It’s one thing to be popular; it’s another to be omnipresent. For five years Norah Jones has been both.
Since February 2002 Jones has moved nearly 15 million CDs, including the 1.2 million copies of “Not Too Late,” her third and latest CD. That’s about 8,000 CDs each day, every day, holidays included, for five straight years.
Like anyone who explodes into the pop culture as quickly as she did, Jones has prompted a cult of haters and detractors. Most complain about her music and how it hasn’t evolved much since her first album. Take this jab from The Onion that ran in early March, about a month after “Late” hit stores.
The headline: “Norah Jones releases debut album for the third time.”
The story: “With critics hailing its sound as `reminiscent of a young Norah Jones,’ Norah Jones’ third album, `Not Too Late,’ features the singer-songwriter performing mellow, acoustic pop songs with soul and country-pop tones ...
“In the weeks since this year’s Grammy Awards show, many fans have expressed outrage in online forums that Jones was `snubbed yet again’ in the Best New Artist award, which she hasn’t won since 2003.”
But “Late” is different from her previous two albums on several levels. For one, Jones used a different producer. Arif Mardin, who produced “Come Away With Me” and “Feels Like Home,” died in June 2006 of pancreatic cancer.
So when time came to make her third album, Jones hired her bassist, Lee Alexander, who is also her longtime, live-in boyfriend. Their approach: Record it at home, strip it down and make it sound live, unlike the two others, which were polished and coifed to a radiant sheen.
The other big difference: Jones wrote or co-wrote all 13 songs. And some of her lyrics are explicitly critical of people in places of power, such as the former governor of her native state. Like the Dixie Chicks, Jones is a native Texan. At least twice on “Not Too Late ” she sings the kinds of things about President Bush that used to be verboten.
For example, there’s this from “My Dear Country,” written right after Election Day, November 2006: “But fear’s the only thing I saw/And three days later it was clear to all/That nothing is as scary as election day ...” Then: “Who knows? Maybe the plans will change/Who knows? Maybe he’s not deranged.”
She then acknowledges one of her country’s basic and most vital freedoms: “I love the things that you’ve given me/And most of all that I am free/To have a song that I can sing/On election day ...”
And this from “Sinkin’ Soon,” a hymn for a country that has lost its bearings: “In a boat that’s built of sticks and hay/We drifted from the shore/With a captain who’s too proud to say/That he dropped the oar ...”
During a pause in her tour recently, and before she went to Cannes, Jones spoke about writing lyrics that stake out a position.
Q. Did you decide before you sat down to write this album that some of the songs would be so overtly political?
No, they just came out. What I’d learned previously is you can’t edit yourself. You have to let everything out, or you won’t get to the good songs. So they just came out. We record everything, and we never really know whether we have something good unless we record it and then step back and check it out. All those songs got a good response from everyone who heard them, the musicians, the engineers. So we decided to put them on the album.
What about your label?
Oh, they loved them. They wanted to make “My Dear Country” the first single. I had to talk them down from that: “Um, I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
You have such a huge fan base, it must cross over lots of political lines. How have your fans responded?
I’ve heard that on some message boards - some people are not into it. But I think that these songs aren’t trying to tell anyone how to feel or think. I’m not trying to cram my views down anyone’s throat. The only obvious political song tries to see things from both sides.
I read this quote from Rufus Wainwright, and I wish I could remember it exactly, but it was something about how this is our reality now. How could you not write about it? All these issues and things are in our everyday reality, and they are part of my feelings. I’m not breaking up with my boyfriend and writing about it. If you’re aware of what’s going on, you know these past few years have been very intense. I’m not necessarily trying to make a political statement; it’s what I’m feeling.
It’s also a lot safer to write and say those kinds of things these days.
Yeah, the Dixie Chicks really took it for a lot of people. Maybe four years ago I wouldn’t be trying something like that.
Especially also being from Texas.
Yeah, well, I’m not worried about it. I’m really not trying to polarize anyone, and anyone who listens to what I’m saying should realize that
Q. Do you play “My Dear Country” live every night?
Yes, and I get an amazing response. It’s the most exhilarated I’ve ever felt playing a song. To people who did have the same feelings I did and to the people it speaks to, it was an intense feeling. I hope we’ve all moved past those feelings, but the song brings me back to it.
“Sinking Soon” is a pretty dismal assessment of where we are as a country. Do you mean it politically, morally, economically?
It could be taken in any of those ways. But recently, with all the talk about the environment, I think about it in that way a lot.