"For this record, I just had a sound in my head," says Norah 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 result of these experiments is the multiple Grammy Award-winner's new album, The Fall. The album is an exciting evolution from her previous three releases, which have sold a combined 36 million copies worldwide.
The first obvious change on The Fall is a lengthy list of new collaborators. Producer Jacquire King—who has worked with Kings of Leon, Modest Mouse, and Tom Waits, among others—helped Jones put together a group of musicians, including drummers Joey Waronker (Beck, R.E.M.) and James Gadson (Bill Withers), keyboardist James Poyser (Erykah Badu, Al Green), and guitarists Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, Elvis Costello) and Smokey Hormel (Johnny Cash, Joe Strummer). Jones also joined forces with several notable songwriters on The Fall, including Ryan Adams and Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, as well as her frequent collaborator Jesse Harris.
"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 favorite 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."
Over the course of her three multi-platinum albums—2002’s eight-time Grammy Award-winning Come Away With Me, 2004’s Feels Like Home, and 2007’s Not Too Late, each of which topped the Billboard album charts—Jones has established a strong identity based around her sultry vocals and jazz-informed, piano-driven pop style. On The Fall, however, in addition to the added emphasis on rhythm, Jones brings her own guitar playing front and center in the sound.
"I’ve always written more on guitar than on piano," she says, "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."
Norah Jones is the first to say that she has changed a great deal since she first moved from Texas to New York City at age 20, dreaming of being a jazz singer. Bouncing between jazz gigs and shows at the singer-songwriter haven The Living Room, she started writing songs "sitting on the bed in my little apartment on Thirteenth Street." An introduction to Blue Note Records head Bruce Lundvall eventually resulted in her first album, the diamond-selling Come Away With Me.
"That was just seven, eight years ago, but it feels like a lifetime ago," say Jones. “I feel like a completely different person. That whole time was chaos, like an insane rollercoaster ride that kept getting steeper and steeper. I wish I could have enjoyed it more, but we were just working so hard and I was pretty freaked out."
One benefit of her spectacular success was that Jones was approached to collaborate with a wide range of artists, from Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and Ray Charles to OutKast’s Andre 3000, Q-Tip, and Andy Samberg's comedy group The Lonely Island. Being exposed to all of these different sounds and methods helped Jones open her mind toward new ways to create her own music.
The direction for The Fall didn't take long to unfold—it started to present itself on one of the first songs she wrote for the project. "About a year ago, I did some demos in my home studio," she says. "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."
As she worked with multiple sets of musicians in studios in both 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," she says. "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 realized that you can just strip away some of the elements and you can get something totally new."
Even songs that drew on the jazzier side of Norah Jones, like "It's Gonna Be," demanded new treatments. "That one has a swingy sound, a lot of words," she says, "it could have been really hokey. But the drummer, my friend Robert DiPietro, came up with a part that was part Gene Krupa, part Adam Ant, and that just made the song something completely different. The rhythm really dictated the sound on that song."
From the swaying rock thump of "Stuck" to an intimate ballad like "Back to Manhattan," one thing that hasn’t gone away on The Fall is the distinctiveness and expressiveness of Jones's singing. That part of the recording process came easier to her than ever before. "I was way more relaxed about my vocals," she says. "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."
Norah Jones certainly always seemed mature beyond her years, but The Fall has the feeling of an artist growing into a new phase in her creative development. Beyond the changes in her singing, her instrumental work, and even her conception of her own sound, she maintains that her songwriting is at the very foundation of her new approach.
"I’m older now, and it’s evident in my writing," she says. "I always used to be worried about the craft of the 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."