“For Me? It’s Been Christmas All Year Already”: Norah Jones on Her First Holiday Album
I Dream of Christmas came early, an unexpected gift from the nine-time Grammy winnerPhoto by Marcela Avelar Music Features Norah Jones
Most families probably follow the same time-honored patterns when it comes to preparing Yuletide family meals—the table will be stocked with either ham or turkey, or perhaps a combination of both, and maybe even that fabled Roast Beast that the rehabilitated Grinch was allowed to carve for his festive new friends down in Whoville. But at Norah Jones’ house in upstate New York, it’s none of the above, and something not exactly seasonal at all—unless you and your relatives all gather annually around those bowls of unlimited breadsticks at Olive Garden, that is. “I always serve pasta with bolognese for Christmas Eve,” says the nine-time Grammy winner, proudly. “And it’s only become our tradition because I forced it to be our tradition, mostly because it’s my favorite dish, plus it’s fun and it’s easy. But it’s funny, because I make it every week anyway, so it’s just become something silly.”
This not to rule out a painstaking preparation of Roast Beast on Christmas proper, adds Jones, 42. “Because the next day is always a big day of cooking.” But her homestead also follows some other unusual traditions, especially when it comes to her and her husband’s two impressionable young children, who still believe in Santa Claus, elves, Rudolph, the whole North Pole shebang in the cynical new digital age, when his sleigh trajectory can be “tracked” by GPS. “We let the kids sleep in our room on Christmas Eve, too,” mom reveals. “Mostly because we don’t want them getting out of bed and looking for Santa. But they don’t know that—they just think it’s a treat, so that’s kind of fun.” So naturally, when this plush-throated “Come Away With Me” thrush finally decided to record a Christmas album earlier this year—after staying busy during lockdown with not one, but two pandemic panaceas, 2020’s Pick Me Up Off the Floor and last April’s heartwarming live collection ’Til We Meet Again—it was guaranteed to sound like no other.
Pieced together with her producer/multi-instrumentalist pal Leon Michels, the recently released I Dream of Christmas, for her longtime imprint Blue Note, boasts a few obvious choices, but done her way, like its scat-jazzy take on “White Christmas,” a lounge-lugubrious version of “Blue Christmas,” a pedal-steel-powered “Winter Wonderland”and even a thoughtful, bluesy reading of the old Alvin and The Chipmunks novelty “Christmas Don’t Be Late.” But mainly, its 13 tracks revolve around Jones’ inspired holiday-themed originals, like the rhumba-skittered “Christmas Glow,” a Gospel-rich “Christmastime,” the R&B-meets-country waltz “You’re Not Alone” and the doo-wop soulful “It’s Only Christmas Once a Year.” For anyone longing to hear her truly remarkable voice dip lovingly into the seasonal spirit, the wait is over, and she did it in classy, inimitable style. She checked in with Paste for her third post-Covid interview to file a full update on her activities, Christmas-related and otherwise.
Paste: How are you? And the kids?
Norah Jones: I’m good! Everyone’s good—I’m feeling really lucky!
Paste: Well, let me take you down a surreal rabbit hole for a minute. Last week, I was watching this great little indie film on cable called Apple Seed, written, directed by and starring a guy named Michael Worth. And watching the credits, in the soundtrack, he used a song called “Build a World” by Adriel Denae, but it’s produced by you. And then I researched her, and you did her entire album, but the album was postponed because she had a kid, took over a monastery and turned it into a songwriting retreat called The Refuge. So how did all these connections happen? And have you ever seen Worth’s film?
Jones: No, I haven’t. And her whole album is beautiful, Adriel’s album—I thought it was never going to come out! And we kind of lost touch … I mean, we’re in touch, but we haven’t really talked in a long time. But she played with Cory Chisel, and they opened up for me for a long time in 2012, and we all became very close. And she hadn’t put out her own product yet, and I told her I would produce it in my home studio if she wanted. And she managed to get some money to pay everyone from someone, and we made the record while I was pregnant and she was pregnant. And it was fun—we recorded, and she had a beautiful group of songs, and I loved it. She seemed kind of unsure how to go about it, so I asked her if she wanted to make it, and so we did. But then it never came out. And then it finally did, which is great.
Paste: Is there anybody else you’ve taken a chance on like that?
Jones: No. As far as producing, I’ve been making records so long that I feel like I could do it. But I’m very focused, so it takes a lot of energy when I want to focus 100% on something. So I have to really want to do it—you know what I mean?
Paste: Well, speaking of wanting to do something, you recently appeared on the kids show Helpsters?
Jones: Ha! Yeah! I just got asked to do something with ’em, and when you get asked to do something with any kind of Muppet, you’re down. And for Helpsters, I went to the studio—this was before 2020. I don’t think my kids ever saw that one, though.
Paste: If you look back at your last two albums, plus this one, they’re like perfectly timed records. It’s like you instinctively knew exactly what to put out, and when. Does that make sense?
Jones: Well, thanks. But it’s definitely more of a luck-of-the-draw thing for me, I think. My album Pick Me Up Off the Floor felt so pandemic-y, even though it was written before. And this year, I just felt like … I needed something to look forward to, so I thought I would see if I felt like making a Christmas album. And the deeper I got into thinking about it, the more excited I got about it. And then it became the perfect thing to look forward to for me, so hopefully that’s how it feels.
