Norah Jones on her surprising new album and the old song that's almost 'too sad' to play

Twenty-two years ago, Norah Jones blasted into superstardom at age 23 with the release of her instant-smash debut, “Come Away With Me.” An easygoing blend of jazz, folk, pop and country, the LP sold 4 million copies in its first 12 months and spun off an adult-contemporary radio staple in the ballad “Don’t Know Why”; in early 2003, Jones’ music won Grammy Awards for album, record and song of the year while she was named best new artist.

Since then, Jones has used her talent and her curiosity — not to mention the resources she enjoys as one of the last success stories of the CD era — to pursue all kinds of projects, including collaborations with Willie Nelson, Danger Mouse and Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong; a scrappy country trio called Puss N Boots; a podcast in which she jams with friends like Dave Grohl and Mavis Staples; even a foray into acting with her role in Wong Kar-wai’s 2007 film “My Blueberry Nights.”

Yet her latest offering is her most interesting in years: “Visions,” a funky, gently psychedelic garage-soul record that puts her sultry vocals amid fuzzy guitars, off-kilter drums and crinkly vintage keyboards. Jones, now 44, made the album, due Friday, with producer Leon Michels, known for his work as a member of the late Sharon Jones’ band, the Dap-Kings.

“In the beginning it was pretty ratty-sounding,” Michels said of the recording process. “I was thinking to myself, OK, cool, eventually we’ll call in players and do really clean versions, which we tried a couple of times.” He laughed. “Every time, Norah was like, ‘This is not better.’ So a lot of the songs that made the record are just our demos.”

Jones, who grew up in Texas — her father was the famous sitar player Ravi Shankar, who died in 2012 — lives in New York with her husband, musician Pete Remm, and their 9-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter. She spoke about “Visions” at her manager’s office in Los Angeles the day after the Super Bowl (which turns out to be a good time to shoot a music video on the Santa Monica Pier). “I’m not really into sports,” she said, “but me and my friend just hung out in my hotel room and watched the halftime show. It was fun.”

I’m not sure you’d be a natural Super Bowl halftime act.
Probably not.

But what’s the closest you’ve gotten to that kind of high-pressure performance?
Maybe the Grammys? I used to get offered the national anthem a lot early on. I never did do it. And then at a certain point, I was like, I should have done it. That would have been an experience.

Why did you say no?
At the time there was a lot going on in the world — it was the early 2000s — and I didn’t feel super-patriotic. But I wasn’t trying to make a political statement by not doing it.

Your song “My Dear Country,” about George W. Bush’s reelection, gets at that ambivalence.
I’m not a black-and-white person. That song is expressing a complex feeling of loving something but questioning it. This country is so beautiful in so many ways. But I think at the time I was really becoming aware of things in a way that I never had before.

There’s a line in which you sing, “Who knows, maybe he’s not deranged.” These days your audience would assume you’re talking about Donald Trump.
When I did the song during the last election, that line — it played. But I think it always feels appropriate because we’re always like, what the f— is going on? I almost don’t want to sing it anymore because it’s too sad to feel that way.

This new album slightly reframes your singing and songwriting. It’s rawer than I’d grown accustomed to thinking about your music.
A lot of people have an image of me being kind of smooth. But I’ve always made records this way — “Don’t Know Why” was one take with a live band. I just have a smooth voice. I’m not saying I haven’t loosened up a little. That’s probably true. But I’ve never polished things. If anything, I’ve tried to rough it up because I know I sound smooth, and I always wanted to be more like Ray Charles. I think it’s just that Leon and I had such so much fun playing together. I remember kind of sweating and breathing hard when we were done with each song, like back in high school. It’s that raw feeling of: Oh, my God — music!

Leon produced your Christmas album from 2021, which was your first holiday record. I’m surprised some record exec didn’t push you to make one much earlier.
That would assume that I just do everything commercially.

Had you actively said no to a Christmas album?
I don’t remember that happening. But I never wanted to do something cheesy. Whether you think my early records were cheesy or not, I wasn’t trying to get into that — I was trying to lean away from that as much as possible.

