The singer-songwriter sharpens a darker edge with Danger Mouse
By Kevin Ritchie
It's a blindingly sunny day in Toronto and Norah Jones is cooped up in a downtown hotel holding court with reporters to promote her fifth album, "Little Broken Hearts," which she wrote and arranged in collaboration with producer Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse). She gestures wistfully toward the window and explains that her band is off enjoying the beautiful day from atop the CN Tower.
It's just as well. Her moody new album is much more about dark, atmospheric interiors than expansive exteriors.
"We were in L.A. and it did not rain once," she says when asked about the recording sessions. "It was crazy. It was so sunny. On weekends we would go hiking. I would barbeque. It was gorgeous, but every time we got in the studio it was this dark, small, cramped space."
The resulting album shifts the 33-year-old ever further afield from the soft jazz sound that propelled her 2002 debut, "Come Away With Me," to sell 25 million copies worldwide. Moreover, "Little Broken Hearts" marks the first time Jones entered the recording studio with nothing but a notebook of rough ideas, worked with another songwriter and played most of the instruments herself.
She initially met Burton, best known for his work with Gnarls Barkley, the Black Keys and Beck, in 2008 when he asked her to contribute vocals to his 2011 album "Rome," conceived with Italian composer Daniele Luppi as an homage to classic '60s spaghetti Western film scores that also featured Jack White. Afterward he suggested they reconvene to work on something "dark and moody," and they spent three days in the studio together until she headed out on tour to promote her 2009 album, "The Fall," and he became engrossed with his band Broken Bells, a collaboration with James Mercer of the Shins.
"[My voice] lends itself to quiet, intimate sort of music. That's what I've done a lot. It's like a distant cousin to dark and moody," she says. "That's not really what I was going for, but I was open to anything."
Last summer, she rented a house in Los Angeles and spent two and a half months working with Burton in his studio, which she likens to "a little candy store." It's crammed with analog gear and adorned with vintage movie posters for films such as sexploitation filmmaker Russ Meyer's "Mudhoney," which became the inspiration for the "Little Broken Hearts" album cover.
"I've never been in a studio with so many different instruments," she says. "You can pick up any instrument and get an interesting sound. I played some keyboard bass, which I've never done, and some bass and all these crazy organs, but I couldn't even tell you their names because I'm not a gearhead.
"Which was why I was excited to record with him," she continues. "For a few albums now I've been trying to experiment with different sounds, but I just don't have the patience to turn all the knobs and go on eBay and get all the crazy equipment. It's fun to work with somebody who has that part of it down and I can just play and be inspired and not overthink anything."
Full of scorn, messy confessionals and funereal, multitracked soundscapes, "Little Broken Hearts" subtly explores a variety of rhythms and styles, from the country-tinged murder ballad "Miriam" to the distorted, mournful ballad "Take It Back" and the sardonically uptempo "Happy Pills." Though the album is full of rich textures, it retains the sparseness for which Jones is known.
The press has framed "Little Broken Hearts" as Jones' second consecutive breakup album. Although she readily admits she's one of those people with a predilection for endlessly talking through her problems with friends ("It's so annoying! I would love to change that about myself"), her loquaciousness doesn't figure into her songwriting process. Instead, the real-life emotions behind this crop of songs laid the groundwork for imagined narratives.
Bing: Watch Norah Jones videos
"Songwriting is a lot of fiction as much as it's about personal things," she explains. "You gotta make a good story out of it in the end, and not everybody's diary is going to make a great story."
Throughout the recording process, Jones and Burton became close friends. Musically, they share a common love of melody and similar gut instincts around what works and what doesn't. Beyond that, their musical backgrounds couldn't be more different. Burton grew up with rock, while Jones came of age playing jazz. In searching for a jumping-off point, they discovered a shared love of Fleetwood Mac and the Violent Femmes.
When asked about the biggest thing she learned in collaborating with a producer from the ground up, her answer is concise: "That I could do it. And that I'm good at it."
"We didn't really argue that much," she adds. "I really like working with somebody. I don't want to make a record by myself. I mean, I can -- I can go in with an engineer, but it wouldn't be as inspired or exciting for me. I've always had a partner in crime making a record, and this one more than ever. I think it's just so fun."