Billie Joe Armstrong, Norah Jones & the Darkest Corners of Country

Music Features Billie Joe Armstrong

When it comes to their respective musical genres, Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones are truly the king and queen of all they survey. But—unlike Alexander, who wept when he studied his vast realm, simply because he had no more worlds to conquer—they just keep right on finding new, uncharted territory to claim. Mostly apart. But now—in one of the most unexpected team-ups of this or any other recent year—together as a single, decidedly retro-minded unit.

Believe it or not, in a hush-hush New York session lasting a total of nine days, the duo re-cut one of rock’s greatest, and most unusual albums—the Everly Brothers’ second, little-known collection of dark-themed traditionals from 1958, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us—track by intricate-harmony track. It’s titled Foreverly. It’s a bold creative leap forward for both parties. And it rings like an ominous cathedral bell.

Armstrong—that irrepressible, tousle-topped punk miscreant who for nearly 25 years has anchored the Grammy-winning punk powerhouse Green Day—has soared higher than Icarus, with barely any perceptible feather loss (save for his controversial onstage meltdown last year at Las Vegas’ iHeartRadio Music Festival, and subsequent treatment for alcohol and prescription-drug abuse, which he openly addressed in a mea culpa Rolling Stone cover story; “Things have a funny way of working themselves out,” he sighs of his current hard-won sobriety). And his list of accomplishments is truly staggering. From the bratty 1994 breakthrough Dookie (with an excrement-colored CD tray, to boot), he ushered his group to the 15-million-selling 2004 watershed American Idiot, a carefully-scripted rock opera which spawned a Tony-winning Broadway musical of the same name, whose cast he eventually joined for a few shows.

At 41, Armstrong runs his personal Adeline imprint with his wife, Adrienne; has Billie Joe Armstrong custom models of Gibson guitars, plus an entire line of Green Day Converse All-Stars; and has watched his son Joey grow into a teenager and form his own punk combo, Emily’s Army. He just completed his first starring role in a motion picture, opposite Leighton Meester in Frank Whaley’s upcoming drama Like Sunday, Like Rain (“I play a total loser, this dirtbag boyfriend,” he says, chuckling), and he’s hard at work penning material for Roland Jones’ new Yale mashup of Much Ado About Nothing and the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. “I’m sort of writing these really…well, I wouldn’t say ‘Beatle-esque’ songs—I’m pretty much re-writing Beatles songs, and it’s coming out really cool,” he reports, “I think it’s probably going to go into production in February or March.”

Singer/keyboardist Jones, on the other hand, has racked up an impressive nine Grammys for her jazzy brand of folk-blues, with a 2002 debut, Come Away With Me, that sold a staggering 26 million units. She also has acted, in films like Wong Kar-wai’s My Blueberry Nights and, just last year, in Seth MacFarlane’s zany stuffed-animal comedy Ted; she even trilled its Oscar-nominated theme song, “Everybody Needs A Best Friend” (which she co-wrote with the director) at the Academy Awards. She seems to spend every waking moment collaborating with other artists (including Tony Bennett, Herbie Hancock, Ray Charles, even The Foo Fighters), to the point where her label BlueNote issued a …Featuring Norah Jones anthology. She also so enjoys doing renditions of rock/folk/country classics like “Sleepless Nights,” “Cry Cry Cry,” and “My Blue Heaven” that again, her imprint was forced to issue a Target-only collection of them last year, aptly called Covers. She just wrapped duets with Willie Nelson (“Walkin’”), Robert Glasper (“Let It Ride”), Jim Campilongo (Ray Charles’ “Here I Am”) and three cuts on her sister Anoushka Shankar’s new album, Traces of You.

Additionally, this 34-year-old daughter of late sitar legend Ravi Shankar juggles an ever-shifting roster of side projects, like her country-edged combo with Campilongo and Richard Julian, The Little Willies, or her second spinoff project with Julian, El Madmo. Right now, she’s nearly finished recording her debut disc with an all-girl outfit called Puss n Boots (with Sasha Dobson and Catherine Popper; they often play secret club gigs as Fangbanger). “They write some great songs,” she says of her bandmates. “But we do a lot of covers, too. A lot of old country stuff, but we also do Neil Young and that song “Twilight” by The Band. But then we also do a Wilco song and other random stuff. But the group is country flavored, though, and it’s got a real spirit, that’s for sure.”

Bearing all these facts in mind, Foreverly feels much more logical, less unexpected. But Jones has a work-ethic-related theory that encapsulates the album in a philosophical nutshell. Over the past few days, she says, she and her new friend have been doing their fair share of radio interviews together. And she watched folks repeatedly ask him variations on one Alexander-weeping-ish question in particular—had he scaled so many tall peaks with Green Day that that it was becoming difficult to chart any clear course forward? “So it was interesting to see what kind of impression people have of him and me,” she notes. “But I get the feeling that Billie Joe does things the way I do things—he just wanted to (Foreverly) because he liked it, not because of something like ‘I must do this now!’ I don’t think people always think about stuff as analytically or as involved as it seems from the outside. So this is not like a calculated move—the first impression I got when I talked to him was ‘I really love this album [Songs Our Daddy Taught Us], and I want to try and sing it. And I want to sing it with somebody else!’”

