Photography by Frank W Ockenfels
A month ago I was asked by Platform to interview Norah whilst she was in London to perform. I was planning on being there anyway and sent Norah an email to see whether she’d be interested in being interviewed by me, for an Indian arts magazine, which I’m very fond of and she replied that it would be interesting. We left it at that and I assumed that she would confirm later, and that I would then spend a good amount of time preparing for my first-ever interview. I had the notion of planning lovely, clever questions that she’d never been asked before. One day before her London performance, Norah emailed again saying that she could come over to see me and if I wanted to do the interview at the same time? Whilst I slightly panicked at not having any time whatsoever to plan my questions, I said yes. To support the release of her new album, the wonderful Little Broken Hearts, Norah is on an extended promotion and concert tour in Europe and North America. She’s exhausted, I know, from our previous conversations, because the combo of concerts plus press and TV appearances has had her on high drive. It tells me how much this record means to her, because I know she normally avoids doing more press than needed and used to have, for example, a strict ban on press the same day as concerts, which has now been lifted. Yet when she shows up at my doorstep she looks as lovely as ever, and is effusive and chirpy when greeting my one-year-old son Zubin, her nephew. He adores her and surprises me by remembering her name after two months, ‘Nona!’ being the closest he can manage. We’re both excited and curious to tackle the task, which has been set for us by Platform, as of course neither of us has ever interviewed the other before. After sending Zubin out to play with his nanny we settle down in my living room, the sounds of a bustling Shoreditch street party floating up through the window.
Anoushka: It’s good to see you.
Norah: I love it when I get to step into your home on tour and feel homey.
A: It’s nice to actually be at home to welcome you. I hate it when I come to New York to play and you are not there, or vice versa. Ok, let’s start this interview. So how’s your tour going so far?
N: It’s going great.
A: New band, new album….
N: New band!
(Norah smiles at me, and I smile back at her. There’s a long pause….)
A: Oh God, I’m a bad interviewer!
(As I start to panic, Norah, thankfully, picks up where I trailed off.)
N: I love it. I’m psyched about the new band. It’s really fun. And I love these guys; I’ve known them for a while.
A: They were all a band together, before you hired them, right?
N: Yeah, I met them during Bob Dylan and Tom Petty tribute night shows. They already had their chemistry together and I already knew them really well. It’s just been so fun.
A: So was it easier for you to plug into this existing band, as opposed to having to create an entire…
N: Yeah, it was so much easier than having to put a bunch of strangers together to see if they had musical chemistry.
A: Was that difficult as a band-leader that they already had their own thing going?
N: No, it was good for me because they seemed really excited to do this gig. I’m totally thrilled with them and we’re having a lot of fun on the road, you know… It’s always so fun when you have a group of good people.
A: It’s essential. It’s a killer otherwise.
N: It’s a killer if there’s one unhappy person, or somebody who doesn’t want to be there for whatever reason, then you can just feel it on the whole tour.
A: And the chemistry on stage, I mean, you don’t need to all be each other’s favourite people but...
N: Yeah, you need to like each other! It’s funny – this is my first band without another female in it. ‘Coz I’ve had Daru and Sasha both sing backup and they were great. We always sing really well together.
A: You have the guys singing backup for you now instead.
N: Yeah the guys all sing, which is great, but not having that female voice – I was a bit worried about that, but it turns out that my drummer sings just like a girl!
A: True! I saw you on Letterman, and I was thinking, ‘where is this second voice coming from?’ And they cut to him and I was like, ‘oh my god!’
N: He sings so high! It’s crazy! He sings so high and he’s really an amazing singer. So that’s been a total save, you know? Thank god.
A: I love that it’s your drummer. He’s a very big, solid, manly guy and he’s singing your high harmonies.
N: It’s pretty funny. There’s a couple of times where I have to jump up to the high-high ones, just ‘coz he can’t quite go that high, but it’s great. I got really lucky.
