Norah Jones: Finding Comfort in Melancholic Music—and Old Disney MoviesPhoto by Diane Russo Music Features Norah Jones
Norah Jones knows that it’s an awkward time to be releasing a new album, as the deadly coronavirus pandemic continues to constrict our lives and livelihoods. And we talked before the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed, pushing back against systemic racism. But the Grammy winner couldn’t help it. As she followed her new modus operandi of issuing only singles over the last couple of years, so many extra tracks were stockpiled from various sessions that they took on a life, a tangible shape of their own. And they practically were begging to see the light of day—however dark said day might be—as the new Pick Me Up Off the Floor collection, which opens on the sparse, jazzy “How I Weep” and drifts lazily through eerily prescient perambulators like “To Live,” “I’m Alive,” “This Life,” “Heaven Above” and a conversely peppy “Hurts to Be Alone.” It turns out to be a work for and of its time, and perhaps the perfect panacea for anyone pacing their shelter-in-place floor in frustration. Relax. Let Norah Jones reassure you like no one else can. Or, as she puts it, “I love all these songs, I love all the recordings and the takes that we got, and I’m really happy about this sad album. “And it seems silly to try and promote it, but it’s also something where—if one person finds comfort in the music I make—then it was all worth it.”
Paste: First, let me congratulate you on your new song “Say No More,” and its line “Stay with me/ I’ll pretend you’re everything I need,” as the first official ode to Netflix, right?
Norah Jones: Ha! That’s funny! Do you relate everything you listen to to what you’re feeling right now? But seriously, I don’t have a lot of time to catch Netflix and chill because my kids are little. But I try. Disney+ is definitely great for my family, though. My kids were happy with Netflix, but once Disney+ came along, I got happy, too, because I got to watch all those old movies instead of just a bunch of noisy TV shows.
Paste: I wonder if they have Old Yeller and Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar?
Jones: Maybe. But I don’t know if I could handle Old Yeller right now — I don’t think I could take that. My youngest really loves our dog, so I don’t think they could handle it, either. Our dog is a mini-poodle, but he’s 12 now, so he’s kind of like a grumpy old man.
Paste: Are you in New York City or sequestered in the countryside?
Jones: I’m out of town, which is nice, because, like I said, my kids are little, and they actually have a little yard. But it’s still kind of weird. It’s weird anywhere, really, right now. So it’s one day at a time for us.
Paste: How do you divide your day? And when do you find time to work?
Jones: Rarely. Even fun at the piano is rare. I mean, this is work, but I’m trying to do these webcasts just to stay musical, and that’s been fun. But I definitely miss playing with others, so I have to figure out a way to do it, because it’s hard to do it and not have a delay or for the connection to cut out. I think a lot of people are doing it by multi-tracking, maybe—maybe they’re not doing it completely live, I don’t know.
Paste: And Zoom setups have been hacked.
Jones: I don’t care if people hack into it—I just don’t want it to cut out. I’ve done plenty of zooming with my kids and their school, and sometimes the connection is amazing, and sometimes it’s not. So it’s more about the connection itself, maybe, than the platform. I don’t know. All I know is that I miss playing music with others, period.
Paste: But it’s great that you just made a record that’s almost designed to be played solo, sans accompaniment.
Jones: Well, you know what? Any good song can be played any way, so that’s true. But I do enjoy a good beat, and I enjoy playing the songs with others—I just enjoy the interaction and the spontaneity. Plus, I enjoy just getting outside of my own head and interacting.
Paste: So what exactly is “Say No More” about? All kidding aside?
Jones: That song actually came from my friend Sarah. She wrote all the lyrics to it and then I added some music to it, basically. And that song is the one exception on this album—most of the lyrics are mine. I think. Or pretty much all of them are. That’s my Get-out-of-jail-free card!
Paste: But you developed a new interest in poetry itself?
Jones: Yeah. I have a friend who gave me a stack of poems, and the first session that I did that is on this record, the song is from that stack of poems that she wrote. And then she gave me all these poetry books after that, because I’d never really been into poetry at all, and I don’t know much about it. I’d never read anything but Shel Silverstein when I was a kid. But it was pretty great—I really enjoyed it. And then all these words kept coming into my head, plus I was reading Dr. Seuss every night to my kids and getting all these rhyme schemes. But it was interesting, an interesting way to write. For me, writing has been a real open road, and just finding different ways of coming at it, and from different angles, ends in a very different result. Which is exciting at this point—to have songs that are different and not trying to rely on the same old tricks.
Paste: And of course, Elton John’s songs all started that way—with a Bernie Taupin poem, essentially.
