Norah Jones

Ready for her closeup

Music Features Norah Jones
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On a music-video set just south of downtown Los Angeles, on an industrial strip trafficked by semis and surrounded by railbeds, a bewigged Norah Jones is dancing with a man in a tuxedo. Wait, make that a man in a form-fitting lime-green body stocking with a tuxedo pinned to his chest. In this converted garage behind a Streamline Moderne façade, Jones is working out some on-the-fly choreography to “Sinkin’ Soon,” from her new album Not Too Late.

“Can we try that one more time?” the dancing musician asks director Ace Norton, 24, who chews gum and patrols the set sockless in deck shoes, an untucked flannel shirt with rolled sleeves and dark jeans. “He says, ‘Got it!’” Jones announces to no one in particular, “and I’m like, ‘Wait, no we didn’t! We just learned it!’”

As Jones—resplendent in jet-black pageboy wig, black slacks, white shirt, sequined vest, and heels—fine-tunes her dance steps with Mr. Tuxedo (the puppeteer in the green body stocking disappears in post-production, completing the illusion that Jones is cutting the rug with, literally, an empty suit), boyfriend/musical collaborator Lee Alexander wryly takes in the proceedings, chuckling when she crosses her arms in a devil-horn rock salute after nailing a take.

Later, during a tight close-up, Jones amuses herself and the small on-set audience by flaring her nostrils, wiggling her ears and sticking out her tongue. In contrast to her shy public demeanor while her debut Come Away With Me was on its way to selling 20 million copies and earning five Grammys, Jones acts completely comfortable in the spotlight and in front of the camera. Perhaps it’s the recent practice—prior to the day spent shooting “Sinkin’ Soon,” Jones spent seven weeks acting in feature film My Blueberry Nights with acclaimed director Wong Kar-Wai. Or it could be the four straight years of touring to promote her first two records. Or it could be her recent stints recording and playing stealth gigs with a half-dozen semi-serious ensembles, from bluesy country bar band The Little Willies to the garage rockers El Madmo to Tim Luntzel’s soul-jazz outfit Brooklyn Boogaloo Blowout.

The 2007 model Norah Jones is a more confident and extroverted performer, and—strange as it may sound for someone whose first two records combined to sell more than 30-million copies worldwide—she’s just begun to find her voice as an artist. “[Not Too Late] is definitely my first record as a songwriter … even though I wrote songs on the last few records,” Jones says a couple days later, when we settle in at a suite at West Hollywood’s Sunset Marquis for a wide-ranging chat. “I started writing songs right before my first record came out, and it kind of opened up a whole new world for me. I thought, ‘Wow, I can do this.’ I mean, it’s hard, but when inspiration hits, it’s quick and it feels really good.”

A COMING OUT PARTY

In person, Norah Jones hardly matches her depiction—particularly her depiction early on—as a shrinking violet or melancholy romantic. She’s engaging and energetic, cracking jokes, poking fun at herself and mugging goofily. As she’s introduced to me—in costume—on the video set, she blurts, “Ah! This is not the real me!” Similarly, when she describes the first time she discovered she could play piano with only a lead sheet, she bounces in her seat and gestures broadly with her arms: “Ha ha! Wah hoo! This is awesome, I can just play. Great!”

During one of her appearances with “punk” three-piece El Madmo (fronted by Jones and Daru Oda, a member of Jones’ regular backing ensemble, The Handsome Band), she once sported fishnet stockings, a platinum-blonde wig and raccoon-looking eye makeup. And with The Little Willies she convincingly sings lead on “Lou Reed” (co-written with Alexander and Richard Julian), a song about the dour underground-rock godfather going cowtipping.

So what of the poised young woman in an elegant dress, emoting earnestly at the Steinway grand? “I think it comes from just being a jazz singer all the time, getting used to singing about love, being soft and quiet. But I mean, even then [circa Come Away With Me], I wasn’t like that,” she observes. “I’ve never been romantic and melancholy. My whole life I’ve never been like that, so it’s kind of funny.”

Consequently, with Not Too Late—on which she wrote or co-wrote every song—Jones strays considerably from first-person romantic voice. There’s an undercurrent of political unease and worldly dissatisfaction, beginning with lead track “Wish I Could”—four minutes of quiet minimalism (backed only by guitar and cello) that alludes to a soldier’s life: “She says ‘love in the time of war is not fair / he was my man but they didn’t care / sent him far away from here / no goodbye.’”

The album’s boldest statement is “My Dear Country,” an otherworldly waltz that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Kurt Weill musical or on a Tom Waits record.

