Norah Jones Moves With the Flow

That’s true of her music, but it’s also applicable to her podcast, “Norah Jones is Playing Along.”
Norah
Photo by Shervin Lainez

Throughout the Grammy-winner’s career, the genre-bending artist has collaborated with a long list of talent. Now, she’s enjoying intimate conversations with those musicians, not to mention playing songs with them during their talks. Now, the question is, how much of an introduction does Norah Jones need? She broke out with one of the highest selling albums of all time, after all. She’s also one of those artists who is consistent yet varied and whose body of work tells a vivid story. There’s an arc in her albums that invites fans to explore her world and their own. 

Recently, we interviewed the musician-turned-podcast-host about these lovely conversations she’s enjoying, her eclectic career, and positivity in creativity. 

Your podcast feels like you’re a fly on the wall, hearing these intimate conversations.

I know what you mean. When I started doing it, Sarah, my producer and partner in crime, was like, “What are you going to ask?” I said, “I’m not going to worry about that. You’re going to edit it later. If an awkward silence arises, it’s fine, and I like it to be more of a conversation.” I do write down certain things I want to try to get into, but not specific questions.

The Mavis Staples episode is fantastic.

Doesn’t she just make you feel so loved?

She’s wonderful. What were certain subjects you wanted to get into with her?

I already knew Mavis, so I knew that she’s a storyteller, and that it wasn’t going to take much to prompt her to get into some great stories. What I didn’t realize was how much she wants to tell these stories. I knew she wanted to tell them, I guess, but I wanted to go back in time and talk about the ‘60s and her family, and Martin Luther King, and all that. I liked that we talked about stuff in a way that she was telling her daughter about it. I feel like I’m her daughter sometimes. It didn’t feel interview-y to me.

I imagine throughout your career you’ve had these enlightening conversations with other musicians, but what made you decide to finally record them and share them with people?

Well, as someone who’s been so lucky in the collaboration world, especially with some of my idols, I haven’t spent a lot of time talking to them about this stuff. It’s usually you’re in and out of the studio, and they’re very sweet. I’ve got to hang with Willie Nelson, but not for long periods of time. I say hi to him on his bus. He’ll play me a song, but mostly we connect on stage or on recordings. 

I think the only person I’ve ever spent any time with really is Mavis. I think I did something with Dolly Parton, 20 years ago, and she’s so sweet. She took me to dinner, and it was so awesome. Beyond that, I don’t know when you’re so young if you’re able to ask those questions. Not a lot of people start telling you those stories without being prompted.

I was so young when I got to collaborate with so many of these people, maybe I was too self-absorbed. Maybe I was too freaked out to be hanging out with these people that I was trying to be cool. I feel like this is my way of doing it, and I don’t feel like I’ve had this experience much, maybe with people my own age more, but not with my idols.

So the connection you’ve had with those collaborators on a song or stage, is it more of an unspoken connection? 

Yeah, musically it always feels easy and unspoken, and that has never been a struggle, to be honest. But feeling at ease with someone who you’ve idolized since you were a kid sometimes is a struggle. Having been around Mavis so many times before this podcast, I felt really comfortable. Also, we had spent the whole day before we recorded this together, doing this interview for something for TV, so we were warmed up. She just puts you at ease because she’s got that personality. But yeah, it’s definitely the first time I’ve gotten this deep with people. It’s been good for me. I think at the point I am in my life too, I’m more curious than I was when I was young. I don’t know if that’s a thing, but that’s how I feel.

How’d you come to that realization?

I don’t know, just talking to you right now, I guess.

That’s great, though, the fact that the more work you’ve done, the more curious you’ve become.

I think the older you get and the more you do creative work, the more you realize you want to know what you don’t know. When you’re young, you’re like, I got this now, I’m good. I’ve always been open to other music and other people, and that’s what got me in the door with collaborating with people who asked at the time, but now I’m doing the asking. Whereas early on in my career, I had this crazy success, so people were knocking on my door to do it, and I was so excited to do it. But now I’m seeking it out more, and that’s been really fun. You know how it is, you get old. I mean, maybe you’re young, you sound young. 

I’m 31.

Yeah, okay, you’re young. I’m in my early forties, and all the women I know are doing yoga and trying to discover themselves. You know what I mean? I think it’s just something that happens at this age too, and you’re always evolving and reinventing yourself as a human. 

It’s funny you say that, because you did that early on in your career, too. “The Fall” is my favorite album of yours.

That’s awesome.

And you hear that album and think, this is a curious artist exploring pretty early on in their career. 

I’ve tried to not make the same album over and over again since the beginning. I don’t know if that made me less successful, but it definitely made me satisfied. I’ve never felt regretful. I’ve never felt any regret about any music I’ve done. Maybe nobody does, but if you did something for the wrong reasons, you might. I’ve always wanted to explore in that way.

You and [drummer] Brian Blade discussed this a bit, too, about letting go when you release an album into the world. Does that get easier over a career?

