The nine-time Grammy winner on new LP Pick Me Up Off The Floor, creating in lockdown, the joy of collaboration, and a turbulent world
For a lot people any mention of American songwriter/pianist Norah Jones will bring back memories of her 2002 debut album Come Away With Me, the record that announced her to the world, selling over 27 million copies and seeing her bag multiple awards in the process. She might not have quite matched those heights since, but as the years have passed her career has arguably grown more interesting and varied.
Seventh album Pick Me Up Off The Floor finds her in a very different place to those early years. She (naturally) sounds wiser and more reflective when we talk, but also with a sharp focus and discreet inner-strength. This latest release sees her deliver a set of deeply felt, carefully considered personal narratives that feel strangely well suited to the ongoing disruption to normality.
Our conversation takes place during the pandemic-related lockdown but before the recent racial tensions that have swept through the USA. She admits that the enforced lockdown is challenging but also seems to welcome the slowing down in the pace of life. It has allowed her to start playing weekly livestreams on Facebook to her thousands of fans. “I’ve enjoyed doing them and that’s why I’ve kept doing them. I’ve finally found my social media way. I’m not good at posting candid things or opinions, it’s not really comfortable for me, but sharing music like this feels right. It’s given me a nice creative thing to do every week. It’s hard to find time to be creative and have a reason to do it currently. It’s been nice revisiting old songs.” Each performance attracts an outpouring of love and gratitude and she sounds genuinely touched by it. “The comments are very kind, it goes both ways,” she adds.
We move on to talking about how new album Pick Me Up Off The Floor came into existence. “For the last couple of years I’ve tried to put out singles and collaborations with other people rather than make a normal album. So I’ve been going into the recording studio every two months for three days at a time and each time I did it I ended up getting way more material than I needed.”
“The world is falling down around us, and it has been for a while”
The songs that were released formed last year’s Begin Again EP but there was more. “I had all these extra recordings of songs that didn’t get released. I kept listening to them, and it’s not that I didn’t like them, but we could only release one at a time and they sort of slowly revealed themselves as this album. It was sort of unintentional but once I put them on a playlist and started listening to them I really loved hearing them all together.”
I ask if the different lead up to the album might have somehow informed the relaxed, almost effortless feel that runs through it. She explains how “it was like throwing another log on the fire each time we did a session and I got more and more inspired. I was going in a lot of different directions and I definitely think things happened that might not have if I had been overthinking things. The songs were written and recorded pretty much live, a lot of them were just lyrics that got left in the studio. Most of the songs are piano trios, all we added was some background vocals, horns and some guitar in a couple of places. The three exceptions were the two Jeff Tweedy songs, (I’m Alive and Heaven Above) and the first song on the album, How I Weep.”
The link up with Wilco frontman Tweedy comes on the back of the songs they recorded together that appeared on Begin Again. “I went into the studio with Jeff for these singles sessions with the intention of putting out a song and we did four songs in three days. Two of them were released on the Begin Again EP and the other two are on this album. In a way I felt they were the most different songs on this album and I like the way they fit in lyrically and variety-wise.” I’m Alive might carry an optimistic message overall but there’s some lyrical bite buried among the subtle piano and guitar interplay as she sings “you feel your soul get hollowed out, while the world implodes, you just live without… but she’s alive.”
It’s interesting to hear her refer to how the songs fit in, as the album seems carefully planned in terms of the sequencing and how certain songs flow into others. In particular there’s a run of three songs in the middle of the album that seem to dwell on the intricacies and nuances of life. “Oh yeah, the life trilogy,” she laughs. “I spent a lot of time ordering the songs for the album and this one was a real puzzle actually. I thought about separating those songs because of the titles but they sounded best together. I didn’t feel like it was too samey so I just left them together. It was a difficult order because I feel like some of these songs are sad and some deal with loneliness but some deal with pulling yourself out of it so I wanted the arc of the album to end on that optimistic note at least.”