N: It’s a little different, but not really. ‘Coz the last album I did, did have another keyboard player, my band doing weird sounds and organs, so I have that again. The guitar player and the keyboard player definitely play a lot of weird effects through pedals and I was a little worried at first, wondering how it would translate on stage without just copying the record but… there are parts on the record which are all very simple, so as long as those parts get covered – even if it’s a slide guitar on the record, I can do it on the Wurlitzer for instance, and it kind of works.
A: I’m always a big fan of that actually. I do that with my pieces a lot. I’m sure that there are some people who don’t like it and would rather hear albums they like being duplicated exactly, but I like translating things, and I think many people enjoy hearing music they know being translated a different way.
N: Yeah, honestly, I wouldn’t want to just play the same versions of the song every night. It’s more fun to stretch out and these guys are great musicians so we’re kind of stretching out a little bit, and the songs are simple. I was a little curious myself, and wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but it worked really well.
A: I was curious about one technical thing, because this type of music involves sounds that fill up space in a different way than the acoustic set up that you had years ago. So if it’s you, with piano and an upright bass, compared to when you have these really full synths and pedals and guitars, do you have to be aware of that for your voice? Like, is there ever any issue around leaving enough room for the textures of your voice to be heard?
N: Yeah I do sing kind of soft. My voice, I think flourishes whenever there’s not a lot around it, because I have a subtle way of singing, which you can’t tell if there’s a bunch of stuff covering it. But I feel like we kind of did that in the studio. Brian (Burton; Norah’s producer on Little Broken Hearts) and I were both very conscious of adding too much ‘coz even though there is a lot more production than I’ve ever had, and there are a lot of weird sounds, still there are a lot of intimate moments on the record, musically. One thing I’ve never been into on stage is the ride cymbal for drums, and it’s just ‘coz it kind of competes with my vocals in the same range. I remember hearing once that Dizzy Gillespie used to carry a ride cymbal around with him for the drummer to play because that’s the one that complemented his trumpet. I remember hearing that years ago and I felt better about not liking ride cymbals.
Photography: Noah Abrams
Norah with Brian Burton
A: So you had mentioned Brian earlier. For people who don’t know, that’s Brian aka…
N: Danger Mouse!
A: What was it like having him produce your record?
N: It was great.
A: How well did you know each other before you started working?
N: We knew each other pretty well. We did that Rome record about four years ago.
A: Was it really four years ago?
N: It only came out about a year and a half ago, but yeah we recorded it a long, long time ago. We became buddies, we worked well together on that record, and I really liked working with him in the studio. Sometimes he would tell me that he wanted me to sing differently – which is totally fine, I’ve had people tell me that when I do other projects. And that’s fine.
A: I was curious because I know you’ve worked with the legendary producer Arif Mardin on your first records, but generally the people that you’ve written with are people who you’re really close to you.
N: Yes, they’re my friends.
A: So I was wondering what the relationship was because you were writing very intimate songs together from the beginning.
N: Yeah, we were pretty tight. After the Rome thing, we got to be good friends. We would hang out every time I was in LA or he was in New York, so we definitely knew each other pretty well at that point. After the Rome record, before I made The Fall, I asked him if he wanted to work with me on (The Fall), because I was looking for some different sounds. But I already had the songs all written and he said he didn’t really want to do that, but would rather go in and write together and see what we came up with, playing a bunch of instruments by ourselves. I think he had more fun doing that. And I don’t blame him.
A: And if he gets to be more involved from the beginning…
N: He’s more involved. I actually think he’s so creative – that’s where he thrives. He’s an amazing songwriter. So we tried for five days, three years ago. And that’s where all this stuff started and we ended up using three songs that we had started then, but it was more to just get a feel of how we worked together and if we wanted to pursue it.
A: So by the time you were actually working on the record, you were at that place of trusting each other.
N: Yeah, I don’t think I could do it with somebody I didn’t know that well – that intimately. You know, you’re writing lyrics and you always feel so self-conscious? It’s personal and even if it’s not personal, it’s almost like saying, ‘oh, what do you think of my poetry?’ or something!
