Norah Jones - KeyboardMag

Norah Jones

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.
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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.

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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 new way?

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?

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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 about?

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 the bridge?

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 songwriter?

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.

Recording Norah

“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.

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“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.”