Singer / Song-writer Norah Jones TalkAsia Interview Transcript
February 14th, 2004
LH: Lorraine Hahn
NJ: Norah Jones
LH: This week on TalkAsia, a young jazz singer whose low-key but heartfelt approach to music has transformed her from a virtual unknown to an award-winning artist. This, is Talkasia.
Welcome to Talkasia. I'm Lorraine Hahn. Norah Jones is our guest this week. Norah is defying music norms in an age of mainstream pop and pre-packaged artists, Norah's unique voice and laid-back style are striking a chord among music-lovers. Her debut album "Come Away with Me" broke new ground when it hit stores in early 2002. Featuring minimal instruments, the album was like a tribute to earlier times when some say music was simpler, more honest and un-cluttered. And Norah and her close-knit band stayed true to what they originally wanted the record to be. A heartfelt collaboration, showcasing an eclectic blend of jazz, blues, country and some pop. The multi-platinum record went on to capture eight grammy awards last year, including the coveted "Album of the Year" and "Song of the Year". And Norah was voted "Best new Artist". Her voice has been described as "soulful" and "captivating". One critic compares her approach to singing lyrics to the way a connoisseur savors wine... he says she rolls each word around her tongue, coaxing feeling from every phrase. At 24, Norah's bringing the same love and intimacy to her new album "Feels Like Home". Another collection of original compositions, and cover songs.
Norah is here now to talk about her latest album, how it all began and much, much more. Norah, thank you very much for joining us. Welcome to Hong Kong and to the studio Norah-thank you so much for coming.
NJ: Thank you
LH: I wanted to ask you what inspired you to write this album?
NJ: Well it' a collection of songs by a lot of different people. Everyone in the band actually has a song in the album which is kind of special for us. It just worked out that way it wasn't like we all set out to do that but it's nice. It's a very family kind of band. I mean we're all very close. I don't know, we finally got enough songs for a new album so we put them down on tape.
LH: Have you and your music evolved from, let's say, the first album to this album?
NJ: Well I've definitely learned a lot. I've definitely learned a lot just from performing for the past 2 years-and not performing in clubs where people are talking but for people who are actually listening which is-was new to me. So, yeah...I mean it's definitely changed. We've been listening to a lot of country music, the whole band, the past couple of years so there's definitely a little bit more country flavor in this album...than there was in the last one yeah.
LH: I noticed, and you even asked Dolly Parton to come be a part of it. Why Dolly Parton?
NJ: Well, she's amazing - I've always loved her. It's funny I've never seen 9-5, I know she's a huge star and she's this icon but I've just always loved-she's a great song writer. And she's one of the best singers-ever I think she's just amazing so I've always loved her music. And I had the opportunity to sing with her at the Country Music Awards back in November-October-and we happen to be recording the next week and we just thought all she could say was no-why not just ask her to come sing? Cause she was going to be in New York. It was just last minute-very fun-
LH: Very passionate about her music.
NJ: Yeah she's amazing. But she's actually very silly and funny-like she'd say (mimicking Dolly's voice) "oh what ever I'll get it-I might screw it up but whatever. She's kind of like that."
LH: So very easy to work with.
NJ: Very easy going.
LH: Norah many people can't really put a finger on your music in terms of how it would be described. But how would you describe your music and why do you think people all over the world have taken to it so well?
NJ: I have no idea why (and she laughs). I know that all we do is we play songs and we try to choose good songs and we don't put limits on the kinds of songs we choose but-I try to choose songs that fit me. Whether their my songs or somebody else's songs, I try to sing them the best I can we try to make it sound the best we can as a band-that's kind of all we do...
LH: So you don't really put a title on it --like category "jazz", category "pop"...
NJ: It's getting further and further away from jazz by the day actually. When I signed at Blue Note I really wanted to be-I wanted to sing jazz songs-old Gershwin songs-then I slowly got into song writing and it's now moved very far away from jazz. I love jazz it's just that I've moved in this other direction.
