Norah Jones Keeps Her Pounce
By Lou Fancher
Three days prior to a June 24 appearance at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre, nine-time Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and pianist Norah Jones tells me, “I don’t even think of this as a Come Away With Me 20th Anniversary Tour. I think of this as a ‘Thank God I Get To Play Music Live Again’ tour.”
Nonetheless, the cross-country tour showcases her new 44-track Come Away With Me: 20th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition album from Blue Note/UMe. The collection, available digitally and on a 4-LP vinyl set or 3-CD set, features a remaster of the original 2002 album produced by Arif Mardin; 22 never-before released tracks that include original complete First Session original demos, the album’s first version made at Allaire Studios with producer Craig Street; and liner notes written by Jones describing the album’s history. That remarkable story reads a bit like Genesis in the Bible, with lots of “begetting” performed by many people who had influence on then-21-year-old Jones.
Come Away With Me, upon its release, catapulted Jones into instant and intense visibility as it traced a precipitous, upward incline to become #1 in 20 countries, sold nearly 30 million copies, and in 2003 earned eight Grammy awards, among them, Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best New Artist.
About the anniversary edition, Jones says, “I got to release the album that deserves to be released. The Craig Street sessions were a really beautiful thing. It’s special to go back and remix that and bring it (out) to be heard. It’s nice to have extra material sitting around in a vault. I thought, why not put it out? Someone is going to enjoy it.”
And does Jones ever stop enjoying a song or touring? “If I didn’t get anything out of it, I wouldn’t be doing it: I don’t need to. I love playing music, and have a great band. I’ve been stripping back from having two guitar players onstage with me, (which) was great at the time because the music had really cool guitar parts. Now, I’m back to just the songs, and piano, bass and drums. There’s space in the music, songs that have new lives, and on this tour, I have a pedal steel player, which is fun. The last five years, I’ve been going somewhere new singing-wise, and I think I’m still going. I mean, I’m not done. Where am I going? I don’t know, but I’ll let you know when I get there. Of course, by then, I won’t be there anymore; I’ll be moving on.”
Jones’ songbook includes songs she has written, original songs written by others and covers. When I ask about “Fragile,” the last song on the new album, and another stand out, “Something is Calling You,” she’s excited. “I think those two songs are my favorites. ‘Fragile’ was written by my friend, Noah Weinstein. It’s such a gorgeous lyric and beautiful song. My version was never released, and you know stuff just hit the cutting room floor, not because it wasn’t great, but because the story we were telling, certain things didn’t fit in. It could have easily been a beloved song. I used to play ‘Something is Calling You’ a lot when we were first starting my band. It should have made it on the album too, but the ball kept getting passed back and forth. It was a mad dash to finish the album at the end. It’s so great to put them back on.”
While making the original album 20 years ago, Jones admits she was restlessly searching for her voice, striving to prove herself. “I had to get it right, I didn’t want to just throw stuff at a wall and say to the whole world, this is me. I wanted to make sure it felt like me.” She grew up singing in church choirs and had been singing jazz and playing jazz piano while in New York, until the urge to “move on” 10 years ago caused her to “unlearn” how to rely on chords with complicated 7s and 9s and 13s. “I had to learn to simplify and get to the heart of the song. When I was young and singing jazz, I had this great teacher at North Texas who would tell us the lyrics were what was important and you have to get the emotion behind it. I had to get distant for that to sink in.”
Because so much of her singing is old soul, lyrically, it took time to carve a groove that reached the essence of a song, to actually embody and not over-emote the lyrics. “I can’t sing a song if I don’t honestly feel the emotion. I’ve come this far by only doing what I feel. It’s become second nature.”
Jones pushes back when asked to describe the voice others have labeled “light,” or “luminous,” “melancholy” and “pure.” Taking on a half-teasing, half-serious tone, she says, “My voice is just part of me. I don’t have to describe it. You do. I describe it by doing it.”
Even so, someone texted her recently after they heard her 2021 Christmas album and said, “You have a new warble in your voice, I love it.” Jones was mystified, but pleased. “I’m still not sure what they were talking about, but I like that you can grow and change over time. You develop new grooves and habits within your instrument. I don’t even know if it matters if you’re aware of it. I’m fine with that.”
Unlike in 2001, when Jones rarely dialed up pop music on the radio, her listening habits have changed with time. “I love listening to pop radio with my kids, but back then, I was so in a tunnel of discovering old, special music that was hard to find on the radio. Now, I recognize how different it is, with social media, streaming and people not buying albums in the same way. People love vinyl, cassettes and CDs that are vintage, but people don’t listen to whole albums in the way they used to. I love a killer playlist just as much as the next guy, so I’m not bashing it.”
Jones appreciates the instantaneousness of social media. “We played at the Detroit Fox Theatre three days after Chris Cornell died. He played his last show in that theater. I decided it should be a tribute, and we did his ‘Black Hole Sun.’ I didn’t expect to do it. It got shared on YouTube, and I got requests for ‘Black Hole Sun’ that whole tour, because people were moved by it.” By the same token, Jones laments that people read sound bites and might listen to only one track on an album. “You can say one thing about an album and it becomes the tagline. Or people listen to just one song and don’t get the full picture.”
Among other negatives and positives? “The hardest thing for musicians, especially touring musicians who haven’t been as lucky as me, is that they can’t make money selling records the way they used to. The exposure now is much higher, but there’s that tradeoff. (The positive) is incredible: Kids in tiny towns know as much about music as kids in cities who sneak out to hear live music all the time.”
For those kids (and adults) who “sneak out” to hear Jones, expect songs with lush harmonies, a solid backbeat, a stellar band with a shared vibe but unafraid to improvise—but don’t get complacent. “There are about 10 new things I’d love to do tomorrow, and there’ll be 100 by the time I’m 50,” she says. “I like to ruminate, then pounce on something when it’s exciting.”