The up side of down
Norah Jones has collaborated with producer of the moment, Danger Mouse, for her new record.
EVERY successful musician deserves the indulgence of at least one break-up album. Two? Well, that might be pushing things.
A couple of years ago, Norah Jones released her fourth solo album, The Fall. It was her most musically diverse effort yet.
It was also her first without the assistance of former boyfriend Lee Alexander, who was also her producer, bassist and songwriting collaborator.
Teaming instead with collaborators best known for working with acts such as Kings of Leon, Modest Mouse and Tom Waits, most of The Fall lyrically revolved around her protracted separation from Alexander.
It was a messy, painful split and Jones showed plenty of candour writing about it. While not a sales blockbuster, to Jones, The Fall was a big deal.
''That was my goal,'' she says. ''I knew I wouldn't be working with the same people again, so I really wanted to stretch out.''
Jones is sitting in her New York home, during a heavy promotional schedule. Last night she played David Letterman; this morning she appeared on NBC's Today. Last week she swung through Europe.
The 33-year-old has just released Little Broken Hearts, her second album of separation songs, but also her most surprising.
It was written and produced with Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, the super-hip musician behind albums from the Black Keys, Gorillaz and Gnarls Barkley.
Asked if she is self-conscious about unleashing another break-up album, Jones blanches.
''Not really,'' she says. ''Most songs are about love, aren't they? It doesn't have to be that dramatic.''
Still, Little Broken Hearts is an evocative title.
''It has a lot of good imagery,'' she says. ''It sounds sad, but it also sounds cute, which is interesting to me.''
Jones was one of the millennium's first genuine blockbuster music acts. Her jazz-infused debut album, Come Away with Me, released in 2002, sold more than 10 million copies and its follow-up Feels Like Home did similarly well. Her smoky vocals were a key selling point, as were the gorgeous instrumental arrangements around her songs, most of which were co-written with Alexander and a small coterie of others in the New York jazz scene.
Her first extended visit to Australia in 2003 came as Jones was in the eye of the storm, both enjoying and enduring a once-in-a-career moment of seeming constant upward trajectory.
''It was crazy,'' she says. ''But I don't look back on it that much. It seems like a long time ago, but then sometimes it doesn't. Especially at my age.''
The time is clouded by the dissolution of her relationship with Alexander. Does she ever ponder just how she balanced it all?
''I don't play that game,'' she says, firmly. ''I don't want to look back. Things were good and I enjoyed the time sometimes. But sometimes it was stressful. I'm happy where I am now, so I wouldn't change anything.''
Jones describes the writing process on the new album as a collaborative partnership between her and producer Burton. The chanteuse moved from her New York base, renting a house in Los Angeles, near Burton's studio, for several months last year.
The two would show up each day at 11am and work through until about 7pm.
''I knew going to Los Angeles and working with Brian in his studio would make it very different,'' she says. ''Which is something I was excited about. Sometimes when you're in the studio you feel pressure, but we felt like we had a lot of time. There were no deadlines. If we got stuck on something, we would just move on and come back later.''
The two had met in 2009, working on Burton's Rome album.
''We became good friends pretty quickly,'' she says. ''I feel like he does a lot of different things. He never makes the same records over again. He is a smart, soulful musician.''
She says today she is happy again, enjoying a new relationship. Is it strange then to sing these songs each night on tour and go back to that previous space of resentment?
''A little strange. But, you know, I'm proud of the songs, so that's OK. I don't feel sad when I sing them or anything. The songs take on a life of their own.''
Jones is planning an Australian tour for next January and has shows booked in the US and Europe through to the end of the year.
One noticeable element of her concerts these days is the diversity of her fans. She clearly taps into disparate demographics of people, thanks to the way she has evolved as an artist.
''It's cool looking out and seeing young people and older people,'' she says. ''I have young adults come up to me and tell me they have loved my music since they were little kids. That is crazy to me. I still feel like a young adult … But I guess I'm not.''
■Little Broken Hearts is out through EMI.