T’was Halloween and the ghosts were out
And everywhere they’d go they shout
And though I covered my eyes I knew
They’d go away
But fear’s the only thing I saw
And three days later was clear to all
That nothing is as scary as Election Day

“That one just sort of came right out one day,” recounts Jones, who says the song was an attempt to make sense of things. “I’ve always been the kind of person who tries to see both sides.… I don’t know why, but I’ll be like, ‘Oh well, he was mean to me, but I understand. Maybe I said something wrong.’ Definitely in that song I’ve tried to understand both sides, but it’s hard to sometimes.”

THE NEXT STAGE

Not Too Late contains few musical departures, with arrangements generally hewing to the low-key, jazz- and country-tinged sounds listeners have come to expect. But, clearly, those who buy Norah Jones records as tasteful dinner-party soundtracks ought not listen too closely. Don’t get her wrong—Jones isn’t trying to disown her earliest artistic choices. She steadfastly refuses to play “what if” games. “Though,” she says, “I still feel like—‘my God, my first record is my high-school picture that everyone in the frickin’ world saw that I wish they hadn’t.’”

With the maturity that’s become her trademark, Jones sees her first public musical steps as an essential rite of passage. Many songwriters, she notes, begin with simple romantic sentiments—“‘I love you, you love me, let’s rhyme a song, come away with me.’ And there’s something to be said for songs like that.” Certainly, the record-buying public agrees.

At the same time, Jones considers it important to move away from being an interpreter of other people’s songs and sentiments. “This record is different. I worked really hard on these songs and I feel like they came from a place—a different place. … I did try to get into different ways of looking at things, I tried to write about things that weren’t necessarily just my experiences. I let a lot of outside things influence my writing this time.”

Though Jones is referring to subject matter, she easily could have been talking about her copious, aforementioned side projects. While The Little Willies are her highest-profile diversion (with an EMI-distributed album), she’s involved in a seemingly endless parade of one-off projects and recurring collaborations; the country-tinged Sloppy Joannes (fronted by pal Sasha Dobson) even held down a weekly pool-hall gig at one point.

“She does as many gigs in small clubs as anyone else I know in New York,” says frequent collaborator Jesse Harris. “She just wants to play music and be creative.”

“It can’t even be stressed enough how much [El Madmo] opened her up as a songwriter,” notes Little Willies bandmate Richard Julian. “Because she started writing those tunes, which are really hilarious and really silly. And because there was no [expectation] for them to be the next tunes for her record. She could just let herself go and I think it opened up creative juices for her own thing.”

Jones agrees. “Daru and I started writing for that band—the idea had been there for maybe four years as a joke,” she says. “But we didn’t really start writing songs for it until the last tour, because she started playing bass and I started playing guitar, and I brought my electric guitar along on the road because it’s fun … So we started writing these songs and it definitely opened me up to just writing—it kind of opened the floodgates. … Without El Madmo, maybe this [new] record would be different.”

El Madmo’s songs weren’t the only ones written on the road, either. “I had written about 10 songs by the end of the tour,” says Jones, “and I thought, ‘Wow! Yay, I have 10 songs! Go figure; who’d-a thunk it?’ So we went in and said, ‘Let’s document these while they’re fresh.’” The resulting sessions formed the backbone of Not Too Late.

The Sloppy Joannes had an effect, too. “I credit that band with helping me play more guitar,” Jones says. “I did guitar solos, which is terrifying. It’s so painful to watch because I’m a one-string solo kind of girl, like ‘Oooohhh, where’s she going to go? Where’s she going to land?’”

The time in front of audiences large and small turned Jones into the more at-ease performer she is today. “When I was young I wanted to be a musician,” she says. “In college I wanted to be a musician. I moved to New York to be a musician. When my first record came out, I was totally unprepared for what happened, but the main thing that was so crazy was that I had to perform all of a sudden for people, not just play. ‘Performing’ is a whole different thing. With performing you have to look and smile at the audience every once in a while and say, ‘Thank you for coming and blah-biddy-bloo and here’s a joke for you.’”

‘HOPING FOR SOME KIND OF SIGN’

Jones was born in New York (as Geethali Norah Jones Shankar, a name she’s since officially shortened), but she’s a Texan through and through. The laidback Lone Star attitude comes out after just a few minutes in her presence, when you start shooting the breeze and forgetting about how many records she’s sold and how many people around the world recognize her. (Alexander wrote “Lonestar” for her in tribute to this inescapable fact.)

The thread that runs through Jones’ recent history, from Texas to New York, is her extraordinary luck. In fact, Julian jokes that—perhaps even more than hitting it big with her first major-label outing—her biggest coup was landing an affordable, well-located Manhattan apartment upon arrival.

In fact, the seeds for her arrival in Gotham were sewn before she’d even left Texas. Julian and Jesse Harris (who’d later pen Jones’ biggest hit to date, “Don’t Know Why”) were road-tripping across the country in 1998 when they hooked up with some jazz-musician friends conducting a clinic at the University of North Texas in Denton, where Jones, then 18, was a student. She was tapped to provide transportation and play tour guide because of her car—an ancient, hulking Cadillac.

She ended the day jamming on a golf course with many of the musicians who’d eventually form her New York circle of friends and collaborators. “Somebody said, ‘Hey, why don’t you sing something?’” Julian recounts. “There were a lot of guitar players there that know all the standards. They’re all jazz musicians, so she sang ‘Come Rain and Come Shine’ or something like that, and it just sounded really good.” Julian and Harris were so intrigued by the young pianist that they called their friends, still in Texas, to find out how Jones’ subsequent restaurant gig went. The verdict? “Thumbs up.”

The chance meeting had two effects, one retrospectively humorous: “My mom was horrified when I told her about it,” Jones says, giggling. “I was so excited, [saying] ‘Mom, I met all these New York musicians and they were so cool. We went to this golf course and jammed under the stars.’ And she said, ‘OK, Norah, how many guys? Hmm… Five guys in their late 20s, early 30s on the golf course at night… .’”

But just a few weeks later, one of those guys, Harris, sent Jones the lead sheet for a song he’d written, “One Flight Down,” and a partnership was born. “A year later, Kenny [Wolleson], Tony [Scherr] and I went back to Denton and did a gig,” says Harris. “Kenny bought the car from her, and we drove it back to New York City. And then she moved up to New York a few months later.”

THE MAN IN THE BACKGROUND

The move to New York (originally intended for just a summer) brought about another string of serendipitous events. On Jones’ first night in town, she went to 55 Bar (a tiny, below-street-level West Village joint usually packed with young jazzers) and met guitarist Adam Levy, who’s now in her backing band. Then, as Lee Alexander recalls, “she was waiting tables at the Washington Square Hotel, doing brunch, and they also gave her a gig on Sunday afternoon. So she needed a bass player, and she’d already hired Adam [so she asked him] for some recommendations, and my name happened to be alphabetically first.”

Alexander also was the only bassist who bothered calling back, a detail Jones fills in. “I thought he was cute,” she says, chuckling, “but I [also] thought he was really good, and he seemed to enjoy it. So I kept hiring him because he was a great bass player and reliable and I already knew how to play with him.”

Though Alexander is, in some ways, the consummate background-loving bassist, it would be remiss to ignore his role in Jones’ music. Like David Rawlings to Gillian Welch, or Kathleen Brennan to Tom Waits, he’s an indispensable part of the team, particularly after having taken over production chores from Arif Mardin (who passed away in June 2006.)

“We did a bunch of trio gigs: private parties she’d get through the restaurant,” Alexander says of his early days with Jones. “People would be in there eating brunch and hear her sing and say, ‘Oh, can you play my wedding party’ or whatever. So we did that as a trio for a while, just playing standards.”

It was a continuation of Jones’ musical life in Texas, where she often played restaurant background music people only half-listen to, at best. “That’s where I learned to play and sing at the same time,” Jones notes. “The best way to do it is to get it at a gig where no one’s listening and just do it.”

In New York, though, the gigs were longer and didn’t pay as well. One theater-district shift, beginning at 5 p.m., was a trial. “We played that for a long time together,” Jones says, chuckling. “After the gig one night, [Lee] said, ‘Listen, I love you. I love playing with you, but I will never play this place again, with you or with anyone else.’”

But by this point, Jones and Alexander had discovered the Living Room singer/songwriter scene, and both wrote their first songs during this period, including “Thinking About You” and “Little Room,” while Jones began shedding restaurant gigs to play venues like Makor and 55 Bar. Eventually, owing to her friendship with Jesse Harris and his needing recorded demos for his Sony Music publishing deal, she recorded the tunes from the Harris songbook that would end up on Come Away With Me. (Jones’ Blue Note deal came about through these demos and her club performances.)

