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Thursday, May 17, 2007
Changes of note
She has quietly become one of the decade's best-selling artists, has a third No.1 album in the charts — and debuts as an actor in the film opening this week's Cannes Film Festival
Somehow her profile is as understated as her smoldering voice. But by stealth, Norah Jones has invaded the mainstream in a few short years, joining that exclusive group of artists who have sold more than 30 million albums worldwide. As if such success, four side-bands and a reinvented solo style weren't enough to keep her busy, the velvet-voiced 28-year-old singer of simmering jazz and country songs last year tried her hand at acting. Not just any old bit-part, mind you. Jones has the leading role in "My Blueberry Nights" — the first English-language movie by Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai, and Wednesday's scheduled opener for year's 60th Cannes Film Festival.
"It was really scary the first week of the shoot," admitted Jones as she chatted to The Japan Times during a recent rare trip to Tokyo. "But everybody was really nice, and as we kept doing it, I got really comfortable. It was just a really good experience. It's nice to do something completely different, and for me to have the opportunity to work with a director like that is pretty amazing. So it was really, really cool."
In the movie, Jones plays a girl "who has some problems" and heads out on a road trip across the United States, stopping in New York, Memphis and Nevada, and meeting a cast of peculiar people along the way. Jones confirms that the movie retains Wong's signature cinematography to capture the road trip in beautiful shots, helped no doubt by her hunky costar, Jude Law.
"I was a little nervous to work with him at first 'cos he's such a big movie star, and he's handsome, y'know," Jones giggles. "And I'm like this person who's never acted before. I felt like a real loser. I would love to do it again, from start to finish, having had a little bit of experience already. At the beginning, I was so freaked out I didn't know what to do, and by the end I had grown so much. I wonder what those scenes are gonna look like back to back!"
Jones paints Wong as a patient, unconventional movie director who relished the input of his actors — not least because of a desire to sail over the language barrier on his first foreign film.
"He speaks English very well, but it's still not his first language," she says. "He's a little bit unsure, so he was really cool about letting us change stuff. He was very interactive with the story and the script. He would always come up to us and say, 'What do you think? Do you think the character would do this?' His style is so unconventional; we didn't even know the end to the movie until last week, when we shot the final scenes. He didn't know it either! It was constantly changing. We would get the pages 5 minutes before we had to go do it, or an hour or the day before."
Jones says she'd act again "if it was the right situation," but she's not turning her back on music just yet. After all, despite already selling so many albums, she's only just hitting her stride as an artist. Her latest album, "Not Too Late," which was released in late January and quickly topped the U.S. charts, sees Jones take a front seat in her singing career, writing or cowriting every song and even recording the album at home with longtime collaborator and boyfriend Lee Alexander.
"Our studio in our apartment was kind of a crap shoot," she says. "I mean, we put a lot of work into it, but we had no idea if it would sound good or not. We lucked out! But after recording Jeffrey Zeigler's cello, we realized that really we should've had him record it in our living room, which is huge and has a lot of echo, so we re-amped it through to the living room and recorded the reverb!"
It's hard to believe all this technical stuff is really coming from an artist who sounds so refreshingly uncomplicated and whose music has almost always been penned by producers and friends. Has she become a studio geek?
"Lee is really into it," she says. "The nerdiness hasn't quite rubbed off on me yet! I'm just a little girl about it. Y'know, 'I'm gonna go cook' [laughs]. But I've learned a lot just by being around it."
Jones was born Geethali Norah Jones Shankar on March 30, 1979, in New York City. She grew up in Texas with her mother, who had split from Jones' father, Indian sitar performer Ravi Shankar, and she immersed herself in Billie Holiday and Willie Nelson records.
Jones began singing in church choirs and took piano lessons when she was young, going on to attend various music schools along with her studies. She then majored in jazz piano at the University of North Texas, but she left in 1999 after just two years for New York City, where she cut her teeth as a lounge singer.
In 2002, around a year after signing with Blue Note, she released her debut album, "Come Away With Me," a collection of piano-led jazz and folk that eventually rose to the top of the U.S. charts and garnered five Grammys. Jones coproduced the album but relied on Alexander and songwriter Jesse Harris for most of the material.
In 2004, the followup album, "Feels Like Home," enjoyed similar success, grabbing a Grammy and topping the U.S. charts yet again. Jones increased her songwriting role, writing or cowriting about half the tracks, and the balance shifted from jazz to folksier territory. What remained consistent, of course, was Jones' soulful, often disarming voice.
There's a great deal about "Not Too Late" that is surprising. That she home-recorded it is one thing; that she wrote or cowrote every song is another. In fact, Harris, who wrote her 2002 breakthrough single "Don't Know Why," appears on the album not as a songwriter but as backup guitarist — a sure sign that Jones is taking a more active role in her own musical fortunes. And even the sleeve reflects a change in tone: Gone are the whimsical portraits adorning her first two albums, replaced instead by a bold red, black and white shot of Jones in diva mode and looking incredibly striking.
