Norah Jones, Now in Her Own Words
A LOCAL musician couldn’t ask for a more appreciative audience than the petite, black-haired woman in blue jeans who was one of about two dozen people at Marion’s Marquee Lounge on the Bowery a few Mondays ago. As the guitarist Tony Scherr led a trio through his bluesy, slightly skewed songs, she tapped her foot, giggled at his stage patter and vigorously applauded his solos. Every few tunes, she whispered, “I love this song!”
Between sets she walked over to hug band members and chat about gigs. She’s part of a circle of New York singers and songwriters who play one another’s songs and swap backup musicians. Sometimes she visits Lower East Side karaoke bars and belts out songs by Shakira or Guns N’ Roses. She’s also a member of various bands — the Sloppy Joannes, the Mazelles, the Little Willies — who show up as opening acts at no-cover-charge places like the Rodeo Bar. But she’s far better known by her own name: Norah Jones.
In a few days Ms. Jones, 27, would resume her main career: the one that has sold millions of albums and made her almost too popular for the 3,000-seat theaters she prefers to arenas. Her third solo album, “Not Too Late,” is due for release Jan. 30, and like her first two it offers the intimate sound of a handful of musicians in a small room, the sound of places like this one.
“Not Too Late” is also the first full album of her own songs, and it is darker, thornier and sometimes funnier than the albums that made her a star.
“On the first album I was saying, that’s just one part of me,” she said. “And then I was thinking, well, am I going to hide the rest of me now just because I’m afraid of something? No. I’m just going to be myself.”
At Marion’s Marquee Lounge she wore no makeup and had no entourage: only her boyfriend and songwriting collaborator, Lee Alexander, with whom she traded grins through the evening. They had rushed over after a long day of rehearsals to hear the night’s opening act: Jason Crigler, a guitarist and singer-songwriter recovering from a 2004 brain aneurysm. Ms. Jones had headlined a benefit concert for his medical expenses, and she watched his set with sisterly concern and increasing relief. Between sets she pointed out the other musicians in the room, offering praise and updates on their albums in progress. While she’s by far the best-known musician from this circuit, she’s still immersed in it. Here she was just another working musician among peers, the exact opposite of a diva. She has little interest in high-profile celebrity, and the tabloids generally ignore her. “I think I just never interested people that way in the beginning,” she said. “I don’t think I’m that boring, but I think, to an outsider ‘O.K., she’s in a stable relationship, she’s not a drug addict. She wears clothes, she wears underwear.’ ”
She shrugged. “There’s no facade,” she said. “I wish there was sometimes.”
Back onstage Mr. Scherr eased into an unhurried vamp, and Ms. Jones almost purred with pleasure. “I love slow music,” she declared.
Of course she does. She has thrived as a ballad singer, alternately celebrated for her finesse and dismissed as bland. Many listeners, she admits, consider her albums “background music.” On “Not Too Late” the instruments are still mostly unplugged, and the tempos stay moderate; its first single, “Thinking About You,” is a soul-flavored love song Ms. Jones had hesitated to record because it was “too pop.”
Yet her newer songs don’t always provide the comforts of her first two albums. The change is clear in the album’s first song, “Wish I Could.” It’s a gentle guitar waltz, and as it begins, the singer frets about how she can’t bear to go into an old favorite place “without you” — the kind of situation listeners might expect in a Norah Jones song. But then a girlfriend pulls her in, grieving that her man, a soldier, has been killed in the war. The song deepens from plaintiveness to irrevocable sorrow.
Ms. Jones wrote it, she said, while thinking about a soldier she dated soon after she arrived in New York City in 1999. She recently tried to find information on him, with no results. “I’m worried about him,” she said.
“Wish I Could” is followed by “Sinkin’ Soon,” a banjo-plinking, New Orleans-tinged shuffle with touches of Tom Waits and Kurt Weill. As Ms. Jones tinkles piano tremolos and allows herself a sultry rasp, it warns, “We drifted from the shore/With a captain who’s too proud to say/That he dropped the oar.” Later in the album comes “My Dear Country,” a song she wrote after the 2004 election: “Who knows, maybe the plans will change/Who knows, maybe he’s not deranged,” she sings.
