Interview: Norah Jones

Jazz/pop phenom returns to the piano on her new album Day Breaks
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Jazz/pop phenom returns to the piano on her new album Day Breaks
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“That’s exactly what I wanted,” Nine-Time Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Norah Jones says when I say that her new album Day Breaks “feels like now.” “The songs have a lot of throwback in them and a lot of them are in old styles. I didn’t want it to just sound like a bunch of old timey songs. I wanted it to sound right.”

After selling over 45 million albums in a career that has seen her delve into pop, jazz, country and even electronica, Jones makes a triumphant return to the piano on Day Breaks, a captivating set of alluring originals and unexpected covers featuring celebrated guests such as Wayne Shorter and Dr. Lonnie Smith. It’s an album that feels both resoundingly fresh and reassuringly familiar, from an artist who has never shied away exploring new sonic landscapes.

Just days before heading overseas on a promotional tour, Jones spoke to me via phone to talk about the intention and reinvention that went into Day Breaks.

The last time we spoke, back in 2012, you had just released your album Little Broken Hearts and you talked about your penchant for playing guitar. Fast forward four years to your new album Day Breaks, and you’re playing a ton of piano again. Can you talk about finding your way back to the instrument you got your start on?

I had to do some solo gigs a couple of years ago for a few different charities. I get asked to do things here and there, and sometimes it makes sense to do things super stripped down, because you want all of the money to go to a good cause. On one gig, they wanted a 20- or 30-minute set, so I was working out a couple of songs that were a little different. I worked out a couple of songs from my last album like “Little Broken Hearts” on solo piano, and it was kind of fun. It took it completely out the vibe that it was in and put it into a whole other one. It was a challenge, too. I think that’s kind of what kickstarted me playing more piano—just working out extra arrangements for those shows. The next one I did was a 45-minute set, so I had to learn even more random stuff. It was just fun, and I started playing more piano from there. Some songs I start writing in my head without any instrument at all, but when I was inspired to write songs for this album, I just sort of tended toward the piano.

What was it about returning the piano that felt so right?

Well, I love playing piano. It’s not something that I never enjoyed. It’s just, you tend toward different things and go down different paths that are inspiring you. I guess the key for me is to keep things inspired and fresh, and when you feel static on something, to try something else. But I feel super inspired on the piano right now. Even live, I’ve been playing more piano and I love it. It just feels good.

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I read that many of the songs on the new album started at the piano in your kitchen. Was that an inspiring place for songs to take shape?

Yeah. You know, early mornings and late nights, it’s right there. So it’s nice to just kind of have it to pick-out songs on.

Why is the piano in your kitchen?

Well, I live in a house that has a few different floors, and all of the music stuff is on the second floor. The first floor is where we live and do most of our day-to-day stuff. We passed by a piano store once and it had this really cute little spinet inside. Did I need it? [Laughs.] Probably not, but it’s really nice to have a piano down there, because there wasn’t a piano on that whole floor at all. And it gets played more, actually.

Is there another piano in the house?

Yeah. In my music room I have a really beautiful old grand and an old, super funky upright. I have a studio and recording equipment up there, so they both have completely different sounds for recording.

Do you prefer playing and writing on uprights or grands?

I love pianos. Every piano has its own character. I started playing an upright on stage a few tours ago, partly because I was playing a lot of guitar and I was splitting my time between the two instruments. The grand just takes up so much room onstage, and it became difficult to position it where I could be seen and see everybody. So that’s why I started playing upright onstage. I got a spinet and it was great. But it’s super old—I think we got it from somebody’s grandma, basically! It’s been good over the years and it’s held up pretty well, but I think I’m going to have to get another piano; a small grand for the stage.

So you’re not going to play a hybrid one with electronics?

No. I can’t do that. I just can’t.

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You’ve talked about how the new album was inspired by your 2014 appearance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, to celebrate 75 years of Blue Note Records. Did that evening get you thinking about doing a more acoustic, jazz-centered album?

It kind of did, yeah. I was super excited that night. It was fun to watch everybody play, and it was so exciting to get to play with Wayne Shorter, Brian Blade, and John Patitucci. [Jazz pianist] Jason Moran put it together and he’s so awesome. I thought, “Oh, I’d love to play with this band again,” and maybe play piano and see if what I do could be incorporated into that kind of vibe.

That’s sort of what started the record in my mind. I thought about it for a while and thought, “I definitely don’t want to make a jazz standards record.” That’s something I did in high school and college, and I love those songs, but it’s not what I wanted to do. So I thought, “Well, I can make it sound however I want. I’m gonna start thinking about different grooves and songs, and just start things happening.” And then a lot of songs were written that weren’t anything like I thought I wanted them to be like. [Laughs.] It became about how once you go down a road and making turns, you end up where you weren’t expecting sometimes. So when we were recording the album, it made sense to get Brian on everything because he can kind of tie a lot of different things together. I didn’t actually record with Wayne and John until the very last session. We ran out of original material at that point, so we did a couple of covers—the Horace Silver and Duke Ellington songs—and then at the last second, Sarah and I wrote the last song “Burn,” which is the first song on the record.

Can you talk a little about your songwriting process? You seem to have a strong core group of co-writers this time around, including Sarah Oda and Pete Remm.

Sarah really became my partner on this album. She helped me finish some songs that I had started and that were kicking around for a really long time; songs that I loved but couldn’t finish the lyrics on. For example, on “Tragedy,” she really made that song have the story it has. The same with “It’s a Wonderful Time for Love,” and a couple of songs that she brought to me. The same thing happened with Pete. There were a few songs I needed help finishing, and one that we started work on together. He also plays in my band. But you know, every song is different.

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You’re open to however they start?

Yeah. I find that for songwriting, for me personally, it always works best if I’m inspired, not if I sit at it like it’s a job. That does work for a lot of people, but not me. So wherever I am, if I’m hearing a melody in my head over and over again, I try to record it real quick on my phone so I don’t forget it. Usually a lyric comes with it, and that’s always nice. I do sit and work at it if I’m trying to finish a song, but it’s usually the lyrics. The music part doesn’t usually take very long for me, because it’s more my wheelhouse and it flows pretty naturally. But I feel like you can tell when lyrics are forced, so they take a little longer for me. Some songs start out randomly, some start out with somebody, some come in the shower and some on the road. I feel like it’s different for each song.

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The album starts with “Burn,” with a potent rhythmic underpinning provided by Brian Blade and John Patitucci. I love the sparse, Bill Evans-like piano chording on this one. I don’t ever remember hearing you play piano in quite this way.

I really think so, too. My first record certainly had a lot of piano on it, and piano was a very important color, but all of the songs were kind of based around guitar parts, and I would just sort of fill around them. So I feel like most of the songs on this album are based around piano parts, except for “Burn” which is more based on that cool bass line. On that one, I kind of just play around it. I figured out a way where he didn’t have to move at all, but I could move and it still worked. So I feel like I’m definitely playing the piano differently on this album. I think it comes down to the songs starting on piano, so it became the basis of each song.

Besides the surprising piano work, “Burn” contains some great Hammond organ as well. Were you an organ aficionado when you were coming up as a musician?

I didn’t think a lot about organ. But Pete [Remm] plays it really well and he played it in a church in Chicago for a long time. He was teaching me once how to play the Hammond, because we got a really cool one for the tour. That’s kind of when I got more interested in it. We’ll jam sometimes where he plays drums and I play organ. It’s really fun, but I’m not quite ready to play organ live! [Laughs.] Pete’s a great organ player, but he’s also good at getting weird sounds out of it. He does that on a couple of tunes on the record, like “Burn” and “Day Breaks.” Because it’s easy to get stuck in a rut with the organ too.

And sound like Jimmy Smith?

Well, that would be great! [Laughs.] I mean more like playing “stock” organ licks on a bluesy tune. Pete’s pretty good at not playing the same stuff all the time. The organ is an interesting instrument. I have other piano-playing friends who are very intimidated by it, but it’s really not that different. You’ve just got to get used to the draw-bars. Really, it’s just about playing around with it. Seeing Dr. Lonnie Smith play on that Blue Note 75th Anniversary show also got me excited about it. It’s been fun having one in the house.

It’s interesting because someone like Bob Dylan is the classic case where organ and piano work well together. But when you get into the jazz stuff, there’s not always room for both, because we tend to go towards the same things. So it’s been an interesting dynamic. I actually had three different organ players on the record: Dr. Lonnie Smith, John Cowherd and Pete. We were joking around that the record was going to be called “Norah and the Organ Donors!” [Laughs.]

Saxophonist Wayne Shorter guests on “Burn,” as well on a few other tracks. I was struck by how elastic his playing is here. On each song, he’s playing totally differently, and totally in the vibe of the song at hand.

Well that’s just what Wayne does. He’s the master, you know? He just plays music. He doesn’t play anything preconceived. He just feels it and it comes out. He’s played with everyone from Joni Mitchell and Weather Report. He can do anything, and I know that. But I knew that what I wanted to do with him was kind of what we did at that Kennedy Center show, where it was more rhythmic and we were both able to float a little bit. I feel like “Burn” was the song where that really happened well.

[BREAK]

Your song “Tragedy” showcases your singular piano style, which pulls together jazz, rock, gospel, and more. I remember you telling me years back that you loved Ray Charles and Bobbie Nelson. What other players do you think have pointed you toward your own piano sound?

I love Nina Simone’s piano playing, which is interesting because I think she was heavily classically trained. But I love that soul stuff she plays. It doesn’t sound very classical to me. It just sounds super soulful. Also Bill Evans, and Blossom Dearie; she was always a great pianist and I love the ballads that she did. I feel lucky that I learned early on that it’s not about how many notes you play, or sounding like a certain person. The most important thing is to find your own sound.

You also mentioned Shirley Horn in the press materials for the new album. She was such a great accompanist for herself.

Yeah, and you know who else was? Aretha [Franklin]. I love her playing.

The song “Flipside” starts almost like an early rock and soul tune, but the subject matter soon provides great contrast to the music. Was that the intention here—to juxtapose a funky groove with a more serious lyric undercurrent?

That kind of just happened along the way. “Flipside” is a song I really enjoyed writing the lyrics to. The subject matter is super heavy, and reflective of a lot the crap that’s going on. But it’s kind of wordy for me, and I’m not usually that wordy. So I enjoyed being more playful with the lyrics. I guess the music started first, and then the lyrics sort of came later.

Did the song start with that ostinato figure on the piano?

It started with those weird chords in the beginning.

Another surprising song on the new album is “It’s a Wonderful Time for Love.” It has an almost Nina Simone-ish flavor to it. Plus, Chris Thomas on bass and Brian Blade on drums are so locked together that they sound like one musician!

That one started after I had finished the music and the melody. I had that line, “It’s a wonderful time for love,” and I knew what I meant by it, but I didn’t know exactly how to convey the lyric. It definitely wasn’t a love song, but I also didn’t want it to sound too heady. So that’s where Sarah came in. We really went back and forth on it lyrically. I wanted it to have the great jazz vibe that some of my favorite jazz records have, like [Miles Davis’] Kind of Blue. So when I was figuring out who would play on the record, I knew Brian can just play anything. And I was really excited to play with Chris because he and Brian already have chemistry. What made the album was our first take of that song. So it came out pretty good. I think that’s probably the best piano I’ve ever played, especially on record. It felt natural and great, and there wasn’t an ounce of it that was overthought. That’s when great chemistry happens in the studio, and when great music is made; when you can shed all of that and just play.

The song “And Then There Was You” is reminiscent of early Broadway show tunes.

I know what you mean. It definitely has that old, old vibe. I started writing that song years ago in Germany. It must have been a concert hall, because I had a beautiful old piano in my dressing room, and that’s not usually the case! [Laughs.] I think it was the end of the night and everybody was getting ready to go back on the bus, and I was just waiting around, so I was playing the piano.

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It’s amazing how each song on the album is a little journey unto itself. “Day Breaks” reminded me of Radiohead with its experimental sonics and the way parts come in and out. In an age where most people seem focused on singles, this album really keeps the listener engaged from start to finish.