Paste: What month were the new songs written in? And how do you recreate that spirit at a non-Yuletide time?
Jones: I started thinking about it in January when the tree came down and I got really sad. And I thought, “Well, what else am I gonna do this year?” I’m not gonna go on tour, and I had a few songs kicking around, but without being able to get together with people easily, it seemed like I didn’t really know what to do. Then I found Leon Michels, and he seemed like someone cool that I would want to work with. And we started, we tried to make a song and it was pretty great, and I asked him what he thought about trying to make a Christmas album. So it just sort of snowballed from there. It was probably February when I started talking to him about it, and then March when we started really heavily digging deep. And it was still cold out, so it felt appropriate—it still helped. But I never want to let go of the holidays—in January and February, I always get really sad that there’s no holiday. So we had some pretty awesome playlists going back and forth, with some really obscure songs. And I knew that we could make this with all covers, and all classics, or all obscure classics—whatever. But then I started writing songs, in early March, maybe? And I got inspired, and probably all of the ideas for all these songs came within a few days. And it sort of helped inform what the album was—it was more about, you know, dreaming of Christmas, because I literally was! In February! So that’s kind of what the album ended up as.
Paste: I was in Target recently, the week before Halloween. And not only did it prove my theory—via an entire end rack filled with nothing but half-price boxes of this single seasonal cereal—that nobody likes Boo-Berry, but I also overheard one Target lady whispering to another, “You know what we start selling on Friday, right? All the Christmas stuff!” I couldn’t believe it.
Jones: Ha! I know—it’s here. And it’s funny, releasing a Christmas album in October, everyone is asking me, “What’s with that?” And I’m like, “Hey—that’s all the record label and the retail stores. They all want to release it that early—that’s just what they do, with every Christmas album.” So it just is what it is, you know? It’s not me! I’m not trying to cram it down your throat—I was trying to make a beautiful Christmas album!
Paste: But when you think about it, everyone usually pounces on obvious covers like “White Christmas,” or this or that. But how often do people think of doing David Seville and The Chipmunks?
Jones: Ha! Well, a lot of people have covered it, but more peppy like that. But when you take away the Chipmunk voices, it’s still a great song. And I thought it would be fun to slow it down and have some sick harmonies on it, you know?
Paste: Looking back on holidays past, what was the worst Christmas ever for you?
Jones: Umm … you know, I’ve had some sad Christmases, but I don’t think I placed a lot of value on Christmas Day having to be perfect growing up, because my mom and I—it was just me and my mom, and we would go to my aunt’s house for Christmas, which exploded with Christmas. Or my grandma’s house for Christmas, which was just perfect and mellow, or my uncle’s house for Christmas. Or we’d go camping for Christmas, just the two of us, so there would be no Christmas-like Christmas, and it didn’t matter. And it was fun, actually! So I never placed a lot of value on it, like, “Oh, Christmas Day hast to be this or that!”
Paste: What’s the coolest gift you ever got?
Jones: My aunt gave me a pair of toe shoes when I was nine, because I was obsessed with that movie The Red Shoes, and so I really wanted a pair of toe shoes. However, I didn’t dance, and my mom was a former dancer, and she said, “You’re gonna break your ankle if you get a pair of toe shoes, because you’re not a dancer!” And she was right, but my aunt got ’em for me anyway, so I used to lay down on the floor in ’em. I had this big pillow, and I would just watch TV in my toe shoes, and I would just point my toes at the ceiling. And that’s the total extent of how much I ever used them.
Paste: What do you miss most about childhood Christmases? That you maybe try to keep going with your own kids today?
Jones: Oh, that excitement for presents and Santa? That’s probably the most important excitement, and I can see it in my kids’ eyes—it’s just so sweet and fun. I don’t feel that for myself, but it’s fun to revisit through your kids, or any kids that are nearby. And my kids are still little, but I think also there’s that thing where sometimes a kid becomes older, and they still believe in Santa. But you can tell that maybe they don’t—maybe deep down, they know, but they still want to believe. And I think it’s going to be important for them to hold onto that for as long as they want, you know? But then there’s a fine line to that—you don’t wanna be blind to your kids and putting up some charade. But I think it’s nice to prolong that feeling. I miss that feeling!
Paste: Christmas seemed so uncertain for all of us last year. How do you think it will have changed this year?
Jones: I have no idea. I’ve learned not to predict anything! But I think a lot of these songs were written out of that feeling of missing Christmas, or wanting it to come, or wanting to get into the spirit, but not quite knowing how. So for me? It’s been Christmas all year already, so I’m excited for it, personally. But I also live with little kids, so it’s a built-in Christmas—it’s gonna be Christmas no matter what’s going on outside.
Paste: What decorations are you planning on this year? Will it resemble Snoopy’s doghouse?
Jones: Ha! I don’t decorate outside that much, but we have the tree and everything, and I think we’re gonna put it up early. I got a fake tree last year, finally, so I’m excited to just leave it up for three or four months.
Paste: Knowing you, you’ve already got post-December career plans worked out.
Jones: Not really. I dunno—I’m gonna try and tour next summer, and that’s something I’m excited for. I missed the boat for the first wave of touring, post-pandemic, so I’m really excited to get back out there. But hey—I made an album! So I’m trying to just stay musical, stay connected with people, and that’s about it!