Few modern musicians have seen a meteoric rise the likes of what Norah Jones went through more than a decade ago. Overnight she went from being an semi-obscure jazz musician with immense talent to a musical icon, scoring five Grammy awards (including Album of the Year) for her debut release, Come Away with Me.
And fewer musicians can claim the kind of diverse collaborative work that Jones has produced in her career, working with everyone from the Foo Fighters and Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day to Willie Nelson and Outkast. She even has a Christmas song coming out on an album produced by The Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane this holiday season (Jones also made a cameo in MacFarlane’s hit comedy, Ted).
For her current musical incarnation, Jones has teamed up with her friends and fellow New York-based musicians Sasha Dobson and Catherine Popper to play in Puss n Boots – the alternative country band that has been playing here-and-there since 2008.
Puss n Boots’ debut album – No Fools, No Fun – came out on Tuesday and features a mix 12 different original and cover songs recorded both live and in studio. Some of the highlights include a cover of Neil Young’s classic ballad “Down By the River,” the Jones’ original “Don’t Know what it Means” and a cover of Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.” (which Jones famously mixed up the lyrics to during Young’s Bridge School Benefit in 2008 in front of Jeff Tweedy himself).
Puss n Boots comes to the TLA tonight for the band’s first performance in Philadelphia since the NON-Commvention at World Cafe Live in May. We caught up with Jones from the Green Room of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon as the band prepared to perform on Wednesday’s show, talking about The Roots, the band’s super fan – former professional wrestler Mick Foley – and more.
Tri State Indie: Do you ever get nervous before doing a performance on something like The Tonight Show?
Norah Jones: You know, sometimes I do, but I haven’t in a while. But usually when I do, it just kind of comes out of nowhere. I’m usually worried about what I’m going to wear [laughs]. And this is a girl band, so it’s all about what we’re going to wear.
TSI: Do you know what you’re wearing yet for the show?
NJ: I do, which is great. It takes the stress out of it. I picked out something very special from the back of my closet [laughs]. It was great. I didn’t have to go shopping or anything.
TSI: I guess it’s nice not having to travel far from your home in New York to do the show, either.
NJ: Yeah, it’s super fun and it’s nice to be here now that it’s The Tonight Show. It’s such a great vibe here. I feel like Fallon is one of the coolest shows, and he’s mellow. He deserves all the success he’s getting, and he just seems like a nice guy – a good vibe.
TSI: Have you met Jimmy Fallon before?
NJ: I’ve done his show a couple times. It’s fun, because he’s got instruments in the Green Room, so we’re just kind of hanging out. It’s just a nice feeling.
TSI: Any way to work The Roots into your performance?
NJ: I’m not sure. I don’t know how country they get. But I did do the show with them once, and it was super fun.
TSI: How exciting have the last few days been with the release of No Fools, No Fun?
NJ: It’s been fun. We played our CD release show last night at The Bell House. I guess it was exciting because it was the release and we had T-shirts to sell. But we’ve also played there a lot, so it felt comfortable. It’s a fun band, so we just had fun with it.
TSI: Was there an extra sense of comfort playing the CD release show at The Bell House since a few of the songs on the album were recorded there?
NJ: Yeah, we play there a lot, so it feels like our home base now in New York. We felt like that about a few different venues over the years, but that’s been our most recent one. We know a lot of people there, so that makes it fun – lots of familiar faces in the audience.
TSI: Did Mick Foley show up at that show?
NJ: Not last night, but he came to one of our gigs last month. That was super fun. There was no place for him to sit, so we put him on stage right behind me. He was right behind me for the entire show. It was hilarious. He’s adorable. I love our weird connection with Mick Foley [laughs]. He played Santa in two of our Christmas shows. He’s probably the best Santa I’ve ever seen – he is Santa. Catherine’s boyfriend played Santa at the last one because Mick wasn’t sure if he could come. But then at the last second, Mick came in. And Catherine’s boyfriend wasn’t joking around – he was excited to play Santa, and he did a great job and really went all out. But then Mick came in, and it looked like the real Kris Kringle stepped in all of a sudden. I don’t know how to describe it because it was so surreal. He looked so real – he is Santa.
TSI: Was No Fools, No Fun the fastest album you’ve ever been a part of with only three days of recording in the studio?
NJ: I think that first Little Willies album was two days in the studio, but I could be wrong. That’s what I’m remembering. I like recording fast – especially these kinds of bands. We’ve been playing live for so long that it made sense to do it that way. What we do on stage is what we did in the studio.
TSI: Does it feel like you get a more organic sound when you record something faster?
NJ: It all depends on the music you’re playing and what you’re trying to do. There’s a place for everything. For this band, it didn’t make any sense to do some kind of produced album that’s different from what we do live. Part of the charm of this band is our live thing – the sparsity of it and also the rawness of it. Sometimes it’s kind of like walking a tightrope – in a good way, though [laughs]. You never know what you’re going to get. That’s why we wanted to include some of the live tracks, too. We recorded some of the covers, and they sounded really good, but there’s something about that energy from the live versions that made more sense.