Thanks, the sequencing was really hard. [Laughs.]

It must have been because the songs are so different.

Yeah. They are really different, even though my piano and voice are the common thread. It’s funny, that one came out really well, but it started out really stripped down with just piano trio. If you listened to the original, basic mix with just piano, bass and drums, it’s pretty cool, too. It just has a completely different vibe. This song was a fun one to add things to. Some things just lend themselves to that. So we ended up adding a lot of production to that one, between the strings, the organ and the pedal steel guitar.

Your cover of Horace Silver’s “Peace” sounds so contemporary, and just like the entire album, there’s a great groove pulling everything together. What was it like to revisit a tune you had covered years ago?

I recorded “Peace” on an EP that had come out before my first record. I love that song. I’ve always loved it, and I hadn’t played it in a while. And when we were thinking about doing the recording session with Wayne [Shorter], I said that I had kind of run out of original material. So we recorded the Duke Ellington tune “African Flower (Fleurette Africaine),” which was a very challenging song for me to learn. It’s really beautiful and simple sounding, but it’s a little complex. And then we did “Peace.” I just thought, “Let’s do this. I want to sing it right now.” It just felt appropriate. The lyrics are beautiful. They’re meaningful, and so are the chords and the melody. When I think about making a jazz record and throwing in a jazz “cover,” that is probably one of the coolest songs. It’s beautiful and different, and it has a very unique chord structure that’s very circular.

Do you think if you had enough original material, you wouldn’t have recorded any covers on the album?

I think if I had 12 songs that I really loved that were original, sure, I wouldn’t have. But I like it either way. It doesn’t bother me if they’re not all originals, as long as I have the right thing to fit in. And sometimes I like having a couple of holes on the record and thinking, “Ok, what do we need? What can we do to fill this out?”

Tom Elmhirst (Adele, U2) mixed the album, and to my ears, he imparted a modern, vibey sound to the record. How did you choose him for the mix?

I had two friends recommend him to me— Danger Mouse and a great piano player named Thomas Bartlett. It’s interesting, because Tom does a lot of complex sounding pop records, and this record is pretty simple, with a couple of exceptions. I really wanted Tom to mix it because I didn’t just want to record it well and slap reverb on it, like they do on a lot of jazz records. I wanted it to sound right in all the right ways. I wanted a little extra vibe on it. And Tom has a way of doing that without just throwing effects on everything.

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When you’re learning unfamiliar material, what is your process like? How do you internalize music that you want to make your own?

I just play it. I think for a song like [Neil Young’s] “Don’t Be Denied,” which is a little easier to learn, I just have to make sure I own the lyrics. But for the Duke [Ellington] song, I had to sit down with the recording and figure out the chords and internalize them a bit more. I was hoping to be inspired to write something with that vibe, because I love that recording from Money Jungle. I just kept listening to it over and over and then I thought, “Well, let me just learn this song, just in case I can’t write anything.” So I learned it and then I thought, “Well, let’s do this. It’s so beautiful, and I can hum the melody; it might be kind of a cool, different thing.”

ELI WOLF ON PRODUCING WITH NORAH JONES

Co-producer Eli Wolf with Norah Jones and Robert Glasper. “Norah and I have been working together, really since she came to town,” Day Breaks co-producer Eli Wolf tells me. ���She naturally and very organically gravitated back to the piano for this album; literally the piano in her house. And while she became a very fine guitarist in a short period of time, with a very distinct sound of her own, she never abandoned playing piano. But this time around, her writing was specifically on piano.”

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“We worked for about a year on the project,” Wolf continues. “While we were in the studio, I kept calling the album Back to the Future. [Laughs] Her first album [Come Away with Me, 2002] was very much a minimalist, gorgeous, stripped-back affair featuring her singing and piano playing. So that was the idea here as well; to base everything around that, and for Norah to play a bit as well. She studied jazz at the University of North Texas, so while this isn’t a jazz album per se, you do hear influences of Shirley Horn and Blossom Dearie on it. And just like those artists, Norah’s truly a player and a singer together. She accompanies herself beautifully and she takes some really beautiful solos on this as well. She plays economically but always hits the right note!”