“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.