Ergo, Jones continues, many successful musicians come to an aesthetic impasse. “They get in their little bubble, and they don’t realize that they can still play around and have fun with music. And it doesn’t have to be a big frickin’ deal, you know? And that’s the approach that I’ve taken for the last 10 years—or that I’ve tried to take. And it’s worked out well, because I can do what I want and experiment, and really find different things that I probably would never have found if I was always concentrating on my ‘next move,’ or how I was going to be successful on my next album. You know, calculating what the next big hit should be and trying to second-guess myself. I think that would drive me crazy. And it would be easy for someone who’s successful to get into that rut—it’s definitely just the way the machine works.

“But it’s nice when you can stretch out and go ‘I’m going to try this today, and maybe it’ll suck. And if it sucks, we won’t put it out. But you know what? Maybe it’ll be great. And if it’s great, maybe somebody else will enjoy it. Or maybe they won’t. But I enjoyed doing it. Done!’ That’s a nice way to go about things. When you can.”

Armstrong agrees. He never once found himself wondering “Where do I go from here?” he swears. Even after Green Day issued three albums’ worth of material at nearly the same time. “I try to keep things a lot more simple than that,” he says. “For me, honestly, I just got into this Everlys record, and I discovered it a couple of years ago.” He stumbled across a vinyl copy while flipping through a record store bin, he adds, and he was first taken aback by the photograph of the two fresh-faced, pompadour-haired teens smiling from the cover, then by the listing of songs on the back. The minimally-arranged set opens with the traditional “Roving Gambler,” segues into a funereal “Down in the Willow Garden,” and keeps getting more and more somber as the siblings’ heavenly voices waft across almost Appalachian-murder-ballad territory in “Kentucky,” “Lightning Express,” “Who’s Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet,” and “I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail.” Even the more uptempo numbers, like the Gene Autry-popularized “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine,” have a grim, funereal pall. Their father, Ike Everly—who ran a radio show, where his sons first began singing—must have been one dead-serious fellow, indeed. And Songs was an incredibly bold career turn for two brothers who had already broken through with a definitive rockabilly-edged pop sound. Naturally, Armstrong fell in love with the platter, and then fell into a habit of listening to it, studying it, almost every morning.

One song in particular stood out: the eternal-fealty-swearing “Oh So Many Years.” Two boys singing it was one thing. But what if it was done as a boy/girl duet? Wouldn’t that add a whole new deeper meaning to lines like “Oh, these many years I’ve loved you no one has ever known / No one has ever known but you alone / I’ve kept it locked inside my heart and smiled through my all tears / My darling, I have loved you oh, so many years”? “That was the one that made me think it would be cool to remake it,” explains Armstrong, who only told his wife and one other acquaintance about his left-field concept. “And you know when those things happen, where you get an idea about stuff and then you verbalize it, and then suddenly it starts to becomes real? Adrienne mentioned Norah, and I thought ‘Well, yeah, of course—I think she’s great! And she’s got such a background for country and Americana’.” So—in music-biz lingo—he had his people get in touch with her people, and the project jolted into second gear.

For her part, the New York-based Jones was so busy touring when she first heard Armstrong wanted to talk to her, she put it on the back burner. Two weeks after she returned home, and was sufficiently relaxed, she pored over Armstrong’s email, explaining what he envisioned. She wanted to thoroughly understand what she was agreeing to before she signed on. “So I was a little cautious at first,” she recalls. “I knew he wanted to re-make this whole album, and you know, making a whole album with somebody is different than just collaborating on a few songs or guesting on someone’s record. This was definitely a different ballgame than what I usually do, because we’d never worked together before—it’s not like we were already in a band and then decided to make this album.”

But one phone call was all it took for the overly enthusiastic rocker to win over the soft-spoken Jones. “He was just a super-nice guy, he’s very open, and he just seemed to really love the music,” she says, fondly. “He didn’t want to do this out of anything but love and respect for this album. And he didn’t want to put any pressure on it—it wasn’t about a product, it was more about ‘I think your voice would sound great on this stuff. Would you want to sing a bunch of duets with me?’ And I don’t think he had any specific direction in mind, so I said ‘Well, lets just go in and try it for a few days then.’ And he very graciously offered to come to New York.” She sighs. “I just did not want to travel—that was my whole thing.”

The performers didn’t inform their respective record companies. They didn’t tell a soul outside of their skeleton-crewed sessions at the studio of Jones’ choosing, the Magic Shop in Manhattan. Armstrong brought his engineer Chris Dugan along; Jones supplied the musicians—bassist Tim Luntzel, drummer Dan Reiser, plus Charlie Burnham on fiddle and harmonica and Johnny Lam on pedal steel. “And I didn’t know this album, but I knew a couple of songs from it,” Jones admits. “I’ve listened to them my whole life. I knew “Down in the Willow Garden” and a couple of the more well-known ones, because they’re songs that have been done a lot by other people. So I thought ‘We’re not just going to try and copy them—we’re not going to out-Everly the Everly Brothers, that’s for sure. So let’s maybe play with the arrangements a little, try to at least make it our own as much as we can.’ I asked Billie Joe if he was open to that, and he was stoked to try anything. So we went in and banged it out.”

