Ask Norah Jones what she is doing to fill her time during these lockdown months and she laughs, a laugh with an edge of something manic.
“My kids are three and six so it’s a little more like what am I doing to get two minutes to myself,” she says, laughing again. “Mostly I’m just trying to keep the kids happy, occupied, attempting to do the school work.
“They are definitely a great distraction and [she pauses] we are not bored.”
So, is she a hard taskmaster as the home school teacher?
“No, I’m horrible, horrible. I’m failing miserably and I miss their teachers very much,” she says with a sigh, adding, with a little heartache now replacing the manic edge. “I wish my kids would listen to me”
Ah, but you see, sometimes listening to her can be deceptive.
As usual with Jones, whose 18 years in the public spotlight has seen her regularly jink into unpredictable areas whenever she might have settled into safe cul-de-sacs, a straightforward expectation has ended with few kinks.
When a new album from the pianist/singer was announced for 2020, some assumed this might be an extension of last year’s Begin Again, a collection of some of the songs she had been releasing as stand-alone singles, the fruit of unlikely collaborations.
Every few months she had gone into the studio to write and record with someone new, from soul great Mavis Staples and king of the alternative rock world, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, to Brazilian composer Rodrigo Amarante, pianist, producer and folk artist Thomas Bartlett, and New Orleans poet and rapper Tarriona Tank Ball.
Begin Again offered a multiverse of musical planets to inhabit, and the shape of this next album was clear: maybe a Latin-influenced sound or a rhythm-and-rap exploration; maybe a cowriter from dark metal or ambient classical. Or all of them, together.
Whatever it was it would be her and new partners making a further break from, 2016’s jazz-leaning Day Breaks (that had earned comparisons with her hugely successful debut of warm pop and quiet jazz, 2002’s Come Away With Me), which itself had been a shift from the record she made with R&B and alterna-rock producer, Danger Mouse, 2012’s Little Broken Hearts.
Except it turns out the album, to be called Pick Me Up Off The Floor, is – bar two collaborations with Jeff and Spencer Tweedy - almost exclusively Jones alone as a composer, the songs dark of mood and for all but two songs, built around what might be called the classic form, a piano trio.
Were those off-piste collaborations a feint? Actually, they were the spark for what she calls “the most solitary piece of writing I’ve ever done”.
“Each session I did, whether it was a producer or a group of musicians, or someone like Jeff Tweedy, they inspired me to write for the session, even though we did a lot of writing during the session,” she says of the period around those one-off tracks. “My brain was whirring and I was coming up with little ideas where I could hear specific people I was going to record with.”
So before and after those joint sessions Jones would find herself crafting more songs. Finding eventually that these songs, emerging from an atmosphere of collegiality, were really what she now sees as “lonesome”.
Of course, a lonesome record is very of this moment, though the writing was done months before most of the world hunkered down insolation. In this case, while one song addresses the anger arising from the treatment of women in the public eye, most of the album catches Jones looking in, rather than out, and finding the view rather bleak.
“I don’t think I even realised until I had all the songs together. You know, we all, experience whether we have a good life and everything we want, little dips don’t we? I’m no different,” she says, staying to type though by declining to explain what lay behind those dips. “There were things that informed the songwriting that are personal, and also things that were more global: the political situation, the way everything feels like it’s falling apart, even before this virus came.”
One aspect of that falling apart is captured in the song I’m Alive, which has an underlying strand of anger, or at least defiance, at the machinations and motivations of certain media, religious and socially conservative organisations directed at women of prominence or success.
“Defiance? I would never have thought to use that word, but I see it now through that lens” Jones says. “That song goes through a lot of different lives, I feel like. I don’t know if it’s like that [in Australia] but here there are different styles of how people deal with things that we are all observing. We’ve all got the uncle who does this, we’ve all got the cousin who thinks this, politically speaking, and there are some threads there that people follow and I guess I’m just observing all that.”
Even within that song though, there is the move from observing, to anger, to declaring I can – and by implication, we can - get through this, get past this, be better than this. Is that how she feels? Or how she wishes she could feel?
