In a couple of days, Norah Jones will put on a cape and dance her ass off for a few hours. She's in Los Angeles, booked to shoot a video for her turbulent new single "Flipside" – the singer-songwriter's first clip in which she busts moves. "It's a really fun song to dance to – I was dancing when I wrote it," Jones says.The shoot's not until Sunday. Right now it's Friday evening and Jones is in a back room at a cozy studio in Santa Monica, where she's about to play an hour-long set for a few hundred people, drawing heavily from her excellent new album, Day Breaks. "I was rehearsing the video yesterday and, man, my heart rate hasn't gone that high since I was a kid," Jones says. I ask her to describe the choreography. "Jeff Vandiver?" she says, name-checking the kitschy Eighties-era fitness-dance entertainer. Jones' friend and collaborator Sarah Oda, standing nearby, whips out her phone and dials up a vintage Vandiver clip on YouTube. "I do some shit like that," Jones says, laughing.
Jones is an artist rarely associated with heightened heart rates: Nearly 15 years since she released Come Away With Me, her Grammy-munching, 11-million-selling debut, she remains a proven master of mellowness. On tracks like "Flipside," however, she was inspired by chaotic world events to shake things up: "The refugee stuff in Europe, gun violence in our country, terrorist attacks, the tension between the police and the African-American community and people getting shot – this last year's been intense," she says.
She found herself listening to Les McCann and Eddie Harris' furious yet danceable 1969 live jazz track "Compared to What," with lyrics assailing the Vietnam War and organised religion. "That song is still relevant," Jones says. On "Flipside," despite the upbeat video, she's frustrated and recriminatory: "If we're all free/Then why does it seem we can't just be?" she sings.
Elsewhere on Day Breaks, Jones employs a songwriting strategy she's been honing since her debut: smuggling dark tales inside seemingly placid and pretty surfaces. "Tragedy" rides a groove so laid-back you might not notice it's about devastating alcoholism. On her cover of Neil Young's painfully autobiographical "Don't Be Denied," Jones tweaks a few lyrics to draw parallels between Young's life and her own: dealing with a largely absent dad growing up (her father was the late, legendary sitarist Ravi Shankar); finding solace in music; dealing with the hollowness that accompanies fame. "I don't think I've ever been at the place where Neil was, but I can relate to that part of the song for sure," she says. The album is quiet on the whole, yet it rumbles with unrest. "It's a sneak attack," Jones says.
Jones' last album was 2012's Little Broken Hearts, which she made with polyglot producer Danger Mouse in the wake of a breakup. Since then, Jones' life has changed in big ways: She's gotten married to a fellow musician (citing privacy, she asks me to keep his name off the record) and she became a mom twice over, giving birth to a son and later a daughter. Is there a song on the new album, I ask, that she couldn't have written before she became a mom? "The one song I relate to my kids, 'And Then There Was You,' I actually started before I had kids," she replies.
"I was thinking about my husband, but I finished it after I had my son." It's the album's sweetest, most peaceful moment, with lines about discovering life-altering love. "I don't feel being a mom has changed anything musically for me, but it changes how I hear certain love songs," Jones continues. "Some songs I've known my whole life – then you have a kid and it's like, 'Oh! That's about this! Or maybe it's not, but it is for me, now.'"
Much of Day Breaks was born in Jones' kitchen in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, where she keeps a "beautiful art-deco spinet" piano mere feet from her refrigerator, "covered in bills and junk." It was here that she and her husband started noodling around with ideas that eventually filled the album. Jones' primary goal at the outset, she says, was to write material that would entice legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter, with whom she'd performed at an anniversary show for Blue Note Records, to play with her. It worked: Shorter is among several jazz greats to drop in on Day Breaks. She dived into jazz influences more extensively than she has on any previous album, composing on piano – although Jones originally trained as a jazz pianist, she wandered from that path when her career took off, almost exclusively recording songs written on guitar. Still, she insists that Day Breaks is no regression. "People talk about 'Oh, back to your roots – you've gone full circle!' I'm like, 'No, I'm moving straight forward.' I'm a better musician now. I couldn't have done this album at 20."
Come Away With Me was an epochal success, but Jones describes that period in her life as a deeply unhappy one. "It was a lot of being busy, and being told you're great, but only hearing people who detract," she says. "When you become successful and then people wanna tear you down because you're successful or analyze why you're successful and be like, 'Oh, it's actually not that good' – that's all you hear." So she's content to operate on a smaller scale these days: playing theaters and jazz clubs, keeping touring to a minimum, selling records to steadfast fans rather than mainstream hordes. Even though her Brooklyn house cost her several million dollars, she paints her life as exceedingly modest – she doesn't even own a car, she says, although she's considering getting one to make ferrying her kids around easier. On any given night she's likely on her couch watching TV before falling asleep "painfully early." She likes The Last Man on Earth and adores comedy in general – sometimes to the point of her own embarrassment. "The other night, I played this tribute concert for Tom Petty, and Kristen Wiig sang harmonies with me," Jones says. "She's a really good singer. I was fan-girling, you know? And I was like, 'Maybe we'll be best friends.' But then I always do this thing around comedy people where I try to be funny." She shakes her head. "I don't have a lot of famous friends, because I always act like a goober."
Comedy also figures into one of Jones' happiest memories of spending time with Shankar, who died, at age 92, four years ago. Their relationship was once riddled with fraught gaps and unprocessed tensions. "There was a bit of an awkward phase when we got back to knowing each other – I had shit that needed to be worked out," she says. But they did, and got to a good place. "I felt like we could just be a family. I enjoyed the moments that were just hanging out, like, my mom making a nice lunch for my dad and my stepmom when they came to town, after so many years of weirdness and not seeing each other. Goofing off, talking about stupid movies." Such as? She pauses, deciding whether or not to tell me something. "OK – he really wanted to go see The Love Guru when it came out, and so we did. Afterward I said, 'What did you think, on a scale of one to 10?' He said, 'It was a zero, but I enjoyed it.'" She pauses, laughing loudly at the memory. "I don't know if he'd be happy that people know that. But that was the nice stuff."
From issue #783 (February 2017), available now.
Topics: Norah Jones