A: I find that just being in the studio has to be safe, a safe place where you’re not afraid to make mistakes…
N: A safe place, exactly…
A: And you have to trust the people you’re in a room with. If I feel self-conscious about someone who walks into the room, it changes the way I play. ‘Coz it’s not like being on stage and saying, ‘And now I’m presenting this stuff’ – it’s where you need to take the risks.
N: Yeah, you want to take risks to come up with something interesting and if you’re too afraid then you’d be like a blank slate. And I was a little bit afraid of being totally blocked and not coming up with anything, but I was also not that worried ‘coz I knew Brian well and I know he’s done this before, so I kind of trusted that this was all going to be fine. Anytime I did hit a wall and neither of us could come up with something he’d say, ‘Ah, it’s cool. Well, let’s do something else and we’ll come back to this in a few days’. Whereas, your natural reaction issort of tearing your hair out! And then I thought,‘oh yeah, this is easy. This isn’t a brain surgery. We can come back to it.’
A: What do you think he brought out in you?
N: I don’t know. I think in terms of lyrics and melody, he has such a different process and such different influences, and we are our own people in that sense of things. So I think just seeing his process, the way he thinks about lyrics and melody, really made me think of different ways and so it helped me come to a different place of working all that stuff out.
A: Couple more questions about the new album, Little Broken Hearts – I mean, for people who don’t know, it is a concept album, focused on a hypothetical break up, and all the songs are about breaking up and different aspects of a break up. I really love that – I love how deeply the album gets into one idea and really explores it.
N: Yeah, each song is kind of a weird perspective on all these different feelings that people can go through after something like that, and it’s like, one day you’re crazy and one day you want to sing and you’re so happy. One day you’re sad, one day you want to kill someone – we all go through different phases.The funny part about it was that it wasn’t even intended to be that. We really had no idea about what we were going to do when we went into it. Each song had it’s own little world; we didn’t try to connect them at first. But I think that since we were writing so intensely in such a short amount of time, they were all totally connected.
A: And once you knew that’s what you were doing, was there a deliberate arc or storyline that you were aware of in the order or in the content of the songs? Was there a story you guys were writing, or is it just that all the songs are about different aspects of an idea?
N: Well, I don’t know if we really tried to steer anything towards another feeling but we would stop going down a road, if we felt that we were repeating something. Like, ‘oh, we’ve already said that, so let’s try something else.’
A: Tell us about the song Miriam, I love it. I think it’s fantastic.
N: It’s creepy!
A: Lots of people in emotion, if not in reality, hopefully, will relate to that feeling of wanting to kill the other woman! And I think I read about songs like Dolly Parton’s Jolene, where there is a tradition of murderous songs in country music. Was that an influence?
N: I think it was, because I did The Little Willies(Norah’s country-band, named in honour of Willie Nelson) all last year, and I was singing Jolene a lot – ‘don’t take my man’ and this other Loretta Lynn song Fist City, where shewas going to punch you if you take her man, and then all these Johnny Cash songs – he does all these ‘murder’ songs like Delia where he’s like, ‘Delia’s gone, one more round!’ – he shoots her! So I was very influenced by those songs. I especially love songs with names for titles, I think those are really interesting.
A: They are iconic somehow.
N: Yeah, and once you’ve found a good name,it just flows. I don’t think I could have done it with another name. It’s such an interesting name!
A: It snarls out…
N: It snarls…
A: Well, it’s a beautiful album, I love it. Let's rewind a little. At the beginning of your career,at the time it all exploded, Grammy’s etc –
N: You were there!
A: I was there! You looked crazy and terrified!
N: I was terrified! You looked beautiful in your peach dress!
A: Haha thanks, in my losing peach dress! You looked terrified but hey, you won!
N: That was so funny that we both were nominated the same year. That was amazing.
A: It was petty amazing, ‘coz I wouldn’t have been there with you for all of that otherwise. Even though I lost! Anyway, I’m curious, were you ever tempted to go down other routes at those peak moments in time, when it would have been so easy to build a bigger, more flashy career, or in a sense,to cash in on everything that happened? What stopped you from being, ‘Super-duper Diva Norah Taking Over the Planet?’