"I feel like I'm trying to get somewhere specific with each album," she says. "I don't necessarily get there, but I get somewhere that's different, and I'm glad for that. I've always enjoyed artists like Tom Waits who have a really junkie sound. The way he sounds is beautiful to me, but it's also really dirty-sounding. I so am not a dirty-sounding girl! It's funny, with each record, I try to go for that and I still sound really smooth. But I definitely would like to get more into that kind of garage sound, just kind of junkyard recordings."
In fact, on the track "Sinkin' Soon," she's almost nailed it; the whiskey-soaked refrain carries a slow, dark groove that captures Waits' grittier moments perfectly, giving Jones the chance to show off the meaner edge of her versatile voice.
"Yeah, we got closer on this album," she agrees. "I mean, we're not trying to rip Tom Waits off, but he's a big influence. And I'm playing more guitar now, and I'm writing a lot on guitar, and I want to get better at guitar so that I can really do it live. I'm doing it a little bit live now, but I'd like to do more. I'm not going to stop playing piano, but that would be fun for me."
Fun seems to be a key factor in the change to Jones' sound. After releasing her first two albums, she took some time out to play with Alexander in the country band The Little Willies. The project started out as a way to blow off steam, playing tiny bar-room shows, but a self-titled album followed in 2006 and cast Jones in a new light. It carried a more up-tempo set of songs, mostly covers of such country luminaries as Hank Williams and Willie Nelson, and with that came a sense of humor not previously associated with Jones' music. For example, the song "Lou Reed" tells a presumably fictional tale of observing music's grumpiest legend out cow- tipping (sneaking up on a bovine dozing while standing up and toppling it over).
"Putting out the album was kind of an experiment to see how doing that with a band like that went," says Jones. "The cool thing about that record is that it came about when we had a whole summer of playing every week for a couple months, and we were able to just go in and do it in two days. If we had another spurt of gigs like that, and learned a bunch of new tunes, we might record again.
"Mostly that band is fun when we play live," she continues. "It's a bar band, and that's kinda how it should be. We're not gonna go on a world tour or anything. We wouldn't be able to do a bar tour! We'd probably drink ourselves out of our budget."
In addition, she has two other side bands: The Sloppy Joannes, an all-female country band trio; and El Madmo, described by Jones as a rock band. With all these musical outlets, it seems as though Jones' creativity has been brought to the fore. And working with her boyfriend, who cowrites and produces her music as well as playing in her live band, has clearly energized her solo material, too.
"We don't really divide our time between work time and play time!" she laughs. "We go through cycles; when we're on tour or recording it's very much, 'Oh yeah, we're together — we should schedule a date so we're not always working.'
"We're really lucky, we have a good personality match, and he's really mellow and easy to get along with," she says. "I don't think it would work with everyone. It certainly wouldn't work with every boyfriend I've ever had!"
Jones was brought up on a diet of jazz and country records, finding other styles of music much later in life. This is surely another cause for her evolving sound — as her range of influences opens up, so too does her own musical style.
"There are a lot of records that changed my life," she considers. "Tom Waits' 'Mule Variations' — that was when I was in college; and Willie Nelson's 'Red Headed Stranger' in high school — that really amazed me. And Cassandra Wilson's 'New Moon Daughter'; it's really beautiful, and at that time I didn't really listen to a whole lot of other music. I just wanted to sing jazz. I listened to all kinds of jazz, but I didn't know what to do other than just sing old Billie Holiday songs. I listened to Hank Williams when I was a kid, and I had all this other country stuff in my mind, but when I heard that Cassandra Wilson record, it made me think about music differently."
As her tastes grow more diverse, Jones finds herself accepting chart-busting, smash-hitting pop music. Here, her changing attitude toward music surfaces again: that willingness to indulge something new, to find a point of interest in even the most alien genre.
"It's music that I never liked before," she laughs. "But in the past five years I've become a lot more open-minded, and I really enjoy it sometimes. It's not the kind of music I usually buy and listen to on my own time, but, you know, you hear it everywhere, and it's really fun to hear."
Still, she has a way to go. When asked whether she knows any Japanese music, she responds: "Um, not really. I have an interest in it, I mean, I've heard things that I've really liked. My friend Jesse was playing a singer from the '60s, it was really amazing, but I have no idea how to say her name, ha-ha."
With every new trick, Norah Jones wanders ever closer to becoming a truly indispensable artist, in the original sense of the word. But more than that, to becoming the artist she really wants to be. And when she gets there, the world will be listening — or watching, as the case may be.