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It’s not exactly Dylan going electric, but Norah Jones’ decision to tinker with her multi-platinum formula comes as a risky move for a musician who, only three quiet and reflective jazz-pop albums into her career, has already enjoyed the success of a major star. Jones’ first album, 2002′s “Come Away With Me,” won five Grammy Awards — including album of the year — and sold more than 10 million copies. Her 2004 album, “Feels Like Home,” did almost as well. Where those albums mostly found the New York resident singing covers of songs by classic songwriters like Hank Williams and Hoagy Carmichael, the new “Not Too Late” consists wholly of Jones-penned material. It’s a bold step for a singer and pianist who has proven herself to be one of the music industry’s few reliable young acts. But don’t expect much self-revelation from the songs. “There is a lot of personal stuff in there,” the publicity-shy Jones, 27, told Salon, “but you’ll never be able to pick it out.”
Less than a week before the release of “Not Too Late,” Jones met with Salon at her record company’s office to talk about her songwriting and her nascent movie career, and to respond to criticism that she makes “background music.”
Pop culture is so intense these days and everything is so fast and loud,” she says. “Maybe it’s refreshing to have something moving slowly.”
In a recent story, you said that you like “slow music.”
Is it that obvious? [laughing]
What do you think is the appeal of slow music?
I don’t know. I like the feeling of slow music. I don’t like [just] any slow music, though; I like good slow music. I like Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah.” And I love a Tom Waits ballad — when he does ‘em, they’re just killer. I think there’s more room to breathe. There’s room to sort of get caught up in it.
When you were starting out in New York, you sang with electronica band Wax Poetic and with jazz musician Charlie Hunter. And you just did the Peeping Tom album. Obviously you’re comfortable and have experience with electronic or groove-oriented music, which doesn’t show up on your own albums.
I’m not really that comfortable with it. I don’t really know a lot about it. Those are situations I got put in that I really enjoyed, but all I had to do was sing. I’m not that familiar with it. That’s good that I seem comfortable. I wasn’t uncomfortable, but I don’t really know much about that world.
Do you decide to keep the wacky stuff to guest appearances, and that Norah Jones albums are going to sound a particular way?
No. I have a lot of different sides. I’m in a few different bands that play very different kinds of music. It’s funny, I don’t know if the records, especially my first two records, represent every aspect of me. I think this one has more sides of my personality to it. The first two albums were done in two weeks and we were just throwing songs on the wall and whatever stuck ended up on the record. I also think that I’ve tried out different things that didn’t make it on the records for a reason. I definitely think my strength is in what I’ve been doing, but that’s not to say that I’m not going to change. I would love to try different things.
Is there a particular reason why it took you two albums before you wrote the bulk of the material?
I wasn’t a writer. I didn’t grow up that way. I grew up wanting to sing jazz standards and play music, but songwriting was never something that was on my radar. I wrote a couple songs in high school — they were so bad and I completely shut the door on that, like, “Oh, I should not write.” I think about songs in such a different way now. I also think I started writing before the first record and then all the craziness happened and it got pushed aside and I didn’t really have a chance to get back to it until I felt less overwhelmed and got back to normal a little bit.
You just mentioned the craziness. Last night I was at a bar with a friend of mine and I mentioned I was going to interview you. He said, “That’s pretty much as big as a musician gets these days.”
Yeah, these days.
I don’t mean that as a backhanded compliment.
No, I don’t take it that way. I agree with you.
It’s kind of weird that albums of slow, sparse music have done so well. Why do you think your music has been so successful?
Pop culture is so intense these days and everything is so fast and loud — maybe it’s refreshing to have something moving slowly. It’s not for everybody. I joke that I put people to sleep sometimes and I know people see that as a negative thing — “Oh, she’ll put you to sleep.” But I don’t see that as a negative if it relaxes people. I know growing up I listened to a lot of slow music because it made me feel good and it relaxed me. Maybe it was late at night and I was trying to go to sleep, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t love it.
People are pointing out that your music is in bookstores and coffee shops. And there’s a sense that people don’t think about it in the same way they’re thinking about more obviously cerebral music because “it’s background music.” Do you care? Do you wish it was a headphone album?
I think this one is. I also think people have different perception all the time. I don’t care how people listen to my music, you know? I think some people don’t give it a chance because they think of it that way and it became overexposed and it became a real coffee shop CD — which is fine. Even the first record, it might be good background music but if you listen to it on headphones you find things on there that you would never find if you were listening to it as background music, and I think that’s true of a lot of music.
