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Norah Jones breaks out of her predictable songstress shell with corrosive pop bombs

If the qualifiers 'easy listening', 'adult contemporary' and 'coffee house chanteuse' come to mind when you think of Norah Jones, you might be pleasantly caught off guard by the mellifluous singer's fifth LP, Little Broken Hearts, a melancholy succession of expansive pop songs that are "busted up pretty bad" (Jones' own words).

A decade after her record-breaking, if-a-tad-vanilla Come Away With Me, this darker, angrier record is produced by Brian Burton, alias Danger Mouse, the studio maestro behind Gnarls Barkley, who's also lent his magic touch to The Black Keys and Gorillaz, among others.

Jones, who'll be performing at the Jazz Fest for the first time since 2003, spoke with NIGHTLIFE.CA from San Diego about blending fact and fiction, avoiding the jazz cataloguing and shaking up her shtick.


Photo: Frank W. Ockenfels

NIGHTLIFE.CA: Whether the songs take after folk, blues, pop or country traditions, sadness permeates the record. Is that the kind of music that speaks most strongly to you?
Norah Jones: It's the kind of music that has always spoken to me. I've always been drawn to that stripped down, quiet music. I think that the way I sing lends itself to that.

The lyrics are revealing - there's talk of being dumped for a 22-year-old, of mutual cheating and of confronting a new girlfriend. Regardless of how much is true, is it scary to release those songs out into the world?
I guess not, I mean, I know what's fiction and what's true (laughs); it's not a diary or anything. Don't take it too literally, even though there's some personal stuff in there. I'm not afraid, because they're songs.

You came to the studio empty handed - a drastic change for you - to build tunes and arrangements with Brian from scratch. What do you take away from the collaboration?
I think what I'm most proud of is our songwriting together. I wasn't prepared for how well the songs would connect with each other and how much of a concept story the album would become, instead of just a bunch of songs. 

You've collaborated with such a disparate bunch of musicians - Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Belle and Sebastian, Q-Tip - and even starred in postmodern prince Wong Kar-wai's first English-language film. Would you say you thrive on stepping out of your comfort zone?
I guess it's mostly fun. It's great that I've been able to work with different people and try new things. I've been lucky enough to get requests - because I DO love to push myself and try new things. But if they hadn't asked, I wouldn't necessarily have thought of collaborating with Q-Tip or Mike Patton!

Some people refer to you as a jazz artist, a label you're somewhat reluctant to subscribe to. What about playing jazz fests?
Well, I haven't played a jazz fest that doesn't have different kinds of music. That's the thing, I play the Montreal Jazz Fest, and The Dead Weather is playing next door! (laughs) It's not that much of a stretch for me because they have a lot of acts that aren't jazz in the slightest. It's just a great big sea of great music.


Norah Jones
July 7
 | Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier of Place des Arts
175 Ste-Catherine W.