Singer-songwriter Norah Jones

Nine-time Grammy-winning singer-songwriter discusses her embrace of change—from her latest album and new band to her short hairstyle and also performs.

Since surprising the music world with her debut CD, "Come Away with Me," which sold more than 20 million copies, Norah Jones has become one of the best-selling female recording artists of this decade. Her unique style comes from the various musical genres she listened to while growing up in Texas. After moving to New York to try her skills, she launched her solo music career in '03. Jones' fourth studio disc, "The Fall," was released last November, and her next one "…Featuring," is a compilation of her work with many well-known musicians.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Pleased to welcome Norah Jones to this program. The nine-time Grammy winner is currently on a U.S. tour in support of her most recent CD, “The Fall.” On November 2nd you can pick up a copy of her next project, a collection of her many successful collaborations. It’s called “Featuring.”
On October 2nd, she’ll be in Milwaukee with an all-star lineup to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Farm Aid. I’m pleased to be a part of that as host this year. Before we get to all that, though, and more, here is now some of the video for the song, “Chasing Pirates.”
[Clip]
Tavis: So Norah and I were chatting during the song there about fan time versus real time, and I raised that only because I was asking her has she gotten used to her hair being so short, (laughter) and she said to me -
Norah Jones: It’s been short for three years, so I’m used to it. (Laughter) But people are always like, “Whoa, you cut your hair.” I’m like, “Yeah.”
Tavis: Yeah, three years ago.
Jones: A long time ago.
Tavis: But it’s fascinating, though, because in between projects we don’t see you every day, so a lot of people are like, “Wow, nice haircut, Norah.”
Jones: Yeah, it’s cool. But it’s funny, when I cut it, even my friends – sometimes I would run into people I hadn’t seen and they wouldn’t even recognize me.
Tavis: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Jones: When it’s your friends it’s not a good thing. (Laughter) Hey, how are you doing? Remember me? Yeah.
Tavis: Some artists are so known by their look that I would think in today’s business, if you change it, you risk people not recognizing you and that’s not good for sales.
Jones: But I prefer that, so I really like having anonymity. Cutting the hair was a good thing for that for a while.
Tavis: So help me juxtapose this notion, then, of liking anonymity with a record that tells all your business. (Laughter)
Jones: Yeah, okay, good point.
Tavis: Those two things aren’t working for me, so make that square for me.
Jones: Well, it kind of does and it kind of doesn’t. There’s some fake business in there too. (Laughter) That’s what songwriting is about. You get to tell a story and you get to embellish here and there.
Tavis: But it is true, though, I think, for all your fans, and I count myself one of them. You can hear on the project that you are opening up and talking about some of your own personal experiences. Was that easy to do? Did you have to find a certain comfort level to allow you to do that, or did it come, as I said, pretty easily?
Jones: It came easily only because it was just a natural – the process of writing all these songs was natural. They just kind of happened over a few years. Songwriting is something I’ve thought about a lot over the years and studied other people, and I have a lot of good friends who are great songwriters. But everybody has a different process and way of doing it.
Some people pour their guts out and it’s like a diary. Some people are really crafty and they get into nerding out on the sentences. Sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s not as soulful as just pouring your heart out. But sometimes when you pour your heart out it’s just kind of annoying. So I’ve spent a lot of time trying different ways.
Tavis: Have you figured out what you’re comfortable with yet, or what’s going to be the Norah Jones style, or are you still in that process of figuring that out, trying different things?
Jones: I think I’ll always be in the process of figuring it out, which I hope I am because then I won’t be doing the same thing all the time. But songwriting is fun and I really like it, but it’s something that I feel more comfortable now than I did in the beginning, for sure.
Tavis: How difficult a challenge is it – or put another way, is it something you really enjoy doing, and that is this notion, to your earlier point, of finding a different way to do what you do? Because when you come out and you win this string of Grammys and everybody immediately falls in love with Norah Jones, I would assume there’s a certain expectation then that your fan base has, and you’ve got to find a way to juxtapose what your fan base wants with who you really are or want to be. How do you do that?
Jones: I think it’s important to just remember that there’s always going to be people who want you to do the same thing over and over, and then there’s always going to be people who are excited to hear you change.
So you’re not going to please everybody, so it’s important to just do what you want to do. If I wanted to make the same record over and over again, I would. But I don’t really want to, so it’s exciting for me to change and see who comes with me and who doesn’t care for it. That’s fine.
I’ve had people come to the shows and be like, “I’m still getting used to the new sound, but it’s okay.” (Laughter) I’m like, “Thanks, man. Thanks for coming. Nice to meet you again.” But it’s cool. It’s sweet, it’s honest. I have some people who are just, like, “Yeah, I always liked your voice but I really like your new stuff.” It’s like, “Okay, so you didn’t like my old stuff. Cool.” (Laughter) So it’s obvious that there’s a mix of people.
