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‘Success so young didn’t ruin my life, it made it better,’ says Norah Jones

In an exclusive Irish interview, singer Norah Jones talks to Barry Egan about motherhood, fame and the inspiration for her new album

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Norah Jones. Photo: Clay Patrick McBride, courtesy Universal Music

Norah Jones. Photo: Clay Patrick McBride, courtesy Universal Music

'Pick Me Up Off The Floor' by Norah Jones

'Pick Me Up Off The Floor' by Norah Jones

James Brown's Funky Christmas

James Brown's Funky Christmas

Elvis's Christmas Album

Elvis's Christmas Album

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Norah Jones. Photo: Clay Patrick McBride, courtesy Universal Music

'I don't have the energy to do anything when the kids go to bed at night," says a lockeddown Norah Jones, referring to her three-year-old daughter and six-year-old son. "But I do watch High Maintenance. It is about New York city, which right now I really love because New York city is hurting. It reminds me how much I love New York."

I ask what life is like at the moment in the city under Covid-19 lockdown. "I don't want to talk about where I live."

I wasn't looking for your address, I joke. "My address is already online," she laughs referring to headlines like 'Norah Jones is selling her 19th-century Cobble Hill townhouse for $8m, and, 'Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Norah Jones is in contract to sell her 25-foot-wide, four-story town house at 166 Amity St in Brooklyn. The final sale price is not yet known.'

"That's why I don't like to talk about where I live," she laughs again. "You can ask me literally anything else other than where I live.

"Look, in this time, I am stuck in my house with my kids like everyone," she says. "That's all you need to know," adds the 41-year-old who is married to musician Pete Remm.

With motherhood the main focus of her days, how has it changed her? "Oh, I don't know. I'm not going to know until the kids are out of the house, probably. It is a good question; I just don't have a lot of insight. Ask me again in five years."

Like the rest of us, she is doing her parenting best during lockdown. And that sometimes includes screens. Have the children completely taken over with the shows they want to watch?

"I don't have any control over the television any more but that's okay."

How many times has she watched Frozen?

"Many, many times. You know what movie I really loved and watched recently though was Ferdinand. It is so, so sweet; about the bull who doesn't want to be a bull; who doesn't want to fight in the ring. I love that movie."

As if to remind us that parenting is non-stop, my five-year-old daughter and two-year-old son come in the room in Dublin as I am trying to conduct the interview with Norah in New York.

"It's hard, especially at that age," Norah says. "My kids are one year older than yours and it is that much easier, probably, but, it's hard for little kids... it's also nice. It's not as crushing for them if they were a teenager, probably. I feel for that whole generation. I don't know what they're going through. I can't imagine."

It is hard to imagine what it must have been like for the then 23-year-old Norah in 2002 when she suddenly became one of the biggest stars in the world. They say success is getting what you want, while happiness is wanting what you get. After her debut album Come Away With Me in 2002 sold 27 million copies, Norah had plenty of the latter without an abundance of the former. Fame happened too fast, she said in hindsight a few years ago. "It felt insane and stressful."

She told Oprah Winfrey in 2003 that she had said to her record label in May of the previous year "Either we cut all this press or I quit".

"I couldn't do it anymore. I don't care about all this crap if it's not fun. If it's fun and we're selling records, great. But if we're selling records and I'm about to go crazy, what's the point?"

In 2003, after taking home eight Grammy Awards, Norah went on CBS News' 60 Minutes show to say that she "felt really bad" and "guilty".

"I felt like I went to somebody else's birthday party and ate all their cake. Without anybody else getting a piece. I feel like I've had my cake and I've eaten it and it tasted great. And I don't need another piece."

But now, the ethereal-voiced songstress who has in her career sold close on 50m albums says she never regrets having achieved so much so young.

"No, I don't regret it. It was an amazing, incredible turn in my life, but at the time it wasn't always roses and sunshine. Something like that is what people dream of as a little kid but it doesn't necessarily mean it is going to make you happy and make everything in your life perfect. There were ups and downs during that time but I think I settled in pretty well and I dealt with it. It didn't ruin my life. It made it better. I have all this freedom to make music the way I want and I have taken it. I am lucky to be able to do that."

"I think after the success of the first record and then the second record [2004's Feels Like Home], I realised that I just want to do what I like and what has inspired me and I have managed to follow that path this whole way. It has taken me to many different places. It has been the greatest gift that success gave me."

The evidence of that creative liberation is found in spades on her seventh - and sublime - solo studio album Pick Me Up Off The Floor which is being released this Friday. On I'm Alive, a haunting collaboration with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, she sings: "You feel your soul get hollowed out/While the world implodes, you just live without."

Is that song about someone she knows? "I think that is someone we all know. I think just seeing all the women's marches recently. It is in the air. A lot of women feel that way, you know? And they feel like pushing back. So, it is just something that is there."

Elsewhere there is the stark beauty of How I Weep with Norah singing in that bewitching voice of hers: "It had to hurt me to finally be gone/Because I made the mistake of dragging it on." On the inspiration for How I Weep she remains coy.

"You'll never know, I guess," she laughs. "The song was a poem that I put music to. It is different from anything I have ever done."

Another song on the new album inspired by poetry is Were You Watching.

"I love that song," she says. "That came from a poem I wrote and I turned it into a song." Her good friend, the poet Emily Fiskio, gave Norah "a stack of poetry she had written, to sort of take in the studio and try to make music with. She really inspired me to read some poetry."

"You have little kids, so you know," she says. "There is no time to read, apart from when they are asleep. So it was nice. During the day I would just pick it [Fisko's poems] up, when we were hanging out and they were doing their thing and I was doing my thing and I would read a few poems. It was a nice way to get inspiration, instead of picking up my phone, you know? She [Emily Fisko] is a schoolteacher but she is also a poet. She teaches eighth grade public school in New York City."

