Norah Jones On Her Stunning And Joyous ‘Visions’

Arts & Celebrities

Norah Jones’ career is almost unparalleled. I say almost because there is only one other person I can think of who has accomplished what Jones has pulled off. The other person, the great Alanis Morissette.

Both had diamond selling debut albums (Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill has sold 33 million copies worldwide, while Jones’ Come Away With Me is at 27 million) and received multiple Grammy wins for their debut records. Both became immediate superstars, which has crippled other artists in the past.

Somehow though, both have parlayed that success into respected and consistent more than 20-year careers. Now, 22 years since her debut made her a household name, Jones is back with the just released Visions.

A brilliant and compelling work created in collaboration with producer Leon Michels, Visions is, as Blue Note Records President Don Was said in our recent chat, “Incredible.” He made the bold claim that, as a whole, it is the best record she’s ever made.

It might be, which is saying a lot. One thing that feels indisputable is it is the most joyous record she has made since her debut. You can feel the enthusiasm Jones and Michels clearly had in bringing Visions to life.

Jones spoke with Sage Bava and I about the making of the album, songwriting, why she likes recording spontaneously, her love of playing festivals, and the importance of quiet in making this new record.

Steve Baltin: Sage and I interviewed Don Was together last week. He was telling us how he really feels like this a complete album for you. I would agree, that this represents all aspects of your music at this point.

Norah Jones: That’s cool, I never know what to think. When you make music, you’re in a vacuum and then it’s not until years later that I usually can analyze it so that’s funny. I love Don’s intense way of listening and his attention. He wrote the bio, which was so sweet. I love hearing him talk about music because he’s so smart and it makes me happy to hear that.

Baltin: I was doing an interview with Ani DiFranco. I was asking her about her new album at the time and she’s like, “I don’t know, ask me in 20 years.”

Jones: It’s true, you’re too close to it to explain it.

Baltin: Are there records then from 20 years ago that you finally understand?

Jones: Yeah, I think so. As much as I can.

Baltin: That’s fascinating to me. Nick Cave, who I love, said it best. He said you can literally be on stage and have it be like, “Oh now I get it.”

Jones: Yeah, sometimes it just clicks and sometimes it rolls right on past you. I think also with writing songs I don’t even know what I’m writing about until years later. Then I’m like, “Oh s**t, I know what I was going through. That song is totally reflecting all of this stuff.” But you don’t really know when it comes out. There are certain things but not completely.

Baltin: Were there moments on this record that you look at now and maybe it’s too close to understand. But are there things on this record that you are starting to grasp?

Jones: Not quite yet but I don’t know. I think the song “Staring at the Wall,” which is the second song on the record, was very stream of conscious and it came very quick. So, looking back at that one is maybe the easiest. I’m like, “Oh boy, I was a little lost.” But it could have just been that day, I don’t know.

Sage Bava: I love how a lot of the songs you said were born as visions, and the little clip that you shared on your Instagram about how “Running” came to you. I’m a sucker for knowing the origin stories of songs. I’d love to hear one or two more stories if you’re willing to share of where these songs were born and how they came to you as visions.

Jones: I have two young kids so it’s hard to get a quiet moment. I would go on these walks, and I would be listening to a podcast. Then I realized maybe I should try a walk without a podcast. As soon as I did, all these ideas started coming in my brain. You have to have quiet for your mind to realize the creative stuff and spit it back out at you. It’s easy to not have quiet anymore because our phones are so cluttered in our brains. So, most of these songs came in those moments between falling asleep when I had quiet, or meditations I was doing where there was quiet, or in the bathtub when the door was locked, or the car or where I didn’t have any headphones in. I finally got the memo that, “Oh yeah if I don’t clutter my brain constantly, stuff will come out.”

Bava: A lot of your previous material was very intimate. This feels much bigger but still has that same intimacy. The juxtaposition of quiet with this sound is really interesting. I was curious what some of the musical inspirations that you were perhaps listening to when you were having those quiet moments or where this came from. Did it happen during the production process that you made these decisions of this world that you were creating?

