Norah Jones: “There could be a million nice things that people say, but the one negative is the one you remember.”

Promoting her last album in the summer of 2016, Norah Jones voiced her worry that “the world’s kind of falling apart right now”. And now here she is, four years on, releasing its follow-up against the backdrop of a global pandemic, race riots and an America more bitterly divided than ever. “Boy, if I could just go back…” she says, with a rueful laugh, of what now feels almost like a lost golden age. “It’s crazy. This is a crazy time.”

Jones is talking to Weekend from her home in Brooklyn, where the day job of being a 50 million album-selling, nine-time Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and pianist is currently taking a backseat to home schooling commitments. “I’m playing a little bit, but I have to make time to do it, because I have a three and a six-year-old,” she says. “My husband [fellow musician Pete Remm] and I really have to trade off to go play music right now. And as soon as they’re in bed, all I want to do is sleep. But we’re counting our blessings and enjoying our children. Who are also making me a little crazy…”

Jones didn’t mean to make a new album. Having stepped off the treadmill, she was happy putting out the occasional single – mostly collaborations with musical fellow travellers like Mavis Staples and Rodrigo Amarante, the latest in a long line of creative alliances that, over the years, have included Willie Nelson, Herbie Hancock, Foo Fighters, Outkast and Keith Richards. (No, she assures Weekend, the Stones wildman did not try to lead her astray.) But listening back to unused ideas from recent sessions, she realised they shared a lot of connective tissue: a weight of sadness and loss, coupled with a tentative sense of hope and healing. Hence her seventh long-player, Pick Me Up Off The Floor.

It’s a beautiful record, Jones’s signature laidback piano jazz grooves blending with blues, soul and Americana on intimate dispatches from the heart like How I Weep and Hurts To Be Alone. Meanwhile, recent single I’m Alive – a rootsy duet with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy – finds the 41-year-old at her most explicitly political, singing of a woman who’s “crushed by thoughts at night of men, who want her rights and usually win”. 

“I wouldn’t present it as a political record,” she says. “It’s informed by everything – personal, politics… But people are angry, people are hurting, and I feel what they feel. I see it happening, and it’s horrifying.

“I’m talking about human emotions and feelings that we all have, but maybe don’t even know how to articulate until we get a little older. So in that way, I don’t think I’ve written about these types of things before.”

With songs like Heartbroken, Day After alluding to personal struggles (“I won’t get into details,” she says, “but it’s so easy to lose sight of what’s important. You can work yourself into kind of a tizzy, can’t you?”), Weekend is keen to check if Jones feels she has indeed picked herself up off the floor. Is she, not to put too fine a point on it, happy?

“I’m okay, I’m happy,” she says. “I’ve certainly gone through things, but I’ve come out of them. I think I went through a period of being kind of low, and just having a lot of these feelings…

“It does help to write about things when you’re feeling that way,” she adds. “I wouldn’t say that I dig super deep, usually. I’m the kind of musician who, when I’m inspired, I do it, and when I’m not, I’m doing other things. I’m not searching for the music within myself – whatever deep feeling there are bubble up, and I catch them.”

There was just a weird energy. When you have a lot of success, people come out and are very critical. It was a hard thing to navigate, emotionally.

Norah Jones

She was born Geetali Norah Shankar in Manhattan in 1979, the daughter of concert promoter Sue Jones and global sitar superstar Ravi Shankar. When her parents split in the mid-80s, she moved with her mother to Grapevine, Texas, and changed her name to Jones. After majoring in jazz piano at the state university, she moved back to New York, starting out as a lounge singer before signing to the legendary Blue Note jazz label.

Not uncommonly, Jones struggled to adapt to the overwhelming success of her 2002 debut Come Away With Me, her “moody little record”, released when she was just 22, that went on to become one of the biggest-selling albums of all time (27 million copies and counting).

“It was just a hard thing to navigate, emotionally,” she explains. “There was just a weird energy. When you have a lot of success, people come out and are very critical. There could be a million nice things that people say, but the one negative is the one you remember. But we all suffer with this, don’t we, as humans – these negative thoughts?”

Has she learned to adopt the Taylor Swift approach – figure that haters gonna hate, and try to shake it off? “It’s easier said than done,” she admits. “But you have to develop a system. I’ve become pretty good at learning how to let that stuff go. I don’t get too upset if I hear a bad thing about myself. Or not for long. It won’t last a week or a month, like it used to.

“Having kids also helps. You don’t let things distract you from what matters and what doesn’t. As you get older, you never stop figuring stuff out. Hopefully it gets easier to do that. But I don’t know. The world is a scary place.”

Growing up, her father was a remote figure, and she had only a vague sense of being the daughter of India’s most famous musician – a man whose journey had taken him from the banks of the Ganges to hanging out with Beatles and US presidents.  

“I didn’t really listen to his music until I was older,” says Jones. “You know, my relationship with him was complicated and he wasn’t around much at all. Then when I was 18, we got reunited, I went on tour with him, and I listened to him play every night, and it was amazing. It was beautiful – the reuniting with him, and getting to know his music. I’m lucky that he lived to be 92 years old, so I had time to do that, because I didn’t get to do that as a child. We had a nice relationship, for a lot longer than I would have thought. I feel good about that.”

Following their father’s death in 2012, Jones contributed vocals to her half-sister Anoushka Shankar’s Grammy-nominated album Traces of You, which was largely written in tribute to him. “Anoushka and I didn’t grow up together, and meeting at a later age was so weird,” she says. “We had to really become sisters. And now we feel like we really are – we’re both older, we both have kids – and that’s been a beautiful thing.”

Before she returns to her home schooling duties, Weekend has one last question, inspired by a line from Pick Me Up Off The Floor, on which she ponders: “If love is the answer, right in front of my face…” 

Is love the answer, Norah?

“I wish I knew,” she considers. “It probably is. It certainly doesn’t seem like the wrong question, does it?”

Pick Me Up Off The Floor is out now Virgin EMI / Blue Note records.

This article was originally published in Waitrose Weekend on June 11, 2020. (C) Waitrose Weekend

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