Jones: A lot of songs start out that way. It’s just never been my process. I never hear words without music—I always heard music with just some words attached, and that’s the start of a song usually for me. So it was different to have a few songs that started with words. But I will say that for all three of the songs the songs on this album that came from poems, the process was still very natural and not labored. I sit at the piano, and I have a recorder and some time, and I don’t think about it until I have that time. And then whatever happens—even if I develop it from there and have to think about it a little—the basic core of the musical idea comes quickly, and marries to the song in a way that I can’t un-marry it. I just have to develop it a little more.
Paste: It’s so weird to think that we just talked a few months ago, and things were already looking dark, politically. And now it’s unbelievably gotten darker.
Jones: Yeah. I keep hearing that Cher song, “If I Could Turn Back Time.” That keeps going through my head. It’s crazy. It just gets more and more unbelievable. But this is life now, you know? And I have no idea what’s coming. I hope things get better. I hope this shines a light on certain things, because there’s got to be something good that comes out of it. And something good could come out of this, in that we see the error of our ways. In many aspects, of course—society, the environment, all this stuff. But I don’t know if we’re actually going to be able to achieve that with all of these uphill battles all around us. I hope so. Of course, I hope.
Paste: In “This Life,” you sing that this life, as we know it, is gone.
Jones: I know. And basically, it’s not up to me, so I’m not saying anything. I mean, we’re trying to reschedule tour dates and be optimistic, because that’s just we kind of have to do. But I don’t actually expect it to happen.I expect us to not be allowed to do that for at least a couple of years. And I also don’t know if people are going to go stand at a concert around other people, or if people are even going to have money to buy tickets for things such as music. People might still be struggling to pay their bills. And if not, is it really worth the risk? I don’t know. But I think there’s still going to be room for art and stories. People certainly like their reading material right now. But I don’t know if they’ll pay for it. So I don’t have an answer. I know that music is what I do, and I don’t know how not to do it. And it’s certainly been worth it to me to listen to music every night.
Paste: What have you been listening to?
Jones: Mainly a lot of playlists. I was listening to a lot of Guns N’ Roses the first week—my husband has a lot of different playlists that he puts on, some good ’90s ones and some good ’80s ones. And the nostalgic ones feel pretty good. We were listening to Bob Marley live the other day, and that made us feel really good. And you know what actually made us feel amazing the other day? It was cold and kind of snowy, and we listened to Christmas music. And it was amazing. It was so comforting. Classic Christmas music in the summertime? It just makes you feel good. But I’ve also been listening to a lot of John Prine this month, and that got me on a Townes Van Zandt kick. And all the old songs take on new meaning, because we’re all feeling these things differently, and they all cut to the heart of that, about being human. And that’s something that we’re all dealing with right now. So it’s interesting how songs sort of morph into what you’re going through at the time.
Paste: Is your husband a metalhead?
Jones: Not at all. We really come from the same place, musically, but he’s turned me on to a ton of music, and I’ve turned him onto some. But we come from more of a similar place.
Paste: Have you been writing new, darker material in the wake of this pandemic?
Jones: I’ve had a couple of ideas floating around in my head. But again, I have little kids, so it’s not like I really have time to chase those dreams of writing a song during all this. It requires a lot of focus to go through my voice memo notes—which I do have, and I have some words written down, too. But I just haven’t had time to put them all together and figure out if they’re a song.
Paste: Songs like “To Live” have an almost Gospel feel.
Jones: The album has a real darkness to it. But that’s a bit of a more uplifting moment. I wrote that for Mavis Staples, because we were going to do this duet. I wrote that as a possible option, and we ended up doing a different song. But I really liked it, so I kept it. And I thought about making it a duet, or seeing if she would want to do it now. But I liked the demo version that I had with just my vocals, so I ended up keeping that. And Gospel music is great. And I’m sure it’s really hard for people to not be able to do the thing that comforts them right now, like go to church and congregate and hug each other and just hang out. It’s hard. I myself stopped going to church. But I never felt religious, really. That said, I feel like over the last few years, I’ve written a lot of songs that sort of touch on the feeling of God, and the longing for that connection. I’m at the place in my life where I’m questioning a lot of things, for sure. And I didn’t do that in my twenties—I didn’t think like that, I was in a different place.
Paste: Do you have any wise advice for folks out there, grappling with coronavirus consequences?
Jones: Advice? For this? God, I have no idea! Give me some tips, please! But I will say this—after 9/11, in New York, people were really sweet for awhile and kind to each other—extra care was taken, extra kindness given. So everybody just do your best—that’s what I would say. Just do your best, and I’ll do mine.