Few artists in history have exploded onto the scene as quietly as Jones. Her debut, 2002’s Come Away With Me, domestically sold more than 11 million copies, according to Nielsen Music, and won her five Grammys. Then she spent the next decade-plus seemingly attempting to shed that coffeehouse-singer persona, trying new instruments and genres. She even made her big-screen acting debut in Wong Kar Wai’s 2007 drama My Blueberry Nights. Now the piano is back at the forefront, even though everything else in her life has changed. “She has such a strong vision that I would back her in anything she wanted to do — but I’m glad she did this record!” says Blue Note president Don Was with a laugh.
“For my first couple records, we’d have late-night sessions, get drunk and record into the wee hours,” she says in between bites of a hot-sauce-flecked omelette. “But the last few records ... I’m a daytime person. I like getting stuff done in the studio and then having a glass of wine and enjoying my night.”
Day Breaks — a focused set of nine originals and three covers — is Jones’ sixth album. Though it has been compared to her debut, she plainly says she sees it as a continued evolution, not a throwback. Written and recorded in fall 2015, most sessions had Jones on piano with drummer Brian Blade and bassist Chris Thomas. “The goal was to do everything live, get really good takes,” she says. “When you have great musicians there’s no reason to overdub. That strips the soul out of the music.” Blue Note labelmates Wayne Shorter and Dr. Lonnie Smith also sat in: “It was like going on a picnic,” says Shorter. “You know you’re having fun when you don’t even have to speak in musical terms.”
Thematically, the tracks are a mix of smoldering love ballads (“Burn,” “It’s a Wonderful Time for Love”) and social commentary (“Tragedy,” “Flipside”). Of all the new songs, Jones says the ’70s-inflected, politically charged “Flipside” (“If we’re all free, why does it seem, we just can’t be”) is the one she most enjoys performing live. “There’s this thing in the air and it’s not just one issue — it’s many issues,” she says quietly, shifting in her seat. “I was moved by it when I was writing ‘Flipside.’ It’s messed up — or it seems so messed up right now, at least. It doesn’t make for an easy sleep.”
Though Jones’ biggest hits, like “Don’t Know Why,” have been her love songs, politics as a theme isn’t new to her repertoire. “I played [2004 George W. Bush protest song] ‘My Dear Country’ recently, and people were like ‘Holy shit!,’ because it sounds like it’s about this election. It’s crazy. Things that were valid years ago still resonate.” The song’s lyrics include “But fear’s the only thing I saw” and “Nothing is as scary as Election Day.” “At this point it’s just like, ‘OK, we have to make sure Hillary Clinton gets elected,’ ” adds Jones. “Or that Donald Trump doesn’t get elected.”
When Election Day arrives, Jones will be deep into a 27-date European tour, with both band and family in tow. And while that video for “Carry On” might hint at her private life, fans will have to wait for her to completely draw back the curtain. After all, her introverted nature runs counter to a world where influence is measured in followers and likes (though with four million, her Facebook isn’t too shabby). “In my 20s, we weren’t even texting yet,” she says. “There are times I’ve been told, ‘You’ve got to have a lot more fans on social media to get booked on this show.’ It makes sense to me — I’m just not that good at it.” Laughing, she clarifies her online passivity: “I do like to look at it, to see my friends and family — I’m an asshole lurker. I’m not trying to hide; I just don’t feel the need to say, ‘Here it all is.’ ”
The “it all” — the life of Norah Jones at age 37 — melds the public highs of playing packed theaters with the private joys of nurturing a young family and dancing around the kitchen table. “The days of staying up until 4 a.m. are gone,” she says in a faux-lament. “But it was fun while it lasted!”
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 8 issue of Billboard.