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FAME IN HASTE, REPENT AT LEISURE: NORAH JONES TAKES SOME DIFFERENT TURNS ON THE WAY TO WIND BACK WEDNESDAY

April 2, 2019

When we see her in Australia later this month, Norah Jones will challenge a few more preconceptions and maybe even startle those who think the chocolate box they put her in all those years ago still holds her, as she plays tracks from left turn albums such as Little Broken Hearts, Day Breaks or  about to be released set, Begin Again.

Having made an adventurous, sometimes quite bold, career that consistently mocks original assumptions of nice choices of nice songs for nice people, Jones can work with Danger Mouse, Jeff Tweedy, Willie Nelson, Mercury Rev, or whomever she damn well chooses.

 

As this 2007 profile shows, that was not always a guarantee. For a start she had to get over the most dangerous fate of all: incredible success.

 

It was a warm January night in Sydney, 2003 and 23-year-old Norah Jones was just about the hottest thing on the planet.  Her debut album, Come Away With Me, released less than a year earlier on the small but prestigious jazz label Blue Note, had been expected to sell a few hundred thousand copies.  If everything went very well.

 

Instead, its mix of cocktail jazz, country and a slight hint of blues was well on the way to selling more than 20 million thanks to songs such as Don't Know Why and the album's title track. Her face was on countless magazine covers, the unusual family background (her mother, who brought her up, was a dancer and nurse; her long estranged father was the Indian classical musician Ravi Shankar) was dissected from every angle, her relocation from Texas to New York barely out of school was already gaining near mythical status in the tabloids and in a few months Jones would have a shelf of Grammy awards.

 

Already other record companies were looking for "their Norah", soon to spawn a dozen sound-alikes such as Katie Melua, Corrine Bailey Rae and the resurrected career of Madeleine Peyroux. And here was the original, playing in the Opera House to a sold-out crowd who had been in raptures even before she came on stage.  Everything seemed perfect.

 

But if you looked closely, the expression on her face that night was …

 

"Terrified?" Norah Jones jumps in now, stirring a cup of tea in an upmarket West Hollywood hotel on another hot day.

 

Exactly. It was a look seen in even starker detail on a DVD which came out soon after, capturing shows from the first few months of that world tour, just as her album was breaking spectacularly.

"Oh my God, that was even worse," Jones says, laughing, flashing her large, slightly uneven - and resolutely resistant to Hollywood-style orthodontic "enhancement" - teeth. "And we didn't come to Sydney until we'd been touring for about a year so imagine how bad it was at the beginning."

 

Sitting at her piano she looked like a deer caught in the headlights.

 

"Totally. Yes, absolutely," says Jones in a quiet, unobtrusive tone, much like her singing voice. "I was not used to 'performing'. I'd been playing gigs since I was 16, in bars and restaurants where nobody was really watching or listening. And you didn't have to look at the audience or talk to them because they weren't listening anyway."

 

It probably made commercial sense, and made for a classy debut, to have her play in the Opera House on that first tour and in the considerably larger Entertainment Centre on her second Australian tour two years later by which time her second album, Feels Like Home, was on its way to selling 10 million copies worldwide.

 

However, it didn't take a genius to figure that she really should have been playing in a smaller room, something more intimate. Not just for her sake but for the music which had much more in common with a Tony Bennett supper club gig than a Kylie Minogue arena show.

 

"Yeah, it didn't match the music," she admits. "Hindsight 20-20, I totally agree. The second tour was even worse, the room was even bigger. We were more prepared for it and I was a lot more comfortable but it still did not match the music. But you know, what are you going to do when you've got managers and booking agents who know you can sell a certain amount and go for that?"

 

And of course the stakes were higher. Before that first album if it was a bad show people would turn back to their drinks or their dinner; now people had paid a few hundred dollars and they're were saying entertain me.

"That's the thing," she says in an urgent whisper, as if some of those audience members are just behind the door. "Entertaining, is the key word. Performer and entertainer are words that were not in my vocabulary until the past couple of years. Because I was a musician, I played gigs; I didn't do performances, you know what I mean? But when you're in a big theatre and people have paid whatever and they're staring at you, you realise that you do have to entertain them and perform. A little bit.

