How she made the most unexpected music of her career with some help from Danger Mouse.
In June 2009, Norah Jones was somewhere not many people would expect her to be: in a small Los Angeles studio, cooking up new music with producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton.
Ten years ago, Jones’ diamond-selling debut, Come Away With Me, established her as a pop icon with a soft, jazzy touch. Each of her follow-up solo albums—all of which are platinum or multiplatinum—has steadily but gently expanded upon that sturdy musical foundation. Burton, meanwhile, first drew attention for his copyright-flaunting 2004 mashup of the Beatles and Jay-Z (The Grey Album), and has since built a reputation as a producer known for banging beats and making hits like “Crazy” as part of the eccentric duo Gnarls Barkley. But there they were. “I was really sick with horrible allergies that week,” Jones recalls. “I remember that being a bummer. I was so tired, and I thought, ‘I’ll bet he thinks I’m an ass. I’ll bet he doesn’t think I’m having fun.’ But we worked fast together, and we got along well from the beginning.”
Then again, observers whose image of Jones remains the wistful chanteuse who broke through with the adult-contemporary smash “Don’t Know Why” 10 years ago are missing the full picture. Between work on her own projects, Jones has earned a reputation as a collaborator who’s comfortable in practically any genre. She’s logged studio and stage time with perhaps a wider and wilder variety of artists than any other modern act: Outkast, Ryan Adams, Foo Fighters, Talib Kweli, Bonnie Raitt, Q-Tip, Jerry Lee Lewis, Belle & Sebastian, Willie Nelson, Charlie Hunter, M. Ward, Herbie Hancock, the Lonely Island and Tony Bennett for a start. “I like music,” she says with a shrug. “And I’m open.”
A hunger for musical adventure is in Jones’ DNA. Her father is 92-year-old Indian master sitarist Ravi Shankar, who helped to make “world music” a household term; her younger half sister, Anoushka Shankar, is following in their father’s footsteps with crossover-minded Hindu classical music. But the Brooklyn-born Jones’ musical upbringing was much more the provenance of her mother, Sue Jones, who raised her in a Dallas-Fort Worth suburb after separating from Shankar in the mid-1980s. “My mom listened to a lot of different things,” says Jones (who legally dropped her father’s surname at 16). “Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, a lot of opera—good stuff.” Jones fell especially hard for country music; her country-covers side project, the Little Willies, released its second album, For the Good Times, in January. She took piano lessons as a child, and eventually majored in jazz piano at the University of North Texas. After school she headed back to New York City, where she signed to the legendary jazz label Blue Note Records. Come Away With Me reached No. 1 a year after its February 2002 release and earned Jones an armful of Grammys. “It was definitely overwhelming and exciting. It was stressful, but it was fun,” she says. “God, I was just a baby.”
On successive albums, Jones pushed the boundaries of her debut’s template. But that fateful 2009 session with Burton eventually led to the new …Little Broken Hearts, Jones’ most assertive break yet with both her musical reputation and her public image. After that initial burst of activity, busy schedules kept Jones and Burton from completing the album for two years. But once they set to work seriously, the pair wrote music and lyrics from scratch and swapped instruments freely—Burton occasionally handles keyboards on the album, while half the tracks feature Jones playing guitar. They built up tracks together at Burton’s own Mondo Studio, then finished up by spending three days in an outside studio to add contributions from players like drummer Joey Waronker.
The album’s lyrics trace the melancholy arc of a breakup, with sentiments like those in the murderous “Miriam” (“I’m gonna smile when I take your life,” she sings) mirrored by Burton’s often jagged and unsettling production. America’s sweetheart, it would seem, has a tough side. “My friends know that if I’m too hungry, I get a little angry and I can be kind of sharp,” she says with a self-deprecating chuckle. “But that’s not necessarily the me most people think of.” She’s prepared for whatever reaction …Little Broken Hearts brings from listeners. “You’re going to win some and lose some,” figures Jones, 33. “It’s about being true to what you want to do. That will come through no matter what. I don’t want to make the same record over and over.” We caught up with Jones on a day off between solo and Little Willies shows in Austin, warming up for a summer world tour. “When I come to Texas, it does feel like home,” says the longtime New Yorker. “It’s too hot, though. I’m a winter person.”
Does the album have a lyrical concept?
I went into this record not knowing what we were going to write about. I’ve never worked this way with somebody, where you write all the songs in the studio. Once it started coming together, it seemed like a real relationship album. It examines a lot of different angles, especially the endings of relationships, more than forming a big story. But since we were writing so intensely every day, we got into that mindset. Once we wrote one song it was like, “Oh yeah, this ties into that other song.” That just happened as we went along.
Is writing sad songs easier?
I think it’s way easier. I wasn’t unhappy when we made the record, but it’s easy to tap into those feelings, even if you’re moving on. It’s easier if you’ve been down that road. There’s a lot of personal stuff, but it’s part fictional—it’s songwriting, not a diary.