LH: But it's all sort of natural-you haven't forced your way onto a different area.
NJ: Yeah-I only do stuff I feel comfortable with. I only wear clothes I feel comfortable with-you know it's the same kind of thing. If you feel uncomfortable it's going to sound bad or uncomfortable.
LH: Singer, songwriter (Norah: "kind of a song writer!")-Pianist-which one do you prefer?
NJ: I'm a musician-that's all I think. People ask me what I do I say I'm a musician.
LH: You wouldn't prefer any particular...
NJ: I think singing comes most naturally for me. Because it's part of your body-it's a natural thing. You can practice all you want but it's part of your body. Piano you know you can practice and get kind of good. Songwriting is something I really need to work on. I don't have very many songs but I really love it. I would love to be a great song writer some day.
LH: And you've lots of time don't worry.
NJ: Yeah I do, I'm not too worried about it.
LH: Norah, when you swept and won the Grammies, as I mentioned in the introduction, how did you feel?
NJ: It was very exciting; it was very surreal. I kind of felt that I was like in High School and all these popular kids in there or something. But the popular kids were Aretha Franklin, Harry Conick Jr., and all these people I've been listening to in my whole life. It was just really surreal, it was great, felt great. But it also feel like " Wow..ok.. I feel bad, this is going crazy.. you know.".
LH: Did you expect it?
NJ: No way! I don't think anybody did. Definitely not.
LH: Now, with your new album, do you feel there's any pressure at all for this album to compete with the last one?
LH: Do you feel any pressure on you?
NJ: I don't feel any on me, for myself. Of course, everybody asks me that question. So.. I know that it's there because everybody's like wondering about it. I know that the label's pressured to sell a lot now that the last one did. But I made the best record I can make. That's all I can do. We had a great time making it. And you know.. people don't like it and it doesn't do well, it's ok. I did the best I can do, so I'm not really worried about it and beside the last record did so well, I'm not gonna top it.
LH: Well you'll never know.
NJ: I somehow doubt it. You know...
LH: Norah, we're gonna take a very short break. Up next on TalkAsia, how a chance encounter turned into a record deal for Norah Jones.
LH: Welcome back to TalkAsia. American Singer Norah Jones was born in New York City but grew up near Dallas, Texas. She's spent thousands of hours perfecting her piano skills and style. But she's never had a single singing lesson. Norah, we have a little bit of surprise for you. We wanted you to take a look of the screen behind you. Tell me whether this stores up any memories.
NJ: Oh Cool! Yeah, that was my favourite Billie Holiday! Ah... she's the best.
LH: She is... Isn't she?
NJ: Like the "bubble"... I like the way when she says like the "bubble". She has such a "bubble" of ways.
LH: What made you liker her so much?
NJ: I don't know...
LH: You grew up listening to her?
NJ: Well, I didn't know who she was when I was about thirteen. And I found these huge collections. My mum had a lot of Billie Holiday records. And she had this big, like a box set but they were vinyl... And I just picked up one... I thought it was guy, Billie Holiday, And it's just so different. Her voice really is so unique; I mean... I've never heard anything like it. I used to imitate her. I actually played her in a - there was a school black history program one year. I got the role of Billie Holiday and I sang "Strange Fruit" which is actually a very heavy heavy song about lynching in the South. It was crazy, but I had to sort of channel her. I tried really hard, I don't know how good I did. But the director was really cool for giving me that role.
LH: Wow that was some role. Do you believe that talent, your talent, is something that's nurtured; it's born with, genetically? Or is it something that strictly hard work and discipline?
NJ: I think it depends, I think... I don't actually have a lot of discipline. I've worked hard at music. But I feel like you know, I felt like kind of natural at it. I always had a knack for it. And my dad is a great musician, so... maybe it's genetic, I don't know. But I mean I grew up in Texas, but I also listened to music from a young age. And I think it just depends, I am sure there's people who are children of amazing musicians who are tone deaf, and opposite you know, parents are tone deaf who have these musical children, I think it just depends.
