Aided by Ryan Adams, Norah moves away from dinner parties, and into her own heart of darkness
In spring 2006 New York rock circles were swept by a buzz about a new garage band, El Madmo, focusing on the trio’s pixie-like blonde guitarist. Not only was she a mean singer, she had a droll line in lyrics, stuff like “I stare at his ass/He smokes the good grass”. It didn’t take long to figure out that “Maddie”, the girl in the fishnet stockings with the red Stratocaster, was in fact Norah Jones, queen of the FM airwaves, stepping out incognito. More recently Norah, baseball cap pulled low, could be seen jangling with the Sloppy Joannes, a female trio covering the likes of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”.
Norah Jones has always been more than the MOR chanteuse condescendingly described as “dinner jazz” by sniffier elements of the music world. Her apprenticeship in Texan piano bars, her kinship with New York avant-gardists and her fondness for side projects (before El Madmo came The Little Willies, an R’n’B bar band) all suggest a more complex character than that described by the weepy balladry that’s been her trademark since 2002’s Come Away With Me.
The phenomenal success of that first album – it notched up seven million copies and eight Grammies – put Norah on a unique career path, even before the revelation that she was Ravi Shankar’s daughter upped the ante of media interest. Next album Feels Like Home, like its predecessor produced by the late Arif Mardin, had little choice but to restate a winning formula.
It was a highly appealing formula – Norah’s sensual, country-tinged voice ensured that – but it was scarcely challenging. Only on 2007’s Not Too Late did another Norah emerge, one not dependent on cover versions, however inspired, one willing to set her creamy vocals against an unorthodox string quartet or jug band, to mischievously poke her head above the political parapet on “Election Day”.
The Fall completes the sense of a woman sloughing off a skin to embrace a bolder, more individual path. Now 30, life has clearly changed over the 18 months since Norah split with her long-time beau and bassist Lee Alexander (who also produced Not Too Late). In fact, she’s dumped her band for a diverse set of musicians and a producer, Jacquire King, whose credits include Kings Of Leon, Modest Mouse and (a Norah favourite) Tom Waits’ Mule Variations. Jones also put aside her well-tempered piano in favour of a guitar-centric sound that growls noisily on, say, “Young Blood”, a Springsteenesque romp that talks of gunning down werewolves and “setting five boroughs aflame”.
More startling still is “It’s Gonna Be”, a state of the nation address (translation: enough chat shows and soaps already, can we please get serious?) that steams in on a Wurlitzer riff reminiscent of Stevie’s “Higher Ground” and pounding drums that Norah describes as “part Adam Ant” (who on this evidence clearly acquired them from the Glitter Band).
The songwriting credits alone confirm that Norah is much more her own woman. Eight of the 13 tracks are by her alone, the rest being written with sidekicks that include rockers Ryan Adams and Will Sheff (from Texan band Okkervil River). The Adams’ collaboration, “Light As A Feather”, has a dense, urban atmosphere that promises “the seasons will undo your soul”. The Sheff co-write, “Stuck”, is more chaotic still, a tale of a drunken night out lurching from club to street, with commentary from Marc Ribot’s crashing guitar.
Not all of The Fall sounds so gnarly, of course. Jones’ dusty, melodic vocals are the polar opposite of Tom Waits’ scrapyard growl, but she and Jacquire have captured what Norah heard on Mule Variations; “the balance between being beautiful and rough, and also sounding very natural”. The cuts that most resemble her previous work – “Even Though” and “Chasing Pirates” – are also the most lightweight in sentiment.
Romantically, it’s clear that Norah has, as they say, moved on from her years living and playing with Alexander. It must have been a wrench. The emotional imprint of The Fall moves beyond the pining, wistful tones that are her trademark in favour of Sex And The City scenarios bursting with heartbreak, regret and emotional devastation. On “Waiting” Norah watches bereft as the stars “fade into the cracks of dawn” and her lover fails to return home. “Back To Manhattan” finds her caught between suitors on two sides of the Hudson river, ruing “what a fool I was to think I could live in both worlds”. Most of the time Norah is either alone and mixed-up or, if she’s with a man, “heavy as the weather” (there’s plenty of New York City rain about).
Two of the best moments arrive late and from opposite ends of the axis of passion. “December” is the simplest yet most touching song here; a languid melody set to a picked acoustic guitar over which Norah delivers from the heart, striking a minimalist chime on her piano. When she sings of “the loneliest place I have known” you believe her. It’s followed by “Tell Yer Mama”, a scathing put-down whose contempt is belied by Norah’s sweet Southern drawl. Set to a lop-sided, Waitsian rhythm, it thanks a hapless lover’s parents “for raising you so damn wrong”.
By the time the closing, “Man Of The Hour” arrives, we’ve been through the emotional blender with Ms Jones. It’s an impish end-piece, with Norah facing a tough choice between “a vegan and a pot head” and instead, plumping for a different breed of male altogether. That, it soon transpires, is her dog.
UNCUT Q&A: NORAH JONES:
- Do you see this as a much more orthodox “rock” album?
- You’ve switched from piano to guitar…
- How did “Light As A Feather”, the co-write with Ryan Adams, come about?
- What have you been listening to lately?
Well, I wanted to move away from a country or jazz sound, and I definitely wanted to try some different things – more group based, more drums and electric guitars and synths. I don’t know if rock was the direction I was going towards, but I can see how it sounded like that.
Well, I’ve always written on the guitar. Because I’m more limited on that instrument, it forces me to write. The difference now is that I play guitar a little better! I play piano on one track, and electric piano on a couple, but this was the first time I’ve ever used additional keyboard players. I’m not very gear savvy, and I don’t have many weird keyboards. So I got these two guys to play different, atmospheric sounds.
We’ve been friends for a few years. We were playing stuff for each other, and I played him a song that I couldn’t finish. He finished it for me in 10 minutes! We did it by taking the guitar out, and putting in this crazy organ sample. It’s an interesting way of working!
Recently there’s been a lot of young bands who’ve been experimenting with different sounds and vintage sounds. I really like the Santigold record and the MGMT record, along with the latest Neil Young – that definitely influenced my guitar!
INTERVIEW: JOHN LEWIS