Norah Jones - 'I write really well on the road'
Norah Jones is looking forward to touring again, having swapped the mellow jazz of Come Away With Me for a striking break-upalbum, a new haircut and a dog. By Elisa Bray
Friday 19 February 2010
When a pop musician splits up with his or her boyfriend or girlfriend, the result is often a break-up album, and perhaps a complete change of image. Norah Jones, who is world famous for her trademark soft jazz-pop and gorgeously listenable, silky voice, cut her long romantic tresses into a sassy, wispy crop and adopted a poodle called Ralph.
The hairstyle suits her. Last year she turned 30, and she looks relaxed in casual jeans and a floral blouse as she sips tea in a posh London hotel, while on a short trip to promote her new album, The Fall.
"I definitely feel more at ease than I did when I was in my 20s," she says, talking in calm and even tones which betray a level-headed attitude to her work. "I think as you get older you feel more comfortable with yourself and your decisions and less worried about what other people think. I'm less worried about portraying anything – you sing about different things."
The lyrics of The Fall are definitely not shy of honesty. "I wouldn't need you," she sings – in "I Wouldn't Need You" – "if I touched myself the way you touched me". In "Man of the Hour", for her dog, she confesses: "I can't choose between a vegan and a pothead, so I chose you."
Born in New York to the Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar, famous for his work with The Beatles, and an American mother, Sue Jones, she rocketed to fame with her debut album, Come Away With Me at 22, becoming the world's biggest-selling jazz artist.
"I was always a bit of a self-conscious performer and now I have a lot more fun with it instead of getting nervous. I was just awkward. I was annoyed I had to make a music video – now I'm excited to make one because it's fun, but at the time I came from this world of playing jazz where I was always trying to be one of the guys and I never dressed up, so it was just not part of my vocabulary to do that kind of thing."
Jones has always been a bit of an enigma. Mega-famous she may be – she has sold nearly 40 million albums and in 2007 she made her film debut in Wong Kar Wai's My Blueberry Nights, alongside Jude Law and Natalie Portman – but she does not court the limelight. You'll rarely see her at red-carpet events. Even a nomination for best international female artist did not lure her to the Brits this week.
"I'm a lot more into that side of things now," she says. "It's fun to dress up. I'm pretty bad and I don't walk red carpets usually. I've read too many magazines where they have put a big stamp on it [your picture] saying 'Don't!' It's like saying, 'Judge my butt, judge my dress, judge my hair.' I'd probably trip anyway. I can't walk in heels."
By her mid-twenties, Jones had sold 30 million albums and won eight Grammy awards. For such a young musician, it had been a constant journey of recording albums, touring and winning awards. Then, just over two years ago, she found herself with more time off than ever before after she split from Lee Alexander, her boyfriend of eight years and the bassist in her band. For someone so unused to time off, did she find it difficult making use of the newly acquired space?
"I took a pottery class. And I got the dog! It was time consuming because he was a small puppy. He gives me lots of loving. I needed to take some time off, and remember how to just be normal at home, which is difficult when you're so used to getting up and travelling. And I just like to hang out and see my friends." She also joined a book club. "It's an excuse to just get together with the ladies, drink some wine, eat some cheese. But it's also got me reading again, which is fun. We usually talk about the book for half an hour and hang out for five hours talking about other stuff."
She also played in a few bands, including one which got together every few weeks. "That kept my mind musical and kept me pretty busy, playing music without all this on a bigger scale. It was kind of loose and fun so that was nice." "Fun" is a word that crops up throughout our meeting.
The Fall is the result of the break, an album which adds grooves and heavier drums to her typically soothing vocals. It is a big departure from the mellow jazz of her first three albums. To reach that new sound, she enlisted the alt country musician Ryan Adams, with whom she wrote the torch song "Light As a Feather", Okkervil River's Will Sheff, on "Stuck", and her long-time friend Jesse Harris on "Even Though".
Jones is no stranger to surprising collaborations. She featured on the Foo Fighters album In Your Honour and performed a duet of "Love Hurts" with Keith Richards at a tribute concert for Gram Parsons. Neil Young is one musician with whom she would like to collaborate properly – she received her first record player for Christmas and has been listening to "a lot" of Young.
Some might see the collaborations on The Fall as a move away from her image as the creator of the kind of inoffensive music favoured by an older generation.
"I don't think about it that much," she says. "Those collaborations happened naturally, we were just hanging out. People joke that a lot of older people like my music, but I think there's a variety of people who like my music. I don't think I was able to be that successful with my first record without a lot of different types of people liking it. I'm not aiming for anything.
"I think I'm at the point in my career when I realise that it's my fourth record and it's like, 'Wow, I have great fans,' but, yeah, whenever you hear someone say, 'I didn't really listen to you until this record,' then that's a great feeling. It's like, 'Oh, I'm still good, I'm doing something worthwhile.'"
She says she is "lucky" that she does not feel limited by genre and that she was excited to try new sounds. "The songs were already written and I demo'd them and some of them just wanted to go in different directions sonically. I thought, 'Well, it's time to do something completely different.' I guess it was an important time."
One major change during this time was the forming of a new band. Alexander had been her bassist since the beginning of her career and the pair had written songs together. If she had to pick one element in their professional partnership that she most misses, it would be his feedback.
"Part of the reason I really wanted to hire a producer like Jacquire [King, the producer for Kings of Leon] is that I'm so used to having that partner in the studio and I just needed a partner who could help, especially outside of the things I normally tend towards. Jacquire was great because he had a completely different perspective musically, but not so different that we couldn't relate on a lot of levels." Did she feel left on her own with the song-writing? "On my last album I wrote a lot of my own too", she says. "It's more I'm used to having [Alexander's] feedback. But it's cool. We're still friends."
She is taking a break from songwriting but says she will resume when she goes on tour in America, next month.
"I write really well on the road because it's a different situation every day. There's more material for ideas. And there's a lot of downtime. I don't work well under pressure. I can't say, 'OK, come up with an idea.'"
Ideas were not hard to come by during the writing of The Fall. She says: "It seems like maybe it's because I'm 30 and all my girlfriends are about the same age that everyone's going through changes at this point in their life, whether it's getting married, having a baby, breaking up, getting a divorce, getting a dog, all those kinds of things. It was surrounding me and I was certainly going through my own things too. There was plenty to draw on!
"At this point it's all positive, but you know, it's life, you feel like it's the end of the world, and you finally turn another day and you figure it out."
There are more changes afoot. Soon, Jones will leave the Manhattan loft apartment she bought with Alexander six years ago and move into a place in Brooklyn with much needed outside space for her dog. She also has a new boyfriend, a writer of fiction. The only thing that concerns her is the prospect of going back on the road without him. She won't divulge anything more, deferring questions with sweet smiles and a gentle laugh. She really does seem to have it all figured out.
The single "Stuck" is released on 8 March. 'The Fall' is out now
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