I think so, yeah. I think as you get older, you care less about what people think, and that’s just a normal part of growing older, and I think you become a better listener, and you’re able to absorb things better and then regurgitate them in your own way better.

It’s just trusting that you’re going to be playing with a musician who has their own way of doing things, and listening and reacting to it is my goal. Not pushing them into doing something they’re not comfortable with, or pushing myself into doing something I don’t know if I’m not comfortable with trying. It’s more about being open.

That’s a funny contraction about creativity, though, because you also talked with Brian about the importance of being uncomfortable. 

It’s true. With Brian specifically, he is probably the most reactive musician I’ve ever played with. It’s walking a tightrope sometimes, but it’s always going to be good because he is incredible. You can just tell by watching him play the drums. If you’re watching him play the drums, he’ll go for one thing on the cymbal and then change his mind at the last second and play something else. You can see it happening. He’s the most present in the moment reactor as a musician, and that’s what makes it so fun to play with him, because he’s going where I’m going every time, and then I’m going where he’s going every time, and there’s no parameters on it. It is a unique and special place to be. But I don’t think everybody is like that, but my favorite thing to do is be like that, and the more I play with him, the more I’ve tried to be like that.

Have you had any moments on the podcast where you don’t exactly relate to another artist’s experience or process but you found it fascinating?

Not that I don’t relate to it. I mean, well, I did the podcast with Logic, Bobby Hall, and he talks about how he has the vocals in his ears so that if he drops some lines, he knows where to come back in. Of course, I don’t relate to that. I don’t have that experience playing music that he just described, but I get what he’s saying.

Before that episode, you and your partner, Sarah, talk about how positive these conversations have been. The discussions are definitely about the joy of creating, but I did wonder, is negativity ever helpful?

No. No. No. [Laughs] I’m trying to think. I don’t know. No, I feel like anything that’s ever been negative for me has made me doubt myself, and I don’t like that. Anytime I’ve ever been negative on myself, that has given me writer’s block. I honestly don’t know. I don’t know that I’ve ever had much. I’ve been pretty lucky in that way.

What about when you’re recording darker or more melancholic songs?

Oh yeah. Okay, well, that’s a different thing. Totally, yeah. If you’re going through a breakup or if you’re pissed off at somebody, or you’re having a hard time in your life, I get really inspired to write sad songs. That definitely is one good thing about that negativity, sure.

But is there happiness in making those sad songs?

Yes, it’s definitely cathartic, and it’s a way of processing how you feel. It’s like a form of meditation or therapy. It’s a way to disconnect from your body and put your feelings into this thing. Sometimes I’ve written songs where I don’t even know where they came from until later, and then I realize I was going through this thing that completely is why I wrote that song, but I didn’t even realize it at the time.

Any songs specifically that took on a different meaning for you years later?

I think you just relate to something at the moment to what you’re going through. Even if it’s a song you wrote 20 years ago, I think things change. Maybe you revisit the feelings that you wrote them about, but maybe you don’t and they morph into something new. I can’t give you a specific example, really, but I know it’s happened.

Photo by Shervin Lainez

Do you look back much on your work or most days do you just look ahead about what you want to create next? 

It’s definitely about what’s next. I’ll get nostalgic every once in a blue moon, but it’s not very common and it’s more about, I’m just so excited. I mean, I have this song in my head, I’m writing with a friend, we’re making a record, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I don’t have a rough mix of it, so I keep imagining it in my head, and I can’t wait to hear it, just silly stuff like that.

Your music does carry nostalgia for a lot of people. It can bring them back to a time and place. Any albums or musicians that do the same for you?

Oh, music and smell, those are the things that can so scoop you back up into some moment. For me, I mean there’s like a million. The other thing is certain albums you listen to at a certain time in your life, but then you don’t always go back to them. They hold that memory stronger than albums that you listen to your whole life. But there’s this Cassandra Wilson album called “New Moon Daughter” that is just, I’m so steeped in a certain time in my high school life when I listened to it. It still brings me back.

You’ve said on the show that you don’t really like perfect things, musically, but do you believe in the idea of a perfect album? Is perfection even an idea you think about?

I don’t think it’s something I think about. No, not when I’m listening to albums. I think if you’re going for perfection, you might be in the wrong business. Music is so subjective to everyone, so you’re never going to create something so perfect that every single person on the planet loves it, because everybody has different tastes. 

I think there’s such beauty in the humanness of music, and humans are not perfect. Some of my favorite albums have mistakes on them. I mean, my favorite Neil Young records, there’s weird stuff going on, and I wouldn’t change it. 

When did you start becoming more comfortable as a songwriter? 

Probably more recently. I feel like a well of inspiration as a songwriter in the last five years that I struggled with in the beginning. My third album, I definitely felt more confident doing that kind of stuff. And then “The Fall” was a big one songwriting-wise, and it just got more and more from there. Doing that album with Danger Mouse really opened me up in a way that I was going about things differently. 

