“I’M not a Christmas nut, but . . . ” says Norah Jones, before revealing her family’s singular lockdown routine.
So just imagine this scene of domestic bliss. It’s Sunday morning in Brooklyn, the sprawling New York City borough where so many musicians gravitate to.
At the home Norah shares with husband Pete and their two young children, they’re about to have pancakes for breakfast.
And though it is spring, they’re dancing round the kitchen to the Christmas songs of Elvis Presley and James Brown.
No doubt the playlist includes Here Comes Santa Claus, courtesy of The King, before things get decidedly funky with Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto by the Godfather Of Soul.
In these dark and challenging times, Norah says the festive sound of December has been “brightening our days”.
“I know that what we’ve been doing sounds funny,” the 41-year-old singer admits, “but I do like Christmas, especially now that we have our little kids . . . they’re four and six.
“It’s something I’ve done before. A few years ago, we were having a barbecue and I remember putting on Christmas music.”
She adds: “In these times, people are turning towards different things to comfort them, different styles of music, different foods . . . and a lot of bread!”
I’m calling Norah as her eighth studio album, Pick Me Up Off The Floor, lands to much praise and finds her continuing to expand sonic horizons.
If piano-led jazz allied to a smokey, bluesy voice helped her debut album Come Away With Me sell by the millions, here she incorporates other pillars of American music — gospel, country and rock — to thrilling effect.
She says: “I like having no borders, no genre box in my head. I feel really lucky having that freedom because not everybody does.”
At the album’s core, however, is the ingredient that made listeners love her in the first place — songs from the heart, delivered in captivating style.
Though written over the past couple of years, they resonate with the troubling issues of 2020 — the Covid-19 pandemic, the racist murder of George Floyd, climate change, the divisions widening under Donald Trump — but also offer a glimmer of hope for humanity.
She describes it as “a fever dream taking place somewhere between God, the Devil, the heart, the country, the planet and me”.
It arrives just a few months after Sister, the second album by country-tinged group Puss n Boots, which the busy artist formed in 2008 with Sasha Dobson and Catherine Popper.
Next we return to her life in lockdown. “It’s been a change for us all but we’re doing fine and we feel lucky to be healthy and spending this time together,” says Norah.
To keep up morale, she’s been conducting a series of mini at-home concerts, the intimate live streams replacing a tour sharing the bill with gospel legend Mavis Staples.
“The streams have been a really positive aspect of lockdown for me,” she says. “They’ve connected me with people in a way that I’ve never experienced before.
“And it’s also been very special for me to do requests and re-learn songs that I haven’t played in years.”
She singles out her lilting interpretation of The Band’s Bessie Smith: “I used to cover that song all the time but I haven’t done it in about 15 years. That was a fun one to pull out.”
As for her new album, tracks such as How I Weep and Heartbroken, Day After seem to capture the moment.
“These songs feel especially relevant. The themes of longing and loss and the world falling apart around you are universal,” she says.
“There’s a real mix of personal things in my life and what we’ve all been living through for the last few years.”
If the mood is downcast in places, there’s a sunnier disposition towards the end of the album, like the gospel-infused To Live, written with Mavis in mind, and sublime album closer Heaven Above.
“It was a big sequencing job, bigger than on other albums of mine,” says Norah. “I definitely wanted an upswing at the end.”
Of Heaven Above, she says: “Even if it’s a slow one, it has that sense of hope you want in life. No matter how bleak it is, you never want to lose that.”
Like so many fellow Americans, Norah is reeling from the death of George Floyd, captured on film being killed by a police officer in Minneapolis.
“It was horrific and brought out so many things, not just here but all over the world, right?” she says. “The other horrific part was that it has happened so many times before.”
She believes that good can come out of it, though. “I’ve always carried that undercurrent of hope and I certainly have it now.
“As we speak, it seems as if there’s a shift and people are being held accountable. Bosses at large companies are having to resign if they’re not doing the right thing.”
As for America itself, Norah doesn’t mention the sandy-haired incumbent at the White House by name but you get a strong hint where she’s coming from when she says: “It will be great when we can look to a leadership that can truly unite us all instead of increasing the divide.
“There is basic goodness in most of us and we have very simple needs — basic human rights and basic human kindness.”
Norah maintains that lockdown has given people a chance to dwell on the big issues. “It’s feeding the intensity of the moment,” she says.
“The unfortunate truth is that this is nothing new (George Floyd’s murder) but we’re not too busy to ignore it.”
As she proves with Pick Me Up Off The Floor, you can’t underestimate the power of song, particularly with all that is going on.
“The most beautiful thing about music is that it hurts no one,” she affirms.
“It’s there if you want it and it can be such a healing force.
“It’s not going to fix all the problems of the world but it will make you feel good.
“I turn to music for comfort,” she says, whether it’s her own songs or those by others.
If Norah hears a song that strikes a chord, she takes solace from feeling “not alone. Another person has felt like me and they’ve felt it enough to write a song.”
The seeds of her latest album were sown during a series of collaborative singles, including with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and producer/pianist/singer Thomas Bartlett, which began in 2018 and produced the mini-album Begin Again.
Norah explains: “It was so fun to record every two months with different people with no agenda and no need to stay cohesive.
“Each session produced a bunch of extra songs which I still really loved. So they revealed themselves to me as an album.”
Her lightbulb moment came when she was out walking her dog with these unreleased compositions on a playlist.
“I even had the first three songs ordered as they are for a year and I realised that they were connected.”
Two tracks continue Norah’s hook-up with the ever-interesting Tweedy — the laidback I’m Alive and the dreamy Heaven Above being co-writes.
“I first met Jeff on the Jools Holland show in 2002 and I’ve known him on and off ever since.
“He’s a great musician and was one of the first people I thought of when I was planning the singles sessions. Luckily he was up for it so I went to his studio in Chicago.
“We didn’t know what to expect but we had a good energy working together. We could both jump around and play different instruments on each song.
“So we sat on his couch and played guitars and songs came out. We did four in three days and two came out as singles and two are on this (Pick Me Up Off The Floor).”
For Norah, working with others is a constant source of inspiration.
“It’s like having a conversation,” she says. “You get turned on to new ideas and ways of thinking.
“Maybe it’s because I came up playing jazz and learning how to improvise. I love spontaneity in music and I love the interaction between musicians.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen, then someone blows your mind and elevates everything to a whole new level.
“That’s the kind of interaction I miss being in lockdown but I know I’ll find it again. Playing with Cat and Sasha in Puss n Boots is a whole other side of inspiration for me.”
Were You Watching?, a deliciously moody and atmospheric new number backed by strings and piano, resulted from a different kind of partnership — between Norah and her friend and poet, Emily Fiskio.
“That was really the beginning of something new for me,” she explains.
“I wrote four songs from Emily’s poems. I was just sitting down at the piano with a poem.
“After that, she gave me some poetry books and I started writing poems of my own. Several of these songs came from those.”
She says “it’s always fun to find a new avenue” but would she consider publishing a volume of poetry?
“I can’t imagine it,” she replies. “I never say never but I like saving them for songs.
“I love music!”
Norah Jones: Pick Me Up Off The Floor
- How I Weep
- Flame Twin
- Hurts to Be Alone
- Heartbroken, Day After
- Say No More
- This Life
- To Live
- I’m Alive
- Were You Watching?
- Stumble on My Way
- Heaven Above
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