 

“You don't have to do a dance but you have to invite them in, you have to be warm.  Even when you're not feeling that way you have to pretend that you are.  I'm not good at pretending.  I'm an honest person in a way that you can read my face, to a fault.  If I'm not feeling something, it's obvious. I can't fake it."

 

She adds: "I was caught on a steep learning curve."

 

It was more than the learning curve, it looked like and must have been an assault on her psyche.

 

"Yes, it was," she laughs again, with just a hint of ruefulness.

 

It's easy enough to laugh about it in retrospect. Now 27, Jones has both the confidence and the financial clout to dictate terms. Today she has a carefully spaced out day of print media (a few in the morning, lunch, then a few more in the afternoon) and tomorrow the TV crews arrive for their much briefer audience on a similarly paced agenda. It is as relaxed as you can be if you have to do promotion.

 

In the foyer, American record company representatives are haggling on the phone with their overseas divisions over access to the highly stylised, faintly glossy promotional photographs being made available.

 

But in the hotel room, with no cameras in sight, Jones is in jeans, a loose green top and silver slip-on shoes. With a mere smattering of makeup, she looks more fresh faced and naturally pretty than any of those photographs and could pass for a young college student.

 

What's more, she is promoting an album she recorded without even telling the record company what was going on, until it was done. Not Too Late was made at home with her boyfriend, songwriting partner and producer, Lee Alexander during what was meant to be a year off. A year in which she could be found playing in four different bands as Norah Jones the musician, not Norah Jones the superstar. A year too in which she had her first sustained period of songwriting.

While the first two albums were dominated by covers of Hoagy Carmichael, Hank Williams, Tom Waits and some of her friends, Not Too Late is all co-written original material. It's not startling, as these songs continue her pop meets country with a dash of smoky cabaret style. Nor is it exactly revelatory.

 

Firstly her life, apart from the fame, has been remarkably normal and uneventful and lyrically the new material is mostly observational. ("I have a wonderful boyfriend So how am I going to write a tortured break-up song?"  she says in good-humoured defence.  "My life is really good and I don't want to ruin it just for a good song."). Still, there's a few pointed lines about misplaced love and even some mild political commentary in My Dear Country.

 

"That's why I think this time off I've had was really important for me," explains Jones, who happily says her own songs on those early albums "weren't that good".

 

"It's been huge for me to play in all these different bands, play the guitar, play piano in the Little Willies, do stuff that wasn't work, it was fun. I love music and I never had that sense of work even in the [she makes inverted commas in the air] ' Nora Jones thing'. Especially in the studio: I've always had a blast in the studio. It was the pressure of everybody watching that was hard."

 

Possibly realising some of this may sound like a whinge, though there is no sense of that in the flesh, Jones looks up intently.

 

"I am very lucky," she says, waving her tiny hands. "I was probably at my most unhappy in my whole life in the midst of the first record being very popular. And that's not because I wasn't into it. I do have an ego, I'm not totally humble.  I had success, it was a little too much, but I certainly enjoyed having success.

 

“But I wasn't happy in the midst of that because of the demands, the pressure. I wasn't really ready for it. I was 22, I didn't grow up wanting that. You see people like Britney Spears or Christine Aguilera who were in the Mickey Mouse Club, performing their whole lives, working towards something their whole life.  It wasn't like that for me.  I was trying to be a better musician; I wasn't working towards this fame thing.

 

"When I first moved to New York I started doing a lot of wedding gigs, stuff that paid more money, and I realised I didn't enjoy that as much.  So I started waiting tables and I stopped doing the gigs I didn't enjoy. That's how I want to play it now."

 

It must have helped then that when she retreated from the public she could retreat into the music at home, and that she had a partner for whom music was as much a part of his life as it was hers.

 

"My God, I can't imagine not having him, totally," Jones says with the closest thing to vehemence you'll find with her.

 

"Also I can't imagine coming off the road and not playing music. That would have been a crazy drop off a cliff too.  I have other interests but I don't know what I would do if I didn't have music."

 

Norah Jones plays Palais Theatre, Melbourne April 12; State Theatre, Sydney, April 14-15; Federation Concert Hall, Hobart, April 17; and Bluesfest, Byron Bay, April 19.

 

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