The multi-platinum-selling, nine-time Grammy-winning, undisputed Queen of Musical Collaborations Norah Jones would like to make one thing perfectly clear before she descends into any murky discussion of her decidedly dark-textured new breakup album, Little Broken Hearts (co-penned and produced by her latest studio chum, Brian Burton, AKA Danger Mouse). She is not now, nor ever has been, some hip bohemian scenester, arriving at every last opening in her native New York on the arm of Current Celebrity X, Y or Z. In fact, she sighs, soaring to stardom’s dizziest heights has had quite the opposite effect on her, personally.
“I actually have a lot of really incredible friends who I do trust,” admits the smoky crooner, still only 33. “But definitely, in the last few years, I’m all about being home more and reconnecting with people. So I’m definitely a homebody—I love to stay home, and even though I’ve got a great group of friends, more and more I just wanna hang with my dog [a getting-on-in-years poodle named Ralph] and my man [“It’s none of your business who he is, but I’m totally happy and really, really in love, and we’ve been together about a year,” is all she’ll share about said beau] and watch Iron Chef on TV.” She pauses. “Unless the ingredient is lentils—that episode wasn’t very good. But to me, that’s very exciting—I watch a lot of cooking shows.”
Ever since her career took off with her hit 2002 debut for Blue Note, Come Away With Me (which has moved nearly 11 million copies in the U.S. alone), this diminutive daughter of Ravi Shankar was always amazed at how easily she could stroll out of her own packed venues, post-concert and around the world, and go completely unnoticed. She’d simply throw on a baseball cap, pull the brim down a little, and somehow become part of the crowd. Now, sporting a chic new shag hairstyle and some rather refined fashions, things have gotten easier. “I don’t even need a baseball cap anymore,” she confesses. “I guess I just have one of those faces where I kind of blend.” Pause. “Yeah, that’s it—I can blend well.”
And the way Jones describes her existence—in a calm, offhanded manner every bit as endearing as her deceptively casual approach to singing—makes it all sound so….well, normal, humdrum, almost inconsequential. As if she were some clock-punching drone in Fritz Lang’s German-Expressionist masterpiece Metropolis, just waiting for each day’s exhausting shift to end so she can return home and feel human for a few hours again. “I’m not complaining, I have a good life,” she offers as a pre-Broken Hearts caveat. “And I’ve gone through some stuff. But then again, everybody goes through stuff.”
But only a select few—Jones readily cedes—have the ability to turn suffering into great art. And as the story goes, Jones acrimoniously split from her longtime boyfriend Lee Alexander at the end of 2007, leading to bluesy breakup-hinting yarns like “Stuck,” “You’ve Ruined Me,” and “Back To Manhattan,” from her fourth 2009 set The Fall. (Later, Cupid’s arrow would get wrenched from her heart again with a second separation, from a fiction writer she still refuses to name.) At the time, she observed that the romance had been great while it lasted. “But I guess life changes,” she said back then. And so had her musical outlook, she added. “Now I’m inspired to try something new. I’m not really sure what it’s going to be yet, but I’ve got a couple of ideas kicking around. So right now, I’m excited to try different production kinds of things and work with some people that are just….just in a different world, maybe? And see if we can come together.”
Enter Danger Mouse. In 2008, Burton had contacted Jones with an odd invite—would she like to provide the female counterpoint vocal to Jack White’s on “Rome,” the tribute to classic Italian film composers he was undertaking with Daniele Luppi? She immediately agreed, and wound up tracking three Rota/Morricone-cool cuts—“Black,” “Problem Queen” and “Season’s Trees.”
“I just got a call that Brian wanted to talk to me for this project he was doing with Jack White,” Jones remembers. “And I was happy to talk to him about it, because I knew enough about Brian already to know that I would do anything for the opportunity to work with him. So he played me all the songs that they had already recorded over in Rome, and the concept was really interesting. And I thought ‘Wow! This is another side of him that I never knew!’ I didn’t realize what a great songwriter he was, so that was a nice thing to learn.”
The admiration was decidedly mutual. Burton went on record afterwards, describing how he had Jones’ voice in mind while writing Rome, and that she was the first person he phoned when casting the album’s parts. And something definitely clicked. The duo definitely wanted to work together again someday.
Call it kismet. Burton wanted to take his protégée out of her comfort zone, into darker, spookier turf. And Jones was seething with post-breakup animosity and vitriol. So they tested the water with a brief session at Burton’s L.A. studio, where they came up with five songs, literally from scratch, three of which would eventually make it on to Little Broken Hearts—;a subtly-orchestrated “Travelin’ On,” a haunted, gargling-bass album closer called “All A Dream,” and the faintly Far-Eastern-filigreed processional “After The Fall,” in which Jones defiantly trills “Out on my own now, and I like the way it feels.”
But touring schedules would continue to keep the two apart for some time to come; Jones hit the road to back The Fall, and Burton busied himself with yet another successful side project, Broken Bells (with James Mercer of The Shins), plus various other studio commitments. When they finally reconvened at the Danger Mouse digs in 2011, they again went in cold, with no pre-penned tracks or preconceived notions. Except that Burton would co-write every track, and also produce. “And it was great because we had that first five-song session,” Jones reflects. “If we hadn’t had that, it would’ve been a little hard to commit to two months with each other.”
They put the finishing touches on the three earlier numbers they’d selected, then set to work in earnest under a banner of Anything Goes. “It was fun,” Jones says. “Brian and I have become friends over the years, and we knew we worked together really well. So it was actually really exciting to push myself into places that were scary. And everything I’ve done—even if it seems weird or different from what you’d expect—has always been fun and pretty comfortable for me. So this wasn’t really that scary.” She also believes that she’s never made the same record twice. “I feel like I’ve branched out, here and there, on every record—a little more here, a little less there. So it’s been kind of a natural evolution for me to do something like this.”
At first, it felt like unfamiliar ground—Jones was in Burton’s studio, working with his engineer, pretty much encapsulated in his hi-tech world. “But that’s part of what I was excited for,” she recalls. “To just record in the way that he does, and get the sounds that only he can get. Because I’m used to playing very acoustically—I’m not a knob-turner or a gearhead, and I really don’t have the patience for that kind of stuff. So it was great to be in a place where all these creative things happened musically, through the sounds we got. And that’s just the place where I was excited to be, you know?”
The results? A remarkable step forward, stylistically, for the customarily restrained singer. It opens with the cello-underscored strummer “Good Morning,” whose gentle, twinkling synth effects from Burton belie gut-wrenching lyrics like “Why did you do it?/ I couldn’t sleep—I knew you were gone” and “More loving was all I was after, but you couldn’t give it so I’m moving on.” Not really a very good morning at all, now is it? “Yeah,” Jones agrees with a wry chortle. “but at least it lets you know what you’re in for with the rest of the album!”
Track Two—“Say Goodbye”—continues the somber theme, even though the almost hip-hop rhythm and quasi-Bollywood melody line create a conversely chipper backdrop for the chorus of “Well it ain’t easy to stay in love if you can’t tell lies/ So I’ll just have to take a bow and say goodbye.” Jones is credited with vocals, piano, Wurlitzer, electric guitar and bass on the number, and Burton with synthesizer, electric guitar and drums, On other songs, they’re augmented by guitarist Blake Mills, drummer Joey Waronker, Gus Seyffert on bass, with strings courtesy of the Sonus Quartet.
Mills’ six-string howls mournfully on “She’s 22,” while Jones’ tinny-affected voice drifts lazily over some barbed, left-me-for-a-younger-woman sniping (“She’s 22 and she’s lovin’ you, and you’ll never know how it makes me blue”), and the claws really come out on a whispery toe-tapper called “Miriam,” which puts a face—possibly an actual name—to infidelity. “Miriam, when you were havin’ fun in my big pretty house did you think twice?” she wonders, rhetorically, before chiseling an epitaph of sorts: “You know you done me wrong/ I’m gonna smile when I take your life.”
Is Miriam the early-20-something woman who stole Jones’ man? “No!” she barks. “And I didn’t kill her, either! But it’s high drama, you know? And it makes for a better song, for sure. I mean, it’s not a diary. But it sure is fun to write about, stuff like that. To be creative and take personal things and turn them into a story. A story that does have a lot of personal things in it, but that isn’t necessarily your own life story. So don’t take it that literally. Or people can take it how they want, actually, but it may not be the truth.”
The way …Little Broken Hearts presents it, there was guilt haunting both sides of this ill-fated romance, and in the Gothic blues dirge “4 Broken Hearts,” Jones freely admits “We tried to be faithful but didn’t get far…So you tried to replace me, but you didn’t get far/ And I tried to repay you, but I only got scarred.” What exactly went wrong? Jones coughs, uncomfortably. “Well, it’s a little too complicated to discuss in an interview,” she decides. “But obviously, you go through stuff in life, and it’s fun to have an outlet to write about it. Whether you make films or write books or whatever, it’s great to have an outlet like this to funnel things through. But I dunno. Normally, I feel like when I’m happy, it’s hard to sit down and write songs—I just want to skip down the street instead. So going through shit in life is not always pleasant. But it’s kind of nice to know you can be creative and get something out of it in the end.”
Throughout the writing/recording process, Jones and Burton had talks, regular philosophical discussions on the nature of love, fidelity, relationships in general. And they learned a lot from each other, she swears. “He’s got a very different perspective than I do, but he’s also not that different from me in a lot of ways. He’s a human, with a brain and a beating heart, and we all go through these [breakup] things. And it’s jut kind of crazy how everybody goes through it, and if you haven’t, you probably will. And if you have, then hopefully you won’t again. But you probably will.” She stops to consider the gravity of it all. “I dunno. I dunno. I’m not cynical, though, not at all. I believe in love and I believe in happiness and all that stuff. Especially after examining it from all angles, and seeing how it can be so messed up.”
The conclusion the team arrived at, ultimately, is disarmingly simple. It’s all about chemistry, the kind that facilitates laughter, mutual happiness, and relatively few arguments. “It’s just nice to find somebody who you….well, who you get along with and have a good time with,” Jones reckons. And she thinks she’s finally found that perfect person.
In truth, it’s hard to imagine anyone not getting along with this affable, low-key artist. Which could account for all the collaborations she’s been invited to do over the years—so many they had to be anthologized on last year’s …Featuring Norah Jones (which included duets with stars like Outkast, Dolly Parton, Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Herbie Hancock, plus her alt-country side combo The Little Willies). “I didn’t mean to collaborate so much,” she says. “But when you put it all in one list, it looks like I really get around.”
The lady’s take on her classy cohorts: Charlie Hunter (“He had me sing on his record before my first record came out, so that was probably the first thing I got to do”); Q-Tip (“When you think about it, it’s not that weird, because we both love jazz”); Keith Richards (“It was pretty crazy—we did ‘Love Hurts’ at this Gram Parsons tribute show”; Elmo from Sesame Street (“Ah, the magic of puppetry—I’d love to make an entire record with Elmo!”; and Dave Grohl from The Foo Fighters (“That might’ve been the weirdest call, or the call I never thought I’d get, but he has a really good energy”).
And those requests keep coming in. Tony Bennett just invited Jones to warble “Speak Low” with him on his Duets II disc. “Which was great, except I had the flu that day, so I was trying to play it cool the whole time and not cough all over Tony Bennett,” she recollects. Saturday Night Live comedian Andy Samberg’s campy The Lonely Island had her sing “Dreamgirl” on their Incredibad debut. “But the first time the microphone didn’t record, so they had me come in and sing the song twice,” she says. “But it was fun, because those Lonely Island guys are so nice.”
Jones’ latest studio hookup? Believe it or not, Family Guy mastermind Seth MacFarlane’s heartfelt big-band debut Music Is Better Than Words, wherein they duet on the vintage chestnut “Two Sleepy People.” “I just got this random request that he was making an album of standards, and I liked his show and I could kind of tell that he really loved that music,” Jones says. “And it seemed like he was going about it in a really cool way. So I said ‘yes,’ and we became friends. And he’s a really interesting person who just loves music and is actually a great singer. But obviously, he can work with his voice, because that’s what he does for a living.”
During Family Guy taping season, however, MacFarlane will go to any length to protect his voice, since a simple bout with the flu could destroy his Peter Griffin character for that particular week. Has Jones developed any similar way to protect her own precious vocal cords? “I haven’t, but I probably should,” she responds. “But I try not to do obviously silly things, like go to a loud bar and scream all night, or hang around people with colds. But I don’t really take any crazy precautions just yet.”
This Brooklyn-born anti-diva seems to make a great impression wherever she goes. Her cohorts in The Little Willies—Jim Campilongo and Richard Julian—always jump at the chance to record with her again, even if it took six hectic-schedule years to release their sophomore For The Good Times set this January. She finally met her sitar-wielding half-sister Anoushka Shankar 14 years ago, and they instantly bonded. “I love her to death,” Shankar purrs of her once-estranged relative. “And we’ve already recorded together—she does a guest appearance on my record Breathing Under Water, on a song called ‘Easy.’” The siblings—who’ve bonded even further over Zubin, Shankar’s new son with her husband, British film director Joe Wright—also share the same lotus-flower tattoo across their lower backs.
Canadian chanteuse Kathleen Edwards met Jones in her nascent Come Away With Me era, and liked her immediately. Aware that …Little Broken Hearts was coming out, Edwards—via her producer boyfriend, Justin Vernon from Bon Iver—invited her old pal to sing on her own mournful divorce-centered album Voyageur, on the aptly-dubbed cut “For The Record.” “And she was really gracious about it and said yes,” Edwards recalls, still stunned. “But we never actually got together this time—we just sent her the files.”
Is there something in the air? “Yeah—it’s called spring,” cackles Edwards, who has a few theories on what Jones has been through, even though they haven’t discussed them. “Sometimes I think women are more likely to have albums categorized as ‘breakup records,’ because it’s really easy on records to talk about relationships as being fanatically significant. I mean, human relationships are the biggest thing that we spend the most emotional energy on, so of course they’re going to affect art. So I’m sure Norah and I are talking about the same things on our albums—about change and looking yourself in the mirror and wondering why things feel out of place.”
The toughest part about all this Broken Hearts catharsis? Sequencing it correctly, Jones says. One friend insisted that the album kick off with the peppy “Happy Pills,” “but it made it a completely different record.” One solid number titled “I Don’t Wanna Hear Another Sound” didn’t make the final cut, she adds, “because it was just another twist on the same theme, and it wasn’t necessary to tell the story. Plus, it was important to keep the length of the record down as much as possible.”
What has this Grammy-winning homebody learned from the entire experience? Again, she pauses, weighing her words carefully. “I dunno—a lot, but it’s hard to put into words, I guess,” she concludes. “But I certainly have it pretty good. I’m lucky to do what I love, and enjoy my success without being too present in it. And also enjoy some amon…amonimity?” She guffaws good-naturedly at her own grammatical error. “I mean, anonymity! I can never say that word! But I think you know what I mean….”
Yes. We most assuredly do.