Singer-songwriter Norah Jones discusses her musical influences, collaborations and songwriting process in this candid profile. She also performs four tunes.
“I like the idea that songs are alive,” Norah Jones says in her 2016 installment of the British documentary series “The Great Songwriters.” “After you write them, they sort of take on their own life.”
Jones says this in reference to her own compositions, how listeners can hear something within a song she never intended. But it’s not hard to extrapolate from this sentiment to her music as a whole. She’s resurrected standards and given life to tunes written by her bandmates, her interpretations bolstering the concept that a song’s lifespan stretches beyond their composer.
Over the course of two decades and eight solo albums — this particular episode was taped during the promotional cycle for her sixth, the 2016 release “Day Breaks” — Jones also has assembled a rich songbook of her own, which is the reason “The Great Songwriters” chose to spotlight her during the series’ first season.
Jones explores the idiosyncrasies of her style and creative process, highlighting how she seems somewhat out of step with her generation. She eventually embraced modern sounds and production techniques, collaborating with hip-hop visionary Danger Mouse on her 2012 album “Little Broken Hearts,” yet at the dawn of her career, she made music that seemed timeless, not timely.
“Come Away with Me,” her 2002 debut for Blue Note Records, gently blends the dusky seductiveness of nightclub jazz with singer-songwriter intimacies, a fusion that evokes at least two different eras. The mellow, moody hybrid reflected how Jones earned her living playing New York City piano bars while receiving a creative jolt by performing at songwriting clubs at night. Many of her supporting musicians at the time wound up playing on “Come Away with Me” and provided such crucial songs as “Don’t Know Why.”
“I think I hit upon my own sound or found my own voice when making that first record,” she says. “Instead of trying to pigeonhole the style of music, it was focusing on the actual songs.” As Jones discovered her voice as a singer, the songs started to flow. She acknowledges that “writing songs came later for me than maybe most artists.” In her case, “later” meant that she didn’t begin to write until she moved to New York from her Texas home and started gathering inspiration from the original songs her colleagues were writing.
“Come Away with Me,” the first of four songs she plays in this show, came to her late at night, arriving nearly fully formed as she was strumming a guitar to herself. The spontaneity of the composition wound up being a guiding light. “The best songs come fully formed,” Jones says. She has tried other methods, including writing on a daily basis, but nothing felt as true as spontaneous inspiration.
Not only is she seeking to live within a moment, but the songs are indeed living entities, bending to the needs of a moment.
It’s hard not to draw connections between Jones’ songwriting process and her performing style. Not only is she seeking to live within a moment — a notion shared by jazz musicians of all stripes — but the songs are indeed living entities, bending to the needs of a moment.
Fittingly, this episode lifts off when it concentrates on Jones performing live. She is a charming interview subject — conversational and funny enough to distract from a distinct guardedness involving any personal topic — but when she’s playing music, she’s captivating, letting the songs dictate how she expresses her emotions. Listening to her play a pair of old tunes and a couple of songs from “Day Breaks,” it becomes clear how she channels the thoughts, education and experience described in the interview into compelling music.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine is a Senior Editor of Pop Music at Xperi, whose database of music information is licensed throughout the internet and can be accessed at Allmusic.com. While at Xperi and Allmusic, he’s written thousands of record reviews and artist biographies as well as editing a series of record guides. He’s also contributed to Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times, Billboard, Spin and New York Magazine’s Vulture, and has written liner notes for Sony Legacy, Vinyl Me Please and Raven Records.