The daughter of Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar and concert promoter Sue Jones - they broke up when Norah was very young - Norah was brought up by her mother in Grapevine, Texas.

"She's a no bullsh*t kind of woman. And she doesn't fake or play nice. If she doesn't like you, it's obvious."

When Norah was 13 years of age she enrolled at Dallas' Booker T Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. It's as if her future was written in the stars. She performed her first gig of sorts on her 16th birthday, singing Billie Holiday's I'll Be Seeing You at an open mic night in a Dallas coffee shop.

She went on to study music at the University of North Texas - before moving in 1999 to New York for what was supposed to be a summer. Two years later she was spotted by Blue Note records playing in the New York Jewish community centre Makor ("50 bucks for five-hour jazz piano solo shows") and signed to the legendary label.

What are the biggest misconceptions people have about Norah Jones?

"I'm sure that there are [misconceptions] but I've kind of stopped caring a long time ago. And I kind of don't worry too much about it any more. You can't change certain things and it doesn't really matter."

How would she describe herself?

"I think for me to describe myself and tell people what they want to think of you is difficult. You know, you asked about the biggest misconception. I think it is better to listen. What I put out there is music, right? So I prefer for people to think of me what they want through my music, because me as a person? It doesn't matter what they think of me, unless we become friends and we go out to dinner. Do you know what I mean? I'm not good at describing things. I would rather describe them through music."

Is Norah Jones introspective or the opposite of that?

"It doesn't matter at all," she laughs.

But I am intrigued by what kind of person sings How I Weep - the way she sings it and the music that goes with it. It is very stark music and that has to say something about the woman who created it.

"I am a person with many different sides, just like all people are."

When was the last time she wept?

"It has been a long time. I am not an easy crier. I will say that. I am pretty strong. I hold it all in. I feel like I am always the one holding it all together, kind of."

Why is that? "I don't know. It is just the way I developed."

Is Norah aware of the line from a song by The Beautiful South that goes: 'You know your problem? You keep it all in'?

"Yeah."

It's not really a problem, I say nervously.

"Oh, it is a problem," she laughs.

"Gosh! Is this therapy or what?" she laughs again, this time with practically a belly laugh. "I mean, it is something I have noticed recently about myself and, you know, when I do let it out, I let it out but it is rare these days. In the last 10 or 15 years or so, it is rare."

Why is it rare?

"I mean, there are plenty of reasons, I'm sure. I'm still figuring it out myself, so. But it's okay. I'm not somebody who holds it in in a destructive way, I don't think. I'm just not quick to... to lose my sh*t," she says, laughing.

"I'm not usually the girlfriend at a girls' night who cries. But that doesn't mean that I don't feel things very deeply."

But it is in your music. It would be worse if it wasn't in the music and was in you.

"Exactly, maybe it is because I have an outlet for it, right?"

I interviewed Norah in 2002 in New York and she was bursting with laughter and her own unique sense of humour then ("describing her music as "soft-cock rock".) Eighteen years on, she is even funnier.

What makes Norah laugh?

"My kids. Movies. The movie Elf I love," she laughs, adding she always cries at the same part, "which is when they start singing the Christmas carol at the end".

The delightfully quirky superstar is definitely in the mood for laughter.

"The funniest thing is, I was doing [bursts into laughter] an interview 20 minutes ago and I'm still laughing about it. It was a Zoom interview with this very nice woman from Italy and at the end of the conversation, I said: 'Thank you so much. It was great talking to you. Hey, love you,' I said.

"'Hey, love you' - just like on auto-pilot when you talk to your mom every day. I said 'Love you', to her. That is kind of cracking me up at the moment. Laughter is important. It is good to laugh. I try to laugh as often as possible."

A woman comes on the line to tell me I have time for one last question.

I ask Norah what would she ask herself. "I wouldn't. I would just listen."

That should be the title of her next album I tell her. 'I Wouldn't'.

"No," Norah corrects me, "the title should be - 'Hey, Love You'."

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'Pick Me Up Off The Floor' by Norah Jones

'Pick Me Up Off The Floor' by Norah Jones

'Pick Me Up Off The Floor' by Norah Jones

 

Norah Jones' new album Pick Me Up Off The Floor is out on Friday

 

Like Christmas every Sunday morning: And yes, she takes requests...

In 2007 Norah appeared on Sesame Street to introduce the letter Y. She changed the lyrics on her Don't Know Why song to Don't Know Why Y Didn't Come. She obviously enjoyed the experience as she appeared again on the show last year.

So, it is perhaps no surprise that the 41-year-old keeps a big part of the child inside her, as well as a big part of Christmas in her heart, too.

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Elvis's Christmas Album

Elvis's Christmas Album

Elvis's Christmas Album

 

Norah recently started what she hopes will be a family tradition - when, early one Sunday morning during the third week of lockdown at her home in New York city, it happened to start snowing. "From then on, every Sunday, we've tried to make pancakes, put on Christmas music and sort of pretend it's Christmas. It's brought a lot of joy into this situation," Norah told the New York Times last week.

"My kids are four and six. They understand that it's just pretend, and that there's no promise of presents - but we've really enjoyed it.

"And I love putting on Elvis's Christmas, James Brown's Christmas albums - you know, great Christmas music? It lasts about 45 minutes and then we move on with the rest of our day," added Norah whose days of late, she said, have been spent planning live-streaming weekly "micro-sets" from her home.

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James Brown's Funky Christmas

James Brown's Funky Christmas

James Brown's Funky Christmas

 

She accompanies herself on guitar and piano while she sings originals and covers of songs like John D. Loudermilk's Turn Me On and Joey by Concrete Blonde - and is happy to take requests.

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