You get the sense from somebody like Joni Mitchell, who can get kind of prickly when talking about her music, that she actually wants people to sit down and devote an hour or listen intensely to really get it. Ideally is that what you’d like people to do?
Ideally, I think people will get it more if they do that. But it’s OK if they don’t. Gosh, music doesn’t always have to be so serious. I put on background music. I put on Tom Waits as background music but that doesn’t mean I have any less respect for him. It’s not that big a deal to me. But I can see that . . . My mom has never gotten into Joni Mitchell and I can understand why — because she’s never given it a chance.
You don’t really show up in gossip magazines and you’ve made a concerted effort to stay low-key in a way that not a lot of other people with your success do. Are you worried that if you were to change your lifestyle the music would suffer?
I think my relationship with that is that I make music for myself and I don’t try to be seen and think, “Oh, I’m going to do this because I think the press will like it.” I don’t make music for other people. I respect my fans and I hope they like it, but I don’t tailor it to them and I don’t tailor it to the critics. You can’t. You’re never going to please everyone anyway. There’s no point in living your life that way. I don’t know. I think my music is pretty easygoing.
Do you think you’re easygoing?
Yeah. Sometimes. Mostly I’m pretty easygoing. I don’t think I’m easy listening, though! I see the joke coming. [Laughs]
Were you nervous putting out these songs?
I wasn’t nervous because I’m really proud of them. I think I’ve grown a lot as a songwriter. I guess I’m just excited. These songs are very personal — they show my thoughts on things — but they’re not my diary in that way. I looked outside of myself more than I looked inside. It’s not all true; there are characters and stories that are just stories. There is a lot of personal stuff in there but you’ll never be able to pick it out.
Will your friends be able to pick it out?
I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s that obvious. Maybe a few.
Did you film a movie already or is that happening?
Yeah, the Wong Kar-Wai film ["My Blueberry Nights" -- due later this year]. We filmed most of it last summer. We’re going to do another week next month. Hopefully we’ll finish it.
Were you approached first?
Yeah, [Wong Kar-Wai] just asked me if I wanted to be in this movie and I said, “Uh, OK.” I have no idea why he asked me or why I said yes. We both had weird blind faith in each other — he’d never seen me act. I acted in some British comedy in high school, but he didn’t know that. He didn’t even want to see me do anything before the first day of filming. It was very sink or swim. I had a great time.
Did any of the skills transfer over from music?
Rhythm. The rhythm of a dialogue. You know when it feels good and you know when it doesn’t. It’s the same with music. You can’t put your finger on it and map it out and say, “I’m going to wait two beats.” It just has to feel natural.
Was it intimidating to show up on set and have a scene with Jude Law?
The first few days with Jude Law were terrifying because they were the first few days of filming. It wasn’t like I eased in with some scenes by myself. After a while I got more comfortable. I remember the first or second day I was having a panic attack almost. “Why did I agree to do this? I’m a musician!” I didn’t even have a script to prepare because the director works in a different way, of course. I remember slapping myself in the face like, “Get a hold of yourself, woman!” And saying to myself, “OK, take a deep breath. If you freak out, this isn’t going to go well. Just do it and don’t think about it!”
How day-to-day different is your life today from the day before your first album came out?
Well, I’m lucky. I don’t have to wait tables. I have a nice apartment. I can eat out whenever I want and not worry about the bill. Those are things that have changed. The rest I’ve really tried hard to keep the same. I like to go out. I like to go hear music. I like to watch a movie here and there. I like to hang out with my friends. I like to go to the bar. I like to cook. The most important thing for me in taking some time off in the past few years was to get back to playing music that’s not always “this.” I’ve played with four different bands in the past couple years — all very different from each other. Playing in bars and pool halls where people don’t necessarily care about me or know that it’s me. It’s so good for you. So good for you.
Do you feel any, I don’t want to say resentment, but do you feel any unease when you go into a small club and play a set? There’s Norah Jones, the super-successful musician.
I think everybody’s been supportive. I’ve done what I could to encourage my friends. You’re not going to make friends with everybody. But I don’t walk into those clubs with an entitlement syndrome or anything. If I did I think it would be different. I respect my friends in the same way that I did before. I hope that they think that. I think that. Hopefully there’s no resentment. And if there is, hopefully it’s plain, good old-fashioned resentment.
You don’t have to be rich or famous to deal with resentment.
Yeah, I’ve experienced that before all this. On both ends.
David Marchese is associate music editor at Salon.More David Marchese.