N: Yeah, I guess I could have gone another way but I think you saw the look on my face and I think you know what stopped me. It was terrifying! I mean, it was also amazing, but it was a little scary. Also, knowing my mom,she’s always like, ‘No, don’t take my picture!’– she’s kind of like the most anti-fame person in a way, which is kind of weird and funny! But maybe part of her personality is in me,or maybe just sort of being around her…
(We both stop to laugh at the irony of her then having a relationship with our father).
A: Well it must have been a terrifying time,because then there is the whole clamouring afterwards. I remember pictures of your apartment were posted immediately…
N: Yeah, and I stayed in a hotel for a month.Yeah, it was a little scary; it was a little too much. And I was happy to dial it back a little.Can you imagine how much work it would take to maintain that level? I always think that people who do that all the time, they’re just constantly doing it. And that doesn’t sound like a fun life to me.
A: I think they really have to want it to do it…
N: They have to want it.
A: Well, it’s something that I have admired, ‘cuz when I look back – you are my bigger sister and I have never had that perspective, as you are two years older than me, but when I look back– you were just 22 when all of that happened and it’s really amazing to see how you handled of that. It’s pretty mind-blowing.
N: Oh that’s sweet, I want to cry. When I look back, yeah I think I did pretty well by handling it, and carrying on and just making music that I liked. I think that’s kind of what saved me too –having a band full of friends…
A: And you’ve created all these other bands.I don’t think a lot of people know about that,especially in India – that Norah Jones has all these side projects like a country band or anonymous all-girl punk band, where you get to explore other musical avenues.
N: Yeah, it’s so fun. Like I did my first album tour and I was so exhausted when I got home,so I was so happy to play with some friends at a local bar and do country music. And that ended up being one of my favourite bands that I’m in – The Little Willies. And I learnt how to play the guitar, I mean, I’m still not a great guitar player but I basically learnt how to play well enough to just play more and more.
A: I remember you brought your first guitar to India.
N: Yeah, about 12 years ago! I was learning to play, but I wasn’t really that confident. It wasn't something I could just bust out. And I was writing on guitar then, but I started this otherband with my friends, Sasha and Daru and later this other friend, Catherine, where we played at a pool hall every week for nothing. Not even for tips, it was such an under-the-radar-gig. Nobody listened; it was just literally college kids playing pool.
A: Was that grounding for you?
N: Well, it was actually just so fun because we were just these three chicks playing instruments that we never played even though we’re all schooled musicians, we just didn’t know these particular instruments. So when we sang, you could tell where we were going and whether we were musical enough to tell where we were going, but we messed up so much, we kept playing the wrong thing. Until finally after months and months of doing it every week, it just got better and better – so it’s really howI learned to play the guitar. I remember when I was in college; it was kind of how I learned how to play the piano – just by having a weekly gig where nobody was listening. I think some musicians don’t get that, but it’s like paid practice. It’s amazing. I’m not a great practitioner, you know.
A: That makes one really forgiving towards the not-so-great musicians out there that you hearin restaurants and stuff.
N: Kind of – they still have time to figure their thing out. And I’m not a great practitioner. Practise is great, but until you’re really doing it in front of people, it's kind of hard to know how it's going to go.
A: Yeah, that’s another thing about you that people may not know, but I know you’re not a great practitioner!
N: I know, because you’re a good practitioner!
A: I don’t think I am, but maybe compared to you, I am!
N: You’re a procrastinator practitioner. You’re a procrastopher!
A: But you do kind of have this voice that –it’s kind of hard to imagine it involving work because it just seems to come out in this very effortless way, but it’s still hard to believe that a voice like that can actually be genuinely effortless.
N: Yeah, I don’t practise singing a lot, but I sang so much growing up. I mean, even if I wasn’t in a room singing specific practise things; singing along with Aretha Franklin in the car is practise and singing in the shower is practise. I’ve been in the choir since I was five years old, so I sang in church choir, then I sang in school choir, so I had tons of practise. Not in the way you think of it maybe, like when you’re sitting in a room with a ruler.
A: So Aretha Franklin, I know, was one of your great vocal heroes. Who else were the people who’ve really influenced you musically?
