NEARLY 15 years after the release of her 27-million selling, eight Grammy Award-winning debut Come Away With Me, Norah Jones has come full circle with her new album Day Breaks. She’s back to jazz, it transpires, and has returned to the piano stool too. But there’s a caveat, she explains.
“I’ve moved pretty far forward since then, and I’m not going backwards,” she adds when we speak. “It’s just there’s more piano, which makes it similar.
“I did some charity gigs a couple of years ago where I was playing piano solo, so when I was trying to get a varied set together, I found some cool arrangements from the first album. That meant the move was quite natural.”
In the intervening years, she explored her soulful sound over four more albums, all of which earned top 20 status in Ireland, and which added acoustic guitar, country music and indie pop to her blend.
She also worked with a range of peers from Ray Charles to Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, an unlikely pairing with whom she recorded an even unlikelier Everly Brothers tribute album. “Trying new things for me is an important experience,” she says of her collaborations.
Now 37, her personal life has forged forward too. Since her last album Little Broken Hearts in 2012 she’s found love again, become a mother of two, and dealt with the death of her semi-estranged father, famed Indian musician Ravi Shankar.
While a notoriously private person — we still don’t know the identity of her musician partner for starters — it’s inevitable these events have influenced Day Breaks; ‘And Then There Was You’ is a simple, late-night love song, but one which speaks volumes about her contentment. Yet the manner in which her previous album was pigeonholed as a break-up album has left its mark.
“I do find it frustrating that people read into that more than was necessary,” she says. “Heartbreak inspires a lot of music. And while it might inspire a song, it’s not my diary. You can be inspired by something personal and turn it into a story — every detail doesn’t need to be the truth, it’s still a piece of art.
“But even now, I don’t self-edit. I think if something inspires a song, go for it, put it all out there. You can always lie about it if you don’t want people to read too much into it!”
The new album, released on the Blue Note label, mostly features new songs penned by Jones, as well as covers of a Duke Ellington tune and the Neil Young song ‘Don’t Be Denied’.
It’s impossible to ignore how self-assured she sounds during our conversation, like a lady who’s got to grips with the fame game. She’s refreshingly honest while adept at keeping discussion in her comfort zone, a welcome find considering she’s successful enough to merit diva tantrums.
A lounge singer in New York before she earned her record deal, fame came almost immediately for Norah; her debut single ‘Don’t Know Why’ propelled her into the spotlight, fuelled further by the interest in her famous family, which also includes her half-sister, famed sitar player Anoushka Shankar.
The interest wasn’t all good, however, her easy-listening sounds earning her the name ‘Snorah Jones’, more for the pun than the accuracy.
“Early on I would get stressed out about certain things,” she admits. “I tried not to read anything because I felt that was a good way of going down a rabbit hole. But I’ve developed my own protection.
“I still think of myself as a working musician so I’ll do the part of the job that requires interviews and I like to tour, but I don’t need to worry about the rest. People can write what they want to write, they’ll have wildly different opinions, it’s not my job to figure that out for them.”
Yet it’s not so easy to ignore negative opinion in 2016 — whereas before a celebrity can choose not to read press, today the notifications panel of their social media account is a stream of no-holds-barred opinion. “I post things on my Instagram account sometimes, but I’m not aware of anything that comes through it,” she shrugs.
“I feel sorry for anyone starting out today — your social media presence is so important. People don’t get signed unless they have so many followers, but being adept at that is a different skill entirely.”
Sticking to her strengths, she’s planning a tour in support of Day Breaks next year, with Irish dates a strong possibility.
This time around, she intends to bring her two children — aged two and three months — along for the ride.
“I feel pretty lucky; I get to decide my own schedule, so my tours are very short,” she explains.
“When we go on tour, scheduling is going to be tough when they’re sleeping, but I only have to work a few hours a day. I get to hang out with them more than other moms who work full-time.
“There’s already trips that are short enough or too far, that it doesn’t make sense to bring them, but that just means I can catch up on my sleep! It’s been more logistically challenging than frustrating, but it’s worth it because I get to see them a lot.”
Was there ever a moment when she felt she wanted to pause her career to be a stay-at-home mom?
“No — I’m busy in short spurts, so it’s not like I’m committing to a five year tour. A couple of months will be really busy, and my only hope is that neither of them will scream on the airplanes. Honestly,” she laughs, “that’s my biggest worry when flying, not the jetlag.
“But I’m in a lucky position. I’ve had enough success that I can afford help — I’m not going out without a nanny. We’ve done a few trial runs so we’re more prepared than if we were going in blind. My son loves everyone in the band, and the soundcheck, and he likes to play the instruments.”
Does that mean there’s going to be another musician in the family? Her amusement is audible. “It’s too early to tell, but who knows.”