Entertainment & Arts

Norah Jones goes back to basics

After experimenting with hip-hop and rock, Norah Jones returns to her signature sound on her seventh album, Day Breaks. She tells the BBC how she rediscovered the piano and why her early success took her by surprise.

Image copyright Danny Clinch / Blue Note

"I have a kitchen in my piano," declares Norah Jones, somewhat improbably. She pauses. Her eyes roll. "Sorry, I'm so jet-lagged. I mean... I have a piano in my kitchen."

It's lunchtime in London, and Jones is at Ronnie Scott's to preview songs from her new album, Day Breaks, for members of the press.

She's explaining that the bulk of the record was written on a small upright piano next to the pots and pans during "late-night feeding sessions" with her first son, born in July 2014.

"It has tons of bills on top, and mail that hasn't been opened," she tells the BBC later. "It's a breeding ground for clutter.

"I have two pianos in my music room [but] the kitchen is sort of the heart of the house, so the upright gets played much more."

Back at Ronnie Scott's the star swivels on her stool and eases into Carry On, one of those self-same kitchen compositions. Jet lag may have muddled her words, but it hasn't affected her dusky voice, which skims like a warm breeze over the song's languorous, open chords.

The song and the album mark a noticeable return to the twilight jazz of Jones's debut, Come Away With Me. Again, that upright piano, bought on a whim while walking past a New York music store, is responsible.

"I just was inspired to play," she says. "I love the piano but I moved away from it. It's nice to break your patterns by playing other instruments, and just be inspired by other things.

"I find when I do write on piano, the songs tend to go more towards this direction - you know, whatever the feel of this record is."

Image copyright AP

Released in 2002, Come Away With Me was an instant success, selling 18 million copies and winning eight Grammy awards (a trophy for every category it was nominated in).

Jones was just 23 at the time, and says it took "a few years" to gain perspective.

"It's funny how that works," she says. "You're in this amazing moment that you've fantasised about for your whole life but you don't get to enjoy it. All of a sudden you're like, 'Blargh! I don't know what's going on but this is stressing me out.'"

Things came to a head in the summer of 2002, shortly after the album went platinum. Jones marched into the office of Bruce Lundvall, president of Blue Note Records, and blurted out: "Haven't I sold enough records yet?"

"That was just because I wanted to stop doing interviews!" she laughs. "For me, it was just too much work and I wanted to chill for a minute.

"I look back on that time and it definitely seems like a whole other world."

Come Away With Me was followed by Feels Like Home (2004) and Not Too Late (2007), both of which topped the charts in the US and UK - but as the star's soft-focus jazz became over-familiar, sales started to fall and critics cruelly dubbed her "Snorah Jones".

What turned things around was an instinct for collaboration and experimentation. Jones recorded tracks with Outkast, Foo Fighters and Jack White, and supported Neil Young on tour with her alt-country band Puss N Boots.

A partnership with producer Danger Mouse, aka Brian Burton, saw her dabble with spaghetti Western guitars and swampy electronic grooves on the albums Rome (2011) and Little Broken Hearts (2012).

Image copyright AP

Jones's interest in jazz was reignited in Washington DC two years ago, when she took part in a concert celebrating the 75th anniversary of the legendary Blue Note record label.

On stage, she got to play with one of her idols, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and all-star rhythm section John Patitucci (bass) and Brian Blade (drums).

Thrilled by the experience, Jones arranged to get the band into the studio with her - but things didn't go to plan.

"I had all these songs I wanted to record for the album, and they sounded great," she explains. "Then we had the Wayne session and we kind of ran out of songs.

"I had a specific idea in my mind for the kind of thing I wanted to do with him - something very modal, without a lot of chord changes, and I wanted to be able to float over the top with the vocal, but nothing quite felt right."

With the recording session looming, Jones's friend Sarah Oda pulled an all-nighter, performing emergency surgery on one of the songs.

"And so I get a voice memo in the morning, and she's basically slashed the song down to a small set of lyrics that can flow better - but there were still too many chord changes.

"So I took her lyrics and I went into the studio before everyone came in and I was like, 'OK, I gotta figure this out before they get here.'

"All of a sudden Wayne comes in and I'm like, 'I'm not ready yet!' But John Patitucci starts playing this bassline, and I started playing the chords under it, and it sort of all happened so fast."

The song was Burn - a sparse, sleepy number with come hither eyes - that eventually became the album's opening track.

Image copyright Danny Clinch / Blue Note

Recalling the session, Jones says: "I wasn't as nervous as I should have been, considering I didn't know what the material was going to be.

"The thing I was nervous about, more than anything, was just playing piano with those incredible musicians. Because I basically hired Wayne's quartet without his piano player, who's incredible.

"I'm a bit rusty - but it's my record, and I wanted it to sound like me and that is me."

Days Break finds Jones in a contented state of mind after two consecutive break-up albums; but she sticks her head above the parapet on Flipside, a quietly insistent song that tackles America's gun problem.

"People are getting shot in so many situations now," she says. "It's terrifying, it's sad, and it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense that we can't find a way to help.

"Just a certain small amount of gun control seems the least we can do. It's like the world has gone mad."

It's a rare political statement from Jones, one of music's more modest megastars. When she won all those Grammy Awards, she simply felt bad for her fellow nominees. "I felt like I went to somebody else's birthday party and I ate all their cake," she claimed.

So whose bright idea was it to hand out goodie bags featuring Norah Jones-branded stationery at her London gig?

"I've never been a pencil before," she cringes. "It's pretty weird. I hope you enjoy your pencils."

Day Breaks is out on Virgin / EMI on 7 October.

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