Tavis: You were in town a few days ago. I was traveling so I ended up missing the show, but Chris, our producer, told me that he was there, and his assessment was that of many people in the audience who were seeing you on tour now, that you’re playing the guitar a lot more in your performances than you are just sitting at the piano. Tell me about that.
Jones: Well, it’s been fine. I started playing guitar more seriously about five or six years ago, and I really write more on guitar than I do on piano, and I always have, even though I couldn’t play very well. I don’t know why that is. There’s something about the guitar, it’s simpler, it’s more just cutting to the chase of the song instead of getting fancy with chords, because I can’t get fancy on the guitar.
So it just made sense to play a little more, since I wrote the parts on guitar. I’ve really enjoyed facing the audience, because with the piano my back is always to somebody, whether it’s the band or the audience, and I love to play, and I play a lot during the show still, but it’s really nice for me to have part of the show where I’m front and center and looking at people, which I’ve never been.
Tavis: That raises two questions for me about the guitar, at least. One, how is it by your own admission this is not your preferred instrument in terms of your skill level, your talent level. You’re better at the piano, by your own admission, than you are at guitar, and yet you found a comfort level playing this thing in front of thousands of people. So obviously, you’ve gotten better at this over time, playing the guitar, that is.
Jones: Yeah, just blind, I don’t know, brashness, I guess. I have a good friend who’s actually in my band now and we started playing together. We’re both singers. She hadn’t played an instrument at all yet, so she booked a pool hall gig for us every week – this was like five years ago – and every week we played at this pool hall, and I played lead guitar.
So not only was I playing guitar, I was soloing. We could barely play. (Laughter) I mean barely. Nobody was listening. It was cool. It was like a bar gig, but we did it for a good two, three years and we just got better and better, so it’s not like I just stepped out on my stage in front of a lot of people. I had a lot of pool hall moments where I got to mess up.
Tavis: How is it – the other question about the guitar for me, how is it that you, again, write most of your songs on an instrument that you don’t play as well. Again, your fans – I would assume that since we see you playing piano all the time, you’d write on piano. How is it that you write most of your songs on guitar and not piano?
Jones: I guess it’s just simple. I feel more like I need to fill the space with some vocals when I’m playing the guitar. When I’m playing piano it’s kind of fun for me to just play piano and not even sing.
I write a lot in my head, too, because I just – you can hear music in a certain way and if I can’t play the chord on guitar, I’ll move to the piano. (Laughter) I’m not opposed to it. I’m not saying it hasn’t’ happened. So yeah, if I hear more complex chords, then I’ll move to the piano.
Tavis: You started playing piano when?
Jones: I think I was seven.
Tavis: Yeah, so really young. You’re getting better at playing guitar; are you getting better playing piano, or have you pretty much mastered that in your mind?
Jones: I definitely haven’t mastered it. I don’t know if I’m getting better at piano because I play so little piano lately, but I feel comfortable with my instrument and I feel comfortable playing piano lately, but I feel comfortable with my instrument and I feel comfortable playing what I play.
I think it would be fun for me to go through sort of a piano phase where I try some different things. Hopefully that’ll happen, so I’m not just stuck. But it’s all phases, you go through phases, so you don’t really know what’s going to come next, I guess.
Tavis: You mentioned earlier that you – you mentioned this and your fans know this anyway, that you’ve changed bands. How does that affect, impact, the sound of Norah Jones?
Jones: Greatly. Part of what I really wanted to do with this album was get different sounds. I wanted heavier drum grooves; I wanted more electric guitars and electric sounds. I even wanted to use keyboards, like old, analogue keyboards, which I’ve never really done – just Wurlitzer.
So once I got the new band together, it’s different. Some of the old songs sound different than they used to, and the new songs have a much different vibe, I guess. But I’m still me, and I’m not trying to be somebody I’m not. It’s not like I’m all of a sudden doing something crazy. I’m not playing thrash metal or anything. (Laughter)
So it’s still me, it’s just a little different, and some songs are more different than others, for sure. But I have a great band and they’re really versatile, so they fit into a lot of different things.
Tavis: Not long ago, and if I had done my homework I probably could have had my guys pull the clip of this, but in this seat some months ago was one of the greatest songwriters I think ever, and I think most people acknowledge this; he’s certainly in the top tier.
Smokey Robinson was on this show not long ago and I asked him – I didn’t ask him, I said to him how much I loved his cover of your song. I raise that now because it occurs to me to ask you what it feels like to have one of the greatest songwriters ever in the history of music cover one of your tunes.
