Her new Danger Mouse-produced stylistic direction-shift
puts the once-mellow AOR songstress in a challenging new arena.
BY A.D. AMOROSI
With each album since her 2002
debut, singer/composer Norah Jones has gone beyond the famously platinum-plated
mellow mood of Come Away with Me.
It’s been an incremental adventure, for sure, with each proving more
challenging to Jones and her listeners. The new Little Broken Hearts (Blue Note), though, is an oddball leap, a
jolt of jilted lovers set against the sonic backdrop of quietly noisy soul-jazz
and heated electronic pop. That Jones’ partner in such merry madness
(production, lyric and music writing) is Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton says even more about her willingness to
stretch than the album itself.
Jones spoke with me during her
time at Austin’s South by Southwest fest while was preparing to grant Little Broken Hearts its live debut, as
well as play with her country swinging rock buds in The Little Willies
BLURT: What’s the mindset you have going back-and-forth
between debuting Little Broken Hearts with a new band and playing with The Little Willies in the next 24 hours?
NORAH JONES: It’s not really a
split personality thing [laughs] The
Willies are a fun, easy band with no real rehearsals ahead of us. We just go in
there and do it. I have a day off in-between gigs anyways. I wouldn’t want to
do both shows on the same day, I can tell you that!
Of course I’m curious to know what you think of Danger
Mouse’s collaborative producing and performing gigs-Broken Bells, Gnarls Barkley,
Damon Albarn projects-but do you have a sense what he thought about your past
Not much. No. I hope he liked my
music [laughs]. I love his work but
didn’t necessarily think or want what we were going to do sound like any of his
other stuff. We really started as friends.
When you guys got together first, in what 2009, did you
talk it out, draw it up or did you just let it fly?
We met when he asked me to sit in
on the Rome album [Danger Mouse’s Italian cinematic project with Daniele Luppi; it
featured guests Jones and Jack White], Brian came over my house and played what
he had started. It was immediate that I agreed to be part of that. It was fun
and we got along so well. It was just a nice connection. We’d hang out whenever
he was in town and talk on the phone when he wasn’t. When I came around to
realizing that I wanted him to produce my next record, he pointed out that,
like Broken Bells, he wanted to collaborate, play and write with me as well.
That sounded intriguing.
You’ve never had this sort of level of collaboration with a
No way. Never where they wrote
songs with me or played instruments. Or even with me playing so much. Arif
Mardin wrote a few arrangements but nothing like this. Brian and I really got
our hands dirty.
Before him with or without him, were you looking to evolve
your sound into something atmospheric, noisy more rhythmic?
I was just looking for a change, for
sure. I originally wanted someone to produce the songs I had for The Fall, but since he was more
interested in writing together and I had the material ready for that album I
went ahead, found a producer, and it sounded great. After that record though,
working with Brian seemed particularly right because I hadn’t been writing
You sound taken aback that you weren’t writing much. Do you
lose the muse?
Oh yeah. Sometimes I’ve taken
years to write these albums. Hopefully it never leaves me forever, but yeah, I
struggle on occasion. I’ve also managed to do a handful of other people’s songs
and collaborations so I’m never just waiting for something to happen. [laughs]
Was this an all at once process, the new album?
We got together first for like
five days in 2009. I think that session though was to feel each other out, see
how the other guy operated. We did come up with a bunch of ideas and three
actual tunes though. We blocked out more time last summer-two weeks-and just
In between 2009 and
last summer you went through something of a breakup, a busted romance…
Yeah I went through a breakup, but
I went through one in 2007 that probably made its way into the first sessions!
I’m not sure. We didn’t go into this hoping to make a relationship album. We
wrote about what happens in life.
Did you ever think you could have just written this guy a
mean email or something less diabolical?
I don’t think the record is
diabolical or evil. [laughs]
I’m just pulling your chain…
There are just a lot of human
emotions in here that we all feel and deal with. It’s not aimed at any one
person. It’s also nice to be inspired by something in particular, something
with a little more weight. I think that is what makes listeners relate to you-when
there’s a shared emotion. That doesn’t make it a diary or a hate letter. There
is just as much love as there is sadness to be found here. Brian and I are
close and talk a lot. The incidents that fill our life came out. It’s that type
of album, a conversation between two people. Remember, he wrote a lot of the
lyrics here too.
So these could be his struggles. Did you think of Burton as a confidante as
much as a collaborator?
Oh yeah. We’d drink into the night
and blab with each other. I can’t tell you how much fun it is being in the
studio with someone you are buddies with.
Do you feel like the new album is liberating? I ask because
“Take it Back” is like a primal scream. It’s fuuuuuuucked up-in a good way. It
didn’t sound remotely like you.
That is the most different
sounding me on the record! We just kept
going until we hit the end.
Was it important for you to make sure that merry music and
lyrics didn’t marry too often? Lyrically, something such as “Happy Pills” is a
bitter pill to swallow, while the melody goes down like a spoonful of sugar.
I don’t that that was premeditated.
I think if we didn’t add something lyrically that song would have been just too
When was the last time you spoke to your father [sitar
master Ravi Shankar] about your musical
That’s a strange question! The
relationship with my dad is more about him being my dad. Him being proud of me
and me of him come into play, sure, but I don’t think we have had a musical
direction question in some time. It’s more like, “What’s going on this
With it being ten years since your first album and that
album winning you fame and fans, what would you hope those initial listeners
would get out of new one?
I know there’s so much of the
woman who made that first album in me still. We do evolve, of course. I don’t
know what those fans would like or should come away with. I can’t imagine what
people respond to, period. Some people might like this and think it’s a natural
progression. Then again, there’s got to be some people who are going to think
it’s as fucking weird as you joked around
An edited version of this story appears in the new print
edition (issue #12) of BLURT.
[Photo Credit: Noah Adams]