When you’re drifting into the murky, dead-calm waters of some universal uncertainty like our current pandemic, it’s good to have a stoic, unflappable pilot like Norah Jones at the helm. Even just over a year ago, as lockdown kicked in and all hands were on manic deck, shivering like chihuahuas, the nine-time Grammy winner was calm, cool and collected as she discussed her then-new album, Pick Me Up Off the Floor, and its eerily prophetic jazz-blues soothers “To Live,” “I’m Alive,” “This Life,” “Heaven Above,” and (gulp) “Hurts to Be Alone.” As the mother of two young children, she admitted to feeling a bit uneasy over: the sudden end to touring; the potential effects of quarantining, especially on regular churchgoers; and whether self-absorbed society would take this moment to reflect, learn and grow. To cheer herself up, she’d been listening to Christmas songs early, although Cher’s anthemic “If I Could Turn Back Time” kept playing over and over in her if-only head. And she conceded that releasing a record then felt slightly Quixotic. “But if one person finds comfort in the music I make, then it was all worth it,” she said with a resigned sigh.
So who better then to steer us out of this Sargasso Sea than Jones again, with her latest memory-jogging release, ’Til We Meet Again, a warm, intimate concert document culled from 2017-2019 tour dates in Brazil, France, Italy, Argentina and, of course, the United States. And at 42, the quiescent cabaret aplomb she first displayed on her definitive Come Away With Me back in 2002 has grown even more seasoned, confident and assured over the 14 tracks, starting with the inventive opening rendition of Hank Williams’ “Cold Cold Heart” and spanning catalog classics like “Sunrise,” “Falling,” “Begin Again,” and “It Was You.” The set closed with a requisite reading of “Don’t Know Why,” then a surprise, molasses-slow take on Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” in honor of its late frontman, the charismatic Chris Cornell, and was recorded at Detroit’s Fox Theatre—the last venue he played before passing away on tour in May of 2017. Jones even co-produced the entire collection with Jamie Landry.
Has humanity sailed free from its dire straits? Don’t stow the life vests just yet, Jones cautions. But she and her husband just had their first vaccine doses, with the second ones scheduled soon. “And when we got our first shot, it certainly felt heavier than I thought it would, like a weight was lifted,” she says, in a soft measured murmur every bit as reassuring as her singing voice. “And I think this has put into focus what really matters for so many people, so I really hope we can all keep it in focus.” She pauses before adding, “But I wonder—we’ve been conditioned over the last however many years to have the shortest attention span in the history of humanity. So I’m hopeful. But I’m not blind to our flaws.” She charts her new post-pandemic course in this thoughtful followup chat.
Paste: In our last episode just over a year ago, things were looking dark for our heroine as winter and the coronavirus tightened their grip. How are you coping in this new Perils of Pandemic Pauline installment?
Norah Jones: Gosh! I don’t know! I kind of feel like it’s more like Groundhog Day over here. But we’re finally just getting to the end of Zoom school—we can do it! We could be back In school—a lot of people are in actual school. But we’re still doing online schools, so we’re just going to wait out the last few months. And I’m so tired at night, I never even put on a movie. But I have binge-watched some shows, for sure.
Paste: How has your songwriting changed? Some say that the pandemic first darkened theirs, then conversely lightened it later.
Jones: Yeah. I could definitely see that happening. And I’ve definitely been doing more writing in the last few months, and definitely also I feel like people are gravitating toward dance music a lot. Or at least it seems like it. But I also listen to pop radio a lot with my kids, so I just hear what’s on that. But to me it sounds like dance music, and I love it—it’s fun.
Paste: I think many parents are just tired of hearing the Paw Patrol theme song.
Jones: Ha! Yeah! But we haven’t heard that one in a while, so they forgot about it. Mine are into horror films and action movies, but they’re too little, so they’re too scared. So they tried to watch Jaws, and they were excited to watch it because they watched The Meg, and now The Meg is their favorite movie. And it’s just scary enough, so it’s great. It’s not so scary that they’re up at night. So they tried to watch Jaws, the OG, and they were just too terrified. But now they will watch the trailer of Jaws over and over, since they can’t watch the movie because it’s too scary.
Paste: Last time we talked, snow had fallen. And it occurred to me that everyone—especially musicians, who are usually on tour—really got to experience the seasons more intensely last year.
Jones: Yeah. And it’s been nice. And we also had a lot of snow this year, more than normal. But that was nice, too. It was actually a fun snow, which was good. And I’ve missed a lot of East Coast things like that by being on the road, so this is definitely the first time we’ve been in one place, probably ever, for so long. But my family? They’re kind of homebodies. Even to just get them to go outside for a walk sometimes, it’s like pulling teeth. I don’t know why—they’ve just always been like that, so it’s nothing new.
Paste: As we drifted into the pandemic, you were really starting to miss collaborating in person with other musicians. And now?
Jones: Yeah. I was. But I’ve been able to do a little bit of it safely, here and there. But also, I’ve been focused on other things. And focusing on things is nice, you know? Having a task to focus on, whether it’s house stuff or putting together this live album, like focusing on mixing it or choosing the songs, you know? That was a nice project to have.
Paste: When and why did that idea occur to you? Because obviously, we all miss concerts.
