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Norah Jones isn’t onscreen in Wah Do Dem for much longer than it takes her name to flicker by during the opening credits. She gets the plot going by pulling out of a cruise to Jamaica at the last minute, leaving her boyfriend Sean Bones to take the trip on his own, and in a state that leads to some profoundly bad decisions. But after that first scene and an isolated shot, she’s out of the movie for good. It’s hardly the most likely next step from her leading role in Wong Kar-wai’s My Blueberry Nights, and it isn’t the kind of role most actors—let alone one who’s sold upward of 30 million records—would wind up doing interviews for. But as Jones explained over the phone from her Brooklyn apartment, the decision was simple. She did the movie for the same reason she talked to The A.V. Club: because someone asked.
At 22, Jones was touted as the savior of the music industry. The phenomenal sales of her 2002 debut album, Come Away With Me, were supposed to demonstrate that there was still an audience, primarily middle-aged and middle-class, who would pay for physical CDs. Less than a decade later, that idea is just one more forgotten pipe dream; not only will Jones never equal the first record’s sales, it seems like that no one else will, either. But rather than ratcheting up the pressure to perform, that early success, along with an ever-increasing sense of confidence, seems to have freed Jones to do as she pleases. The Fall, her fourth album, and the first produced without longtime (and now ex-) boyfriend Lee Alexander, isn’t a flagrant departure from her musical past, but there’s enough variety to make those who only associate Jones with mellow softcore jazz to rethink their assumptions. The pulsating organ of “Chasing Pirates,” the album’s first song and first single, serves notice that she isn’t done evolving yet.
The A.V. Club: This isn’t the obvious follow-up to My Blueberry Nights. How did you end up taking a small role in Wah Do Dem?
Norah Jones: I got asked, and I was not busy at the time. It sounded like a really fun project, and I didn’t have so much involvement that it would’ve been a huge commitment. I really dug the story outline, because they had a 30-page outline, but there was no real script necessarily. They had all the plot points mapped out and it just seemed interesting and loose; they had a real idea that I thought was cool.
AVC: Did you know any of the people involved beforehand?
NJ: I did not. No.
AVC: So they came to you through channels?
NJ: Yeah. I mean, I get a lot of requests like this. Even for small things, my management’s pretty good at sending me stuff. But we did have a mutual friend in common. I think they went through both channels.
AVC: If your management is good at forwarding you those offers, it’s because you’ve told them to be. For a lot of people, their management’s job is to protect them from unsolicited offers.
NJ: We’ve gone back and forth over the years. Sometimes I get overwhelmed and I just don’t look at anything, but eventually I always do. I’d rather just know everything. If they pass on it, they tell me. Even if I’m unavailable, they’ll let me know it came through. Plus there are a lot of cool things that come through that are not necessarily, you know, career moves. They’re just interesting things. And I feel like this is one of them. It certainly doesn’t matter to the movie whether I’m in it. But I just really enjoyed it, and it was just kind of a fun thing to be a part of.
AVC: The reception for My Blueberry Nights was pretty rough, and some of the reviews singled you out for your inexperience. Did you have any sort of trepidation about going in front of the camera again?
NJ: No, I don’t. I think I did what I was supposed to do in that film, because the director… There was nothing to prepare for. There was really no script to prepare with. He instructed me very explicitly to not take acting lessons. He likes to place his actors or whoever they are, whether they’re actors or not—you know, whether I was good or bad, or whether people liked it or not, I had a great time. I love film, and I would love to be a part of something that people universally love as a piece of film. Sure. Of course I would. And I would love to take acting lessons, and see that side of it someday. But I’m a musician. These two films I’ve done, I’ve done because even though they’re very different, they’re kind of loose and they seemed interesting. I felt like they were just another way to be creative, both at times in my life and career where I’ve been a little burnt out on doing what I do. So they both kind of have had a similar placement for me.
AVC: I’ll be honest, it’s not one of my favorite Wong Kar-wai movies.
