Parting Shots: Norah Jones
Photo by Frank W Ockenfels
Try as she might have, Norah Jones couldn’t avoid making an album wrought with heartbreak and dissolution. Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) produced and co-wrote Little Broken Hearts, Jones’ fourth record since her Grammy-laden debut in 2002. As she proved on her previous album, 2009’s The Fall, Jones is no longer the cute, winsome girl behind the piano spinning romanticized tales of longing. On her latest, she’s blunt (“We tried to be faithful but didn’t get far” from title track) and, dare we say, badass (“I’m gonna smile when I take your life” from “Miriam”).
The sonic qualities of your albums began changing with 2009’s The Fall produced by Jacquire King and, now, Little Broken Hearts produced by Brian Burton. Do you envision that you’ll continue to explore different producers for each new project?
No. I don’t know what I see myself doing. For The Fall, I knew I wasn’t going to use the same group of musicians I’d always used and I was excited to experiment with different sounds. Finding the right people for it was hard. In the end, once we got into the studio, it was easy. [ Little Broken Hearts ] was so different because we did everything from scratch. I’m open to things that make sense and that are—not easy in a lazy sense—[but] easy in that they seem natural.
You said that, in the past, you’ve been “much more literal about recording” but with Burton, it’s “a lot more about atmosphere and vibe.”
What I meant by that was that even though we played a lot of acoustic instruments on this album, it wasn’t like he was doing loops on every song. It was more like he was playing acoustic guitar on a lot of the songs—just the way they’re affected through the board and with the engineer and the weird filters they put on stuff. That’s what makes [the album] sound the way it sounds, which I liked. Brian’s like, “Why don’t you add a piano part to this?” And I said, “I don’t really hear a piano part.” And he’s like, “No, no—just play something and we’ll tweak it.” And then, all of a sudden, it sounds like a piano but not in the same way I think of recording a piano.
For the first time, you entered the studio pretty much empty-handed in regard to songs. Having been through the process, what do you anticipate doing the next time around?
I’m open. I would definitely try it again, especially if it was working with somebody else who was a good song writer. Brian is a great songwriter. People may or may not know that—they may just think of him as a producer. I don’t know how people think of him—he surprised me.
You’ve yet to record an album of only your material.
My last album had mostly my songs. Some of the songs on my last album just happened. They happened around friends who I know are great musicians and they would add a part here, add a part there, and all of a sudden it was a song. I’m not the most prolific writer. I don’t write 10 songs a week. I maybe write 10 songs a year—maybe not even in one year. Maybe none.
I remember seeing you at the small Upper West Side venue Makor back in 2002 and now, you’re playing the Hollywood Bowl and massive festival gigs. I get the sense that you still enjoy the intimacy of smaller venues.
[Laughs.] I do. Not necessarily with my own band, but with The Little Willies or this girl band I have, Puss n Boots. I love getting together [with them]. When I’m home, I can still be engaged with music and play music without it having to be a big deal—budgets being made, salaries being made—you know? It can just be fun and easy. It’s nice.
Because it is often that way with bigger venues.
When it’s big, it’s fun—for the most part. I’ve learned how to keep it fun ‘cause otherwise it sucks. On the bigger scale, it’s a different way to play music. A lot more thought goes into your setlist or what you’re going to wear. It’s a lot more of a show. When I’m playing a bunch of country songs with my friends in a bar, it’s not as big of a deal.
You starred in 2007’s My Blueberry Nights. Any more acting plans?
[Let’s out a long “hmm” and ponders for a moment.] I don’t know. I’m too tired. The days are so long. I would if it was something really interesting that I wanted to spend the time doing. I’m not looking to do it. [Laughs.]
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