“I’m not a very dark person,” Ms. Jones said. “The darkness on this album comes more from just being aware of what’s going on around us.”
Much of “Not Too Late” was recorded in the home studio at the loft Ms. Jones shares with Mr. Alexander. They met when she was looking for a bass player for a brunch gig singing jazz at the Washington Square Hotel, where she was also a waitress. Adam Levy, who’s still the guitarist in her band, gave her a list, “and I lucked out because I think the list was alphabetical,” Mr. Alexander said. He had just gotten a cellphone; Ms. Jones’s call was the first to come through.
The studio’s big windows survey the Lower East Side; there are guitars in neat racks overhead and two elegant antique pianos — a baby grand and an upright — among the keyboards. The doorway into the studio is flanked by vintage concert posters for members of Ms. Jones’s musical pantheon: Duke Ellington, Hank Williams, Ray Charles and Patsy Cline.
Jazz, country and soul were all folded into Ms. Jones’s 2002 debut album, “Come Away With Me.” In a pop universe full of whiz-bang electronic bombast and frantic vocal acrobatics, she arrived like an emissary from some subtler dimension. She sang modestly, with discreet jazz syncopations, accompanied by a few hand-played instruments.
“It’s not that things are left out very carefully,” she said. “It’s just that we never thought about putting them in.”
The songs, most of them written by her band members, were filled with wistful longing and, tucked behind it, the serene assurance that she’d never have to shout for attention. Or so it seemed. Actually, in three years singing on the New York club circuit, Ms. Jones had tried showier styles and decided she couldn’t pull them off. “I sang in some bad blues band for a while, and I heard a recording of myself,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘God, I’m oversinging, and I don’t sound like Aretha Franklin, so I shouldn’t try.’ And I think I scaled back a little bit more than maybe I meant to.”
MS. JONES has a musical pedigree; her father is the sitar master Ravi Shankar. Norah’s mother, Sue Jones, and Mr. Shankar broke up soon after Norah was born, and Norah was raised in Texas, in touch with Mr. Shankar but not close to him.
“I didn’t really grow up with much of a relationship with him,” she said. “Now that we’re in a good place, I think: ‘Wow, he’s 86. I should ask him all these questions about music.’ I was just interested in having a dad for a long time, and I was almost annoyed that he was a famous musician. And now I’m like: ‘Oh, my God, John Coltrane came to him for a lesson. Forget George Harrison. I want to know about his afternoon with John Coltrane.’ ”
Drawn to jazz, she majored in piano at the pioneering jazz studies department of the University of North Texas before dropping out and heading to New York City. “I used to be a jazz snob, believe it or not,” she said. “I sort of turned my nose up at anything more commercial.”
She soaked up music theory and developed a limpid touch on piano, though not the sheer velocity of musicians she admires. “I’m not lazy, but I’ve never been a lock-myself-in-the-practice-room kind of girl,” she said. “I don’t have chops. I can’t play fast.”
In New York she found herself at the intersection of two social and musical scenes: jazz musicians, who were fond of musical complexities and structural experiments, and singer-songwriters, aiming for concision and elegance. She regained respect for the basic three-chord songs of country, soul and folk.
“I’m admitting it: I don’t make jazz really anymore, but I’m very heavily influenced by it,” she said. “I had to reprogram myself. That’s why I started writing more on guitar in the beginning, because I only knew three chords, and it was easier, it just made my life simpler. And on the piano it took me a long time to realize I could play a triad” — an unembellished major or minor chord — “and it doesn’t have to sound really simple. I finally learned how to do it.”
Her reticence became her gift. Although “Come Away With Me” wasn’t what Top 20 radio stations defined as pop, it caught on almost by word of mouth and kept selling, eventually reaching 10 million copies in the United States alone, ratified by an armload of Grammy awards. Her slightly more upbeat 2004 sequel, “Feels Like Home,” has sold four million copies in the United States, and last year Ms. Jones released an album with her casual, countryish side project, the Little Willies (named after another hero, Willie Nelson).