I was always finishing a song and then going to the studio with a batch of songs to do, and an idea of how they would happen, but when I made the record with Danger Mouse, we went into the studio with nothing and we wrote in the studio. It opened me up to a whole other way of doing it. I found that I was okay at that. I can roll with ideas on the fly, and I just have to not self-edit as much. As I got older, I think self-editing was the biggest thing. If you listen to the [Jeff] Tweedy episode, I don’t know if you did…

I did. That’s what got me into the podcast.

Yeah, he had that book, “How To Write One Song.”

Great book.

It’s so good. We talk about it a little bit on the podcast that he doesn’t believe in the idea of writer’s block. He only believes that it’s you self-editing yourself as you go, which is not how you get it flowing. I liked that idea, and I kind of subscribe to that way of doing things.

When you had writer’s block, how’d you get through it? 

I think it was before my third album. I was really low. Actually, Ryan Adams is the one who kind of helped me with that. He asked what I was doing, and I was down on it and I was like, “Why do I suck? I can’t write songs.” I really liked his songwriting. He told me, “Just go fishing every day. It’s not a big deal. You have it; you have to keep doing it.” I think that also relates to Jeff Tweedy’s advice. It was about not self-editing, and I grasped onto that at that time.

I really like how Tweedy has a workman-like, 9-5 approach. 

Yeah, I think they both had that kind of mentality. I did that for a while. That actually doesn’t work for me, but I respect it. I think everybody has their own way of going about it. That doesn’t work for me. I’m really bad at that.

Usually, there were a few years between your albums. These last few years, you’ve put out a lot of music. How’d that change happen?

I definitely have felt more inspired to write in the last five years, I think, because of the collaboration aspect. After I had kids, I wanted to start collaborating with people and going into the studio for three-day chunks, writing a song together and releasing it as a single. That way I’d have some new stuff to tour with, but I wouldn’t have to commit to a huge album cycle promotion deal. It was a way to be creative without all the work.

Honestly, it completely lit me on fire. It was so fun, so inspiring. I only did six or so of them. I didn’t even do that many of them. I still want to do more. I’m not saying I’m done doing that, but it was something that lit a light bulb in my head. I’m so inspired to write after that. I’ve been like that ever since. Letting it flow. It comes when it comes and I can’t predict it, but I don’t feel scared if it’s not there. There are plenty of little ideas that pop up to work on.

As your voice evolves and you learn more about that instrument of yours, how does that change how you write or approach singing?

I just sing whatever feels right and it goes there. I feel my voice has changed a lot, and I love how it’s changed. I love the things I go for now that I would’ve been a little more timid to go for before. I also love that it’s a little deeper. I always wanted to sound like an old lady, even when I was 20. I don’t mind the aging aspect of my voice. I don’t feel like I’ve lost control of it yet. Maybe I’ll mind it then. I do think that it’s a better instrument now, though. I might not be as clear on the high notes, but I feel comfortable in it.

How was it hitting the road again after years away from the stage?

Oh my God, it was incredible. It felt so good. The audience felt so good. Playing music felt so good. I can’t wait to do more this summer. I’m going to Europe this summer, which I’m excited about because I haven’t been there in a long time, and I want to eat that food.

[Laughs] I just read this morning you’ll perform at Willie Nelson’s 90th birthday celebration. That lineup is incredible. 

Oh yeah. I know, I can’t wait. I love Willie so much. I’ve gotten to sing with him so many times I can’t even count. I feel very familial with Willie, his whole family, and his band, his extended family, the band, the crew. I’ve been around that world many times, and since I was so young, they’ve always treated me like a little sister, all of them. I have so much love for Willie. I grew up on his music, and I got to open up for him at the Fillmore in San Francisco for the first time before my first album came out, for four nights.

I didn’t meet him the first three nights. Then the guys in the band asked me if I would come sing a song with him the next night. I was like, “Yeah, but I haven’t met him yet. Are they going to tackle me when I try to go on stage?” I didn’t understand how I could not meet someone, but go on stage and sing with him. It was Willie Nelson, someone I’d loved since I was a kid. The band was like, “No, yeah, it’ll be fine.” 

I was so nervous. I was more nervous about not being allowed on stage or the logistics of this was going to happen. And then as soon as he announced me, I just floated onto the stage and I sang Kris Kristofferson’s song, “Help Me Make it Through the Night” with my all-time favorite musician, Willie Nelson.

By the way, I’ll just say, I can already imagine how the Hollywood Bowl is going to smell those two nights.

Oh, yeah. It’s going to smell so much like weed. It’s going to be amazing. They told me “It’s two nights, but if you can only do one night, that’s okay.” I was like, “Are you kidding? This is going to be the best party in town. Sign me up for both nights, please.

When you’re on stage, do you ever smell people enjoying cannabis at your shows?

Well, not in a nice concert hall, but some ratty theater or if you’re outside, absolutely. It always makes me happy, because I know people are just having fun, you know?

Click here to listen to episodes of Norah Jones is Playing Along Podcast.

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