Norah Jones rocks the boat

2009-11-06 11:09

BRACE yourself for Norah Jones, the rock chick – something not many people saw coming. After all, this is a woman whose soft, almost whispery voice on songs such as Come Away With Me and Don’t Know Why became her signature sound back in 2002.

She was celebrated for blending mellow acoustic pop with soul and jazz, and hit the number-one spot on most charts across the world. Who would’ve thought she had a rocker lurking inside? After all, it was Jones who sparked off a new generation of singers such as Katie Melua and gave Diana Krall a bit more energy.

With The Fall, her latest offering, Jones has ditched her traditional jazzy sound and country approach, turning to rock undertones and sensibilities for her fourth album.

The first single, a catchy head-bobbing, ­staccatoish Chasing Pirates is already on the Rolling Stone hot-list and by the looks of things this is the one album that will take Jones where she started – winning a whole host of Grammies. Her debut album earned her five in one night, including the record of the year. Her albums have sold more than 36 million copies worldwide.

For a young woman who started off as a ­secret among the coffeehouse jazz set of New York and who reached such acclaim at only 22, Jones has literally grown up in front of our eyes. She turned 30 in March and continues with her groundbreaking approach.

For this record, I just had a sound in my head, says Jones. “I wanted the grooves to be more present and heavy. And I also just wanted to do something different – I’ve been ­hanging with the same group of musicians for a long time, and I thought it was a good time for me to work with different people and experiment a little.”

The new collaborators she roped in include producer Jacquire King.

“I was trying to find a partner for the record, because unless I had someone with a different perspective I wasn’t going to get a different sound,” she says.

“I looked for a while before I finally looked at one of my favourite records, Mule Variations by Tom Waits, to see who engineered it and I saw Jacquire’s name. I’m never going to sound like Tom Waits but there are elements of that record that I wanted – it walks the balance ­between being beautiful and rough, and also sounding very natural.”

On this album Jones still has her sultry vocals and jazz informed piano-driven pop style. In addition she emphasises rhythm and brings her own guitar, playing front and centre in the sound.

I’ve always written more on guitar than on piano. The thing that’s really different this time is that I drove the rhythm more, because what I play on the guitar are rhythm parts. When I play the piano I don’t really play rhythm, I just sort of sprinkle over the top.”

Jones says she knew the direction The Fall would take when she started writing one of the first songs for the project.
“About a year ago, I did some demos in my home studio. I had some friends come in and we figured out a cool arrangement for this song Chasing ­Pirates, with a cool drum part. It went somewhere I didn’t expect it to go, and that became a direction to look in.”

The ever-present guitar riff throws you back onto her rock sensibilities. Jones’s approach is still minimalistic. Take the song Waiting. It’s just a guitar, some piano and her angelic voice that completes a masterpiece.

Working with multiple sets of musicians in studios in New York and Los Angeles, Jones and producer King kept pushing their sonic experimentation further. “There’s a song called Light as a Feather that I wrote with Ryan Adams. For this album I wanted to keep my country-side away, so I needed to figure out how to make this song work and tie it in with the others.

We did it by taking the guitar out and there was this crazy organ sample and it sounded like a razor blade underneath everything. It was this cool moment where I realised that you can just strip away some of the elements and you can get something totally new.

Songs like Stuck and Back To Manhattan still feature Jones’s distinctive expressiveness.

“I was way more relaxed about my vocals. I’ve never been really obsessive about that, but on this record I was more focused on everything else that was happening, so I could just kind of relax and sing.”

Jones has matured as a musician. Her approach to music makes her the one to watch out of all the crop of her contemporaries.

“I always used to be worried about the craft of songwriting because I was so new as a songwriter, but now I’m not afraid to just try something. I’m confident enough that I just want to get it out and hear it.” – additional report by Lesley Mofokeng

The Fall will be released on November 14.


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