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‘I’m not afraid any more’: Norah Jones talks overnight fame, getting vulnerable, and singing with Dolly Parton

Norah Jones is enjoying life in the slow lane (Joelle Grace Taylor)
Norah Jones is enjoying life in the slow lane (Joelle Grace Taylor)

Norah Jones just wants to have fun. In fact, she uses the word “fun” 28 times over the course of our interview (yes, I counted). And really, who can blame her?

One feels that, if anyone in music has earned the right to kick back and enjoy what they do, it’s Jones. The 44-year-old singer/songwriter with the butter-smooth voice achieved industry-veteran status more than 20 years ago, having first exploded onto the scene in 2002 with her phenomenally successful debut album, Come Away with Me. It was certified diamond, selling over 27 million copies worldwide, and earned her five Grammy awards. It also propelled Jones – aged just 22 at the time – from a relatively unknown musician to a household name.

“It was a crazy few years; it was a strange, strange time,” she muses, in what feels like something of an understatement. “I wasn’t really prepared.”

Jones was at the vanguard of a Noughties cohort of easy-listening solo artists who were launched into the stratosphere by insanely popular debuts. It was a period dominated by Damien Rice’s O, Katie Melua’s Call Off the Search, Dido’s No Angel, James Blunt’s Back to Bedlam. These albums were era-defining – the musical score that underpinned an entire decade of dinner parties, and the sonic backdrop to every iconic film and TV series.

Jones’s songs featured on everything from Maid in Manhattan to Love Actually to Two Weeks Notice. The gentle guitar twang, brushed drums and acoustic bass of “Don’t Know Why”, alongside Jones’s intimate vocals and jazz-infused piano-playing, still evoke a wistful nostalgia 22 years on. For the artists at the centre of this whirlwind of overnight fame, it was almost impossible to sustain such peculiarly sudden stardom.

“I feel like I never reached that level of success again,” says Jones. “But I was fine with that. That was too stressful!”

So what has she been doing since her unparalleled heyday? Come Away with Me was followed up by three consecutive albums that went platinum over the next seven years – Feels Like HomeNot Too Late and The Fall– while the 2010s brought another three albums. These later offerings were critically admired, but none came close to matching her previous successes, though she’s made her peace with that (there are only so many romcom soundtracks to feature on, after all).

“I let go of trying to reach the same success,” says Jones. “Although I worked hard and I was proud of the music, the stars aligned in a way that just made [Come Away with Me] go insane. I didn’t know how to recreate that, so I wasn’t going to try.”

Jones’s early work was the soundtrack to the Noughties (EPA)
Jones’s early work was the soundtrack to the Noughties (EPA)

The whole concept of success is “weird”, to Jones’s way of thinking – 500 years ago, it was defined as, in her words, “finding food”. Nowadays, it’s your songs being heard by the majority of the English-speaking world: “It’s such a weird, strange, modern thing, that is maybe a little unnatural.”

Having the spotlight shine so blindingly on her at such a young age has also shaped Jones’s relationship with fame (despite the fact that it ran in the family thanks to her late father, sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar). You get the impression that she finds it uncomfortable – distasteful, even. “It takes a lot of work to be very famous and stay very famous,” she says. “I don’t think that would be enjoyable for me. I live a pretty simple life. And I appreciate that – I wouldn’t want it to be more exposed. That would be weird.”

When Jones hit the big time, it was an era in which popstars like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera were relentlessly stalked by paparazzi, their every move and outfit torn to shreds by the press. Perhaps this, too, has warped her idea of celebrity? “I mean, that would have been awful,” she says of being subject to that level of scrutiny. “That’s just so damaging to people; I’m glad I wasn’t in that... what do you call it? Stream?”

Jones says she felt “protected” and “sheltered” by the team around her at the pinnacle of her career, ensconced “in a little corner of the music industry that was more my speed”. Still, you can’t help but feel that being surrounded by the very visible cautionary tales of female artists who weren’t so lucky has led her to become extremely wary of opening up.

I feel like I never reached that level of success again. But I was fine with that. That was too stressful!

While Jones likes “fun”, is she having fun talking to me, I wonder? Though she never refuses to answer a question, her responses would be best described as “guarded”. When I ask who’d be her dream artist to work with, she says “there’s tons of people” but refuses to be drawn on names; when I ask what career would have appealed had she not gone into music, she responds that she has “no idea”.

Her private life is sacred and largely off limits; while Jones mentions in passing the two children, aged 10 and seven, that she has with keyboardist husband Pete Remm, I instinctively know not to push for more details. (Having been told in advance not to ask about her family or personal life, I steer clear of her previous long-term relationship with bassist Lee Alexander at the apex of her fame, plus the reconciliation with her father following a long period of estrangement.)

Case in point: during our chat over Zoom, Jones keeps her camera firmly switched off. While I enjoy listening to the gentle burr of her voice, pleasing to the ear even when simply speaking, I lament the fact that I can’t see her facial expressions or those big, brown, doe-like eyes light up as she talks about her new album, Visions. Then again, I really can understand why she feels protective. At the height of her success, she lost the joy in making music somewhere along the way.

