“Go out with me!” These are the kind of requests—or rather, orders—that came flying at Norah Jones as the sultry vocalist took the stage at South by Southwest to play her forthcoming album …Little Broken Hearts (out May 1) in its entirety. "I think I'm taken," she responded, flattered.
"Is it weird hearing music you've never heard?” she asked while floating from the piano to the guitar. “No? Great!" Indeed, the packed-out crowd was obviously in love with Norah’s latest work, produced in collaboration with Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, who’s worked on projects as diverse as the Jay-Z/Beatles mash-up The Grey Album and Gnarls Barkley. Working with him was a bold move for an artist who’s sold tens of millions of records and earned a slew of Grammys on her own. Though she still gets dismissed by some critics as a soft jazz act.
Broken Hearts more or less chronicles the stages of grief that occurred during Norah’s split with her boyfriend last year. It opens with “Good Morning,” in which she awakens realizing that she’ll be leaving her unfit man. She confronts him about the younger woman he’s seeing on “She’s 22,” then threatens to kill her on “Miriam.”
Her feathery vocals carry all these hefty subjects with ease, while writing partner and producer Danger Mouse provides a bounce that knock those “coffee shop singer” critiques on their ass.
The day before her SXSW show, Complex met up with Norah, 33, in a worn-down house just outside of Austin’s downtown area. She met us outside on the patio’s bench swing in a denim jacket over a long summery dress. Her publicist offered lemonade. Walking across the creaky wooden floor, Norah kicked off her shoes, curled up on the living room couch, and talked about everything: her critics, her breakups, working with Danger Mouse, and that song about killing off her man’s mistress.
Written by Brad Wete (@BradWete)
Some critics describe your music an “uneventful.” Others say it’s amazingly well built contemporary jazz. How would you describe it?
My own sound? I wouldn’t. I guess. That’s not up to me. I think people have different perceptions. I’ve heard people describe it in ways that made me cringe and I heard people describe it in ways that make me really flattered and really happy. So for me, it’s like you either like it or you don’t—and that’s kind of it. It’s music. It’s subjective. People like different things.
How do you feel when they say you’re a “coffee shop singer”?
That makes me cringe a little bit. I don’t think it’s really fair to lump somebody up like that. But also, who cares? [Laughs] Some people don’t mean things as an insult. Some people do.
I heard you say that you want to do a “real” jazz album or a “real” country album. What do you mean by that? Is your new album not “real”?
People always ask me, “What would you love to do?” I would like to do it some day. I mean to kind of go back to my roots and really do what I intended to do when I was young, even though I strayed from that path and I am really happy I did. My world has been a little bit more open. But that’s the kind of music I grew up loving and I really wanted to play it for so long. It would be fun to play it again. For my mom, for my teachers growing up, stuff like that. I think it would be sentimental and really nice.
My favorite song on …Little Broken Hearts is “Miriam.” It’s about you confronting the woman that broke up your happy relationship before you kill her. What mindset were you in when you made that song?
I guess I was sort of thinking dark things. I came out of a breakup last year and I also came out of doing all these recordings and shows with The Little Willies, my country band. We’d cover [Dolly Parton’s] “Jolene.” She punches the girl instead of begging her. I love “Delia’s Gone,” the Johnny Cash song. It’s like a murder ballad. I don’t know. It kind of all came out of that. I loved “Jolene.” I’ve been singing it for 10 years. But I never really understood it until the last few years. I never quite sang them as well until now.
OK, is “Miriam” as real as “Jolene” was?
Yeah, she’s real to whoever relates to the song and puts a face on her. [Laughs]
I don’t know. You might think I am not a happy person from all this, but I actually am. I am not a dark person. You go through dark periods. Everybody goes through dark periods. For some people, they last longer than others.
Is there a Miriam in your life or someone you were wishing, fantasizing about when you were making this song?
Not really. I mean, yes and no. I would never fantasize about killing somebody.
We all do.
Yeah, everybody has that feeling. More like the drama of bringing that feeling to life. It’s a pretty fun song to write.
I remember I came into the control room when I was recording it and asked, ”What do you think about that last line?” [Brian said] “I don’t know! Maybe you should change it.” [Laughs]
What are you like when you’re mad? Are you a screamer?
[Laughs] Yeah, I’ve gone through phases of being a screamer, definitely when I was younger. I was more of a hot-tempered person and now I still have that quality, but its manifests itself in songs or like stress or passive aggressiveness. [Laughs] It’s not necessarily better than being hot-tempered.
There is something to be said for people who can spazz, release it, and then move on with their day.
Yeah, but I’ve also been in close-knit circles with people like that. They ruin your day when they are doing that. They move on, but they ruin your day so that’s not good either. It’s tough. Being human is tough.
Your audience is pretty wide. There are twenty-somethings as well as folks triple that. Is there any pressure knowing so many different ears are listening?
No. It’s nice that there is variety for me. I’m influenced by a lot of older music. I think that’s why I make music that older people can relate to. It’s nice to see young people too because I’m not that old. So it’s nice. I like that it's kind of broad.
How does being in your early thirties feel?
Good. I really recommend it.
Way better than the uncertainty of your twenties?
They say being in your twenties is when you’re most stressed, trying to be professionally successful and find yourself. But I think you were okay—I mean, your debut album in 2002 went diamond.
Yeah, with all the stress [Laughs]
How much of a struggle it was dealing with all this early success?
