A Conversation With Norah Jones
Mike Ragogna: Hi Norah, you good?
Norah Jones: I'm good! How are you?
MR: I'm fine, thanks. Norah, your new album is titled Little Broken Hearts, and it seems to be a bit of a concept album on relationships.
NJ: I guess it is in that the songs all really connect, and I think they kind of create a big picture. But we didn't go into it that way. What we were going to be writing about or what was going to work, working together--me and Brian (Burton), that is--so we ended up just kind of throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what stuck. We're good friends. We got to know each other really well, so there weren't a lot of boundaries between emotions and just kind of talking about being human and different emotions we all go through. It kind of ended up being what the record is.
MR: I've read how you both had fun writing "Happy Pills" together, the single from the album. Can you go into a story about that?
NJ: Yeah, well we had probably done about half the album. When we started doing "Happy Pills," he leaned over to me--I think I was getting grumpy waiting for lunch; we were always starving when we got there--we were just kind of waiting around to eat, and he looked over at me and starting going, "Nah nah nah nah" just to kind of mess with me, I think. I said, "Well that sounds nice," and we started working on it. It was just really happy sounding, which was a little different from the rest of the album--not that the album is depressing, but the songs are a little darker on the rest of the album. It was very happy and it wouldn't get out of our heads, so we decided to sort of make the lyrics a little more on the dark side, maybe even mean or kind of silly, but in a mean way. It kind of was a nice juxtaposition between the happy music and the darker lyrics.
MR: So you start the album off with "Good Morning," which it kind of isn't.
NJ: Yeah, it definitely let's you know what you're in for. (laughs)
MR: Did you come in to this album coming off of relationship issues?
NJ: I think we all have our own relationship issues. (laughs) You know, I'm not different, but I think I came into writing these songs in a good place having gone through what everybody goes through--you know, the end of a relationship--so there's always material in there. You go through so many different phases when something ends, even if it's a friendship. It doesn't even have to be a romance. You're angry or you're sad or you want to get revenge. There's like this whole range of emotions that I think many people go through. I think we kind of were exploring that a little, and just the fact that we were such good friends.
MR: What was it like working with Danger Mouse?
NJ: It was great, wonderful!
MR: Was there a particular method to how you guys approached the music, maybe a little different from the other records?
NJ: Well, it's definitely different from my other records because I always came into the studio with songs, and on this record, I came in with nothing. We wrote all the songs in the studio together, that was pretty different. But he's very easy to work with and he puts you at ease in the studio. There's not a lot of pressure. It's just easy.
MR: Yeah, and you could tell by the overall vulnerability communicated in the lyrics, production and your performances. You guys were able to settle into that spot, it was a safe zone.
NJ: It was a very safe zone. I think that's the important thing to remember when you're writing, which I had to learn a while ago, and I still don't always have the hang of it. But let all the walls down and don't self-edit yourself too much because that's when the good stuff comes out.
MR: "4 Broken Hearts" is a really smart song. The couple tries to be faithful, but it doesn't get far, and you end up with four broken hearts in a mix like that.
NJ: Yeah, we came up with that line, and I remember thinking, "Oh yeah, of course!" It's like when you're writing, you're always chasing, not a catchphrase, necessarily, but something that will draw the listener in or make them go, "Oh!" So that was kind of the moment for that song.
MR: To me, "Out On The Road" seemed like a metaphor for leaving. "Guess I'll have to love you from afar."
NJ: Yeah, it kind of is, I guess. It's also just that feeling of kind of going out and being independent. I think that's a good feeling, even if it's a little scary sometimes.
MR: On your title track, "Little Broken Hearts," it's like you want to find a way to make it all right. In relationships, do you feel like generally, even through the breakups and all that and even though it stinks, there's this lingering, "God, I wish I could make it right"?
NJ: Maybe...sometimes. It depends on which one. It depends on the relationship, you know? Sometimes you don't, sometimes you do.
MR: Would you be comfortable with a branding like, let's say, "county-indie"?
NJ: Probably more than a lot of things that have been thrown at me. (laughs) I don't know. I mean, I'm not really good at that, but like I said, that's better than most things people say.
MR: It does seem like from album to album, things are evolving musically and in the production. As the Norah Jones of this album, looking back at Come Away With Me, what do you see as the most growth that's happened?
NJ: It's hard for me to put into words and to be objective about it, but I think songwriting wise. I mean, I wrote two songs on my first album--or two and a half--and I've just written a lot more since I started and learned a lot about that. I don't know. Hopefully, everything is evolved in a good way. I don't know though. (laughs) I'm horrible at that question.
MR: When a project is done, do you sit down with your glass of wine or whatever in front of the speakers and go, "Ah, now we're going to look at what this really is"?
NJ: It's hard to do that because you're so close to it. Even ten years later, it's hard for me to look at my first album for what it really is, so I just don't! (laughs) I mean, I made it and I lived it, so I don't have to listen to it or look at it. I think it's hard to be objective. It's definitely nice to sit down and sort of check out what you're doing and see if you can be objective, but I don't know if you can be.
MR: You've been getting a lot of press for your new album, and I intentionally didn't read any of it before I listened to Little Broken Hearts first. Everyone's got an opinion, of course, but after you read some of these reviews, do you ever scratch your head and go, "Jeez, how did they come up with that?"
NJ: Occasionally. I try not to read stuff because it'll make it go bonkers, but I definitely, every once in a while, think, "Wow, that's what they think?" But sometimes it's good, and sometimes it's not. It's okay. It's just the way we are. Everybody has their own image of things, so that's fine.
MR: Will you be touring to support the album, maybe even with The Little Willies?
NJ: Yeah, but not with them. That's the band that I put out a record in January with. They're a country band. I have another band.
MR: Right, exactly, I was just wondering if there was any cross-pollination that might be happening for the road.
NJ: Oh. No, not right now. That would be fun, but it's a pretty different show, so I don't know how they would go together. (laughs)
MR: When you start up your next album, are you going to want it to be more different than this one? Your albums do tend to try new approaches.
NJ: I'm not looking past next week right now. I'm just trying to get through this week. I have a great new band. We're going to tour all year, and I'm really excited about that. I've pretty much gone through the last ten years not planning too far ahead. This album was a couple years in planning only scheduling wise. But the music only really happened last summer when we were in the studio together. I like to see what happens, and I have no idea what will, but I like that.
MR: Here's my traditional question that I ask everyone, what advice might you have for new artists?
NJ: You know, I don't know if I'm the best person to give advice because I got lucky at a very young age. I would hate to give the wrong advice! (laughs) I think the business is tough. It's tougher today than it probably ever was.
MR: Yeah, it's a whole different animal. I guess you came in with Arif Mardin, and those days of the music business are definitely gone. By the way, since I brought up Arif, I always ask anybody who's been associated with him for some thoughts or stories.
NJ: I miss him terribly. He was a really good friend, and he was amazing to work with. He really let me sort of do my thing and gently guided me when he knew I was too stubborn to listen to him if he wasn't gentle. Mostly, I miss him as my friend. He was a good friend and a good martini maker.
MR: And did that take you through how you've approached recording since then? Was that an education?
NJ: Yeah, it was. I think just listening to his stories was amazing. I always will sort of lean towards the old school way of doing things on analog tape and one-take live takes. It's always a fun way to go. And I'll always have great memories of him.
MR: Any words of wisdom?
NJ: Thoughts about anything?
MR: Yeah, absolutely anything.
NJ: Oh, well I don't know. I wasn't prepared for that! (laughs) I don't know. I mean there's plenty, but nothing I feel the need to put out publicly. (laughs)
MR: (laughs) Nice, you got it. Really, this was a treat for me, and I appreciate it, Norah. Thank you so much for your time.
NJ: Thanks so much! Have a nice night!
1. Good Morning
2. Say Goodbye
3. Little Broken Hearts
4. She's 22
5. Take It Back
6. After The Fall
7. 4 Broken Hearts
8. Travelin' On
9. Out On The Road
10. Happy Pills
12. All A Dream
Transcribed by Kyle Pongan