(Photo by Autumn De Wilde)
Norah Jones was born Geethali Shankar in Brooklyn on March 30, 1979 to Sue Jones and Ravi Shankar, the legendary Indian sitar player. At the age of 4, she and her mom moved to groovy Grapevine, Texas where she started singing in the church choir at an early age, while learning to play the piano, guitar and alto saxophone.
At 16, she changed her name to Norah Jones while attending Booker T. Washington High School. After graduation, she majored in piano at the University of North Texas until she decided to return to New York City to form a band. In 2002, she made a mellow debut with “Come Away with Me,” a universally-acclaimed CD which won eight Grammy Awards and is the best-selling jazz album of all time at more than 20 million copies and counting.
Norah’s next couple of records, “Feels Like Home” and “Not Too Late,” also went platinum, and she’s now on tour for her fourth, “The Fall.” Besides singing, songwriting and playing multiple instruments, this gifted Renaissance woman is also an actress who has enjoyed a starring role in “My Blueberry Nights” and appeared as herself in “Two Weeks Notice” and “Life Support Music.”
Here, the sultry siren talks about life, music and her latest screen outing in “Wah Do Dem,” a comedy where she cameos as the ex-girlfriend of a just-dumped slacker who gets mugged while vacationing in Jamaica.
What interested you in “Wah Do Dem?”
Well, I had taken some time off, and wasn’t really doing much at the time, just sort of hanging out in New York. I get lots of random requests, which might be cool, but just don’t make sense at the time for a lot of different reasons.
With “Wah Do Dem,” I was free, and it was a really interesting concept. They didn’t have a script, just an outline of where they wanted the story to go and a plan to improvise, but with an underlying storyline. It sounded easy enough to do, so I spoke to them on the phone, and they seemed like good people and really cool.
I really enjoyed the film, although I was a little disappointed by the ending, which I don’t want to give away except to say I was hoping for a more clear-cut resolution of your character Willow and Max’s [played by Sean Bones] relationship.
I know what you mean, but I think the film isn’t about the relationship, but about Max’s figuring his stuff out, and kind of growing up a little bit. I think for him to do that there shouldn’t be a girl around in the end, even though audiences might find it more satisfying. This way, it’s more like real life.
I guess I wanted you to have a bigger role.
No, that’s the other reason I liked it. First of all, I wasn’t prepared to commit to a large project at the time, because I was tired. So when they said they only needed me for a small part, I thought that would really be a lot of fun for me, because I don’t make or break the film, and I liked the way the directors [Ben Chace and Sam Fleischner] approached shooting it.
Yeah, they didn’t have any permits, and they used a lot of real people in Jamaica. It was crazy. They were very ambitious, and I was a little worried about whether they’d be able to pull it all off, but they did.
Do you have another acting gig planned?
Not right now, although I really enjoy it when I actually have the time to do it.
What about your music? Where can people see you play?
I just finished a U.S. tour, and we’re leaving soon for Europe for a month or so.
Who’s in the band? The same people playing on your latest album?
A great group. Sasha Dobson on guitar, banjo, percussion and backup vocals, Smokey Hormel on guitar, Joey Waronker on drums, Gus Seyyfert on bass and John Kirby on keyboards. Except for Sasha, they all played on the record.
How would you describe your new sound?
I have a hard time describing it. I’d rather just play it. But I’d say it’s definitely taken a little bit of a shift, and I like where it’s going. I’m excited about trying out a lot of different sounds. It’s nice to change and explore.
You strike me as an irrepressible artist who’s always inclined to be faithful to her true nature.
That’s cool with me. I like that. [Laughs]
You play more guitar on this album. What’s your favorite instrument?
I love the piano. I’m more familiar with the piano. But I think for that reason, I enjoy playing the guitar, because I’m a little bit more limited on it. The main reason I play the guitar is that I like it, it has a different sound, and it’s also portable. It’s way easier, since I can’t carry a piano around with me. So, it’s become a good outlet for me to write on.
I have some questions for you from fans. Larry Greenberg, says, “I am a huge fan, I love everything with your voice in it. What is your favorite flavor of Chex Mix?”
[Laughs] That’s funny. [Laughs some more] I guess original. Don’t give me no low-fat. Do you know why he asked that?
It’s from a song “I Got Chex Mix” that I sang on an album with those Lonely Island guys from Saturday Night Live.
Attorney Bernadette Beekman asks, “Which culture do you identify with most closely?”
Probably American, since I grew up here. I’m living in New York and I grew up in Texas. I have a real love of Texas culture and I always love visiting, but I don’t know if I’d move back. It’s a different thing down there. And it’s so hot. [Laughs]
How do performances in small versus larger theaters effect your connection between you and the audience?
They’re different. I like both. I play in a lot of bars in New York with smaller bands, and I really enjoy it. But I’ve also enjoyed playing larger arenas on this tour recently, because the audiences have been so loving. So, they’re different, but both are very rewarding.
What was it like becoming an overnight sensation after the release of your first album?
It was crazy for a few years, but it’s settled in now. I have a lot of good people who’ve stuck with me, and I feel like I know who my friends are now. I just try to take the good, and let go of all the stressful bad stuff.
Are you ever afraid?
Afraid? Sure! I’m human.
Are you happy?
When was the last time you had a good laugh?
[Laughs] This morning. My mom is here and we had a big fight, and then a big laugh. [Laughs]
What was the last book you read?
I’m reading “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith, but I’m not finished yet. It’s really long.
What was the last thing you listened to on your iPod?
“Mule Variations” by Tom Waits.
When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
I see me.
How can your fans help you?
By just being themselves. [Laughs]
If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
Oh, that’s a hard one. There are too many things. [Laughs]
What is your favorite dish to cook?
What do you consider your biggest accomplishment?
I feel like I’ve just stayed true to myself which I think is a big accomplishment in this business. Whether you like me or not, I’ve stayed pretty true to my art. I also feel good about having worked really hard to establish myself as an artist.
What is your earliest childhood memory?
It’s of a dream I had where I was playing in a playground and I bit my lower lip off. I was in daycare and 2 or 3 at the time. I woke up so shocked by the dream that I’ve remembered that moment ever since.
What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Bacon and eggs, although I don’t feel that guilty about it. I’m not old enough to have to worry about it yet.
What’s been the happiest moment of your life?
I don’t know. I’ve had a lot of them. I can’t pick just one.
Do you ever wish you could have your anonymity back?
I’m pretty lucky. I can kinda be anonymous easier than a lot of other people who are very successful. And I’m not sure why that is.
My guess is that you don’t travel with a big entourage or try to cultivate that celebrity energy.
Yeah, I don’t disguise myself when I go to the grocery story, and I don’t dress up, either. So, I just look like a little kid, usually, because I’m pretty short.
How do you want to be remembered?
With a smile.