Music Interviews
6:02 pm
Mon April 30, 2012

How To Break Up With Attitude, According To Norah Jones

Originally published on Tue May 1, 2012 7:38 am

More than 10 years ago, Norah Jones hit the national stage with her melancholic love song "Don't Know Why," in the process selling millions of copies of her debut album and becoming a Grammy winner.

But Jones' new album is different. She may sound like a fragile performer, but don't get her wrong: At 33, she's recorded a breakup album with attitude.

Little Broken Hearts was made in collaboration with Grammy-winning producer Danger Mouse, who is responsible, in part, for the unique sound of her new record.

"He took me out of my known zone," Jones says. "I guess part of what I enjoyed about this album is I felt comfortable the whole time. I didn't feel like I was out of my comfort zone."

"It's loosely based on a breakup I had," says Jones, "but there's a lot of fiction in there, too. It's encrypted. I feel like all the songs are little scenes, different angles, of the feelings that come around something ending. When something's ending, you go through so many phases, and it can be frustrating. But once you're out on the other side, it's like you can really see all the crazy phases you went through."

Jones spoke with NPR's David Greene at The Living Room, a Manhattan venue where she has performed old and new music alike.

"It's just a comfortable place to play," she says. "I know I can fit my friends in there, and we don't have to sell tickets or tell anybody about it."

The Living Room hosted Jones' debut performance of Little Broken Hearts. After trying out the songs in the venue's comfy confines, she took on a much larger audience by performing the entire album at the South by Southwest music festival.

"It was a little nerve-wracking," Jones says. "I had no idea what was going to happen. I didn't know how they would react to a bunch of songs they didn't know."

Although Jones could sell out a much bigger venue than The Living Room, with its two dozen seats, she says she prefers the intimacy of smaller venues.

"It's not about selling out or making money at that point. It's about enjoying playing music in a comfortable environment," she says. "I'm not going to play lead guitar in a concert hall full of people, because I'm going to mess up a lot. But it's going to be fun. And if you got a beer in your hands and you're sitting in The Living Room or something, it's OK."

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Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T KNOW WHY)

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is the song that made Norah Jones famous. "Don't Know Why" sold millions and won a Grammy more than 10 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T KNOW WHY)

NORAH JONES: (Singing) I waited till I saw the sun. Don't know why I didn't come...

GREENE: Norah Jones' new album is different. But before we play it for you, you need to meet us outside a Manhattan bar. That's where we met Norah Jones on a recent morning. Most bars on the street were just opening up for deliveries.

So, Norah Jones, tell me where were standing here.

JONES: We're here on the Lower East Side in front of the Living Room on Ludlow Street.

GREENE: The Living Room, it's a small place. Barely two dozen patrons actually fit inside. And it's a place Norah Jones comes back to, to play old and new music again and again.

And this is where you had your secret concert to really try out this album in front of a live audience.

JONES: It was a secret.

GREENE: Why is this the place?

JONES: Well, 'cause I can get a gig here at the last minute really easy, actually.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JONES: 'Cause I know them. That's actually the truth.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JONES: But also, it's just a comfortable place to play. I know I can fit my friends in there and we don't have to sell tickets, or tell anybody about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

GREENE: OK, now here's some of the new album from Norah Jones. And, like we are in this story, she rolled it out slowly. It's how she works. After trying out the songs in the comfy confines of the Living Room, her next test was a much larger audience. She played the entire set at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Texas.

JONES: It was a little nerve-wracking. I had no idea what was going to happen, but I didn't know how they would react to just a bunch of songs they didn't know.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY PILLS")

JONES: (Singing) Trying to pick up the pace. Trying to make it so I never see your face again...

GREENE: Norah Jones can sound fragile like a performer who likes small venues and familiar faces. But don't get her wrong, at age 33, she's come up with a breakup album - with attitude.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY PILLS")

JONES: (Singing) How does it feel? Oh, how does it feel to be you right now, dear? You broke this apart so pick up your piece and go away from here...

GREENE: I've heard you joke before, that breakups and going through hard times can be good material, but you didn't have it in the past.