The title of the album feels like an acknowledgement of exasperation caused by the turbulent nature of the last couple of years, whether political, environmental or humanitarian. She won’t go into detail but does expand on it a little. “Well, the world is falling down around us, and it has been for a while, or it has seemed that way.” I ask how she copes with the negativity and sense of upheaval. “I go through cycles. I’m very informed and I get frustrated like everyone by the news but I feel like it’s been this way for a long time. The 24 hour news cycle doesn’t help. It’s not only frustrating but confusing as well as we get completely opposing things being said at the same time. You can look at the news 50 times a day or you can look at it twice a day and I think that’s more healthy.” She adopts a similarly circumspect position on how the music business might look post-pandemic. “You don’t need me to speculate. I’m hopeful but also concerned.”
Lyrically, much of the album appears to cover sad ground. Allusions to loss, loneliness and the passing of time all seem to abound. Has her attitude to covering themes like these in her music changed over time? “I’ve always been comfortable putting my feelings into songs. By the time they morph into whole, complete songs there are still many things that come through you that you don’t know where they came from. Sometimes you’re writing about another person, sometimes you’re writing about yourself. I don’t feel like I’m writing Facebook posts you know and I’m baring my feelings. With music and art I feel you can put your whole self into it and be honest but it’s still not a mirror to yourself. It’s got that mystery, you can say whatever you want I think for that reason which I love. It doesn’t scare me because it becomes a bit about character still”.
When I enquire about certain songs she understandably prefers not to go into specifics. “For me to explain them would take away those personal connections you could have.” And personal connections are something that very much continue to inspire her. “That feeling of longing to connect is a very human feeling, no matter what your situation is I think you feel that.” It feels like the process of being inspired to make music still holds a certain magic for Jones. “In a way I think everything inspires me, you never know when it is going to hit or what is going to strike.”
One song that didn’t make it on to the album was Tryin’ To Keep It Together, a track she cut in order to make the album the right length for vinyl but then subsequently took on a wider meaning. “I decided it was too similar to To Live in terms of it sounding a little sad but now it feels super relevant so that’s why I released it separately as a single.” It may appear on certain formats as a bonus track.
“With music and art you can put your whole self into it and be honest, but it’s still not a mirror”
Jones has collaborated with several high profile, critically acclaimed artists over the years (Ray Charles, Herbie Hancock, OutKast, Foo Fighters, Mike Patton, Q-Tip and Sharon Van Etten among many others) and I ask how she approaches each occasion. “I sort of let myself be guided in the studio. With these collaboration sessions I go in with some rough ideas of some songs, but I mainly try to be open and on each occasion we’ve written a couple of songs from scratch and it’s been great. I’m lucky to have the freedom to try things like this, to be able to open your mind in that way is truly freeing and I’ve learned so much from working with other people.”
It’s not a surprise therefore to learn that regular interaction with fellow musicians is what she currently misses most. “I miss having that musical conversation, the spontaneity, the contributions everyone brings to playing a song. I miss the element of surprise and not knowing how it’s going to turn out like. The technology that is available for us to do so many things from our home is pretty amazing but it’s really hard to play together online.”
When we pause to cast an eye back over her career she sounds genuinely grateful. “I feel like the luckiest musician in the world, having the success that I had. It was intense at the time but it became freedom for me to do whatever I please musically. I’ve been able to take that and play with so many people that I never would have got to meet if it wasn’t for that early success. Having people sending requests in for these little Facebook streams blows my mind – they request songs that make me think ‘oh, I forgot about that song!’ It touches me very deeply that people connect with these songs, even ones that I haven’t played in 15 years. I’m very lucky that I’ve found my little niche. I can still go to the grocery store without being noticed. I wouldn’t want to be huge.”
Is she bothered when people apply labels to her music and put her into certain stylistic boxes? “During the early years things were under such a microscope. It was interesting because I was on a jazz label so everyone said it was a jazz album, but then it kind of wasn’t at the same time. I recognised that but also realised it didn’t matter. You can put me in whatever box you want, I don’t care. As long as I don’t feel constricted in any way. I realised early on to not let that bother me too much.” It feels like a good decision. As for the new album, she’s typically modest. “I’m just happy we got to release the album. I hope it resonates with someone.” Given her adoring fans and the quality of the songs, the reaction just might be a little stronger than that.