Norah Jones interview: ‘I’m motivated only by having fun, by enjoying what I do’

The singer talks new album ‘Day Break’, celebrity culture, and jazz

Nick Duerden
Thursday 29 September 2016 10:53
Norah Jones on ‘Later with Jools Holland’
Norah Jones on ‘Later with Jools Holland’

It is July when I meet Norah Jones, and the rumour right now is that the singer has just given birth to her second child, if not in the last couple of days, then certainly the last two weeks. By “rumour”, I mean of course the Internet, that vessel through which all celebrities, like it or not, must have their lives endlessly filtered. Norah Jones doesn’t like it, not a bit.

“I didn’t even know they knew I was pregnant!” she says, “they” presumably being the people that write the Internet. Okay, she concedes, she was pregnant, and, yes, she has given birth, but certainly not in the past two weeks. Had this been the case, she posits reasonably, then she wouldn’t be here in London talking to me about her new album, Day Break; she would be home in New York, nursing her newborn. “I gave birth three months ago.”

For the next few minutes, we speak about children – she has two, the latest one (gender currently undetermined), and a son of two – before she draws a veil. “Anyway, that’s a lot of detail there, and you don’t need all that, do you?”

There are some people within the public eye who appear perfectly happy, or at least resigned to the fact, that every corner of their lives elicit interest simply because they are famous; and then there are those who make it seem like the heavy burden it surely is. Norah Jones falls, quite categorically, into the latter camp.

Nevertheless, it is with good grace that she swishes into this opulent central London hotel suite, one bright summer’s day, and she looks nothing if not eminently prepared for the job at hand: to plug her new album. Day Break is her sixth, and in many ways, she says, is a return to the jazzy overtures of her now landmark 2002 debut Come Away With Me. That album set the standard for modern jazz, the kind that soundtracked endless dinner parties, spa retreats and the consumption of flat whites at Starbucks everywhere. It sold in the very many millions, won countless awards and catapulted her into superstardom.

Day Break nestles into that album’s shadow with some style. It is slow, piano-led and languorous, full of whispering saxophone and Jones’s soporific vocal, and is at time so determinedly relaxed you convince yourself that she must have sung it while lazing in a hammock. She half smiles when I tell her this. “That’s my kind of thing, I guess, to make it sound natural.”

If her previous two albums, 2009’s The Fall and 2012’s Little Broken Hearts, were her break-up albums – she had recently split from boyfriend and erstwhile band member Lee Alexander – then Day Break is its sailing-into-the-sunset coda, the product of a happily-married mother-of-two. On the dulcet ‘And Then There Was You’, she sings: “I thought love was a game/One would win or lose/Until I found you.”

Jones herself will neither confirm nor deny such intrusive speculation, preferring instead to allow people to enjoy their own interpretations. “Songs can mean so many things to so many different people, can’t they?” she demurs, revealing precious little else, and keeping her cards close to her chest. You wouldn’t want to play poker against this woman. She’d likely win.

In many ways, the 36-year-old Texan, and now resident of New York, has had a dream career. The daughter of Ravi Shankar, the sitar player who came to global prominence when, in the 1960s, he befriended The Beatles, Jones has spent the past 14 years releasing precisely the kind of music she wants, never chasing anything so crude as the zeitgeist, but enjoying commercial saturation regardless.

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“When I first started playing jazz,” she says, “I did so simply because I liked it. I had no idea it would have any mainstream appeal. No clue! So when it happened, it was nice – but scary. In fact, it was overwhelming.”

During that first period of becoming a chart-slaying pop star, between the years 2002-03, she tells me that she experienced, “a few many breakdowns”. What caused them? “Doing this all day,” she answers, meaning promotion, before adding: “No offence. It’s just I realised that this is what came with the fun part of the job, which was to make music.”

The more the media wanted her, the more miserable she became. “I remember sitting in a hotel room with my old manager and saying, ‘Okay, how do I have fun doing this, because I’m this close to saying: fuck all this, goodbye’.”

What she did, succinctly, was to say: no more. She didn’t want to play the fame game – in her words, “to be on magazine covers, to sell make-up. I don’t judge anyone else for doing it, but I just play music, and I was never going to try to stay in the public eye.”

And so, pretty much, she didn’t; hasn’t. The albums have continued, and they’ve sold well and won more awards. She has embarked upon side projects – her extracurricular, alt-country bands The Little Willies and Puss n Boots – and she has collaborated with everyone from Willie Nelson to Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong. In 2007 she made a convincing film debut in My Blueberry Nights, not because she had any great desire to act but simply because the director, Wong Kar-Wai, asked her to give it a go. “It was fun,” she says.

She lives now in a part of Manhattan that she isn’t about to divulge to members of the press, and life revolves contentedly around her family and her myriad musical projects, which she will continue to grace with the exquisite languor that has become her trademark.

“I’m motivated only by having fun, by enjoying what I do,” she says. “I mean, why else would I bother otherwise?”

Day Break is released on October 7

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