Norah Jones thinks her musical evolution is moving forward more rapidly than do many reviewers. Still, her latest disc, Not Too Late, is a modest step toward greater self-expression -- she wrote or co-wrote all of the material on it -- and other projects suggest that she’s interested in doing more than simply replicating the 2002 Grammy magnet Come Away With Me for the rest of her career.
In the following Q&A, which contributed to the profile in the May 31 edition of Westword, Jones talks about the frequency with which young jazz vocalists are likened to her, and the silly comparisons she once suffered; the degree of musical change represented by the new album; her contributions to Peeping Tom, a Mike Patton project that gave her the chance to repeatedly mouth the word “motherfucker”; a review in which she was called a “sex panther”; the ways she balances modesty with confidence; the joys and challenges of playing Red Rocks; the experience of starring in My Blueberry Nights, a film that opened the Cannes Film Festival only days after this interview took place; the pros and cons of repeatedly kissing Jude Law; and the future of her film career -- if there is one.
For readers who’d like to learn more about Ms. Jones, it’s Not Too Late:
Westword (Michael Roberts): There are a lot of young female vocalists out there right now, like Sasha Dobson – and it seems that any of them who’ve ever even listened to a jazz album gets compared to you. Is that flattering at all? Or at this point, is it just irritating?
Norah Jones: I think it’s irritating to them. I don’t care, but I don’t necessarily think it’s accurate most of the time.
WW: That’s certainly true of Sasha Dobson.
NJ: I don’t think Sasha and I sound alike at all, but I think we come from a very similar place – and we’re really good friends, and we have some of the same collaborators. So in her case, I think it kind of makes sense. But I don’t think we sound alike.
WW: Of course, there are a lot of other people who don’t have direct connections with you that get the same treatment.
NJ: I know. I’ve been compared to people from many different angles. Completely, randomly different people. But it’s fine. It could be worse.
WW: When you first came out, was there someone you were compared to a lot that didn’t make any sense to you?
NJ: I heard Diana Krall a lot when I first came out. It made a little bit of sense. But considering the type of material we both did at the time, it didn’t make a lot. I feel like girls who play piano get compared to other girls who play piano, basically. Which I think is kind of funny. I think if I didn’t play piano, I wouldn’t have. I see reviews of people like that Regina Spektor girl, and they always mention Tori Amos and Fiona Apple. I guess there are similarities there, but the main one is the piano. I think people who write about music have this thing about girls and piano. They like to string all of us together.
WW: On your new album, a lot’s been made about how you wrote or co-wrote all the songs. But from a musical standpoint, it’s not a huge departure from what you’ve done in the past. Was there a point during the process where you thought, ‘I need to do something totally different,’ or did you resist making a change just for the sake of making a change?
NJ: I think actually this album is pretty different. I can see what you mean sonically. It’s still very quiet and intimate, and we use real instruments. It’s not electronic or something. But I think it’s different. It might be subtle, but I think it’s still a big change. For me, it’s a very big change, having written all the songs and bringing my own material for a whole album. To me, that’s a really big change.
WW: That’s true, but a lot of reviewers have said some of the same things I did about the sonics. Why do you think people aren’t perceiving the change to the degree you do. Is it because they’re incremental changes rather than sweeping changes?
NJ: Yeah, I know they’re subtle. I’m not saying it’s a dramatic departure. But I still think it’s very different from the last album and the first one. I think sonically there are things in there that are very different. It’s true that there are songs on this album that would fit in sonically with either of the other albums. But I think there’s also a handful of songs that don’t.
WW: What’s one that you don’t think would fit on either of your previous CDs?
NJ: “Not My Friend” and maybe “Sinkin’ Soon” -- and definitely “My Dear Country.”
WW: That last one’s definitely true from a lyrical standpoint.
NJ: Yeah, from a lyrical standpoint. But I also think it’s got kind of a creepy melody. It’s very minor. Okay, from a sonic standpoint, maybe solo piano, it would fit in. But from a musical standpoint, I don’t think it would fit in. I think it’s kind of jarring musically. It’s angular, you know?
WW: Maybe because you’ve done so many other musical side projects of late that the new album would have heavy metal guitar riffs on it or something…
NJ: I have another band for that (laughs).
WW: One of those side projects was Mike Patton’s Peeping Tom. Did you know him before you agreed to participate in that?
NJ: Oh, I would never agree to participate if I had no idea about the person.
WW: I meant did you know him personally?
NJ: No, I didn’t know him personally – but I’ve been a fan since I was probably eleven, and we had a mutual friend. And I have a mutual friend who plays in his bands Fantomas and Mr. Bungle. So I didn’t know him personally, but we had mutual acquaintances.
WW: There’s been a lot of attention given to you saying the word “motherfucker” on the song “Sucker.”
NJ: I know! (She laughs)
WW: Did he call you up and say, “Hi, I’m Mike Patton. Would you say ‘motherfucker’ on my song?” Or did he sneak that one in on you?
NJ: It snuck in! I didn’t know that was on there until he sent me the tune, because we weren’t able to record together. I didn’t actually meet him until after the album came out. He was on the West Coast and I couldn’t come out to the West Coast to do it. But I still wanted to do it, so he sent me the track. But yeah, it’s just a word, you know? What’s the big deal?