Jones: Well, truthfully, that’s not my song. That’s my good friend Jessie Harris’ song. But I still felt flattered, even though I didn’t write that song. My friend Jessie was very flattered. (Laughter) So obviously he has to like the delivery of the song if he likes a song, so it’s cool, yeah.
Tavis: Did you have any idea in the recording of that song that it was going to – you’re shaking your head no already.
Jones: No way. I didn’t even know if I was going to get a record deal. It was for a demo deal I had with the record label, and it’s Blue Note Records, which is a jazz label, and Jessie and I had been in a band together where I was singing his songs, which was not really jazz.
It was my first time trying something that wasn’t straight-up traditional jazz, so we were just experimenting. We knew that it was a good take and it was a good track and it was all live. It was the first thing we recorded and it just felt very good and natural, we knew that, but there’s no way – we had no idea it was going to be such a big song.
Tavis: Here’s a crazy question – not the first I’ve asked, and it won’t be the last. I may ask another crazy one in two minutes. But I wonder whether or not you think it’s ultimately better for you – I’m talking about the expanse, in the long view of your career, to have started on such fire and have to try to keep that up, or like other artists – everybody does it a different way.
Some people start slow and they build and they become this huge star, and in your case you came out guns a’ blazing. I guess not that you have any choice about it, because it happened the way it happened, but you have any thoughts about that?
Jones: I think there’s great things and bad things about both ways of doing it, and I think it’s just your – and people can do the same path and have completely different outcomes. So I think I just have to keep on doing it the way I like to do it, and hope that it keeps working, I guess. But yeah, there’s a lot of pressure at first and confusion about who I even was yet, musically, because even though I was very proud of the first record, I was still just figuring stuff out.
But then the older you get, you’re always going to be still figuring stuff out, so it’s not a big deal. I’m happy with my path, so I’m good.
Tavis: Because you are, to your own point, trying different things and playing different instruments, et cetera, how do you go about now deciding what the playlist is for your shows?
Jones: Well, it has a lot to do with a lot of instrument switches we have, and just the flow of having too much time between songs, but there’s like – we start out usually with a lot of the new material and I have three different positions. I’m in three different places on the stage, so I try to just stay stationary and not move around every song. But we have a little country thing we do, because I can’t get the country out of my music.
Tavis: That’s that growing up in Texas, huh?
Jones: I just can’t, it’s my favorite thing in the world to do is play country music, so there’s that, and then I sit at the piano and there’s those songs, so.
Tavis: So we’ve talked about country, we’ve talked about jazz and a few other things in this conversation. Thanks to the record company I haven’t had to go to the store to actually buy this. They sent me a couple of these. But if I went to the record store, do you have any idea now where they’re putting Norah Jones music by category?
Jones: I actually don’t. No, they closed down all the record stores in New York, so I don’t know. (Laughter)
Tavis: I’m laughing, but that really ain’t funny.
Jones: That’s not funny. (Laughs) Yeah, it’s sad. But I don’t know. I have people all the time be like, “Oh, I love jazz because of you.” I’m like, “Well, that’s cool, but I don’t even know – here, check out ‘Kind of Blue’ or check out Billie Holiday. That’s real jazz.” I don’t know what I do. I wouldn’t call it jazz, but I wouldn’t call it a lot of things.
Tavis: Do you like the idea that you don’t know and that you’re not bothered by where they place you in the record store, as opposed to being stuck in a particular category?
Jones: It doesn’t bother me anymore. I think the more you do, the less you care about stuff like that. Categorizing stuff isn’t really that important, but it’s the way it is. People do it anyway. I’ve heard people call me a songwriter or just a jazz singer or a folk rock, country singer. I don’t know.
Tavis: Just Norah Jones.
Jones: Yeah. Everybody has a different take, I guess.
Tavis: I want to go back to this point that we were laughing at which isn’t so funny, because it allows me to ask you about how, just in the few years I was saying to our staff before you came on the set here, that it hit me when I read the intro to this conversation that you have sold now 40 million records. That’s a mind-boggling number, particularly given the relative few number of years that you’ve been really doing this.
That’s a lot of records, 40 million records, and you made the point a moment ago that in New York, where you live, they are – and not just in New York; L.A., too – closing down record stores like nobody’s business.
Just since you’ve been in the businesses it’s changed dramatically in terms of how you put a record out there. Your thoughts about the way the business is changing?
Jones: It’s tough. I feel lucky that I got in under the wire, where I could still sell records, because I don’t have to just hit the pavement all the time. But it’s a weird business. I completely don’t understand it sometimes, and sometimes I do, but I think it’s just the way it is. You’ve got to just go with it. There’s all kinds of Internet stuff you have to do now, but it’s fine, it’s fun. It’s just a different world.
Tavis: I wonder if you are at this place now, or if you think you’ll ever get to the place, as some artists I’ve talked to over the years feel this way, that they get to a point where they want to sell records and everybody does, but you get to a place where the sales are not the end-all, be-all.
