Norah Jones: The Beautifully Offbeat Musician Who Keeps On Exploring
“I think I was smart enough to know at the time that it was money in the bank,” said Norah Jones to The Arts Desk back in 2012, talking about the spectacular success of her debut album Come Away With Me a decade previously. “[I thought] ‘You can do what you want now, so do it’.”
It's a perfect encapsulation of self-possession, displayed by a musician who has calmly and subtly become one of the most interesting major stars of her era. In her early flush of success, she was outselling Coldplay, Beyonce, Britney and Michael Jackson, and she's gone on to sell at least 50 million albums worldwide. Yet, she is in many ways uniquely creatively agile for a star at this level.
As she tells us now, “Staying inspired and trying different things is what keeps me working. If I’m not inspired I will do something else. Having the freedom that the success of my first record gave me means not working unless the music is propelling me forward. Luckily, it always does.”
Just as her vocals and arrangements have always been ultra subtle yet packed with a real punch, so with her creative moves. Somehow outside the usual cycles of hype, she seems to navigate the industry on tip-toe, no big splashes or surprises – yet her projects have pretty much always turned out to be worthy additions to a heavyweight body of work. Whether it's Danger Mouse, Ray Charles, Belle & Sebastian, Talib Kweli, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Herbie Hancock or Q Tip, her collaborations have always radiated class and choices made with a musical ear before all else.
Thus, her appearance on the new album Favours by Wolff Parkinson White. This is the electronica production alias for New York resident German jazz drummer Jochen Rueckert. He is a musician with a serious pedigree and a long partnership with the NonPlace label run by Burnt Friedman. Friedman himself is a leftfield music legend and serial collaborator with the likes of David Sylvian and the late Jackie Liebzeit from foundational German experimentalists Can.
Rueckert's earlier Wolf Parkinson White tracks (the name comes from a medical syndrome characterised by a racing heart), though, are out-there, disorienting electronica. They are “an attempt to win the Audio Manipulation Olympics” as he puts it, certainly not something you'd expect fans of Jones's country- and soul-inflected songs to lap up.
Yet on the song Department Of Failure, while it's certainly at the darker end of her output, her style and writing is woven deeply into the fabric of Reuckert's avant garde rhythms. It is still Norah Jones through and through.
Likewise her recent collaborations with Tarriona “Tank” Ball – New Orleans poet, singer, rapper and frontwoman of Grammy-nominated Tank & The Bangas. Two single track releases, each very different from one the other, both brilliant, were dropped without ceremony last year. Now obviously Ball's neo soul tendencies are quite a bit closer to Jones's natural territory, but nonetheless, the tracks' uniqueness clearly come from two strong musical personalities playing off one another; there's no dashed off guest verses here.
Rueckert and Jones had been friends for many years before collaborating. “We used to play a little here and there before she hit the big time,” as he describes it.
The work with Ball, too, came from a growing friendship – though this was more recent, after Jones saw Tank & The Bangas play in New Orleans in 2016 and contacted Ball on a whim. And while you'd expect collaborators with a name as big as Jones to say gushing things like “Norah Jones is one of the most amazing women I’ve ever met” as a matter of course, the way Ball then continues, suggests very strongly that the mutual respect runs a bit deeper than just soundbites.
“My relationship with her,” she says, adding, “Makes me happy. Aside from being one of the most gifted people I know, off stage she’s like my sister. That’s how well we get along. In the studio I found her to be quirky and open, and her writing style very realistic about the world around her. She welcomed me to be myself – and we wrote and recorded songs very quickly together.”
And you can see the same pattern as Rueckert speaks. A man of sometimes arch, even sardonic manner, and a musician who has paid his dues, he's obviously not prone to obsequiousness. So when he says “She is blessed with one of the greatest voices I ever encountered and she knows how to put it to good use, it's a pretty fair bet that he's actually being sincere. And once again, his description of working process radiates the hard to fake respect of one deeply immersed and passionate musician for another.
“I was lucky enough,” he notes, laughing. “To get drunk enough at the right time to email her the only complete song I wrote for this album, and she somehow liked it, especially the lyrics, which were really my first foray into that frightful area. Unlike many of the other singers on the album, I knew she would be too busy to get involved in the writing process so I just asked her to sing what I wrote; ultimately I just went over to her house and recorded her with my laptop in her almost empty living room – she was moving house at the time. She totally nailed it in a couple of passes and came up with some harmony parts on the fly, which was impressive. Girl knows a major seven sharp fifth chord like hmm hmm.”
“I was very happy she just trusted me with this,” he continues. “Her approach of singing shit in perfect tune with perfect phrasing and emotional depth like she wrote the song herself worked just fine, somehow. We have pizza sauce to wipe off of our kids' faces so I think we both appreciated getting it done quickly. I know Norah's always been cool and – if anything – slightly uncomfortable with her massive success, so I was not surprised by the zero diva bullshit from her and management to get this song onto the album.”
Those weren't even Jones's only curveball collaborations in the past year. She also found time to release one-off singles in partnership with both Brazilian singer-songwriter Rodrigo Amarante and gospel/soul queen Mavis Staples, two singles and a Christmas EP with her band Puss N Boots, and cover Okolona River Bottom Band with Mercury Rev for the band's tribute to the Mississippi mystery woman of country, Bobbie Gentry. All that plus her own mini album, Begin Again, itself a collection of recent off-the-cuff producer/songwriter collaborations.
And Jones's own description of her working method confirms all of this. “Even though the last few years my interests might seem scattered,” she says, “I’m usually pretty deep into whatever zone I’m in while I’m working on that particular project or song. Before I get together with someone to collaborate my wheels are turning and I’m imagining different jumping off points to help get us started once we get in the room together.”
So who knows what to expect from her next? An album proper to follow up 2016's Day Breaks will presumably come along sooner or later. But what it will consist of is anyone's guess.
When Jones is willing to take a couple of hours off childcare to lay down a weird bit of electronica with an old friend, or phone up a performer on a whim after a show – itself leading to a lasting friendship – it's clear that this is someone still hungry for new music herself, still having fun, and a long, long way from getting stuck in any creative rut.
Cover Image: Zach Pagano/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images
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Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.