NJ: Oh, mine either! [Laughs.] You know, whatever. [Laughs.]
AVC: Wong was clearly working out of his element, and without a lot of his regular collaborators.
NJ: Exactly. And I think for him, the language barrier—he speaks great English, but I think things are always more poetic on subtitles, so… [Laughs.] But I still loved making the film. I loved working with him. And I also loved, just visually his films are so beautiful. That one was no exception. And that was just really fun.
AVC: And whatever else, you get to—
NJ: I get to be pretty. If you’re a female and you get asked by someone who shoots the most beautiful female scenes to be in their film, it’s kind of exciting. [Laughs.] You know? I don’t usually look good like that, so—
AVC: There’s a lot of anticipation for all Wong Kar-wai’s movies, and that inevitably leads to disappointment sometimes.
NJ: He just has such a cult following. And I think, of course, if he’s going to make a movie in America with some famous movie stars, he’s going to get jumped on no matter what. It was great, though. It was really fun. I mean, some of the actors I got to work with, that was a great acting lesson right there. Watching them take what they were given, which was probably not traditional for what they do either. Even though I was out of my element, I felt like everyone kind of was in that film, which made it interesting from my perspective.
Sean Bones, in Wah Do Dem, he’s a musician who kind of got thrown into this film too. I felt like I really related to whatever he went through from My Blueberry Nights. I think he did a great job, and I enjoyed playing the song with him. I’m psyched about the soundtrack. They chose a lot of really good music.
AVC: His character kind of acts like an idiot. But he makes that believable without being condescending. He seems really young and naïve, but not stupid.
NJ: Yeah, I found myself very sympathetic for him. I don’t know if I really know if I know anybody quite like that. [Laughs.] I don’t know if everybody would, but I think he did a good job. I like the character. He figures it out in the end. Where he went wrong. It’s like songwriting. I don’t think I’m a great songwriter, but I think I’ve learned a lot about it, and I don’t think there’s any one way to do it. I don’t think I can control it at all. I can just kind of hope that it happens.
AVC: You learn how to work with it.
NJ: You learn what works and what doesn’t, but you can’t ever really control it.
AVC: At your live shows now, you play almost every song from The Fall. Given that it’s a record about heartbreak and independence, it seems like a statement of purpose.
NJ: I know what you mean, but mostly I think I’m just excited because it’s new. I feel like I kind of tailor-picked this band based on this album. They play all the old songs great. They really do, and I’ve been really happy with that. We’ve kind of reinterpreted some of them. I try to give the audience what I think they want to hear from the old stuff, but I really love the new record, and the songs are fun to play. And I’ve gotten such good responses that I feel like it’s okay to do that. If I felt that nobody really liked the new record, I probably would cut a few of the songs. But at this point, it’s just so much fun to play.
AVC: It must be gratifying that people like The Fall, since it breaks with what a lot of people expect from you. You don’t even get behind the piano until halfway through the set.
NJ: It’s so cool, because when I do it like that, once I do, they all start cheering, and it’s a nice dramatic way to do it. [Laughs.] You know? I could definitely play more piano in the show for some people’s tastes, but I just find that I can connect with the audience so much better now that I’m up front and center. Even when I sit down at the piano, now that I’m not playing a grand, it definitely helps with the upright. I’m like facing the wall, no matter what. Either I’m facing the wall or the piano, or I’m facing—I don’t know. It’s just so much nicer for me to be able to face the audience a little more.
AVC: Plus you have that nice red Fender in front of you.
NJ: Yeah, which is totally awesome. [Laughs.] Even when I’m not playing it, it looks cool.
AVC: You’ve talked about “Chasing Pirates” being a song that you thought was nothing special until the instrumentation came together. Is that right?