“There was a time when we” – a tellingly depersonalised “we” – “were so busy doing interviews and I wasn’t having fun playing music, because by the time I got to the show, I was just too tired,” she recalls. “And I remember a moment where I was like, ‘OK, what am I doing if this part isn’t fun? What’s wrong here?’ I definitely kept that as my marker: let’s keep it fun. The music should be fun.”

Jones’s new album, ‘Visions’, is inspired by the ideas that come between waking and sleeping (Joelle Grace Taylor)
Jones’s new album, ‘Visions’, is inspired by the ideas that come between waking and sleeping (Joelle Grace Taylor)

It’s why, for a long time, Jones felt wary of using social media: “I don’t naturally go online and post my thoughts on the day or what’s happening – that’s not how I feel comfortable being out there in the world,” she says. But during the pandemic, she found a way to make it work for her that felt natural, performing for an online audience via live-streams. “I felt like I finally found my way into social media,” she agrees. “It made a lot of sense for me. Doing music, actually playing songs for people, is my way in.”

Though she claims not to have experienced the dark side of being online – “It felt very positive, I haven’t had a ton of negativity” – she admits that part of this comes back to that self-protective instinct that seems to have dictated our conversation thus far. “I don’t look very deeply into the comments, because I’m afraid of that. You don’t want that to mess with your head. I think it’s really damaging to people.”

It’s obvious that one of Jones’s overriding passions is collaboration. Speaking about her latest album, broadly inspired by the ideas that come in that mystical nether-time between sleeping and waking, she raves about working with music producer and songwriter Leon Michels, with whom she’d previously worked on a Christmas album. “This album was really different for me, because we went in and just did a few hours here and there every few weeks. It wasn’t like we blocked out a period of time – it was sort of a work in progress for about a year and a half. And it was really fun!”

I don’t naturally go online and post my thoughts on the day or what’s happening – that’s not how I feel comfortable being out there in the world

There’s that word again – talking about making music with Michels is when it’s deployed most frequently, I notice. “It was a different way to work. And it was nice, because there was no looming pressure other than to just have fun playing music – and we had so much fun playing music together. Every time we got together, it was just really fun. You know?”

This infectious enthusiasm perhaps best demonstrates why Jones has been so prolific when it comes to partnering with other artists – you’d be hard-pressed to find an A-list musician she hasn’t worked with over the last two decades, from Keith Richards to Foo Fighters to Ray Charles. Who was her favourite? “I feel like everyone I’ve worked with has helped shape where I go; you’re always gathering inspiration by your experiences and the people who come into your life, even if it’s really brief. Musically, that’s no different.”

But if she had to pick, gun to her head...? “I did a song with Dolly Parton for the Country Music Awards. I mean, that’s definitely a standout – it was amazing! I have so much love and respect for her as an artist and as a human. I mean, as a songwriter she’s just insane – an insane unicorn we all love.”

As she’s telling me this story, Jones reveals that her kids don’t quite grasp what a big deal their mother is. “We were listening to Dolly yesterday – and, you know, I didn’t tell them that I’ve performed with her, because that feels braggy or embarrassing. I didn’t want to blow their minds too hard!” She’s caught them on a couple of occasions listening to her old stuff on the iPad – but it’s rare. “I think it’s just because they’re curious, but not much. They hear it if I’m checking a mix sometimes, and they’ll chime in: ‘I like this one, Mommy. It’s nice.’”

Jones’s latest album is out now (Joelle Grace Taylor)
Jones’s latest album is out now (Joelle Grace Taylor)

Her love for collaborating has also led Jones to make a podcast, Norah Jones Is Playing Along, where she sits down with artists who have previously included Rufus Wainwright, The National and Dave Grohl, for a session of musical improvisation and conversation. Leaning into that group dynamic has been instrumental in freeing her up as a songwriter: “I feel more inspired to write than I ever have,” she tells me. “It doesn’t matter how vulnerable it gets now, because in the end, it’s a piece of art. And I think showing emotions... I’m not afraid about that any more.”

While Jones may be happier with a quieter, simpler life these days, she’s pleased to see the new batch of powerhouse females who are currently dominating the music industry. At the 2024 Grammy Awards, history was made when all five Best Pop Solo Performance nominees were women. At the recent Brit Awards, solo female artist Raye swept the board, picking up a record-breaking six awards. “I mean, women are ruling,” says Jones. “They really, really, really are right now.” But there’s no glimmer of jealousy in her voice, nor the merest hint that she would want that same success again. When I ask her about any remaining big goals or dreams, music isn’t even mentioned.

“The things I really want to do in the future all involve vacations that I’ve never taken,” she says. “I would love to go to a surf camp in Costa Rica; I like stuff like that. I like physical activities that are outside. I think it’d be fun.” There’s that word again. And she throws another one in for good measure: happy. “I just want to be happy. That’s really the definition of what I want. I want my family to be happy, I want to be happy, I want to laugh and enjoy my day. And if I get to play music – well, then I’m really happy.” Sounds like fun.

‘Visions’ is out now