Jones: I don’t think there were any decisions. Honestly, part of why I love working with Leon is that we have a great relationship. It’s very musically easy and quick but also, he records everything in his studio, he gets cool sounds and everything he does just sounds cool. But it doesn’t sound like it’s trying to be anything else. It sounds kind of old, but it doesn’t sound retro. He’s really found the balance of all that stuff. I almost feel like it’s because he has a cool aesthetic and cool taste. It’s the way it’s mic’d and it’s not always overthought. On “Staring at the Wall,” which is one of my favorite sounds, there’s just one drum mic up. We thought it was a demo, so it was just off the cuff. I feel like it’s his world phonically and I’m playing around in it.

Bava: It sounds like you had a very easy collaborative process during the recording.

Jones: We had a lot of fun throwing stuff at the wall in the studio and seeing what stuck. Most of it stuck. We went into a studio with a more traditional band set up. It was great and we got three amazing tracks from that session. But everything that we had already demoed and then tried to rerecord didn’t stick because we just loved the demos so much, we ended up using them. It’s just me and Leon basically playing everything on maybe eight of the 12 songs. He’s on drums and bass, I’m on guitar and piano and some keyboard bass and harmonies and then he added some horns after. Mostly it’s just us. I think even he had a realization about halfway through about how our thing when it’s at its best is just the two of us doing stuff, which I think he was surprised by as well. He’s a saxophone player by trade but he’s got a great groove [as a drummer]. It just sounded so good on the recording, I was like, “This sounds great. Let’s just stick with it.” I’m not very precious about things. I love first takes and stuff that is a little bit raw and rough around the edges. So, I was excited to continue on like that. He came around and he was excited too. I think at first he felt a little unsure about that, but it just sounded so good. The only other time I’ve gone into the studio to write with someone and sort of work from the ground up like that was on this album I made with Danger Mouse called Little Broken Hearts in 2012. That was really eye-opening for me because I had never written in the studio before. I had always come into the studio with songs and had a band, then we get a version of it. So, I love working this way. It’s super fun and it’s a little bit more mad scientist in the most fun way. Having a group of musicians who you trust and love is also amazing, but it’s just two different ways to do it. We kind of had both on here. It was nice.

Baltin: Do you feel that as you’ve gotten older you’re more comfortable to be spontaneous?

Jones: “Don’t Know Why” was the demo. It was the first take and it was all live. We added harmonies and we doubled the guitar and that is all. I think I learned it early on, though I don’t know if anyone would describe my first album as raw because it was so smooth and became so popular. I get that. But the truth is most of it was just live takes in the studio and at its best it was that. There are a few songs on that album that I rerecorded several times and I still kind of prefer the original version in that, but it’s not what made it on there. If I could go back, knowing what I know now I probably would’ve chosen the original version of “Come Away with Me” instead of the version we got, which is great. I learned all that early on. I’m a better musician at just being off the cuff and doing live stuff. If I do 10 takes to something I overthink it and I don’t sound as good. I don’t get better and better. I do better being a little spontaneous. That’s why I like doing this podcast honestly, because I get to play with people in a room just the two of us. We record it and it’s really special because there’s no nonsense. Sometimes there are mistakes, but it doesn’t matter. It’s just really human and beautiful. It’s two people playing music together. That’s why I loved jazz growing up because it felt alive. They weren’t overthinking things.

Baltin: From this new record, what are you most excited to do live? When you imagine yourself at BottleRock in May and you’re playing to 60,000 people, are there songs that you’re most excited to see how people respond to them?

Jones: I’m stoked to do the festival stuff because I haven’t done that in a really long time and I always love doing festivals. People are just so excited. I’ll never forget, I had a new song that we did live Ohana Fest. It was just released, or it hadn’t even been released yet and they just freaked out. It was so great. It’s like they don’t even need to know the song, they just respond. The new album is going to be fun to do at these festivals because I have two incredible women singing with me on this tour and it’s going to be powerful. I’ve never had that on stage with two strong women singers and it’s going to be great.

Bava: How are you approaching the new material live?

Jones: I’ve got Brian Blade on drums so it’s always going to have that degree of fun and spontaneity. I love to be loose on stage and I never won’t be, but because we have so many cool harmonies on the record we do have to rehearse to a point. Then I think we’ll loosen up after we get all the songs learned. This is definitely the most rehearsing I’ve ever done though because the arrangements of the harmonies are so dense and thick. I want to get it right and it’s not as simple as someone learning one harmony. They’re all pretty complicated parts.


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