N: Probably Willie Nelson, and… I alway have to answer this carefully because I want to bring in my favourite-favourites – but it changes every week! Growing up I listened to a lot of Ray Charles and Aretha and Willieand Hank Williams and Billie Holiday – I got into jazz in high school and I was obsessed with that. And then, when I moved to New York I got back into country music and I’ve been obsessed with Neil Young for the last 8 years. He’s my hero on guitar – I kind of want to play the guitar like him.
A: And what about younger musicians out there today across the board. Who are the people that you admire or think are really great singers or musicians?
N: There are a lot of young bands I like. I love Jack White, I think he’s really interesting. I got to see him a few times recently and he was so good.
A: He was on the Rome record as well…
N: Yeah, he was on the Rome record, but I didn’t get to meet him then. I got to meet him on the photo shoot for the Rome record, which was pretty funny, but he’s really an interesting musician. Brian and I love Gillian Welch, she’s a great country folk-singer-songwriter…. And I love you, my sis!
A: You said ‘photoshoot’ and that made me remember– I love the new look that’s going on – you’ve got this amazing 60’s, sassy-sexy vibe going on in the photos and in the album. Where did the idea come from for the overall look for the amazing film poster-like-cover for Little Broken Hearts? And then the whole look– the video’s got a very 60s feel; it’s gorgeous,it suits you!
N: Well, the cover is a complete knock off of this Russ Meyer film poster that was hanging in the studio where we wrote and recorded everything. And I just loved it. I stared at it everyday. And so, in a way, even the songs you know, are from all over the place and sometimes very personal – it’s also turned into a bit of a character, because the album became this kind of story that all connected tomy staring at this poster everyday, you know– so she became a part of the album in a way.And I just wanted desperately to look like her! So I thought, here’s my chance! I just thought it was an interesting graphic.
A: And it was from there that the whole retrofeel emerged?
Photography: Frank W Ockenfels
N: Yeah, I mean, we got a lot of good ideas for the video. The music for the video is happy sounding, but the lyrics are dark. So we definitely tended to enjoy the darker treatment more. And the whole Mad Men thing, everybody loves Mad Men, and how can you not love that fashion? So that was fun – I was up for that, but gosh, I had a lot of costume changes!
A: I wanted to ask you about lyrics. As an instrumentalist, I write things that are inspired by very specific events or feelings, but after a while it’s so abstract within an instrumental piece that it’s rarely something that I ever think about again. And I wonder what that’s like for you, because over the years writing songs that come from specific things, you’re still up there singing songs like Don’t Know Why or Come Away With Me from like 10 years ago, are you still connected to those past moments through the songs or do they take on lives of their own?
N: I think they take on lives of their own. Sometimes you can connect to the feeling you were actually feeling at the time, but when I sing Come Away With Me, I never think about sitting in my tiny bedroom in the East village that you visited once when I wrote it. I actually just kind of picture something – I picture what I’m singing about and it evolves. Sometimes songs take on a whole new meaning, even if you’re the one who wrote them. Definitely When I’m singing a cover, songs have taken on a completely different meaning over the last 10 years that I’ve covered – songs thatI didn’t even realize what they were about,maybe I understand them more now, but…even songs that I wrote 10 years ago,technically.
A: That’s amazing ‘coz the layers kind of unfold, and you get to put more in. I mean, onstage do you ever find yourself really emotional? Have you ever just got into a moment where you're teary or vulnerable or anything like that?
N: You mean like from singing a particular song?
N: No, I get into those moments if the audience is just crazy amazing or if you’re having an incredible night, you can get into those. But I don't get too far into those lyrically.
(We see Zubin being carried up the stairs; he has spied us in the living room and starts to wriggle out of his nanny’s arms.)
A: Hi Zubin! See you in a minute.
A: Haha. We’re coming baby. I think the baby is calling so that’s a really good reason to stop the interview.
N: Yes that’s a wrap up call!
This article was originally published for our Music special in the July/August 2012 issue and we are revisiting it as a part of the Celebrating 15 Years of Platform Magazine series.
Text Anoushka Shankar