“There’s a story that these songs tell when they are put together that I had to rearrange a little bit to make sure that when it gets really low, it comes up again, and by the end there is a glimmer of hope,” she says. “So I didn’t think about telling myself anything until I was sequencing it and I could see that glimmer of hope at the end. I could see the actual upswings when there are a lot of downswings.”
That story she then constructed for the album could probably have made great use of the song she recorded with Mavis Staples, I’ll Be Gone, which in some ways is the comfort we didn’t know we needed, its feeling of darkness and then acceptance, both pointed to what Jones did with the album and could provide that glimmer of hope she wanted to bring to the end.
“That would fit really well at the end. I love that song.”
If the sequencing of the album is in some ways a tool to make it easier for us by balancing darkness with comfort and hope, the manner of Jones’ catalogue overall has not had the same goal. Her career has had, for a mainstream act with a breakthrough based on attractively comforting music of gentleness, consistent and sometimes almost startling diversity.
There have been albums with an inner-city country band as well as the one with Danger Mouse, albums which veered more towards folkish pop, a duet album with pop-punk veteran Billie Armstrong of Green Day that was essentially an update of the Everly Brothers, and now what is for all its additions and colourings, a piano trio group.
Through this, she has been able to bring a fair portion of her audience through all of the changes, her core appeal – that slow comforter of a honeyed voice - maybe helping to broaden the interests of her audience. Or maybe it was that we were being trained to accept change.
“After my first album was such a crazy success, I was trying to navigate my way through what I wanted to do next. I think what I ended up doing was separating myself from any success or expectation, and trying to just stay on the path of making music I loved, always learning new things, always hearing new music to inspire me,” Jones says.
Worrying about whether success would follow any move is certain to “drive myself nuts, number one, and number two, I might not make music that I love to my full potential”. Of course that’s easier to say if your successes are as significant as hers, but as Jones knows, no major label will tolerate commercial misfires for long these days.
“Early on I just decided not to worry about that part and just to follow my muse. And honestly it hasn’t been difficult because it’s just been a joyride,” she argues. “It’s the funnest thing to play music, and the funnest thing to play music with different people or with the same people and getting into a groove, and then you change it up. Then all of a sudden you want to play guitar, and now I’m playing drums.
“It sounds a little like a short attention span, but it’s also been over the course of 18 years. It’s been great, and it’s been a great way to keep something fun. And yes, the piano trio is the base of this entire record except for the Tweedy songs, and it’s been one of the great joys of mine recently to play live with this piano trio. It’s been incredibly inspiring and this album started that way, with those sessions with [long-time drummer] Brian Blade and [upright bass player] Chris Thomas.”
While we have an understanding of where the album’s spirit came from, the drive for continuing came, oddly enough, from the very sporadic nature of those original collaborations rather than sustained work, that fierce consumption of ideas and energy which normally comprises an album’s recording.
“The act of going into the studio every few months kept the fire going,” Jones says. “Whereas whenever I make an album, my process has always been that my brain kind of goes on rest after that for a while. Maybe for a year or two. Yeah, I might write a song here and there but I’m not an in an inspired frenzy of making music.
“But with these collaborations, it was a little bit every few months and it kept it going for two years. Probably it’s just that the fire keeps burning.”
Just before we sign off, I throw Jones bit of easy meat, a clichéd question about areas she is yet to explore but has in mind for future experiments. Surprisingly perhaps she takes it up, for which we might thank the ubiquitous covid19. Well that and maybe home schooling.
“Usually I don’t answer that question,” she laughs. “But this time - though I have no idea what I’m going to do so take this with grain of salt - I did one of those online dance classes yesterday. It was so fun and it just made me want to make a dance album. I thought I’ll put it on my to-do list, just for kicks.
“In the pandemic era, there are those moments where you get to do something that brings you some incredibly loving and joyous, and for me it was this dance class.”
Pick Me Up Off The Floor is released on June 12.
A version of this story was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald.