A Conversation With ... Norah Jones

I’m always a bit apprehensive when I'm interviewing artists who have achieved huge success in an industry littered with unfulfilled aspirations of millions. 
There’s something different in play. I’m not talking money, I’m talking the vibe that comes from crossing the big music divide and finding yourself in control. Then it becomes about ­'where do I go from here?' Norah Jones is all about the music, her music, the players, the internal design, the words and shape of songs. This I can get with!
Jones gave an impromptu performance at Toronto’s Jazz Bistro in front of media showcasing her latest endeavor, Day Breaks, due October 2016 (Blue Note/Universal). Six songs rolled from the house system, then Jones took the stage for an interview with scribe Nicholas Jennings before finally slipping behind the grand piano and playing a few of her own. I caught up with Jones early afternoon for this conversation.

 Bill King: When I was considering what to ask you I began reflecting on the late Bruce Lundvall, the former head of Blue Note Records and the gentleman who signed you. It must have been seven or eight years back at the Festival du Jazz de Montreal and Bruce was being honored when we stroll the hallways observing the history of Blue Note through album covers. During our conversation I asked him what was his greatest career regret and he replied, not signing Eva Cassidy. He didn’t make that mistake with you.

Norah Jones: I remember that. Honestly with Bruce, God I miss him. When I first met him I played this three song demo, a couple jazz standards and this one written by Jesse Harris ­ a country kinda pop song ­ it wasn’t jazz really. He listened to the three songs and after it was done he asked if I wanted to be a jazz singer or a pop singer because that one song is different. I’m sitting there in Blue Note records of course and say, a jazz singer! I was just starting to explore different kinds of music and still wasn’t sure ­ I’m twenty­one, just moved to New York to play jazz and kinda disillusioned doing it, then I started playing these singer/songwriter clubs where people were actually listening,.

Bruce gave me $6,000 to make more demos and find a sound. We did that and several of those recordings ended up on my first record; “Don’t Know Why” was one and he called me after a few weeks listening to it because he hadn’t decided to sign me yet and says, “you know Norah that song 'Lone Star' on here is a country song but I love it, I don’t care, I’m going to sign you, it doesn’t matter it’s fine, let’s do it.” It’s the moment he decided it wasn't a straight record but he wanted to continue with this.

B.K: But they’ve never been straight jazz records.

N.J: Jazz is a tough term.

B.K: Are there times you find it confining to be called a jazz singer as opposed to just a singer/songwriter?

N.J: I really don’t care, people have different thoughts when they say those things and may have a different image in their minds. But for me I started out singing jazz and playing piano, that is definitely where I come from. People call my first record a jazz record . I don’t think it is. It just happened to be on Blue Note and it’s very jazz influenced. I sing like a jazz singer because that’s where I come from.

B.K: Let’s say the first phase of jazz singers, the Sarah Vaughans and Ella Fitzgeralds, they were basically interpreting songs bringing the story out of the lyric. They even called Sinatra a jazz singer but I didn’t hear that much embellishment.

N.J: Really? Sarah Vaughan and Ella, that’s some embellishment.

B.K: I’m referencing the early years when they just delivered the song rather than add many inflections.

N.J: I was most influenced by mid to late Billie Holiday.

B.K: The coming fall release is Day Breaks. Does this have more in common with the early sessions?

N.J: I haven’t played that much piano and this is more of a return to the piano. That has been the most fun thing about this album. It started out in my mind I’m going to record with Wayne Shorter and Brian Blade because we had done a song at the Kennedy Centre for the Blue Note Anniversary concert. It started out, I’m going to make music with them ­ how it will be super rhythmic, I wanted to float over the top and wanted to have good songs. I didn’t want to sing old songs. I didn’t feel the need to do an old standards record. I started writing songs for us and some less that direction and some more that direction. All of the songs were very piano driven, that was the main thread.

B.K: After all the previous hits I heard you sing “Tennessee Waltz,” ­ and that was beautiful.

N.J: I love that and love singing old songs.

B.K: You are so comfortable with that song. You have no issues with country music.

N.J: Part of the reason I stopped playing piano so much was I was writing certain songs on guitar. Some songs sounded good on piano some sounded too “pianoee” if that makes any sense. When I write on piano I kinda gravitate towards county blues, it’s the types of chords and voicings ­ I don’t play pop piano.

B.K: The same when you were young?

N.J: I didn’t play country music when I was young. I grew up in Texas and it’s definitely in the water. It was Willie Nelson and Hank Williams and that was about it. I got into jazz in about the seventh grade and from that point on that’s what I was trying to play.

B.K: I interviewed Diana Krall early in her career ­-1998 - and talked about what it was like to move from playing in a lounge to a main stage where people are watching your every mannerism, evaluating every phrase and note.

N.J: When no one’s listening, then everyone’s listening?

B.K: She also said it gave her the opportunity to develop a repertoire and learn to sing.

N.J: It’s paid practice. When I was in Texas in college and about a year and a half I played in this restaurant  twice on weekends. I’d drive into Dallas and play. It was like a nice date night Italian restaurant, kind of big though but they had a grand piano tucked away in a corner and I’d sing. Most of the time no one was listening, or if they were, no clapping then every once and awhile someone would clap after a song then everyone would look up from their diner and start clapping . That seemed more awkward, I almost didn’t want that to happen, it made me blush. It was the best gig I ever had to learn how to sing and play at the same time.

B.K: What about the first time you arrived on stage and the audience was focused on you?

N.J: When I first made it to New York I was kinda a newbie playing mostly jazz brunches, restaurants that had a piano and still nobody even listened that much. Then I started playing the Living Room with Jesse Harris, originally just singing his songs and once in awhile I’d throw one of mine in. That ended up being the first record from that experience and that band. When I played the Living Room the first time with Jesse I thought, this is so cool. People are listening, they are here to listen.

B.K: The beauty of that was “Don’t Know Why,” a massive hit made for radio.

N.J: That was a weird one to became a hit, I love the song.

B.K: It connected with people big time. What was also interesting, “Sunrise.” Why I’m mentioning is I heard that more than “Don’t Know Why” because I wasn’t tuning in radio. “Sunrise” was such a public piece.

N.J: In which way?

B.K.: At the Paramount Theatre, eventually Scotiabank Theatre, it was the only song you heard everytime the doors opened. It was a big sound and like a welcome greeting. “Sunrise” was played in so many stores around Toronto it was near impossible to escape.

N.J: Really ? That’s so weird. It’s sort of a country song I think. I love it and love that recording too, I thought it was so unique.

B.K: There was also that Toronto connection with guitarist Kevin Breit.

N.J: Yes, he played on my first record too. I loved playing with him and we toured a lot after that first record. Then after the second he said, alright, I’m done.

B.K: Do you still enjoy the touring?

N.J: I do and I’ve learned a lot about how much I can do. It’s hard when you put out an album. When I make an album I’m excited about it ­ I’m excited to play it, I’m willing to do whatever work the label throws at me, I want people to hear it and by the end of the album cycle you get a bit burned out. Since my first and second album when I got very burned out from doing everything, I’ve learned a lot and have a lot of power and control over how much I have to do and I know how to pace it. 

I also know that no matter how good a musician they are and if they aren’t a happy person on the road and fun to be around or miserable, you don’t want them on the road. You want to be surrounded by people who are excited to be there, that makes you excited to be there. If there is something going on and you aren’t feeling it, it’s almost better to cancel it. Not that I would do that, I’ve never cancelled.






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