I still get really stressed out whenever things get busy, because they are not always this busy. It’s a special case. I don’t put out a record every few years. I feel like I learned a lot better how to handle things. I know what I like; I know what I don’t like. I know that the whole point of this is because I do what I love and I love what I do and I am happy to share it with people. If it’s not fun or it’s making me miserable, then that’s not good.
Does your label ever critique your music? Do you have to fight to get your message out?
No. Partly because the first record was so successful. It was not a premeditated success. It wasn’t a manufactured-for-success kind of thing. People responded to the low-keyness of it.
Ten million records sold is crazy for a “low-key” album.
Yeah, crazy. I think partly that and partly because I’m on a cool label [Blue Note], which is full of music lovers and not just executives. They kind of trust me and I trust them. I definitely leaned on them for help finding musicians and producers but only the people I really trust—the people who really get it. Other than that, I try to do what I do, not let them put their hands on it when it’s close to done.
You have an incredible talent, but you are a regular person. You are just really lo-fi naturally.
That’s a wonderful description of me. I’m going to use that. [Laughs]. It’s kind of who I am. There have certainly been points, especially early on, when I would get really stressed or picky or really angry or diva-y. I’m pretty much surrounded by people who don’t play into that. I’m not into drugs or anything crazy like that. I don’t have a crazy addictive personality luckily. I can hold my liquor. Some people have a chemical thing that happens when they do stuff—drugs or alcohol. It’s not really even their fault, it just happens. I don’t know. My mom will cut me down to size pretty quick if I mess up.
What’s your biggest diva moment?
I don’t know. I like food. Sometimes when I’m tired and I’m really hungry and I want something specific, I get testy. But I’m not too bad.
You said you just got out of a relationship as you were making the album. Is Broken Heartstotally based on actual happenings?
I don’t like diary songs. I know it sounds like a very personal album, and it is in a way, but it’s also crafted, dramatized and fictionalized. It’s nice to add blobs here and there.
There’s a lot of personal stuff, but you find that core of a song and you build that house around it. Maybe not personal at all—it’s to sort of make a better song. I don’t like diary songs. I know it sounds like a very personal album, and it is in a way, but it’s also crafted, dramatized and fictionalized. It’s nice to add blobs here and there.
Is it hard to date you?
I don’t think so. Yeah, it’s different when the woman in the relationship has a lot of money or crazy success. It might be a little different for a man to have to be a little bit more secure with the woman in that position. I don’t know. I am not a man! [Laughs]
You are not crushing his manhood by buying him expensive things like, “Baby, it’s OK. You can’t afford it.”
No way! [Laughs]. No, I’m not into crushing the manhood. I want him to stay a man, yeah. It’s definitely a balancing act. It’s just nice to be with someone who is interested in their own thing. That’s nice.
Let’s talk about my second favorite song, “Say Goodbye.” It has a different bounce to it than what I’m used to from you. Is that something we can attribute to Danger Mouse?
Definitely. I went to L.A. to work with him and we wrote everything in the studio together. We were in his studio with all his stuff. Part of why I was excited to work with him was a few songs with a different groove like that. He was completely drawn to my creativity. We would just jam. I would play keyboard bass and he was playing drums. We’d come up with a groove first and we would mess around with melodies over that.
On my last record I was trying to experiment with stuff like that too. I love those kinds of sounds and I just didn’t necessarily always know how to get them or have the right vibe of the band. After a certain feel, you either have it or you don’t.
Are you the kind of artist that come in with nothing and pulls things out of thin air?
I always come in with first compositions. This is the first time I ever came in with nothing. I had a couple of ideas, but we worked on them. We kind of did everything from scratch mostly. He had a couple of ideas too. It was mostly just that and it was fun. I presented it to him after we did the Rome record.
Right, which I loved.
Yeah, it was fun. We worked so well. I asked him after, “Would you like to produce something [for my next album]? I would love to work with you again.” He was like, “Yeah, I don’t want to just produce. I want to come up with stuff and collaborate and see how we write together.” I said, “Great, I’ve never done that with anybody.” Finally, last summer we got together. He got really excited to do it and we blocked out two months. He is amazing, versatile, and it was fun.
What do you think your fans will think of your new sound and content?
I don’t know what they’ll think. I think if somebody likes my last record, then they’ll probably like this or understand it. If somebody doesn’t know everything I’ve done between my first record until now, they may not get it. Or they may. I don’t know. I try to give people credit for being open as listeners. Some people aren’t, but a lot of people are.
The title of your last album is The Fall. This one is …Little Broken Hearts. Are you happy?
I am very happy. I went through two hard breakups. I ended up with two sort of breakup albums.
There was no in-between where you could have made it a happy album because there was a new guy?
I was too busy being happy. I am really happy now. I’m happy. I have a boyfriend. I am super happy. I don’t know. You might think I am not a happy person from all this, but I actually am. I am not a dark person. You go through dark periods. Everybody goes through dark periods. For some people, they last longer than others. And for me, they don’t last too long, luckily. I don’t know why that is.
Would you say you are more inspired when you are in a darker place?
Yeah, I think so. I don’t know. What’s a happy record you could think of?
Stevie Wonder’s “You Are The Sunshine of My Life.”
Yeah, that’s a very happy record. Yeah, you’re right. I love that record. God, I don’t know.
You are in a good place now. But I don’t expect to hear Norah Jones Presents: Joy coming from you anytime soon.
You never know! I am not ruling it out.