The first studio visit this April lasted five days, during which they nailed 10 out of 12 tracks. A second session in September wrapped everything up. And what they emerged with—which will be released in all modern formats, plus vinyl and even cassette versions—is both 1958-stark and evocative as well as playfully 2013. “Silver Haired Daddy of Mine” is more upbeat now, relying on clackety drumsticks for rhythm. “Lightning Express” tinkles and twinkles like a dusty old music box. “I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail” rollicks like a Dixieland funeral, “Oh So Many Years” taps into a virtual honky-tonk vibe, and “Kentucky” is seasoned with a spicy new flamenco rhythm. “It’s Kentucky, Mexico! Didn’t you know that?” Jones cackles. “We just tried to make the songs sing and tried a few different grooves on them. Whatever made sense, whatever sounded good to us, you know?”

Jones and Armstrong both played acoustic guitar, as the bare-bones Songs dictated. They recorded facing each other, carefully watching each other’s lips and listening to every last breath to perfectly recreate those original familial harmonies. The more they hung out, the more they discussed other favorite Everlys hits, like “By Bye Love,” “Wake Up Little Susie,” “All I Have to do is Dream”—the list went on and on. “We were trading so many songs, at times I thought ‘Are we going to end up opening this up to other Everlys stuff?’” Jones remembers. “But no, that’s not what he wanted to do, and I was actually glad in the end. It’s kind of nice to have a bit of a parameter. And it’s also nice that this album is a little more obscure—I don’t think it would have been something I was as into if it was all their popular songs, necessarily.”

What made the Green Day growler believe he could tackle such delicate material? “Well, I kind of go where my voice takes me,” says Armstrong, who made it okay for punks to do power ballad with Bic-flicking hits like “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” “And there’s one thing, being a punk singer, but then there’s another thing being a singer-singer, where you can go and do other kinds of things. So I was like ‘Well, maybe I can sing these songs—I’ll give it a shot!’ Or ‘Maybe I can act—I’ll give it a shot!’ I have to keep life interesting for myself and get into these other things.”

And the man loves the “Daddy Taught Us” angle of these songs, he adds. “It’s a beautiful things,” he marvels. “Because I think nowadays, everyone wants something new. Now, everything is so immediate, everybody wants to fast-forward so much. Like ‘What’s the next thing? What’s the next gadget?’ So we sometimes lose this sense of tradition, and that’s what songwriting is supposed to be about, in one respect. And that’s what I love about this project—it’s like this thing was passed on to the Everlys, and the Everlys are passing it on to us. And now we’re going to pass it on to somebody else. Hopefully.”

Looking into each other’s eyes while singing only added to the songs’ intimacy, and immediacy, Armstrong says. “Especially when you’re singing about death, like “Put My Little Shoes Away” or “Down in the Willow Garden,” it was pretty intense, and the intensity just filled that room. Just sitting there, singing these murder ballads and thinking ‘Where the fuck did these songs come from?’ But this is how people would mourn back in the day. And obviously, the storylines are so blunt that there’s just no room for metaphor. But in the Everly Brothers’ case, one thing that makes it so effective is that they sound so angelic. The way that they sing a song like “Willow Garden,” they sound almost…almost ghostly.”

And the sense of oral history, of handed-down lore, is unmistakable on Foreverly. Both vocalists were stunned to recently learn that its minor-chorded cut “Barbara Allen” was actually being reviewed as far back as the 15th century, when a writer noted that he’d overheard it warbled in an English pub. “Now that’s an old-ass song!” Jones laughs. She knows that the Everlys are still alive, but neither she nor her project partner would ever dream of contacting them. But she remains curious about the rationale behind the brothers’ cutting the sparse “Songs” as a theoretically-crucial sophomore effort. “Because they really stripped it back,” she says. “So we wondered: Did they just really want to do it? Or did they have to put two albums out, back to back, and they didn’t know what else to do, so they said ‘Quick! Let’s do those old songs that daddy used to sing us’? We don’t know what the exact story is. But I’m excited to eventually hear it.”

Naturally, the Foreverly album cover keeps the theme going with 1950s-style lettering and big, big hair—Jones’ in a June Carter bouffant, Armstrong’s in a wavy Gene Vincent cut. He insists that it wasn’t intentional, though. “My hair is just really, really curly,” he says. “So I dunno—I just stopped combing it, I guess! But I get it from my mom—it’s kind of this big, ridiculous afro. But in that shot, we were kind of going for, well, not retro, exactly. But that’s how we recorded together—just two guitars and a microphone.”

And Armstrong still recollects the moment they quietly left the studio after he and Jones’ final pitch-perfect take. “The next thing you know, Norah’s looking at me, saying “I bet you didn’t think you were going to make a country record, did ya?’” he concludes. “And I didn’t know what I was going to make, and that’s the great thing. I love entering things where I don’t know exactly how it’s going to turn out. Because then there’s this whole air of mystery about it.”

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