LH: I know you didn't spend much time with your father, I actually interviewed him a while back.
NJ: I think I saw that interview, actually.
LH: Really? With Anoushka?
NJ: Yeah, I think...We were in Japan, you know, late night , I was looking for something in English, so that I can understand it. I think I saw it.
LH: Really? Good. Do you ever ask him for advice? Even your sister, Anoushka, do you ask her for advice sometimes?
NJ: Hmm... I don't. But we do relate now on a level, which is interesting, doing interviews, stuff like that is kind of weird. You know, we relate on that. You know. We complain about the same things, we get excited about the same things, as far as doing this kind of thing, which is kind of weird. Yeah I haven't really asked him for advice. But I don't know. I don't really ask for advice. I'm happy to take it. But uh...
LH: How about your mum?
NJ: I talk to her almost every single day in my whole life. So it's kind of hard not to get in stuff with her. You know, we kind of talk about every thing. She's given me tons of advice. But I give her advice too, we're just very close.
LH: I want to talk to you about how you were discovered, tell me about that.
NJ: Well, hmm. I've been to New York. But I had been living there in a year and a half, and I was just discovering, song writing and all these different stuff. But I'm was still playing a lot jazz gigs. That's how I made my money even though they didn't pay very well. That and waiting tables. I was playing these jazz gig with my best player, Lee Alexander and a friend of his brought his wife and his wife. And his wife works at EMI, in the royalties department. And she had met Bruce Lundvall, who is the president of Blue Note, my label at a company picnic and was just talking about what a nice guy he was and how we would meet anybody, and he's very open, which is true, he's very open. And I guess she liked what we did. And she said " can I please set up an appointment for you with Bruce?" And I'm like, " OK, whatever", I thought she was, I didn't know who she was, I wasn't really looking for a record deal then either, I didn't really know what kind of music I wanted to do yet. I was like figuring it all out. And I got a call from her the next week, I had totally forgotten about it. She goes " OK, I got an appointment for you, tomorrow". I'm like " what?", "OK.. what should I do". She's like "do you have a demo"? I'm like " err.. do I ? I have like three songs recorded"... so we brought them in. And hmm.. he liked it and we continued to talk and they came to see us live a couple of times. And they gave us some money to make some demos. And we recorded about 12 songs, and two of the songs ended up being actually the version of "Don't Know Why", that's on the last record, from these demos and "Turn Me On", the J. D. Loudermilk song. And so those were demos, and then they finally signed me a deal, sorry this is a long version.
LH: That's OK.
NJ: They signed me to the record deal, finally. And you know we recorded, we've recorded a couple of different sessions, we weren't kind of... I still wasn't sure what I wanted to do. And the label didn't know what to do with me, cause it wasn't really jazz. And then finally in the end, we decided that we love these demos so much we put them on and "Don't Know Why" ended to be in the single and it's so funny cause it's the first song we did. First take, all live completely like random, we didn't know what the drummer was going play till we, till we played it.
NJ: It was kind of funny... But I like that that's what people responded to because it's more natural.
LH: But how does one go from a virtual unknown to a singing sensation, I mean that's everybody's dream, right?
NJ: The funny part is.. It is a lot of people's dream. I wasn't really looking for it, not yet, anyway. I mean, every body wants to be successful. I wanted to be successful. But I wasn't looking for this. It freaked me out.
LH: It came your way.
NJ: Yeah, it was great.. I mean, I've been very fortunate. Very lucky, it's been really very wonderful. But yeah... I don't know, I don't know how it really happened... I think it's just a lot of good luck.
LH: Norah, we're gonna take a very short break. Just ahead on TalkAsia, what does Norah do when she's not singing and how does she plan to stay true on her music.
LH: You're back with TalkAsia. And our very special guest this week, American singer and song-writer Norah Jones. Norah, what do you do when you're not singing, rehearsing?
