Norah Jones Experiments With Guitars And Grooves

 Indie-rock producer Jacquire King had long been an admirer of Norah Jones’ smoky, seductive voice, but the man behind acclaimed albums from Kings of Leon to Tom Waits never thought the two would ever inhabit the same musical orbit, let alone work together on a CD.

“I didn’t really quite picture myself as being someone who would be desired for the situation, from my impression of her,” said King.

That “impression” is likely the same shared by the masses, who are best familiar with Jones from her Grammy-winning, 10-time platinum debut CD, Come Away with Me, where the ingenue sang folky, jazz-tinged tunes more in line with the easy listening format.

Photo: AP Photo

But over the years, Jones has collaborated with rappers, sung with country legends, performed in all-girl rock band and even produced a country album with a side act.

So it wasn’t out of character for her to call on King to help her achieve her biggest sonic shift on her fourth studio CD, The Fall, out this week. On it, she ditches piano chords for gritty guitar riffs and delivers a darker, groove-based sound that King describes as “edgy” – a term not normally associated with the typically placid Jones style.

“It’s just honest music, and I think with a different approach that may be in some ways more accessible to fans that weren’t necessarily drawn in by the jazzier flavor,” says King. “It’s a bit more rocking.”

And that’s exactly the kind of shake-up Jones was looking to accomplish with her songs.

“I did some demos of (songs) and they came out really well, but some of them sort of begged to go in a different direction,” says the 30-year-old as she sits over tea at a cafe on New York’s Lower East Side.

“I realized, I think, what I want to do is work with some different sounds,” she explained. “I figured that the best way to do that was to try and step outside of my comfort zone a little bit, and work with some different musicians and a different producer. It just felt like a good time to do that.”

Making the CD represented a clean slate for Jones, personally and professionally. It was the first without the input of bassist Lee Alexander, who was not only one of her chief collaborators – writing and producing on her albums and playing in her band – but her boyfriend. The pair broke up about a year ago.

Photo: AP Photo
Madison Square Garden, New York City.

“It’s all been a big struggle, but I think we’ll play music again. It’s my hope that we play music again, and I think his too,” says Jones.

“I think you just need a little space sometimes,” she adds. “It was such a great musical relationship, so I don’t think either one of us would want that to end, or the friendship. But it’s good for people to try other things and do things separately in general. Even if we were still together, maybe this would have been a good time for me to do this anyway.”

The songs on the record, which she wrote or co-wrote, are witty, wistful, and at some points, heartbreaking. On “I’m Going Back To Manhattan,” she describes ditching the Brooklyn home that they once shared; the song “I Wouldn’t Need You” expresses the longing for the love of a partner now departed.

But she says calling The Fall a breakup record isn’t quite an accurate description. Instead, she says it reflects a period of transitions for Jones. She material came after she decided to take a hiatus following her last album and her movie debut in the film “My Blueberry Nights,” which was released last year. It was the first time she had a chance to really be in one place for an extended period of time, and she took advantage of it: She got the dog she always wanted (a scruffy poodle), cut her long locks to a pixie cut, took pottery classes and even started going to church for the first time in years.

“It’s like another way of meditating,” she says, looking more like a college student with a comfy cardigan and knit cap. “It’s all toward the same goal. It’s sort of quieting your mind, and thinking about things outside yourself, and trying to focus on the positive.”

The time off also helped her free herself creatively. While she’s worked with artists as diverse as Andre 3000 and Dolly Parton, she signed on to sing on Q-Tip’s CD The Renaissance, and that inspired her.

“I wanted to work with more groove-based drums on this record,” she says, “and that was the beginning of me thinking of that, (and) listening to Santigold.”

While there are no raps or throbbing club sounds on The Fall, it does present a new Jones to those who have followed her nine-year recording career.

“It’s a cool departure,” says Q-Tip. “It’s very easy for someone of her success to be complacent and do the same thing, but she’s striving to do something different.”

That drive to explore new sounds may be one of the few constants in Jones’s musical journey.

Photo: AP / EMI Blue Note
Cover art for Norah Jones’ latest album, The Fall.

“I’m just inclined to doing that because I’m interested in music … not the success, or catering to what people want,” she says. “It’s been fabulous to have that success – I’m counting my blessing every day – but I’ve always been more focused on the music.”