1.0 Mention that I was up late when I came up with these ideas, kind of a disclaimer. (“Dreamin’ when I wrote this / So sue me if it goes astray,” etc.)
1.1 Note that I was listening to Norah Jones and had an epiphany about her and someone else.
2.0 Note general critical intransigence about Norah Jones, how they started out worshiping her genre-blend of pop jazz country soul, then started to deride her as too soft too slow too unfocused.
2.1 For my money her best work was third album Not Too Late as she flashed a sense of humor, got political, and loosened up a bit.
2.2 But interesting that not much buzz attended last year’s The Fall, mostly just mentioned and ignored.
2.3 Maybe because of its weirdo lead single “Chasing Pirates”; not exactly “Don’t Know Why”; was it soft rock? was it her big pop move?
2.4 Also hard to get hold of. Song about insomnia, confusion, loss of control. Norah Jones not in control?
2.5 Actually The Fall reveals itself to be a pretty great record the more one listens to it. However no one does that these days, it’s instantaneous judgment that counts, and she’s only easy to pigeonhole when she is only heard and not listened to.
3.0 These things, and a certain similarity in their singing tones, put me in mind of the initial trajectory of another singer-songwriter with a similar problem and a similar name: Rickie Lee Jones.
3.1 (Don’t get into personal intense emotional reaction to several RLJ songs due to them being there when I needed them over the years: “We Belong Together,” “The Magazine,” “On Saturday Afternoons in 1963.” Definitely don’t mention the fact that I burst into tears EVERY TIME I hear “Skeletons” no matter where I am or what I’m doing.)
3.2 Similarities: RLJ also combined jazz and pop and rock and country and soul; both hit huge with first single (“Chuck E’s in Love”) and album, did well with second record too (Pirates, many people’s favorite), but then never again matched that success; both are identified with piano but play guitar and collaborate with Willie Nelson and other interesting people.
3.3 Most of all, both are very easily stereotyped but not very easily digested. Norah is thought of as the warmest ice queen in the world, even though a lot of her stuff is nowhere near that; Rickie Lee got cubbyholed as the flighty beatnik, even though her music is actually often prog if anything and she’s done a lot of different things.
3.4 Also, and this is relevant, both were marketed as much for their personal foxiness as much as for anything else. Norah, of course, wow, cast in movies just because of her fashion-model looks—between her and her half-sister Anoushka Shankar are they the two most stunning siblings in musical history? But check out history about RLJ, even Christgau said (in a B minus review of debut album): “It isn’t just the skeptic in me who suspects that, despite the critical brouhaha, this young singer-songwriter’s attractions are more sexual than musical or literary. It’s also the male—‘Stick It Into Coolsville,’ eh?”
4.0 But there is the question of influence.
4.1 And yes I know that this is a flawed question that only leads to flawed answers. I know the deal. But let’s go there anyway.
4.2 FACT: you never really know what note either of them are singing, tonal ambiguities all over the place with both. Sure this is coming out of jazz tradition, but isn’t it possible that Norah learned this trick at least partially from Rickie Lee?
4.3 RLJ’s trick of alternating reticence and distance with a king of wild romanticism is at least echoed in Norah’s best work. Look at RLJ spitting out long crazy lines of verbiage but then bursting into world-beating choruses that contain the whole world—bring up “We Belong Together,” “It Must Be Love” (where it’s not really so much the chorus but the post-chorus bridge of “I have seen you walking in the rain / I wanna know why you are crying in pain / Baby let me fix what’s wrong”). Look at Norah with her little shy-indie-nerd-girl verses, kinda non-threatening and distracted, and then boom she levels you with a breaking voice or a telling hesitation, like on “Back to Manhattan” or “What Am I to You?”, certainly on half the songs on Not Too Late. They both intentionally set up space between themselves and the listener, not quite on a Brechtian level but still, so that the crossing of that space seems very significant.
4.4 Their main difference even functions in a similar way in their own times. Confusing statement, clarify: the 70s and early 80s were very laidback times in many ways, lyrically and groove-wise, and RLJ stood out for her profusion of poetry, which had fallen out of favor in a post-prog world. Today’s music is so busy, crazy, all-over-the-place in not-bad ways, and Norah stood out in the last decade for her use of space. They are both renegades, in their different ways.
4.5 I could put together a mixtape of songs by both where you wouldn’t know who was singing what.
5.0 What does this all mean. Good question. But kinda like this:
5.1 After initial success, RLJ found herself facing decreasing audiences—Pirates, an amazing record, scared people, and The Magazine, which was even more ambitious, ended up in the discount racks way earlier than it should, considering the densely-packed beauty there. She ran aground after four records on a massive half-decade writer’s block. Then, when people assumed she’d gone away, she found a way to reinvent herself and her formula several times over the last two decades, including some stunning mostly-jazz work, some wilder electro-experimentation, and her canny synthesis of every kind of music. In the last ten years she’s released two amazing things that rank with her best work: The Evening of My Best Day and The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard. She had to get lost to find herself.
5.2 Hard to imagine Norah Jones getting lost—seems too grounded, too self-protective. But one wonders why on her latest one she’s experimenting with rock textures, trying to change up her style—does she worry about running aground herself?
5.3 More importantly, why is she up all night freaking out? Why would someone with the world in the palm of her hand be nervous? Is Norah perhaps worried about what to do to keep her audience while still moving forward, like her namesake?
5.4 Is “Chasing Pirates” really about Chasing Pirates?
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.