In 2002, Norah Jones gave Blue Note Come Away With Me, the longtime jazz label's best-selling album ever. Ten million discs sold. Her next, Feels Like Home, reached quadruple platinum, while Not Too Late, Jones's latest, went double platinum after dropping in January.
With her breathy voice, jazzy piano skills and romantic ballads, Jones was the best thing that could have happened to Blue Note and certainly the best thing that could have happened to easy listening. Label execs must be happy; they scored a sure thing or did they?
"I don't want to do the same thing over and over. I really don't," admits Jones, chatting via phone from her pad on Manhattan's Lower East Side. While sipping tea, she briefly turns to speculation, wondering what she'll be doing 40 years from now. "Forty years? I hope I'm alive," she exclaims. "Every year I'm alive, my tastes change, musically. The kind of person I am changes."
The relaxed persona evident in her songs is no put-on. Jones is about as easygoing as one would think but with a bit more cheer. She speaks in girlish inflections, is quick to laugh and has no diva attitude. But she's been sneaking out on weekends, literally even in disguise at times to play punk rock or honky-tonk country in pool halls around the city, where she builds her guitar chops and has a blast.
Jones turns enthusiastic talking about the Sloppy Joannes, the all-girl country band she's playing guitar for, in secret, "but not top secret." These days, her fave song to play is "If You Don't Like Hank Williams, You Can Kiss My Ass," written by Kris Kristofferson. "It's got a great line that I really like: ‘You're the only one you're screwin' when you put down what you don't understand.' That's a great line, you know! It sounds crude in an interview for me to just say that, but if you heard the song..." she trails off. "I don't mean to be crude."
Crude? Not at all. But there is "Sucker," Jones's collaboration with Mike Patton on his 2006 album Peeping Tom. She colors her usually sexy voice with menace and aggression, whispering "motherfucker" throughout the song. Jones is a big fan of Patton's avant-metal, so she couldn't turn him down. Laughing, she says, "My mom called me she's like, ‘Who's Mike Patton? And why are you cursing on his album?' It was funny."
Such things might disturb the romance and serenity that most fans expect from Jones's work and she acknowledges this. The soft and easy sounds of Not Too Late don't deviate from her successful formula. But she is looking to expand a bit. While the ballad "Thinking About You," the disc's first single, is meant to be on the radio, the next, "Sinkin' Soon," is part New Orleans jazz funeral march, part Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht sardonic lament. "In a boat that's built from sticks and hay / We drifted from the shore / With a captain who's too proud to say / That he dropped the oar," she sings with a little growl, sounding like Tom Waits, but far smoother.
The tune seems to be, metaphorically, about the demise of America, and possibly Hurricane Katrina. "Well, it ended up sounding like that and definitely relates to that, but I think we started writing that song before all that," she says.
The record contains more dark images. "Wish I Could" is a countrified ballad about losing a lover to war, while "My Dear Country" laments Election Day 2004. But Jones swears she's not going political. The latter tune, like any love song, "captured a feeling...I like to introduce that song [in concerts] as being about feelings, because that's what it's about."
Blue Note actually had no idea it was getting a new album from its star. Trying to prevent the suits from looking over her shoulder and applying pressure, "We tried to keep it under the radar," says Jones, who started writing the tunes back in 2004 with her main collaborator, Lee Alexander. "You know, they'll [the label executives] slap a release date on you as soon as they start putting out money for it," she adds.
Jones keeps secrets from her label and slips out on weekends by donning a wig what other secrets is she keeping? Why, she's even two-timing the music biz: She is making her acting debut in My Blueberry Nights, which opened the 2007 Cannes Film Festival on May 16 and Jones was there. "I'm excited and terrified," she says, sounding more of the latter.
She'd never acted in anything save a high-school play and music videos, but when director Wong Kar Wai (Chungking Express, 2046) asked her to take the lead role, she jumped at it. "His filmmaking style is very unique and beautiful. It's like moving art," she explains.
The plot has her character looking for meaning, soul and love across America. "She needs something, so she leaves New York and goes traveling to find it." Jones can't be more specific not because the plot is a secret, but because Wong's films can't be condensed into tight summaries. "You'd have to see it."
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Wong began the project his first film shot in America with Jones in mind. "She's a natural," he told The New York Times last November.
For Jones it was a rewarding experience, and she'd do it again, but wouldn't want movies to interfere with her music. While filming, she had to work 14-hour days. "I became a musician because I liked the idea of sleeping late and just jammin'," she admits, laughing. "I don't know if I want to give up that lifestyle."
But back to looking ahead 40 years... "I don't know if people are always going to buy my CDs," she says, sounding like the most relaxed person in the world. "[But] I'm not going to stop. If people care or not, that remains to be seen. But it doesn't bother me if they don't." She's made enough money with jazz-tinged easy listening. "I've been lucky enough that I can do this the rest of my life, and I don't have to depend on selling any more records. You just gotta make sure you do what you want to do."
Norah Jones performs Tuesday, June 12, at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, 713-629-3700.