Norah Jones on new song ‘Wintertime’ and her next chapter: ‘That whole album cycle push, I’m not up for it’
With over 50 million album sales and nine Grammys, Norah Jones knows she’s reached an autonomous point in her career where she can pretty much do whatever the hell she wants. And the 39-year-old mother of two tells EW she plans to write the next chapter in her professional songbook one track at a time.
“It was fun and I had a great time, but that whole album cycle push, I’m not up for it anymore,” the “Don’t Know Why” singer says of restructuring her creative output after releasing six solo LPs (each with a massive accompanying tour) since 2002. So, her husband suggested an alternate route: “Go in the studio” with an array of hand-selected musicians “for one to three days [and] put out a song per month,” Jones explains. So far, a collection of four singles — spanning Doveman-assisted experimental-electronic political anthems to soulful wallops of moody brass — made at her own pace with friends new and old serve as tokens brought back from her sonic travels.
“This is me finally figuring out who I want to play with,” says Jones, adding that the goal of the process is to just “see what happens” in the largely improvised sessions she quickly chucks online to savor the raw spontaneity of the process.
“It’s easy when you get into a record cycle to lose that a little bit… the magic of the song starts to dissipate,” she continues. “Waiting around, getting artwork together… it’s like, let’s just put out the important part and move on.”
For example, Jones’ sessions with Jeff Tweedy yielded four overall tracks, but “Wintertime” is the only one that originated prior to their collaboration.
“[Jeff had] already written a lot of the chords, the whole melody, and a lot of the words before I came in,” Jones says of the song, which speaks to longing and desire — aided by the song leaning into timely themes of seasonal depression. “I’m just drawn to warm instruments in general, and happy lyrics always sound cheesy coming off my tongue. [This song is] just what comes naturally.”
“Wintertime” also reunites Jones with her former engineer, Tom Schick, and features Tweedy’s son Spencer on percussion. But the tone was set by Jones and Tweedy finding a balance between their perspectives.
“His way of writing [and] the way he thinks about lyrics is a super different perspective from mine,” Jones observes. “It’s hard to describe a process like that, it just kind of goes back and forth until it finds its way.”
While she doesn’t broadcast her views on social media, Jones’ art has long registered political. In protest to George W. Bush’s re-election, Jones dinged the Republican president in her 2004 song “My Dear Country,” and she says the “current climate” under Donald Trump inspired this experimental electronic opus made with Doveman musician Thomas Bartlett. The song — in which Jones observes “people hurting” and wonders if society is “broken” — came together after she’d written a set of stream-of-consciousness lyrics Bartlett improvised moody organ riffs over.
“We got three very different songs,” Jones says of their sessions. “We have another song that’s stripped down, and is really orchestral and beautiful. It’s just piano and voice. And then we have another song that’s more electronic…. whatever happens sonically, I’m open.”
“It Was You” — a soul-driven stunner made with Jones’ bandmates Brian Blade and Chris Thomas — epitomizes the spontaneous, pliable spirit of Jones’ current endeavor.
“I came from a very dark place personally [and] wrote four songs on the piano. This was one of them. It started with a different vibe; It had no words and sounded like a happy, church piano song,” she recalls. “These guys are such great musicians [so] it totally changed because of the way they played it,” Jones says of the studio time that pushed the track into its final form. “It was beautiful the way they interpreted it…. the groove kicked in and it was amazing. That was a very live track. We added the horns and the organs, and that’s it.”
One of the best songs on Jones’ 2012 album Little Broken Hearts is the grim “Miriam,” for which she took on the embellished persona of a woman fantasizing about murdering an ex’s mistress. “A Song With No Name,” another fruit of Jones’ Tweedy sessions, kindles similar images as she croons of love, knives, and guns in the same breath to create an abstract tone poem about impulsive passion — which also explains how the song was recorded.
“This song was very much improvised, lyrically and musically. I thought it was a throwaway, and we revisited it…. and [Jeff and I] both loved it,” Jones remembers. “There are some things about it that don’t connect in my head. If I could rewrite the lyrics, there are a few I’d change to make a story connect a little more…. but I like the way it is. Guns are everywhere, and the word was on the tip of my tongue; don’t worry about me.”
Jones admits she has “a hard time playing ‘Miriam’ now,” alluding to the cycle of violence that has played out in national headlines in recent years. “Even though I know what that song is, [because] it’s a mood; in no way am I advocating anything like that, and I never would.”
“We’re all aware of what’s going on [in this country] and that can inform certain things, but some of these are just songs about how you feel,” she says. “There’s no real thread tying these songs together; I think I’m the only thread.”