The Interview: Norah Jones
The Texas songbird on her latest album, Willie Nelson, and dirty jokes
Think Norah Jones is some milquetoast lounge act? Throw that misconception out the window. Sure, she’s a jazz singer who had a smash debut album with 2002’s Come Away with Me and then followed it up with her 2004 megahit Feels Like Home. But that success has freed her to add a few layers to her oeuvre. She’s collaborated with everyone from Willie Nelson to the Foo Fighters, started an old-school country band, The Little Willies (a nod to her favorite singer), and rocked out in the garage punk outfit El Madmo. Born in Brooklyn but raised outside of Dallas, Jones is back with Little Broken Hearts, an emotional and atmospheric album helmed by producer-of-the-moment Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse). And though she’s moved back to New York City, she stays grounded with a little help from her Southern roots.
You had monstrous success with your first record. How did you survive that blast of celebrity?
It was nerve-racking. I thought about ditching the business completely. But I was surrounded by people I trusted and I liked. And people who liked me. At least I think they did [laughs]. I found that I could have a nice, normal private life, and I was making very conscious choices and realizations: Success is OK. This is supposed to be fun. It’s a thing to celebrate. If you can’t enjoy it, quit. No drama. And I learned a lot from just watching certain people.
Willie Nelson. Just the way he is so patient and signs everything for everyone after a show. And Dolly Parton, just making jokes and being as sweet and funny as she can be. I’ve never seen anyone like that go into that deep, dark diva place. Maybe she’s always on her best behavior, but I think that’s the way she is all of the time.
You’ve played with Willie a number of times. What’s he like?
I love singing with him. He’s such an easy musician to play with. It’s sort of mind-blowing to think that he would defer to someone, but he does and is really sweet.
Do you have a favorite record of his?
I’m so partial to Red Headed Stranger. I know every inch of that record. It reminds me of my childhood.
I can just picture my grandparents’ house in Oklahoma. They were super country. My grandmother always had records playing, and I know my grandfather’s favorite album was Red Headed Stranger. Now I have some of their old Hank Williams records, which I treasure more than anything. But growing up, I kind of rejected country music. I never thought of myself as a country music fan until I was, like, twenty-two.
Little Broken Hearts is pretty dark and moody for a summer album.
I tried to release it earlier in the year, but none of us were ready to work yet [laughs]. I didn’t think it would be such a dark album. I was open. I thought we’d have more songs like “Say Goodbye,” some more bouncy stuff. But I’m glad we didn’t. It ended up being the perfect combination of our moods. Brian loves dark music and so do I. Much more than I thought I did.
Do you have to be miserable to write miserable?
I was happy when I made this! There’s definitely a lot of personal stuff in there, but it’s not my diary. I took some of my experiences and ran with it. For me, that’s the best part about songwriting. The joke at the beginning was that the record was going to be called Based on a True Story, and it was a chronicle of a relationship breakdown. But it ended up being kind of a concept record.
When someone says “Texas,” what do you think of?
Willie and chicken-fried steak. My grandmother’s recipe.
Someone told me you have a penchant for dirty jokes. Give us one.
I heard a pretty messed-up one yesterday, but I don’t want to offend any nuns.
This is Garden & Gun, not Garden & Nuns. We’ll be fine.
Here’s a corny one: Little grasshopper walks into a bar and the bartender says, “Hey, we’ve got a drink named after you.” Grasshopper says, “Oh yeah? Cool, pour me a Steve.” My boyfriend told me that joke. So I have to think it’s funny.