How would a song begin?
Some songs would start with a line of lyrics. Some would start with me playing keyboard bass and him playing drums, eventually finding a cool groove and then me singing a melody over it. Some would start with acoustic guitar. Every song was different. Once we found something that felt right, either a hook or a chord progression or a sound, I would sing gibberish over it. Maybe Brian would say, “Oh, can you try singing this?” I’m always getting stumped with lyrics, and it was nice to have somebody to write with who is very smart and has a lot of great ideas. Whenever we found something that stuck, even just a tiny little piece of a lyric, we’d go from there.
Who would play what?
We just jump in. It doesn’t matter. If Brian comes up with a piano part that he thinks I could play better, he’ll say, “Why don’t you come play this?” Same with me. If there’s a guitar part I like, but I don’t have the right feel for it, I’ll say, “Why don’t you play this?” Usually we’d just play whatever we thought of, and it either worked or it didn’t.
How long have you played guitar?
About 10 years. I’m not a shredder. But I got a guitar solo on the record, that made me happy. (laughs) I enjoy writing on guitar. I love the piano, but it has a specific sound that is not always what I want for the song. That said, we have a lot of piano on this record.
Are you brand-loyal with pianos?
I’ll play anything. I have a Yamaha endorsement, and they’ve been kind enough to give me a really nice piano to tour with. That’s been great. But I like old, funky pianos. Actually, we found a cool Yamaha spinet to tour with. It’s nice not having a grand piano onstage, because it took up too much space between me and the band or me and the audience.
What about guitars?
I brought my acoustic out to the studio, and I brought my [Fender] Mustang electric. I played those a little bit, and Brian had a couple of guitars … I cannot remember what they were. I’m not a good gearhead. (laughs) I think I used Neumann mics. I have some nice mics that I use, but I also used a cheapie crappy mic for a while on the record, because it just sounded good. It’s whatever works.
How do you avoid external pressures?
From the beginning I’ve been lucky. I have people at the label who love music. They have pressures on them, but they also know as well as I do that my first record didn’t sell the way it did because it was engineered to be commercial. It was just a crazy thing that happened. We made that record very naturally. Some of those tracks were demos—it was definitely not premeditated. I think what people responded to about that record was that it was the very opposite of all that commercial stuff. So nobody is going to put pressure on me to get commercial. Also, I’m pretty stubborn. I usually work on stuff without the label messing around. If I need their help, I know who to call who won’t suggest something stupid.
Do you worry about expectations?
No. Either people don’t want to listen to it because they want to hear the old stuff, or they’re excited to hear something new and they don’t want to hear the old stuff. I don’t pay too much attention to that. I learned early on that you can’t pay too much attention to what people are saying or what their impressions of you are. It just makes you crazy. Even if their impressions are good, it doesn’t matter.
How did you learn to handle fame?
I was stressed out for a year and a half straight, but it was also wonderful and there were all these good things. Finding a way to make it fun was the key. I’m lucky enough to do what I love, and it doesn’t make sense to do it if it’s stressing you out. I had to find my balance with it—what I’m willing to do, what I enjoy doing, how I like certain things.
How has the business changed?
I’ve had the luck of selling a lot of records before people stopped selling a lot of records, so I don’t know what it would be like to be a new artist right now. I think it would be hard. There’s a lot of stuff out there, and it’s hard to cut through all of it. So I try to just make music and not think about it too much.
Are you accustomed to being a bandleader?
I’ve gotten a lot better at it. In the beginning it was hard for me. I don’t love rehearsing, so if somebody can’t get something I get impatient. I think I’m pretty good at it now. I know more than I used to. I’m very specific about what I want, so I can’t just let people do their own thing. I have to be there and make sure everything is right. But it’s important to hire people whose playing you love, so that you’re not going to have to change every single thing to make it what you want. It’s going to be interesting this year, because I have a new band and we have to fit the new songs in with the old songs. That’s always exciting, the way things unfold.
Do you tire of “Don’t Know Why”?
I feel like I have to play old songs. I mean it’s nice to play “Don’t Know Why,” because people love it. I don’t get sick of it, especially if I change the arrangement every few years and make it a little different. The song still comes through. The last tour I was doing it solo with just the background vocals, which was nice and intimate.
Do you have a goal in mind?
There’s a ton of stuff, but I’m just rolling along. I’m happy where I am. I don’t have crazy long-term goals, because life is unpredictable and I’m not that organized. I would love to travel a bit less, get into more of a routine where I’d tour every once in a while, but not a whole year straight. It would be nice to have a family, do normal stuff, be home more. I’ve got a house I bought a couple of years ago, and now I miss it. Before that, I traveled so much that I had this apartment that was like a giant dorm room. It’s nice to have a home. M