It’s really about the expression, putting your music out there, and if it sells, that’s cool. Everybody wants this stuff to sell. But it don’t feel burdened by a record selling a million copies.
Jones: Yeah. I think I started feeling that way as soon as my first record sold ton of copies and I just got really freaked out by it. My second record didn’t do nearly as well as my first record, but it still did really well.
Tavis: How’d you process that? Because that sophomore jinx hits a lot of people. How did you navigate through that when it didn’t do as well?
Jones: Well, I had to just remind myself that it was still doing pretty well, considering. I just knew from the beginning that I would probably never do anything that would be quite as successful as that first thing, and to not let it get me down.
Tavis: See, now you’re on to something here. How do you navigate your way forward as an artist when you admit that you have to wrestle with the fact that my stuff may never do as well as that first record did, and yet you’ve got to keep doing what you do every day.
Jones: You have to love what you do and you have to believe in what you do. You have to not be trying to achieve that level of success, because then you’re going to end up doing stuff that isn’t necessarily what you want to do or what you like. So I think the key is to just keep on with what you like and what’s working for you.
It might change, and you might fall flat and regret something, but it won’t be for the wrong reasons. It’ll be because you wanted to do it.
Tavis: I assume by now you’ve had a chance to tour around the world, since this success has come. How are you regarded and treated and the audience response in other countries versus our country?
Jones: It’s been great. I never thought I would get to tour in the Philippines, but we played a show in Manila and it was great. The response has been great. All the audiences are wonderful all over the world. It depends on the venue, usually, if they’re more crazy or quiet, not really the country as much.
Tavis: When you came out – I don’t need to tell you this, you know this – when you came out – and I’m not even going to mention his name unless you want to go there. (Laughter) But when you came out you were known and introduced to all of us as so-and-so’s daughter, and now people just know you as Norah Jones. I assume you’re cool with that?
Jones: Oh, yeah. My father and I are very close now and certainly we had a unique history, but when I first came out – I don’t make music, I don’t make Indian classical music and it didn’t make sense for me to be known as somebody’s daughter. It’s just a weird -
Tavis: He’s pretty big time, though.
Jones: No, he’s amazing. I love and respect him. It’s just, yeah, it was kind of weird at first. It was confusing. Do I go with that, do I – and nobody wants to hear my personal business. Or they do, but I don’t want to tell it. (Laughter)
Tavis: We do want to hear it.
Jones: You do want to hear it, maybe, but you’re not going to.
Tavis: That’s what Twitter’s all about, MySpace is all about. They want to hear, yeah.
Jones: When you first come out, people are always looking for an angle or a story, and that was a very interesting angle and story. But for me, that’s not what I wanted. That’s not my whole story, and it’s only a part of it. It’s tough when you get headlined as something that is not necessarily everything you are, but at the same time it doesn’t matter, it’s a headline. (Laughs) People get to know you anyway, and it’s totally cool.
Tavis: So finally here, what’s up with the dogs?
Jones: The dogs, yeah. (Laughter)
Tavis: They’re nice dogs.
Jones: They’re nice dogs. It was the photographer’s idea to shoot with all these dogs, and I thought it was a cool idea. I actually have a song on the record that is about a dog, so -
Tavis: Which you’re going to sing for us in just a second, I think.
Jones: Yeah, which kind of tied it all in and I thought it was kind of funny.
Tavis: The song is called “Man of the Hour.”
Jones: Yeah.
Tavis: All right. Well, let’s make room for “Man of the Hour,” and it’s not me, it’s a dog.
Jones: It’s about a dog. (Laughter)
Tavis: So Norah’s new project is called “The Fall.” In November – we didn’t get a chance to talk about this, but in November, I can’t wait for this, the collaborations project?
Jones: Mm-hmm.
Tavis: Called “Featuring?”
Jones: Yeah.
Tavis: You’ve collaborated with, like, the most – I think you have the most eclectic list of collaborators -
Jones: It’s pretty random.
Tavis: – like any artist – it’s very random.
Jones: It’s very random and it’s all people that I just love to bits and respect, so the label had the idea to put it together in a compilation album, and it’s cool. I was kind of surprised, but they all sound really good together, all the songs.
Tavis: So “The Fall” is out now, “Featuring” comes out in November, all these wonderful collaborations, and October 2nd, Milwaukee, the Farm Aid 25th anniversary. I’ll see you there.
Jones: That’ll be fun.
Tavis: Up next, a special performance from Norah Jones, “Man of the Hour.”
From her most recent CD, “The Fall,” here is Norah Jones performing “Man of the Hour.” Enjoy. Good night from Los Angeles, and keep the faith.
[Performance]
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm