A DECADE AFTER THE RELEASE OF HER DEBUT ALBUM COME AWAY WITH ME,
the multiple-Grammy-winning Jones returns with Little Broken Hearts, which
may surprise fans of her past fare. With Danger Mouse (a.k.a. Brian Burton) at
the helm, Jones delves into deeper, often darker tonal territory, framing each of
the album’s 12 songs in cinematic sonorities. Her luminous voice is bathed in a
sea of sinewy guitars, processed pianos, and searing lyrical fare. This is Norah
like you’ve never heard her before.
This album feels like a reinvention—the
songs, song structure, use of instruments,
and even your voice in almost effect-like
ways. Was it liberating to work in a whole
It wasn’t liberating because I didn’t feel like I was
imprisoned previously. It was just fun. The great
thing was that we were in Brian’s studio with all of
his gear and his engineer, so it was his world.
I knew it was going to sound different because
of that, but I like his world—I like the sounds
he gets. Brian and I had worked together on
his Rome record, and during that time, we got
to know each other really well. We had gotten
together for five days about three years ago to
try collaborating on things, and it felt really
good. So it was easy to commit to two months
of working with him again.
How would the two of you collaborate?
A song might start with him playing drums and
me playing keyboard bass, and then I’d sing gibberish
over it. Or he might play a guitar part
that I’d sing over. Or he might say, “Ooh, sing
this,” and I’d sing it and then come up with a
piano part. It was actually very acoustic in the
way we played things. But it’s the way Brian
treats things coming out of the board that make
them sound unique.
There are instances all over Little Broken
Hearts where as a listener you’re not exactly
sure what you’re hearing.
Yeah. For example, the record starts with an arpeggiated
guitar part on “Good Morning,” but everybody
thinks it’s a piano. I really like that some
songs were recorded very “stripped-down,” with
just me singing and playing. But the way it sounds
on the recording is so atmospheric—it’s got such a
thick vibe. And that’s just from all of the different
recording techniques used on the album.
What’s in your studio at home?
I have my studio that I share with Lee, my old
bass player. You’re talking to the least gearheaded
person on the planet, but he got really
into gear and just went nuts. I reaped the benefits—we have a two-inch tape machine and a
Neve console. Part of what was so cool about
making this album was that I didn’t know how to
get all of the sounds out of weird pieces of gear.
It was interesting to see how acoustic everything
actually was. My impression of recording with
Brian initially was that he’d be using more loops.
But everything was recorded in a very organic
way and then sonically treated after the fact.
Do you remember how “Happy Pills” came
Brian looked at me with a guitar and started singing,
“nah nah nah nah . . .” He was just singing to me,
kind of goofing around. And we were like, “Why
don’t we record that on our phones, just in case.” A
couple of days later when we were done with an
idea we were working on, we thought, “Let’s see if
we can come up with something for that ‘nah nah’
track. That was kind of nice.” That’s why working
this way was so inspiring. Even though we were
very structured—going in five days a week—it was
totally loose when we were in the studio. That’s
how you keep that spark alive—by chasing things
and being really open. It’s about having no agenda.
“Good Morning” has a shimmering loop in the
beginning that mutates over a bed of guitar
chords. What’s the bell-like instrument that
fl oats over the lyrics, “folding my hand?”
It’s a Rhodes. Many of the bell-like sounds on the
album were played on a Rhodes because it gets
such a nice, bell-like tone. I guess I knew that,
but Brian was always pushing to try something
high up on the Rhodes. It appears on the record
in a number of different spots. For live shows, I
use a Wurly. I really don’t want to bring a Rhodes
on tour just for that sound, so I found a way to
re-create it on the Wurly with a couple of pedals.
What model Wurly are you playing these days?
I play the student model. You know, the tan one with
the built-in speaker? That’s what I have, but I had the
speaker removed. It does sound different than the
normal ones [model 200 or 200A], though.
“Good Morning” has a juxtaposition of major
versus minor. That happens a lot on the album.
“Happy Pills” is an example of that as well. When
we were writing lyrics for it, we were almost like,
“This is annoying. These lyrics have to be the opposite.”
If they were happy lyrics, things would be
just a little too happy. I don’t like “happy” music,
necessarily. I don’t find myself listening to a lot
of it. I like Brazilian music, but then I don’t know
what they’re saying! [Laughs.]
“Say Goodbye” is another example of a
tough sentiment with a playful musical message.
Was that your intention?
The intention in the writing was very abstract. We
were just kind of throwing things at the wall. That
song is just the two of us. I’m playing keyboard bass
and doubling it on guitar because I like the way
those instruments sound together. Brian played
drums, I played bass, and we took it from there.
What about the guitar hooks at the beginning?
Those came later. Whatever hooks ended up in
my music in the past have been almost accidental.
But Brian is very mindful of a track needing
something—and that’s nice.
What’s that mutating keyboard part in
It was a Wurlitzer processed with a filter that pitched
it up an octave. That made it sound completely different.
We did that on a few songs on the album.
What was the impetus to delve deeper into
vibey vocal processing on this album?
I’ve been experimenting with vocal sounds since
my third record, where I started using more of
it. Brian and Kennie the engineer had a lot of
ideas, and I loved it because it wasn’t only reverb
or delay. Sometimes you’re hearing a Leslie
speaker on my voice. That kind of experimentation
was really fun.
There’s a long fade at the end of “Take It
Back” that’s almost cinematic. So much of
this album feels visual.
That’s how Brian is. If you think about his Rome
album, it’s a soundtrack album. I think that was in
my head when I went to work with him. That kind
of cinematic element definitely came out on the
record. That’s why we chose the “movie poster” as
the CD cover. It ties in to the overall story.
You’re playing a lot of guitar these days. Do you
recommend taking up a second instrument to
help musicians step out of their comfort zones?
Yes. In fact, it’s sort of about my limitations on
guitar. I wrote “Come Away with Me” on guitar.
I’ve written songs on piano too. There’s a song
on my third album [Not Too Late] called “My
Dear Country,” and it’s not a song I could’ve
written on guitar. There are a lot of chords,
and they’re very involved. But I find that on
guitar, I can be more focused on the melody
and lyrics than on playing fancy chords, because
I can’t play any on guitar.
“Miriam” has an amazing sense of drama
throughout. The end of it is almost like a
battle cry. Was that intentional?
Definitely. We actually had a more stripped-down
version that really worked well. But when we
brought the band in to play on the end section, it
seemed to make sense to try and pull more drama
out of it because it’s quite a long song, and also
quite slow. The melody is very repetitive as well,
so we tried to build it up slowly with live strings,
synth strings, a lot of guitar, some piano, and
these really low, moody drums. From the very
first demo of that song, we had a really long delay
on my voice. We got used to it, but it also got
distracting in certain parts of the song. We had
to find the balance of just how much of that delay
to use, putting it only on certain words. The effects
on this record are as important, if not more
important, than some of us. They’re almost like
another member of the band.
I was struck by your piano on Ryan Adams’
Ashes & Fire. Who were your biggest influences
coming up as a pianist?
Th e people I’ve tried to copy most are Ray
Charles and Bobbie Nelson. It was fun doing
those sessions with Ryan. I was psyched to be
hired as a piano player!
You enjoy being a sideman?
Yeah, when I don’t have to be front and center,
it’s a little easier. You get to collaborate with
people, have fun, and just play what sounds good
to you. You don’t have to obsess over things the
way you do when it’s your own project.
Is it tough to reel in your piano chops in service
to creative exploration?
I’m totally fine with it. I don’t really “blow” that
much in general. That’s why the other band I’m
in, the Little Willies, is so much fun. I get to
play a ton of piano in that band, and I play a
lot. But this music is about whatever’s going to
serve the song best.
It’s been ten years since Come Away with
Me. How have you grown the most as a
I think it’s about learning more things in life. I
love writing “story songs” where you come up
with a character and develop it. But those songs
have to start somewhere in your own reality. It
can be your friends going through something,
or something you watched on TV, but you have
to be connected to something in the song. It can
turn into total fiction from there, but it has to
start from reality.
“Half of Little Broken Hearts was
recorded at Mondo Studios, the
personal studio of Brian Burton
[a.k.a. Danger Mouse] in Los
Angeles,” says Todd Monfalcone,
who engineered the album along
with Kennie Takahashi. “The other half was recorded at Electro-Vox Studios,
right across from Paramount in Hollywood. It’s an incredible facility that’s
been there since the 1930s, and it has a killer collection of vintage gear.
“Many of the songs were recorded by just Norah and Brian at Mondo,”
Monfalcone continues. “Later, they took them to Electro-Vox to add other instruments
and musicians. At Mondo, we recorded to a Pro Tools HD 3 system,
mostly using Brent Averill mic preamps, along with a Golden Age microphone
amp by Shadow Hills, which is modeled after the original preamps designed
by Bill Putnam Senior at Universal Audio.”
Little Broken Hearts simmers with a captivating collection of vintage
keyboards, many from Burton’s collection. “We had an amazing array of old
organs and synths that were wired in so Norah and Brian could record quickly
when inspiration struck,” Monfalcone recalls. “Everything from a Hammond
A-100 organ and Leslie speaker to a Fender Rhodes Stage with accompanying
Satellite speakers and a student model Wurly modified with a tube output
transformer. We found that a lot of the older, funky instruments sound better
when you amp and mic them. We also used a bunch of vintage organs,
including a Magnus chord organ, a Farfisa Pianorgan, a Kimball EP 4 Fun-
Time organ with a built-in Elka drum machine, and an enormous Kawai from
around 1984 that has three manuals and lots of unique sounds.”
A 1960s Yamaha upright piano was recorded with ADK Vienna mics placed
behind. “Norah’s vocals were mostly recorded with a 1950s Neumann U47 mic
through a Brent Averill 1272 preamp and Empirical Labs Distressor,” Monfalcone
continues. “We also used some smaller mics, including a Mojave Audio
MA-100 and Telefunken D19. Most of the effects on the album were ‘in the
box,’ including Line 6 Echo Farm, the Waves H-Delay, and Avid ReVibe.”