Q&A: Norah Jones

The singer on air-drumming, shoe collecting and why she likes Barack Obama

Musical guest Norah Jones performs on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on February 7, 2007. Credit: Margaret Norton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

After Norah Jones sold more than 15 million CDs in the past five years, it's hard to imagine that she can accomplish anything under the radar. But Jones, 27, says she walks her Manhattan streets generally unnoticed, she fronted a rock & roll side project in 2006 called El Madmo that performed more than ten gigs before she was "outed," and she even recorded her new album, Not Too Late, without her label's knowledge. Most of the disc, her third, was recorded on vintage analog equipment in her apartment, and what sets it apart from its platinum predecessors is that Jones had a hand in writing every song. Though her music retains the flavors of old-school soul, jazz and blues, the album explores more complex and personal subjects — she even gets political, pointing a finger at Dubya in two songs. On "Sinkin' Soon," she alludes to him as "a captain who's too proud to say that he dropped the oar," and on "My Dear Country," she sings, "Who knows? Maybe he's not deranged." Jones checked in the day before Not Too Late debuted at Number One, with more than 400,000 copies sold.

Have execs at Blue Note ever suggested that you leave the politics out of your music?
No, they love it! In fact, they wanted to make "My Dear Country" the single. I was like, "OK, you guys need to chill out!" I wrote that song about two years ago, and it reflected the emotions that a lot of people were having at the time. I was wondering if it would still resonate. Unfortunately, it does. 

At this point, who would you like to see become president?
I really like Barack Obama. I still consider myself a young person, and I feel like he has the potential to inspire young people in a way that not a lot of other politicians do.

Back in 2002, it must have been overwhelming to watch your debut, Come Away With Me, become a global phenomenon.
I was overwhelmed the whole time. It's funny, because when we were making it, it was spontaneous and not necessarily well thought out. I feel like it was my freshman yearbook picture, but it's what I'll forever be remembered for.

Was there a moment when you couldn't handle it?
All of a sudden, it wasn't about the music, it was about promotion. I was in a hotel room in Paris with Daru [Oda], who is in my band but at the time was also the tour manager. We sat at her computer, and we decided to write some rules to send to management and the label. So we wrote "Norah's New Rules." "Rule number one: No more promotion. Rule two: See rule number one." That kind of shit.

Is it odd to you that Come Away With Me is the best-selling album in Blue Note's history?
I don't consider myself in the same league as all those great old records. That album wasn't made with pop goals, but it was made with different goals than most of those jazz records. I consider myself lucky.

What's your favorite Blue Note record?
I really like Somethin' Else, the Cannonball Adderley record. It starts out so creepy — in a good way — and it's really mellow. When I signed, I was also really into the Cassandra Wilson album New Moon Daughter. Great record.

What's your favorite Nirvana song?
[Sings] "Polly wants a cracker." Of course I choose the mellow one, right? I learned to play "Come As You Are" on guitar when I was in junior high.

So it must've been cool to be asked to play with the Foo Fighters on their song "Virginia Moon."
Absolutely. My management said, "Dave Grohl wants to call you," and I was like, "OK, give him my home number, my cell, my e-mail...." He said he had a song for me to play on, and I thought, "Wow! Am I going to get to rock?" Of course, it was a ballad. But it was amazing. It was when I'd listened to Nirvana that I first listened to the drums, so I couldn't believe that Dave Grohl, the guy I air-drummed to, was calling me.

I read somewhere that you also enjoy air-conducting.
Oh, yeah. Air-choir-conducting. I do it when I'm alone, or trying to get a laugh. I also used to do interpretive dance to a Charles Mingus tune called "Haitian Fight Song." It's good exercise.

How did your rock-oriented side project, El Madmo, come to be?
We wrote whatever we wanted, no matter how childish or silly it sounded. It was just for us, and it was fun. We wrote about eleven songs, and we played ten or eleven gigs — dressed up in wigs — trying to keep it under wraps so that we could have the freedom to try something without people being weird. Then we were outed.

Besides Grammys, what do you collect?
[Laughs] They're out of sight, in my closet. I'm not ready to display them. We have quite a guitar collection — they're mostly Lee's [Jones' bassist and boyfriend, Lee Alexander], but I get all the benefits of that. We like to buy vinyl. And he might say that I collect shoes.

You and Lee live, write, record and tour together. Are you two inseparable?
We are the same person.