Music: Norah Jones
Dec 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Chris J. Walker
STEPPING OUTSIDE HER COMFORT ZONE
A virtual unknown before 2002, Norah Jones became one of the most successful artists of the new century when her debut release, Come Away With Me, sold 18 million copies and swept the 2003 Grammy Awards, winning in eight categories. Jones' inviting, gentle and sweet-sounding style drew from jazz, country and pop, all rolled into a distinctive sound that was unmistakably her own. She followed her initial triumph with two more popular discs: Feels Like Home (2004) was produced by the legendary Arif Mardin, while the 2006 album, Not Too Late, was a more homespun and personal project, made with her bassist boyfriend, Lee Alexander, in the confines of their Manhattan home studio.
Jones started her latest record, The Fall, more than a year ago, initially working with many familiar faces, but over time she realized, “I wanted to try something different and maybe use other musicians,” she says. “I had been working with the same people, who I love, for the last six or seven years. I decided I wanted to find a producer who could help me get out of my comfort zone.
“So I started looking for producers and it became really hard,” Jones says with a laugh. “A lot of people that I liked were busy or weren't into doing it because the songs were already written and they would rather write together.” Besides writing several songs alone, Jones had co-written with Ryan Adams, Jessie Harris, Will Sheff and Mike Martin. She continues, “Then I thought, ‘Maybe I'll just hire an engineer who has a strong personality, who can be an engineer/producer.’”
During the process of investigating producer/engineers who had worked on albums she liked, she came across Jacquire King, who had worked on Tom Waits' Mule Variations, as well as CDs by Modest Mouse and the Kings of Leon, among others. The two met and, Jones says, “He just seemed really great — super-right-on, and like somebody I could work with easily, but wasn't going to be a puppet and would have his own opinions.”
The Fall is a more rocking, guitar-oriented album that her previous releases, with Jones playing quite a bit of guitar herself this time. “It's just sort of an evolution, I guess,” she says. “Ten years ago or so, when I started making music in New York, all I was listening to was older music, such as jazz, a little country and some blues. I didn't listen to much modern music, and these days I actually rarely listen to jazz, though I still love it dearly and it's what I kind of grew up on.” Jones says her updated musical interests span Houston-based Aqua Velva, techno artist Santagold, Brazilian Jorge Ben Jor and even classic rocker Neil Young.
“We definitely had a lot of conversations about where she wanted to go,” King comments from his Nashville studio. “We were looking at 18 or more tunes, and we had a big list of musicians that we wanted to try out. She wanted to play with musicians that were a little bit more rhythm-oriented and the section being a stronger element — forceful and kind of driving things.
“Then the next job was to pinpoint which sessions and groups of musicians we wanted to pair with songs. Some of them we placed in more than one group. So it was figuring that out with her and working to have a lot more guitar on this record. She does play a fair amount of keyboards — Wurlitzer especially and some piano, too.”
Once Jones and King were in agreement about the songs and musicians, they tracked for two weeks at the Magic Shop in Manhattan. Studio A there has a 1,000-square-foot live room and a control room equipped with a Neve Series 80 custom wrap-around console, Studer analog recorders, Pro Tools and plenty of classic outboard gear. King had never worked there before, but Jones was well-acquainted with the facility: “I've worked there a lot, and you can get really good drum sounds there,” she notes. “It's not the most well-decorated place, but it's got a vibe, fun and there's good delivery food.” [Laughs]
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