Jones: Yeah. I was listening to one of them for a radio show that wanted some live tracks, and I was listening to one of the last shows that I did in Rio, in December of 2019. And it made me feel so good, and it was great. It was a great show, and I remembered it being a great show, but it also translated through the recording. So I thought, “Well, let’s just put this out as a live album.” And then there were a few songs that I knew we had better versions of somewhere, so we started combing through some of that tour, and then we went back to the first version of that band, just to keep it cohesive. Because I do play with a lot of different bands, so we have about eight years of recorded shows. So I thought about doing a best-of-the-whole-thing shebang, but the truth is, I wanted to keep it close to the energy of the Rio show that I fell in love with in the first place, so we tried to keep it cohesive. But yeah—it was just really nice to hear the audience, and to hear that electric energy. Some of my favorite live albums? The feeling they transmit when I’m listening to them is just like that, that … heart feeling, you know? You really feel the love of a lot of people together, and that’s kind of what we were going for.
Paste: I recently talked to George Thorogood for his great Live in Boston 1982: The Complete Concert, which totally brought back that almost forgotten nightclub feeling, with him conversing with—and even heckling—the rowdy crowd.
Jones: Yeah, and it’s fun. You listen to Johnny Cash Live at Folsom Prison or, when I was growing up, I used to listen to Judy Garland Live at Carnegie Hall, and there’s this one moment where they’re clapping at the end, and she comes back for the encore, and it just made me cry. Multiple times. It was just so beautiful, just so sweet.
Paste: Your cover of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” ends the album, with fans clapping in instant recognition. Was that technically your encore?
Jones: No, actually, that’s the only time I’ve ever played that song. And the reason I played it in Detroit was that Chris Cornell had just played that theater, and I was the first person to play there after he died. And I knew that song, but I’d never played it, so I worked on it when I got to the theater that day, and it was just a really special moment. In fact, it was probably one of the most special moments I’ve had onstage, because the audience reaction and the sort of collective love we all felt for him? It was a tribute—it was meant as a tribute. And I haven’t played that song since, but I get a lot of requests for it because of that, because it was on YouTube after that and people loved the song. But I don’t know if I could ever do it at that same level again—it was such a beautiful moment for me and for the audience. I don’t know—there was just something in the air that night.
Paste: It’s not easy to cover something so definitive, or even Hank Williams’ “Cold Cold Heart.” How do you approach one?
Jones: You’ve got to make it your own. That’s how you tackle any song, any song that you didn’t write. You have to own it, you have to make it your own. That’s how you do it. And if you can’t do that? Then you just move on.
Paste: Have there been some that you tried to cover, but just couldn’t master?
Jones: Oh, yeah! Plenty. But it’s not a matter of “I can’t do it” or “I’m not worthy of this song.” It’s more like … like the chemistry’s just not right. It’s like dating, you know? The chemistry is either there, or it’s not. And then maybe it’ll be there at another time—you never know.
Paste: On the live version of “I’ll Be Gone” on the album, your voice sounds so more soulful and resonant, almost to a Gospel degree.
Jones: Well, I’m older!
Paste: So you lived the blues and now can sing them more convincingly?
Jones: Yeah! That’s what I mean by “I’m older.’ And I’ve always been excited about getting older and singing like an older person. I always loved older Joni Mitchell. I mean, I love young Joni Mitchell, too. But I loved where her voice went—I love that. I love that it changes. I mean, my playing has also changed quite a bit. It’s just … just changed. I’m not good at describing music—you are. But I can just note that it’s changed, but that’s just part of being an artist, being a musician. That’s the beautiful part about being a human and being alive—you walk along the road and you change. And your thoughts change and the way you see things changes. And it’s the same with music, and that’s the fun part about playing live—you’re playing out little snapshots. I mean, a lot of these songs are older, so this is kind of the life of a song. And the son goes in different ways, as well. So this is 20 years later, and this is what’s happening right now. And in 20 years’ time, maybe something completely different will be happening. Uhh, if I’m still alive!
Paste: Did you notice any changes manifesting themselves during the pandemic, specifically?
Jones: Oh, yeah. But I don’t know. Again, I can’t put that stuff into words. And also, I’m probably not aware yet completely, and won’t be until we’re on the other side. But playing all those livestream shows by myself? I played with a drummer just the other day—safely—and I was like, “Oh—this is weird!” We didn’t have a bass player, but I was already playing so much bass with my left hand, just because I’m so used to it now. I’m used to trying to cover it all, musically, from the last year of not playing with anyone.
Paste: And you’ll be highlighting a new venue- and concert-workers charity on your Facebook page each week after album release?
Jones: Yeah. Putting out this live album, I felt like I had to try. I really wanted to make it clear that so much goes into live music other than just the band. So we’re gonna highlight some venue charities and some crew charities, for all the people behind the scenes—the venue workers, the touring crew, people that have just been out of work for so long. And who knows when it’s gonna get back to normal? So we’re going to try to tie it into some of the locations where this stuff was recorded, and also just some general ones that do really great work.
Paste: Do you have a 2021 tour tentatively booked?
Jones: I don’t, no. I’m gonna wait and see what happens. But I am excited to work on new music. And it’s nice that we can record in a somewhat safe way, so I’m excited to finally get into the studio again with some new people. That will be really, really nice.