Club to hear Cab Calloway. To me, as someone who’s wanted to play jazz since she was like 14, I certainly didn’t expect to hear that from my dad, who plays Indian classical music.
BROWN: Do you ever mention a musician and he’s like, “Oh, I met them years ago”?
JONES: Yeah. I listened to John Coltrane all through high school. Turns out, Coltrane went to my dad’s for lessons before he died. Stuff like that is wacky, that’s not how I got into jazz or got into John Coltrane, it’s kind a weird coincidence. I love this music, and he knows and knew some of those people.
BROWN: What did you dress up as last Halloween?
JONES: [laughs] Last Halloween I was [comedian and performance artist] Andy Kaufman, and my boyfriend was Tony Clifton, an alter-ego that he has. I like being boys for Halloween, I don’t know why. I make a good little boy. I was Pinocchio one year. This year I was pretty gross looking, I looked like a monkey more than Andy Kaufman. I had these weird sideburns glued onto my face. I looked weird. [laughs]
BROWN: Did you two look similar?
JONES: People got his costume and then they looked at me, and some of them got it just because of his, because it was a couple costume. [But] I think I creeped them out. [My boyfriend] grew these chops, and he had the funny jacket that was perfect. His costume was awesome.
BROWN: I’m always afraid that I’m going to lose the other person when I do joint costumes and end up looking incredibly strange by myself. You can’t stay out after the other person goes home.
JONES: [laughs] Definitely wasn’t going to be staying out late in that.
LITTLE BROKEN HEARTS IS OUT MAY 1. YOU CAN PRE-ORDER THE ALBUM ON ITUNES OR AMAZON.