From the beginning, Alexander has assumed the role of “studio geek”; he’s the one team member who sweats every musical detail. “[Norah is] the kind of person that when she writes, she just kind of spits it out and doesn’t like tweaking it too much,” he says. “She gets bored with it really easily. She doesn’t want to obsess over it—and I’m the exact opposite.”

Still, while Alexander enjoys his creative role in Jones’ band, he shuns the spotlight. During the video shoot, when there aren’t enough green-bodysuit puppeteers to animate a bass player, I tell Alexander he should put on a costume and get out there, since he’d be invisible in the finished product. “That’d be perfect for me,” he laughs.

‘WHERE THINGS ARE HOLLOW’

Though it was more than four years ago, Jones and her friends still marvel at her meteoric rise to fame with Come Away With Me. No one had any inkling of the magnitude of what was about to happen, but Jim Campilongo—a friend of Alexander’s from San Francisco (and now a guitarist in The Little Willies)—had a feeling. “I remember playing ‘Don’t Know Why’ for a friend on the phone,” he says. “I said, ‘You know, I think this song’s a real big hit.’”

The turning point came just after the Grammys, when Jones and Alexander were still living in a walkup apartment in an area of Bushwick, Brooklyn, that real-estate agents hopefully call “Williamsburg.” Campilongo shared the apartment, but, since the pair were away so often, he was more of a housesitter than a roommate.

With Jones and Alexander holed up in a W hotel in Manhattan, the New York Post ran a front page picture of their apartment (and published the address in the accompanying article), extending their hotel stay and suddenly making Campilongo’s life a lot more interesting. “It was insane,” he says. “It was kind of like being in Beatlemania or something, and I kind of enjoyed it. I was a little annoyed because at night, guys were screaming for Norah and I was there by myself.”

Campilongo enjoyed a few days of pulling the legs of reporters and curious bystanders (telling them of the apartment’s fictitious palatial appointments and gargantuan size) and putting up signs advertising the websites of his musician friends before life on the street below returned to normal.

Things may not have returned to normal for Jones, but, as much as possible, she prefers to treat things as she always did. She has the same friends, works with the same musicians and still plays the same clubs when she’s home. Perhaps most importantly, she has three close friends, Alexander, Harris and Julian, who can honestly tell her when she’s missing the mark—a rare commodity among commercially successful artists.

“When you’re dealt fame it’s like a card,” Julian says. “I didn’t know how she would play it. I mean, nobody knew. But she just basically didn’t play it.”

Jones says it’s hard to imagine things any other way. “I think the reason I went that way is … my mom was always saying, ‘Oh God, that celebrity crap.’ You know, she never thought much of it. She just thought it was silly, and I think that was definitely ingrained in my brain. And it is silly—especially now.”

Still, her new public profile has brought more opportunities, such as My Blueberry Nights, which she chose partially out of a desire to “do something different” after a long tour, and also because she trusted filmmaker Kar-Wai creatively.

“I love movies, I love films and I love pretending,” she says with a knowing chuckle. “Obviously, I love wearing wigs and stuff. So I was actually kind of bummed that they didn’t cut my hair or make me look different because [in the film] I look like Norah Jones circa Come Away With Me.”

The novice actress was understandably “freaked out” prior to the My Blueberry Nights shoot, especially when she learned the cast would include Jude Law, David Strathairn, Tim Roth and Natalie Portman. But the experience was a good one. “Everybody was so sweet to me. I think the crew on that movie, they all saw me as their little sister they wanted to protect, because the first day I showed up on the set I didn’t know anybody and didn’t know anything about what I was doing.”

THE SECRET

Norah Jones  is still a couple years shy of her 30th birthday, but she’s already discovered a secret known to music-industry veterans with many more years and hard lessons under their belts.

EMI (Blue Note’s parent company) may have a conniption at the thought, but Jones’ focus is on something besides record sales. As Julian puts it, “I don’t even think that really matters at this point. It’s just cool that she’s been able to keep her nose and ears to the ground and know what she wants creatively and be able to do it and not feel pressured to be a puppet or live up to anyone’s expectations of who they think she should be.”

And though it’s at the core of her new record, Jones isn’t even placing songwriting on a pedestal. “If these were the only songs I ever write my whole life, and I have writer’s block for the rest of my life, then I still have Sloppy Joanne and Little Willies and Jesse Harris and Lee Alexander and Richard Julian songs to sing,” she notes.

“This is what I love and I’m lucky that I get to do what I love and make a living,” Jones continues. “Not many people get that. I love it. And when I’m off [tour] … I always play music, and I always will. My career could go down the toilet and I would still have a very satisfying musical life.”

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