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“I’m in a nice relationship with a nice man, and so I kind of had to look outside of my own personal turmoil for inspiration to write. There’s so much going on, to not be affected by the news is really difficult.”

NOT TOO LATE FOR THE SKY

Norah Jones talks to HITS’ Bud Scoppa about her quietly audacious third album
Not Too Late is even quieter than Norah Jones’ first two LPs, and it’s far moodier as well, as the artist and her boyfriend, Lee Alexander, who produced, boldly pared everything down to the bone. There are cellos and horns, but they’re used so sparingly and subtly that you never feel like you’re being pushed in a certain direction. The 13 songs, all written or co-written by Jones, represent a parallel deepening of her aesthetic. The world may not be expecting this, but it turns out that Jones has a lot on her mind and a natural gift for expressing herself in song, as well as in conversation, as a smitten Bud Scoppa discovered.

This album strikes me as being the quietest bold move possible, and I’m just wondering, in your mind, whether you saw it as an audacious kind of left turn or something that was unprecedented for you. Or is it simply the next logical step for you and your career?
This record is a big deal for me because it’s where I wanted to be as soon as I started with my first record. I had just started songwriting, and I didn’t care if I wrote every song on the album, but I wanted to be able to write songs, and to have more than two at a time was nice. It was a big deal for me for that reason; it was also a big deal for me because I felt like I broke away a little bit in terms of the kind of subject matter I usually sing about. I was just really proud of the songs, and proud that we recorded them in somewhat different ways. It’s not that different, it’s still quiet and moody. But it did feel like we tried different things.

On the first two albums you set up a form of pop music that’s the modern-day equivalent to Carole King’s Tapestry, let’s say, appealing collections of classy, tasteful songs. In this case, it feels like a song cycle—like it’s about something; it’s going somewhere. Was that something that you intended to do, or did it happen intuitively as you wrote and put the arrangements together?
I didn’t have any intentions. We started recording just to see how these songs sounded, and it definitely took on its own shape as we were going along. We didn’t try to shape it this way, but once we felt like it was going this way, we certainly kept it going that way. I like the direction it took.

How would you describe the direction?
I don’t know. I always have trouble describing music, because that’s not my job. But I do think that this album is in a way darker, but also more playful at the same time. And I think that it’s more personal, yet every song isn’t about a personal situation; it’s just my personal view on maybe other situations, too. I’m really proud of these songs, which is not something I can always say. I was glad that I wrote some songs on the first two records—and I liked them—but, to be able to feel like, “Wow, I’m so proud of these songs,” that’s so cool for me.

Was there a particular song or arrangement that pointed you in the direction that you wound up going?
We recorded 10 songs in four days in July of 2005, and of those 10 songs, we used maybe six of them. That’s when it started to take shape, and it was obviously different. But there were also songs that we recorded in that session that we didn’t use that weren’t so different.

So, you consciously went in the direction of “different.”
I guess, but not really. I mean, I can’t say that we were trying to be different on this album. I just know that we’ve been influenced by different music in the past few years than we were four years ago. When we made the second record, I was listening to Allison Krauss and Dolly Parton. When we made this record, I was listening to M. Ward and Joanna Newsom. So, I can say that that kind of stuff influenced me, but not to where I was trying to immolate that, but just to where that’s informing you at the time, and I think that’s how things come out.

I think if “Sinkin’ Soon,” “Little Room,” or “My Dear Country” had been on the first two albums, they might’ve seemed out of place. But they’re the linchpin songs on this album.
They’re the fun ones…not completely fun.

“My Dear Country” is pretty heavy, but it seems so reasonable.
I know. Well, that’s me, isn’t it?

The most even-handed protest song ever.
It’s more of a personal song. I’ve always been the kind of person who does try to see both sides to everything, even when it’s clear that both sides aren’t happening. I try to understand why someone will take a certain side.

Was there a Brecht-Weill influence on “Sinkin’ Soon”?
It’s funny, that one and “My Dear Country.” But I’ve actually never really listened to that stuff, though I’m a huge Tom Waits fan. It comes through on “Sinkin’ Soon,” but I don’t know where the music to “My Dear Country” comes from, because I wasn’t listening to weird musicals at that time.

“My Dear Country” almost seems like a kind of an arcane show tune, which is unexpected.
Tell me about it.

