Back in 2009, Norah Jones and Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton got together in the Gnarls Barkley producer’s Los Angeles studio to begin work on a top-secret project. “Nobody from my label or management knew we were doing it,” says the singer. “Brian said, ‘I’d rather actually collaborate, and not just be a producer – let’s go into the studio and see what happens.'”
The pair spent five days together in June 2009, working on what would eventually become Jones’ fifth solo album, Little Broken Hearts (due May 1st). “I’d never gone in with nothing and wrote songs from scratch, and I’d never played bass before on a record,” she says. “I was out of my comfort zone – but I was comfortable because we’re friends.”
Adds Burton, “The best thing was having just the two of us on those first sessions, not a whole band. Norah had as many, if not more, great ideas than I did.”
The sessions were fruitful, but Jones and Burton weren’t quite satisfied. They spent the next two years working separately on other projects: Jones completed and released her fourth solo disc, The Fall, and made an album with her alt-country band, the Little Willies; Burton started Broken Bells with the Shins’ James Mercer, logged studio time with U2 and produced the Black Keys’ El Camino.
Last summer, the duo finally reconvened at Burton’s studio to finish up Little Broken Hearts. Jones arrived with a handful of raw, emotionally charged new tunes she penned in the wake of a harsh breakup with her fiction-writer boyfriend. “I always heard the old stories about how you write better songs when you go through some shit,” she says with a laugh. “That sucks, but it’s true!”
The album’s sound ranges from experimental chamber serenades to stark, electronic-embellished confessions. “It’s obviously very different than anything Norah’s ever done,” Burton says. “I don’t know what people will think – I hope they like it, and she doesn’t lose a bunch of fans.”
One of the boldest departures is “Take It Back,” which features fuzzed-out guitars and spooky, distorted vocals. “I never knew how to get weird sounds,” Jones says. “It was all about finding a balance between those effects and making sure my voice was clear and sounded like me.”
She gets even darker on “Happy Pills,” singing, “Time to throw this away/Wanna make sure that you never waste my time again,” over hooky pop-rock chug. “It sounds happy,” she says, “but the lyrics are evil and fucked up, which grounded it a little.” On “4 Broken Hearts,” she belts like a defiant Dusty Springfield while confronting a mutual infidelity: “We tried to be faithful but didn’t get far.”
In its own quiet way, Little Broken Hearts hews closer to heartbreak classics like Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear than to anything in Jones’ back catalog. “This time, I’ve been way less concerned with self-editing,” Jones says. “I’m not sad, but there’s a lot of hurt in there. And it felt great to say what I felt and put it down on tape. Doing that made me so happy! This album is all about saying things that needed to be said.”
This story is from the March 15th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.