JONES: Yeah.

GREENE: Now, I suppose you have it. I mean...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GREENE: ...how bad was the breakup that this album is based on?

JONES: Oh, well. You know, it's loosely based on a breakup I had. And there's a lot of fiction in there, too. It's encrypted.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GREENE: How would you describe the story of the album?

JONES: I feel like all the songs are little scenes. Different angles of the feelings that come around something ending. When something's ending, you go through so many different phases. And once you're out on the other side, it's like you can really see all the crazy phases you went through.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD MORNING")

JONES: (Singing) Good morning. My thoughts on leaving, are back on the table. I thought you should know. And maybe powerful actions or powerful feelings will keep me from going. I'm folding my hand, hand

GREENE: I was one of your many fans a decade ago, playing your music at dinner parties.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JONES: Oh yeah, the dinner party.

GREENE: The dinner party - probably gotten that a few times.

JONES: Yeah.

GREENE: And, you know, I have that sound in my mind. And this album, the first time I heard it, it was - it was a little jarring. It was really different. And then it just grew on me each time I listened to it.

JONES: Yeah, it's a grower.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JONES: But I mean, gosh, 10 years have gone by. Everybody tries different things out in 10 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY GOODBYE")

JONES: (Singing) Bring me back to good old days. When you left, we misbehave. Always knew it wouldn't last. But if you asked, I go again. Yeah, I go again...

GREENE: Norah Jones holed up in a Los Angeles apartment for a few months to create this music. She collaborated with a Grammy-winning producer who goes by the name Danger Mouse. She says the two of them had worked well together before on other projects, briefly.

JONES: So I asked him if he wanted to produce something for me sometime. And he said, Id love to work with you again, but let's go in and just see what we come up with, instead of me bringing in a bunch of songs that were already finished.

GREENE: You mean come in with an empty slate.

JONES: Yeah.

GREENE: Just start together and...

JONES: And that just sounded really fun. I've never done that. And we're very good friends. I don't think it would be easy to do something like this with someone you don't feel comfortable with. Because what you're doing is you're showing your notebook to them. You're saying, OK, what about this line? What do you think about this? I would not be able to do that with just anybody, 'cause you're always self-conscious about what you're writing.

GREENE: Did he take you out of your comfort zone in a way? I mean, this album certainly has a different feel to it.

JONES: He took me out of my known zone. I guess, I didn't really know how I was going to play these songs live. And I sat down at the piano and I played one of the weirder songs.

GREENE: Which one?

JONES: Which was, "After the Fall," 'cause there's this weird loop and then the drum beats all backwards. And I just sat down at the piano and I started playing it - just me. And I thought oh, I'm really proud of this song. You know, this song kind of has bones. It has a structure without all that stuff on top of it, as well. And then I realized that I was just very proud of these songs that we wrote together, as songs.

GREENE: I wonder when you come back here to a place like the Living Room, I mean there are some artists who have sold a number of albums, who just don't have time. Or don't have the interest in playing, you know, for small crowds. I mean there are probably only a few dozen people who can fit in the seats here. Why is that still important to you?

JONES: I have to play music.

GREENE: But you could play music in some huge venue. I mean you could sell out a much bigger space than this any time you wanted to.

JONES: Yeah, but its not about selling out or making money at that point, it's about enjoying playing music in a comfortable environment. You know, if I want to do a band of cover songs with my girlfriends called Puss-n-Boots. Like...

GREENE: Good name.

JONES: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JONES: Yeah. I mean I play lead guitar in that band. I'm not going to play lead guitar in a concert hall, you know, full of people. 'Cause I'm going to mess up a lot. But it's going to be fun. And if you got to beer in your hands and you're sitting in the Living Room or something, its OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAVELIN' ON")

JONES: (Singing) You could never be a face in the crowd...

GREENE: Norah Jones. Thank you for spending time with us.

JONES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAVELIN' ON")

JONES: (Singing) Travelin' on. Travelin on out...

GREENE: The new album from Norah Jones is "Little Broken Hearts." And you can hear it in its entirety at NPRMusic.org.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAVELIN' ON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.