Did you get any pressure from the record company, either at the corporate level or at the Blue Note level, to repeat the formula?
No.

You’ve earned your autonomy at this point.
The people at the corporate level have never gotten that involved in the music side. But the people at Blue Note are music lovers, and they’re really cool record people. So I’m really lucky in that way…and I’ve sort of earned my freedom. But also, we recorded this album before we told the label we were doing it, so they weren’t really aware. I did that not because I didn’t want them to mess with the music—because they never have in the past—but because I didn’t want them to slap a release date on me before I was ready.

EMI would’ve loved to have had this album out before Christmas.
Absolutely they would have, but that was never an option because I would’ve gone nuts. There was no time, and also releasing stuff before Christmas, it gets lost. You know, I’ve had to learn a little bit about business in the past five years, and one thing I have noticed is that there are so many releases around Christmas time. I’d rather just wait, even though it’s hard to wait sometimes, because you want to have something out. But I think the most important thing for me in terms of that is getting it on record first. As long as it’s on record, if you have to wait, you have to wait.

Do you see this album as having a prevailing theme or an underlying point?
All these songs were written in the past two years—with the exception of two songs that were written in 1999, “Thinkin’ About You” and “Little Room” 1999, but those are more love songs, anyway. They’re songs that I always had in the back of my mind and always liked, so I thought, “Let’s just record them.” “Thinkin’ About You” is the single because it’s probably the most commercial-sounding song. But overall, I do think, the album has a theme and a feeling. It’s really reflective of the times of the past few years, and the way things are in the world, and the way things were in my life.

It seems like a personal album with a universal underpinning.
I’m in a nice relationship with a nice man, and so I kind of had to look outside of my own personal turmoil for inspiration to write. There’s so much going on, to not be affected by the news is really difficult, I think.

When you’re in a relationship with someone on a personal level that extends to the creative process, that’s another kind of interesting angle. It seems like it makes the whole process more fun, but maybe it’s more challenging in a sense too.
I don’t think of it as more challenging. I think we’re a really good pair musically, and temperament-wise we’re a really good pair, too. We kind of are opposites in a way, yet we agree on a lot of stuff. It’s worked out really well. I think he should get all the credit because he’s a very low-key, mellow guy, and understanding. Yeah, it’s been really wonderful, actually. And he’s also been a part of all three albums, so, in a way, I don’t know any different.

It’s just that you had producers before.
Well, I had Arif [Mardin], and I worked with a producer, Craig Street. But Arif was more like part of our family, our band, after the first few days. He let us do our thing, which is why he was a great producer. He sort of nudged us in the way that he thought we should go, in a way that was acceptable to me, because at the time I was really, really stubborn. Totally. So Arif really adjusted to the situation wonderfully. And Lee was in all the recordings and at every mixing session with me, too, but it wasn’t really that different, except it was more relaxed because we were at home and no pressure.

So Arif made it possible for you to spread your wings and fly, so to speak, on this record?
Yeah. He influenced both of so much. We learned a lot from him.

As a vocalist, you’re pretty comfortable staying in the middle of your range. You’re not like one of these acrobatic vocalists.
I can’t do it! I’ve tried, trust me. I used to try to sing like Aretha Franklin, like a lot of kids. And there are songs on the album that I had to do a few different vocal takes because either I was… Sometimes I’ll record and I’ll go like, “Oh, I can finally get real soulful on this,” and I’ll sound strained. So I have to back it off and know my limitations. But I do think there are different things on this album vocally. I did a lot of things that are higher for me that work when you’re in the right mood. That’s the great thing about recording at home: when you’re in the mood, you can just go do it. Yeah, I did things that were higher. That was new for me, which I’m paying for now that we’re doing it live. It’s like, “Wow, that’s really high.”

What’s the most challenging high-end vocal that you’ve had to do on this album.
I’ll never tell [laughs]. “Thinkin’ About You” isn’t so high-end, but we had recorded that song a few different times already—completely different versions, and different instrumental tracks, too. The first time we did it, I sang it in my hushed “Norah Jones voice” that doesn’t go above a certain dynamic, and it felt limp. Then, the second time, I felt like it could be a soulful song, so I sang it and it sounded strained. So, the third time, I feel like we found a little bit of a middle ground.

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