With ‘Day Breaks,’ Norah Jones builds on signature sound

November 27, 2016 at 12:39 PM EDT
This week, just back from Europe, singer and songwriter Norah Jones begins the East Coast leg of her concert tour to promote her latest album, “Day Breaks.” The album builds on the style of her 2002 debut “Come Away With Me,” with an emphasis on piano and a jazz ensemble. The NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown reports on Jones’ career.

NORAH JONES SINGING-PLAYING “TRAGEDY”: It’s a tragedy. It’s a tragedy…

JEFFREY BROWN: Norah Jones has said when she decided to be a jazz singer, she knew she’d never be famous. Well, she got that wrong. Whatever you call her, she’s been one of the best-selling American recording artists of the past 15 years.

JONES SINGING-PLAYING “TRAGEDY”: He was only 25, had an open heart and tender mind…

BROWN: Her blockbuster 2002 debut album, “Come Away With Me,” has sold 26 million copies worldwide and her total album sales are nearing 50 million.

Jones’ new album, “Day Breaks,” reprises the style and atmosphere of her first record, but more than anything, her voice remains her signature sound.

JONES SINGING-PLAYING “TRAGEDY”: The babies and a patient wife, they just weren’t enough to keep him high. So he gave them up just to fill his cup…

BROWN: Everything I see about this new album, including in the publicity, it says, “Norah Jones is finding her way, returning to her jazz roots.” Do you buy that, or what do you think is going on here?

JONES: I mean I definitely think it’s accurate. that’s not how I’d describe what I’m doing, because I feel like I’m moving forward, as I do with every album. I’ve definitely been playing more piano again, and I don’t know. Music, man, it’s just music, just listen to it.

BROWN: The pulse of “Day Breaks” is set by her piano — the instrument she studied growing up in Dallas, Texas.

Her father, Indian musician Ravi Shankar, was largely absent during her childhood. Jones credits her mother, Sue Jones, a concert promoter, for exposing her to the music that set her on her way.

What are your musical roots when you look back?

JONES: Definitely jazz. Bill Evans and Billie holiday and Miles Davis. Stuff I still love to listen to today. You know, I was playing piano in a church choir, and I kind of didn’t want to practice scales. My mom took me to this big band concert, and then she found me this jazz piano teacher, and then we got all these old recordings, and I fell in love with this music.

JONES SINGING “FLIPSIDE”: I tried to get high, but you wanted me low. Good things are happening, but happening slow. It’s some kind of mystery from long ago.

BROWN: This song — “Flipside” — is one of eight originals Jones wrote or co-wrote for her new album.

And how do you know when you’ve sort of nailed the song?

JONES: I don’t know. Sometimes you want to tweak it after you’ve recorded it and put it on an album sometimes. Songs are kind of alive, I think; once you finish writing them, that doesn’t mean that that’s it for the song. It can have its own little life, I think.

BROWN: That’s, of course, also part of performing, right? Do you like performing?

JONES: Yeah, I think playing music is one of my great joys in life. I had success early on where I’m able to try to keep it fun, and I don’t have to do things just for the sake of making a living, which a lot of my musician friends don’t have that luxury of course. I remember early on, for instance, having to play wedding gigs, that I hated playing the music. Now I don’t have to play music that I don’t like. I only get to do what I enjoy, so that’s pretty lucky.

BROWN: Lucky — that when she was 24, she essentially swept the 2003 Grammy awards, winning best new artist, record of the year for “don’t know why,” and beating the likes of Bruce Springsteen for album of the year.

Suddenly you were an overnight star, right? Does that, in retrospect, was that, was it too much to happen too soon for you?

JONES: I think I handled it pretty well. There was a lot of points during those couple years where I was pretty overwhelmed by it for sure. It’s funny how you realize what’s important, and it’s not fame and money, even though it can be really nice. Its happiness and whatever it takes to make you feel happy.

BROWN: Jones was at ease as we talked recently at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, not far from where she lives…now with a family of her own.

In recent years, marriage and motherhood, right, no doubt changes your life. Does it change your music?

JONES: I don’t necessarily think that my music has— I don’t go about playing music differently. It changes my sleeping schedule and my drinking habits, that’s what I like to say.

JONES PERFORMING “I’VE GOT TO SEE YOU AGAIN”: No, I won’t go for any of those things.

BROWN: Two years ago, Jones played with the jazz musicians who ended up backing her on “Day Breaks” at a Washington concert celebrating the 75th anniversary of her label, blue note records. The performance, recorded by NPR, included saxophonist Wayne Shorter.

JONES: He’s a legend. He doesn’t play notes, he just plays what he’s feeling. If something’s not moving him, he doesn’t come in yet. I think playing with people like that is incredible, people who just kind of breathe music.

BROWN: This recent performance of new songs was taped in Santa Monica, California, by the k-c-r-w program “morning becomes eclectic.”

JONES SINGING “DAY BREAKS”: Day breaks in your head. And you’re finally alone. I’ll find a way to make it through. But it keeps raining in your heart.

BROWN: Jones says after her smash hit breakthrough, Blue Note never pressured her to put out the same kind of album over and over.

And she didn’t. She wrote more songs with guitars, she made two albums with her country band, “The Little Willies,” and sang an album of Everly Brothers duets with “Green Day” front man Billie Joe Armstrong.

JONES SINGING “DAY BREAKS”: Maybe you should go away. If the love we have is meant to stay….

BROWN: She says her approach has not changed since that day in 2000 when she first met Blue Note Records president Bruce Lundvall with a demo tape of three songs — two jazz standards and one original pop song.

JONES: And Bruce listens to the demo right in front of me. And he says, “So, this song is different from the first two. So what do you want to do, be a jazz singer or pop singer?” And I was like, uh, I’m at Blue Note Records, he might give me a record deal, “jazz singer.”

JONES SINGING “DAY BREAKS”: Raining in my heart…

BROWN: After completing her “Day Breaks” shows in early December, Jones has concert dates booked next spring throughout the u-s and japan.

JONES: I’m super-fortunate to have any fans still. It’s been almost 15 years since my first album. I’m happy. I feel good about music. Music is fun. It should be fun. And that’s the key, I think. Keep it as the thing you love. It’s not like once you achieve success, you’re done, you know. It’s like, still enjoy doing what you’re doing, that’s the key for me.