Popularity brought a backlash: from jazz aficionados grumbling that Ms. Jones’s pop didn’t belong on the hallowed Blue Note label, from rock and pop listeners who found her music too tame, and from people who grew tired of hearing her albums everywhere as, yes, background music.
“I have a real big fear of being overexposed,” she said. “On the first record I was everywhere and it was like the worst time in my life.”
She was grateful for success, she quickly noted. “I’m appreciative of everything. But it was the most unhappy time for me.”
“I’m very much not like my records in person,” she added. “They expect me to be very girly, very romantic, very melancholy, and I’m not any of those things. So it’s funny. I don’t know where this side of me came from, this ballad-loving, quiet, simplistic, all that stuff. That’s very much from me, and I’m not sure where I got that or why I held onto it so tightly.”
She knows her albums can be lullabies. “People always tell me how: ‘Oh, my god, my son listens to your album every night to go to sleep. He went to summer camp last summer, and he couldn’t sleep, so I had to give him his Norah Jones album.’ I’m like: ‘Oh, that’s so sweet. Thank you.’ I put people to sleep. Putting people to sleep, one child at a time.” She laughed.
“It’s funny, with every album, I’m like: ‘Oh, this is way different from my last album. This is so much not as mellow.’ And then I’ll listen to it and I’m like, ‘Wow, this song’s slow.’ ”
Ms. Jones wrote only a few songs on each of her first two albums. (Her Grammy-winning hit, “Don’t Know Why,” was by Jesse Harris, who’s part of her studio band.) As she was gearing up for her third album, she said, “I was kind of depressed that I hadn’t been creative in that way.” So despite the complications of life on the road, she decided: “I’ve got to figure out how to just do this. This is my life now.”
After the tour, Mr. Alexander left her alone for a month while he produced an album for Amos Lee. “I was staying up late by myself in the studio playing, which is something I never do when he’s home,” she said. “We had been together for five years, and it was the first time we’d spent that kind of time apart, where I was the one alone and not busy.”
What came out, along with political reflections, were songs about loneliness and breakups. “It’s my journal, not my diary,” she said. “We realized we’re in a good relationship. We don’t want to cause turmoil just for a good song, so we’ll just have to get it from other people. I did have some good friends who were going through a pretty rough breakup at the time. And I definitely looked towards that for a lot of these songs. I finally started looking outside myself for ideas.”
A sense of mortality flickers through the album’s apolitical songs. In “The Sun Doesn’t Like You,” she sketches a love song in a stark prison landscape, complete with dogs and razor wire; “Someday we all have to die,” she reflects. Amid eerie, Minimalistic plinking and an aura of guitar feedback, “Not My Friend” starts as a plaint and turns far more sinister: “When I back away,” she sings, “I’m gonna keep the handle of your gun in sight.” Even “Little Room,” a droll, countryish bounce about a tiny apartment from her early days in New York City, notes that with the bars on the windows, “If there were a fire we’d burn up for sure.”
The music on “Not Too Late” stays poised; its edge is turned inward. “I know that to some people it might sound the same: ‘Oh, it’s quiet, therefore it’s the same,’ ” Ms. Jones said. “But I don’t mind being misunderstood anymore, that’s the thing. I realize that it doesn’t matter if people don’t understand me or what something means to me. If it doesn’t translate then that’s O.K., I don’t care anymore.
“If people enjoy the music, great. And if they don’t like it, and they think it’s boring, fine. They don’t get it. But it doesn’t matter anymore if I’m completely understood. Because you’re not going to be. And you’re never going to please everybody, so you shouldn’t try.”
A few nights later Ms. Jones had a formal performance: a Webster Hall show for television cameras and an audience of friends, the news media and music-business contacts. At the sound check she was a working musician again, making last-minute adjustments to details: deciding, for instance, that one song needed the quiet rustle of a shaker instead of brushes on a snare drum. She started the concert not with a ballad, but with the sardonic barrelhouse strut of “Sinkin’ Soon.” After the applause she smiled knowingly. “I promise we’ll play some quiet slow songs,” she said. “Eventually.”