NJ: Yeah. I mean, it was a good song, but some of—like, “Back To Manhattan,” for instance, I thought, “Well, this is a really good song. I hope we can just capture the vibe of it.” “Chasing Pirates” was like, “Well, this is cool. Let’s see what we can turn it into,” almost. Some songs are just what they are, and some are open to all kinds of things you can stick on them. That was one, and it’s one of my favorites, because I feel like the instrumentation and the sounds we got, and the groove and everything, is just so fun and different from anything I’ve ever done. But I can still sing like me. Even though I sing different on it, and I even added that low harmony, which is different for me, I still feel like I sound like me. Which was so cool, for me to be able to do a song like that.
AVC: That’s the tough thing for any artist. People have an investment in what they want a Norah Jones record to sound like, and you don’t want to be constrained by that, or feel like you have to rebel against it.
NJ: Which is also different from what you want to express as an artist. There’s always the danger of, not trying something new, but trying to be somebody you’re not, especially when you’re young and trying to prove something. Especially if you’ve had a lot of success, and you’re trying to convey something different all of a sudden. It can come off wrong. Or you can even overcompensate and overdo it to a point where you feel like you’re somebody you’re not. I feel like I’ve been lucky, because I don’t feel like I’ve ever tried to be somebody I’m not. People might disagree. I just feel like I’m still finding my way, of course as a young person, as an artist, but I feel like every move I make is something I feel comfortable with.
AVC: You’ve also said the first two records were less expressive of who you are than the later ones.
NJ: They were, but they were very expressive of the music I wanted to make at the time. It’s not necessarily the kind of vibe I want to convey now. But it’s weird, with the first two records, I was very young, and I had a lot of people around me helping me, so it had a lot of the people’s ideas and collaborations. But I was still very in control. I think when you’re young, it’s just hard to get exactly what you want. I was coming from playing jazz, so I was still kind of in the jazz-world way of doing things. It’s taken me a long time to see things from a different perspective, musically. Sound-wise, sonically, I would have never thought to put delay on my voice eight years ago. I would have been like “What is that? That’s weird. Why are you covering up my voice? Isn’t that what’s supposed to be special?” [Laughs.] And now I’m like, “Give me the delay. I want to sound like Elvis. I want to sound like M. Ward.” [Laughs.] You know? I want to experiment with different sounds. To try new stuff, I guess.
AVC: You play in other bands as well, where the music is more influenced by country or glam rock. Are those intended to be fully functioning musical entities that might release records someday?
NJ: I guess it’s all just for fun. I mean, I do this because I love it. Every time I come off the road and I’m kind of burned from the professional side of what I do—it’s always great, but it can burn you out if you tour endlessly, or you perform a lot, or you’re doing too much press. I’m so lucky that I can still do what I love on a smaller scale here, and recharge all those creative batteries or whatever.
AVC: It gives you a chance to fail, which is hard to risk when every proper Norah Jones album you put out is a major commercial proposition.
NJ: It has to be a success, and all that stuff. Which I balance pretty well. I’m not really afraid to try stuff on my records, especially now, more than before. I think the more established I am, the less I care about failing on my own thing. Some of your favorite artists have a few failures in there. [Laughs.] And you love them dearly. That’s what we do. I think for me, those side projects? What makes them fun is that I don’t have to have a bunch of interviews about them and overanalyze them. Which is why I wouldn’t change that about them, even though some of them, it would be fun if people could hear them a little bit more. But you know, it’s cool.
AVC: Is there a perverse comfort in knowing no one will ever sell as many records as you did with Come Away With Me? There’s no risk of you having to duplicate that success.
NJ: I do feel like I got in right under the wire. I’m very lucky about that. It’s enabled me to have some money saved up so I don’t have to kill myself working if I don’t want to for a while. I want to just do this because I love it. That’s why I made this record. I was excited about it. I don’t feel obligated to keep my name out there in that way, because I’ve been lucky. It’s a different world out there anyway. So different. I don’t think I could even keep up.
AVC: There’s a real feeling of ease to the songs on The Fall, even though the subject material often isn’t particularly lighthearted.