TSI: Was there any discussion of doing a full live album instead of recording some of it in a studio?
NJ: We kind of played with the idea after we had already booked the studio time, so we just wanted to see how it went. It felt good to record some of the originals in the studio that we hadn’t done live as much as some of the covers. It just worked out that way. We put the two together.
TSI: What kind of input did you get from Joel Hamilton on the production side of the songs?
NJ: He was great. He engineered us, and he kind of let us do our thing. He gave us great feedback when we really needed it. Mostly, he just captured our thing and made us sound good. It was a fun environment to record in – mellow, no pressure.
TSI: How much easier is it to play with a group of friends compared with strangers?
NJ: It’s pretty easy. For me, it’s a lot easier than playing with a bunch of strangers – that’s for sure. I don’t think I’ve ever played in a band with people who aren’t my friends or who I didn’t become friends with – and if I didn’t, I don’t think we played together for very long [laughs]. I mean, what’s the point? Certainly I can play with people and respect them and not be best friends with them, but it’s definitely more fun if you’re going to be in a band and play often together to be friendly with each other.
TSI: Your original song on No Fools, No Fun – “Don’t Know What It Means” – talks about someone who doesn’t know what it takes to be your friend. With your personality, what does it take to become one of your friends?
NJ: I don’t know. You’re probably thinking about that lyric more than I did when I wrote it, to be honest [laughs]. I wrote that song in like 10 minutes in Japan. I was enjoying playing my guitar really loud in my dressing room, and that line made sense. I guess it means something, but I don’t know how to put it into words. It’s not something I’ve specifically though about. You know what it takes to be a good friend to anybody – just be honest and be nice and be there.
TSI: When did you first pick up a guitar?
NJ: When I was 10, I learned how to play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and then I didn’t play it again. When I moved to New York when I was 20, I ended up having my mom send some old guitar that I had because I didn’t have a piano in my apartment. I needed something, so I started playing a little bit that summer and ended up buying a Squire electric guitar for $100 in New York. I wrote “Come Away With Me” that summer on guitar. I only knew the “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” chords – C and A-minor – from when I was a little girl. I got a chord book and learned a couple other chords. I wrote a few songs that were on my first couple of albums. I kept the guitar, but I didn’t really play it much. I used it to write more than anything. Then Sasha and I really started playing guitar together when we were 25 or 26 – somewhere in there. She booked these gigs at a pool hall so we could just learn how to play guitar. That’s how this band kind of started.
TSI: What was the name of the pool hall?
NJ: The Fat Cat. It’s actually a jazz hall in the West Village, but there’s a pool hall in the front. The music is in the back in another room, but we played in the front in the actual pool hall. Nobody listened to us. It wasn’t like playing in a music club, in a weird way. It was fun because nobody really paid attention to us, so we could just concentrate on the gig and try stuff. I’ve always enjoyed practicing more on a gig than practicing alone in my home. So we did that every week for a year or two when we were all home – which was a lot at that time because I think I was taking a break.
TSI: How comfortable do you feel on stage playing a guitar?
NJ: I feel pretty comfortable. It certainly depends on the song and what I’m doing, but it feels good. It’s fun to stand up and play music. I love playing the piano – it’s always my first instrument and I will always love it. But as far as performing goes, it’s definitely more fun to stand up and face your audience and to be able to move around and turn around and look at the drummer than to just be sitting stationary.
TSI: Are there any songs that didn’t make the album that you would have liked to see on there or a song you’d like to cover with Puss n Boots?
NJ: There were a bunch of songs that didn’t make it just because we had to cut it down. We did the Johnny Cash song, “Cry, Cry, Cry.” We did a song called “Shanty Town.” I think they’re on extras somewhere. But I think we picked the best ones and the best versions of what we got. I don’t feel bad about any of it. It’s always nice to have a shorter record.
TSI: It was funny when I saw a quote of yours from an interview that you thought the lyric from the Wilco song “Jesus, Etc.” was “Our love is all we’ve got, honey” instead of “Our love is all of God’s money.” I always thought the same thing.
NJ: Thank God I’m not the only one – and you’re not too proud to admit it, I love it [laughs]. Imagine my shock when Jeff Tweedy came up to me and said, “I like how you changed that lyric.” And I’m like, “What are you talking about?” [laughs] His lyric is way heavier than ours. We sing it the right way now. I must have known that song for years before I realized that.
TSI: One last question. What’s the most valuable thing that you possess?
NJ: My friends and my family, I guess. Otherwise, I don’t know what I would do. That’s a heavy question, man [laughs]. I don’t know if I’m ready for that. I don’t know how else to answer that one.
TSI: I did an interview with Dr. John last year and asked him the same question. He said it was his third eye.
NJ: Oh my God. Well, that’s some voodoo shit right there [laughs].