Norah Jones on Poetry, Puss N Boots and the Power of Live
“Even though the record was written and recorded before any of this started, it does feel like it’s of the moment,” Norah Jones says of her new album, Pick Me Up off the Floor. “The themes of loneliness and longing and human connection are universal and they don’t go away. But, right now, we’re all feeling them at a very heightened level, which is unique.”
Ironically, Pick Me Up off the Floor came about precisely because Jones was trying not to make an album; instead she was participating in a series of sessions with various collaborators, some of which were collected on 2019’s Begin Again. Jones reveals that “in the process of doing them all, I became hyper-inspired because, every once in a while, I would do a session with someone else. It was almost like throwing another log on the fire every few months. I’ve never really been creative in that way before. It just built up with each session I had. Then, as I was walking my dog throughout the last year, I would listen to these songs that didn’t have a home yet and I realized that they all kind of fit together.”
Pick Me Up off the Floor is the second album that Jones released in 2020, following Sister, the sophomore record from her trio with Sasha Dobson and Catherine Popper, Puss N Boots. That record also was the product of a creative rush, following a series of dates that preceded the band’s nearly annual Christmas show in 2018. “It felt so good—especially after the first few gigs, when we got all the cobwebs out—that we were all inspired to write for the band,” Jones recalls. “Then, all of a sudden, we had all these new songs that felt great.”
The theme of this issue is “the power of live.” What does that mean to you during this era of quarantine?
The thing I miss most is playing music with other humans—the interaction that comes with playing music with someone else. Being isolated is like playing a game by yourself. But when you have a partner, you don’t know where the game’s going to go. I miss being onstage with other musicians because there’s a certain electricity and spontaneity. The music becomes charged with something otherworldly that you can’t plan and you can’t capture unless you’re in the moment.
I imagine the same was true of the Pick Me Up off the Floor sessions.
Yes, my best recordings are when we get a really great live take, especially the piano-trio-based stuff on the record—with me singing and playing piano with drums and bass. They’re completely informed by the interaction between the three of us. I wouldn’t dream up drumbeats like the ones Brian Blade plays in the moment. I would never think to tell somebody how to play when we’re getting that kind of interaction.
Some of the songs on the new album began with poems that you had written in advance. What led to that approach?
That’s a very new thing for me. My friend Emily Fiskio gave me a stack of poems a couple of years ago because I was going into the studio and we had discussed trying something where I would take one of her poems and write a song from it. I did about three of her songs and it was really fun. She also gave me a bunch of poetry books—I had never really read poetry in that way before, so it was very inspiring. Also, from reading Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein to my kids every night, I had all these words jumbled up in my head. So it just started coming out that way.
As of late, you’ve been taking requests and regularly performing on your Facebook page. What, if anything, has surprised you about that?
I’ve found it surprising that I’ve enjoyed doing it so much and that I’ve been able to sort of pull it together every week. It’s just been great to stay busy and have a reason to keep playing music because I’m not great at just wandering off and practicing. Plus, my kids are loud. So I enjoy having an actual moment where I’m “working,” even though I’m not—it’s really more for fun.
I feel kind of helpless. I’m not a healthcare worker. I don’t really know what I can do to help with this situation, except for donating money and playing music for people. So I figured I might as well do that.
It’s a really weird situation. Some people are going through it at a hundred times the intensity level that I am—be it through illness or working in hospitals or not having enough money for food. And then some people are fortunate to not have those intense things happening, but it’s still intense. You can think one day that you’re having a good day and then, the next day, it’s just crazy. It really is a lot like the movie Groundhog Day because, not only is it sort of the same every day, but it’s also what you make of it every day. Every day can be completely different. It depends on what turn your brain takes.
Jumping to Puss N Boots, in addition to your originals, you perform a variety of other tunes. Would you say there’s a quintessential artist that you cover?
We’ve switched it up a little. When we started playing together, we had more of a country-leaning sound, both in terms of the songs we were covering and the songs we were writing. But Sasha started playing more drums, and then she had me playing drums. Even Cat played drums.
The songs that Sasha has been writing lately sound so different from the first record. Cat brought in a Paul Westerberg song, and I wasn’t as familiar with his music. She also brought in “Joey,” from Concrete Blonde, which wasn’t a song that I ever thought we would cover. But that’s actually one of my favorite songs from my childhood. So while you might think that a Neil Young song is the quintessential Puss N Boots cover, it could be anything, which I really like about this band.
Did you play drums growing up?
No, my first time playing drums was when Sasha started singing a song called “Same Old Bullshit” that her aunt Helen wrote. It’s on the new album. With this band, we’re all really open. I’m not a great drummer, but I’ve got a pretty decent backbeat. Around the time of the last record, we did a run of four shows opening for Neil Young on his Promise of the Real tour. So I think the first time I played drums was while opening for Neil Young. [Laughs.]