NJ: The vibe is a little bit more—the instrumentations make it all a little bit lighter, even though the words weren’t.
AVC: It feels very comfortable.
NJ:. It did to me, which was great, especially considering I was working with all people I had never worked with before. We had like five different bands come in. It’s not like I got comfortable with a band and we were in the city for the month. Every band was there for three or four days only. And everybody was really nice. We all had a good vibe together. Nobody was weird or insane or anything, so it worked out. You don’t know, when you’re going into a situation like that, that you’re going to be so comfortable.
AVC: Was it just a matter of having been in so many different musical situations, being used to adapting to new circumstances?
NJ: Well, it’s partly that. It was partly just the producer, the engineer kept me secure. I felt very comfortable with him. I felt like I had my ally, you know? But then we didn’t even need to be against anybody, because everybody sounded great and had different ideas. And that’s what’s exciting. We had a lot of ideas. And that’s part of why we hired all these people, thinking they could help us achieve the sounds we wanted. And then the exciting part is when they give you something you didn’t know you wanted, but you love it.
AVC: How does it feel to then take all those songs that are recorded with different ensembles and funnel them through the same band on tour?
NJ: It feels good, because I ended hiring all of the band—this is a new band for me. I ended up hiring them all. They all played on the record, but they weren’t all in the same session, necessarily. So in a way, that’s kind of cool. Most of them know each other already, from L.A., just because a lot of them live out there. Then Sasha [Dobson], the girl, we’ve known each other 10 years. We have our connection, which is different. But we kind of just put it all together.
AVC: The rapport between you and Sasha Dobson is pretty palpable. A lot of times when only one person’s name is on the marquee, the rest of the people onstage don’t feel free to say anything. But she banters almost as much as you do.
NJ: She steals my spotlight every night. [Laughs.]
AVC: And it doesn’t seem to be an issue.
NJ: No. We’re old friends. We’re like sisters. Part of the reason I like having her in the band—for the obvious reason, we sing really well together. She and I learned to play guitar together, and she’s become this great rhythm-guitar player. She’s only played like five years, but she’s still the only person I would want playing rhythm guitar right now. And she looks great up there. She’s fun to look at. I’ve historically been very shy onstage, so it’s kind of helped me step it up a little. It’s also helped me spur it on a little. Also, it’s been good if I’m at the piano and I have my back to people, they can look at Sasha.
AVC: You do that intimate old-style arrangement in the encore, where you all gather around the same microphone.
NJ: Yeah, we did the one-mic thing. I hired this band to play the new record mostly, knowing we could all be good enough musicians to dive into the old material and be diverse. But I didn’t realize what I had until we got on the road. I mean, we got Smokey [Hormel], who has a western-swing band in New York; he loves music, and he’s really good at a lot of different things. And then you got Sasha, who’s writing songs; we have a rock ’n’ roll kind of country [side project], but we met singing jazz 10 years ago. When I hired this band, it was mostly to play these groove tunes from the record and have them be reflecting all that, and here we are doing these broken-down country songs with one mic. I think it’s really fun that we can do that.
AVC: You can do songs like “Back To Manhattan” and “Man Of The Hour,” which are musically somewhat similar, but go off in very different directions tonally.
NJ: Those two songs probably didn’t fit with the other songs on the record the most, but they still kind of anchor it—lyrically, at least. That’s the thing. Some stuff doesn’t fit in vibe-wise, but it does lyrically. I feel like lyrically, this record has a real thread through it, which helps, because there’s different-sounding songs on it. You know, I love records. I don’t want to just make a record of songs that don’t go together. Even though people don’t buy them anymore. [Laughs.]
AVC: People often download the whole thing.
NJ: Yeah, a lot of people do. You know, I still hold onto that.
AVC: It’s nice the way you end the album with “Tell Yer Mama” and “Man Of The Hour,” which are kind of flip sides of the same coin.
NJ: Yeah, it’s like “Screw off. I’m gonna marry my dog now.” [Laughs.]