You like Christmas music?
I love Christmas music. I remember listening to Christmas music in April during the pandemic. It snowed in New York that first month. We made pancakes and put on Christmas records, and we thought we were doing real good. When I look back, I realize how bad it was. We did an extra year of Zoom school just to be safe — worst decision I’ve ever made.

What was on your mind when you were writing the songs on “Visions”? They talk about home and solitude but also about yearning for freedom.
I’m not sure. I don’t really know until things are out that I was feeling a certain way. I was just mom-ing around, you know? Same juggle as always: working, hanging with the kids, figuring out after-school activities.

Do you carve out time from your home life to write songs?
I’ve never been good at that. I’m more likely to pick up a melody that’s bouncing around my brain and record it real quick so I don’t forget it. Of course, there’s no time when your mind can be quiet because there’s always somebody asking a question. So it really happens in the bathtub when the door’s locked. A lot of my voice memos have the bath running in the background.

You’re pro-bath.
There’s a really beautiful Sylvia Plath [line] about how a hot bath can fix just about everything. I’m on board with that notion.

Do you drink?
I like some wine with dinner. I drank a lot in my 20s, and I’m definitely happy to not drink as much as I used to. Boy, we closed down the bars in New York City back in the day. I hope my kids don’t drink that much. But I don’t think that generation is gonna be into it.

Doesn’t seem so.
They don’t even want to have sex. I think it’s the phones.

You smoke weed?
I’ve always wanted to be a stoner, but it just doesn’t take. I keep thinking I’m going to eventually, and I’ve had periods where I was stoned for like a week.

If you were stoned for a week, I think it did take.
But I never continued it. If I had the most perfectly curated thing, which you can get now, then maybe? But with kids you don’t want a bunch of gummies laying around.

The Grammys just happened. When Billie Eilish swept the show in 2020, I wonder if you felt like you could relate.
Little bit. She was a lot younger than I was, but what I related to was how embarrassed she felt. Some of these young women go up there and they’re very confident — they’re like, “I deserve this.” And I love that. But that’s not how I responded to it.

There’s a “60 Minutes” profile from a few years after your big Grammys night where you say you’d gotten your fill of fame. You still feel like that?
Honestly, I sometimes wish I’d enjoyed it a little more. I get a little nostalgic for that stuff. But I don’t have any regrets. And the fact that I can live a kind of normal life and still put out albums and go out on tour all summer — that’s pretty cool.

What did you think of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” on this year’s Grammys?
I was stoked to see her — made me want to cry.

Lots of people had that reaction. Have you thought about why?
I think people were moved for many reasons. One of my best friends started crying because we have a friend who killed herself in college, and she used to sing that song all the time. You have to remember that you can’t just analyze the collective consciousness. Everybody has their own attachments to music that are personal to them. That’s why I never want to tell people what my music is about.

Because you want to allow room for their own lives in your songs?
It’s also none of their damn business [Laughs].

Joni Mitchell performed at the Grammys too.
I love her. I think for older musicians it’s important to play music. My dad played till he was 92, and then he died. I think if he’d tried to not play or stopped playing, he would’ve probably faded earlier. Check out Willie: I sat in with him a few months ago [at New York’s Forest Hills Stadium]. I was a big fan of his sister Bobbie [who died in 2022], and they’ve been using another keyboard player who was on another gig that night. So [harmonica player] Mickey [Raphael] asked if I wanted to come play in the keyboard seat all night, and it was the funnest thing in the world because Willie’s just having fun.

That’s how Joni has seemed in these comeback shows she’s been doing.
Maybe that’s the only reason she’s doing it. Maybe it was the way to get her rehabbed from her aneurysm. Maybe in that place, you might be ready to let go, but if somebody gives you a goal to work towards, you’re like, well, I can try to do that. And then it becomes your whole new life.

Are you a reader of musical biographies?
Not really. I did just buy Barbra Streisand’s book. I thought it would be interesting.

You ever meet her?
I met her once. I said the dumbest thing — I think I’d had a martini. It was after the Oscars [in 2013]. She’d performed and I’d performed, and I said, “You sounded beautiful.” She said, “Really? Thank you. I was really nervous.” And then I said, “Oh, that nervous thing where your voice gets shaky? I didn’t hear that at all.” She was so sweet, but to myself I was like, What am I saying? Shut up, Jones! This is Barbra.

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