NJ: Hmm... I like to cook.
LH: Cook? What kind of food?
NJ: I'm not very good. Well, I'm getting better. But I'm.... anything, really.. I like Italian food cause you can just throw stuff in and it won't ruin it, you know.
LH: That's quite time consuming, isn't it?
NJ: No.. I find it very therapeutic. It gets my mind off of every thing.
LH: And how would you rate your cooking?
NJ: Mediocre, I'm getting better. Sometimes, it's great. Sometimes it's really bad.
LH: How have you managed to keep this balance in your life, in your social life? When you have all this fame, and all this recognition. Difficult?
NJ: Hmm.. it could be difficult for some people. I've been very lucky. I have people around me who are really normal. They don't really care about every thing. I don't really care, I mean I care... but you know. Even the people in Blue Note, at my label are very normal people.
LH: Down to earth.
NJ: I consider most of them good friends, actually. I mean we've spent so much time together in the past couple of years. But I genuinely love some of them, they're really close friends. Which is very odd in this industry, I think. My band, they're my best friends. And, they're definitely like my family. I just have great people, I have the same boy friend, I have all the same friends as I did four years ago. So.. it's not really that hard.
LH: You're half Indian obviously, does that make you feel sort any Asian at all. Or.. just because you grown up in the states, you're very much an American.
NJ: I'm very American. I mean.. I'd like to know more about the culture in India. I'd like to spend a little bit more time there. I've spent a little time there but not enough to really know enough. I was just visiting with my family, so it wasn't like I did a whole tour, you know, but, I don't know. I feel connected to as much as I can I think
LH: What about your number one passion these days, what is it?
NJ: My number one passion? I don't know.... Probably food!...
LH: Family... career?
NJ: Hmmm... Not career.. I'm excited to have this album out, the second album because I just wanted to move on from the last album, so I'm excited to talk with people about it. I'm not completely burnt out on the whole industry thing. I've also been really lucky, and I've been able to make my own decisions.. which not every body has.. but...I love it. I'm excited to take years off and hang out and you know, do normal stuff too so...
LH: Is there anybody that you would like to share this stage with that you haven't yet?
NJ: hmm... Oh Gosh...
LH: If you had a choice?
NJ: Well... Not really...I'd love to do some stuff with Ryan Adams, cause he's young, you know and he's really great. I just really love his music. I've been so fortunate, I've been able to sing with Willie Nelson and Dolly, all these great people and it's been really cool so I couldn't really ask for more.
LH: Where do you see yourself ten years from now, what do you think you would be doing?
NJ: I don't know. I mean...
LH: What would you like to be doing?
NJ: I'd been into having babies and doing all that you know.. but I mean, I'm not sure. I'll probably always make music, but it's fine if it's in a much smaller level...it's fine with me.
LH: How do you hope to stay true to your music, to your sounds?
NJ: I'm a pretty honest person.. you know, I have trouble.. I have trouble faking things... so.. I don't think I'd be able to...
LH: Now, that you're obviously a huge success, how has this fame and recognition taught you. What has it taught you about life?
NJ: It's taught me the things that are really important. It's taught me not to... you know the cliché "don't sweat the small stuff", but it's really true. I can be short-tempered sometimes but I've gotten a lot better I think in the past couple of years. Cause I realize nothing really matters as much as you think it does. And if it really matters, then it will really matter but you know, just don't get upset on things that are very small you know...
LH: That's pretty good advice...
NJ: Well, I mean, it's so cliché, but I mean you forget sometimes. It's easy to forget sometimes, when you're caught in a moment and you are upset about something.
LH: How true, Norah...all the best, Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
NJ: Thank you.
LH: Grammy award winning singer and songwriter Norah Jones. And that is TalkAsia this week. Be sure to check out our website at cnn.com/talkasia for upcoming guests. And you can let us know who you'd like to see on the show. That address, firstname.lastname@example.org Thank you very much for joining us. I'm Lorraine Hahn. Let's talk again next week.