WW: Did it appeal to your sense of humor? Because I’m sure you realized that some of your fans would be shocked to hear you say that word…
NJ: I actually had no idea it was going to be on the radar like that. I try not to curse, and I don’t believe you have to use profanity in music. But I’m not an angel. I’ve been known to curse like a sailor in my life. For me, it wasn’t that big of a deal. I don’t think of myself as having an image or any of that stuff. I try to do things, and if my eight-year-old cousin is allowed to listen to it, I try to make sure it’s okay. But I’m sure she’s heard that word before, too. I don’t know. I didn’t really think of it as being a big deal.
WW: I was looking around the Internet at reviews of the disc, and here’s my favorite: It said you wrap yourself “around the sweaty groove with the lithe carnality of a sex panther.”
NJ: Wow! (More laughter)
WW: Is that the kind of description of yourself that you’d like to see more often?
NJ: Not necessarily. I think it’s great. I love that description. For that song, it’s totally fitting. But look, I just make music. I don’t know how people perceive it. People always perceive it differently, too. I’ve gotten completely different reactions to all three albums from all kinds of people – reviewers and regular people alike. So I don’t really pay much attention to how people perceive stuff. You’ve just got to do what you’re feeling.
WW: You’re always portrayed in the press as being so modest, and your last answer is indicative of that. Are there ever times when you’d like to tell some of those critics out there, “Sorry, but I don’t have time for you. I’m too busy polishing my 800 Grammys”?
NJ: No, not at all. If you let yourself think like that, I would become a completely different person. My music would be different. I don’t think like that. I do have a sort of modest persona, I guess, but I have a lot of self-confidence as well. I’m not just some – I don’t know. I love playing music, and I’m confident in what I do – more now so than I was when I first started, when my first record came out.
WW: Is that something you perceive in terms of the new album?
NJ: Definitely. And it’s something that’s come out the most in the performances we’ve been doing. We haven’t been on tour for two years, and it’s a completely different show this time. I feel like we’ve really found a good balance between playing what we always do and just playing music – which is where we all come from as a band. Not the showy side of it, but also putting on a show and having a really cool set on stage.
WW: And you’re playing enormous venues. At least here you are.
NJ: I think that’s the only enormous one – and that’s just because it’s a great place. We’re playing mostly theaters, but we decided to play Red Rocks because it’s so fun, and we thought, if we have the opportunity to do it again, then we should take it. Even if it doesn’t sell out, it’s such a special place.
WW: Do you have to rethink that night’s performance because you’re there? Or do you stick with what’s worked for you in other places and trust that it will work there, too?
NJ: We’ve played there before. We’ve played there twice, so we kind of have a handle on what that place is like. And for such a big venue, it’s actually pretty intimate. It’s a very different kind of big venue. So I think we’re going to just do what we do. We may change a few things, but I don’t think it will be dramatically different from the kind of things we’ve been doing in the theaters.
WW: I also wanted to ask about another project you’ve done – the film My Blueberry Nights. I came across an item that said it may be opening the Cannes Film Festival. Is that correct?
NJ: As far as I know, it’s confirmed. I’m leaving Monday for the film festival.
WW: That sounds confirmed to me.
NJ: I hope so! I can’t believe it’s opening this amazing film festival. And it’s the 60th anniversary of this film festival. I think it’s going to be a big hullabaloo. I’m really nervous and excited.
WW: Have you gotten to see the finished film yet?
NJ: No, no. The director is notorious for working up to the last minute.
WW: I read that his last film actually showed up at Cannes three days after the premiere is scheduled…
NJ: Something like that.
WW: In another interview with you, I read that you’d previously acted in a British comedy when you were in high school. But I couldn’t find another reference to it…
NJ: Oh, it wasn’t a movie. It was just a play. I don’t think you’ll find that anywhere.
WW: What was the play?
NJ: Oh, just a play. I went to an arts high school, and all the drama kids got to direct their own play, and anybody got to audition. So I did that. But that was a long time ago, and though it was good experience, being in a film is way different from acting on a stage. It helped, but I don’t know if I can say it really helped that much.
WW: I also read that you had to shoot a sequence where you had to kiss Jude Law 150 times…
NJ: I think that’s an exaggeration. It was three days, but I don’t think it was 150 times. Maybe fifty times…
WW: Was there a number along the way where you thought, “This was interesting in the beginning, but now it’s like digging a ditch”?
NJ: For me, never having acted and doing a kissing scene was pretty much crazy and weird. But it was fine. The new does wear off after a while, but it was fun. It was good experience.
WW: Is it an experience you’d like to repeat?
NJ: I had a really good time doing it, but it would have to be the right situation. I don’t want to just be in a bunch of movies just to be in a bunch of movies. It would have to be something that I really liked, or a director or a story I really liked. But I loved it. I would try it again – unless I get booed at Cannes. Then I’ll probably go into a cave and hide.
WW: Is there a musician who you’d love to portray on screen?
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NJ: Not really. I was in a black history program when I was in high school, and I portrayed Billie Holiday and I sang “Strange Fruit” on stage. It was a really amazing experience, and intense, and I really enjoyed it. But I can’t imagine doing that for real.
WW: It’s a fulltime job being Norah Jones.
NJ: Yeah. But I don’t really know if there’s a musician I’d really want to portray. I like those biopics sometimes. But I don’t know if I’d want to be in one. I might portray a fictional goofball musician, though. That might be fun.