Interview: Norah Jones Glows Out of the Spotlight in Puss n Boots
By Brian Ives
We’re at Hill Country, a Texas-themed barbecue joint in downtown New York City, where Puss n Boots have actually performed before. Beyond the sentimental value, I spoke to them in the late afternoon, after a long day of interviews. They were ready to unwind from the day and have a drink: a beer for Norah and Sasha; Catherine stuck with water.
The last time I sat down with Norah Jones was a little over a decade ago, the day that she released Feels Like Home, the follow-up to one of the most successful debut albums of all time, 2002’s Come Away With Me. We talked a lot about the Band — Levon Helm and Garth Hudson guested on her new album — and how it would be difficult to follow-up the insane success of her debut, but she seemed okay with that. After the interview, she played a show with the Little Willies, a small side-project that at the time did mainly Willie Nelson covers. She wasn’t the leader of the band; just one of the singers who played piano. She seemed at least as excited about that show at a small Brooklyn bar as the fact that she was releasing one of the most anticipated albums of the year on that very day.
Ten years later Jones reveled in not being the sole focus of this project, quick to point out that she loves the songs written by her bandmates. Just like last time, we talked a lot about the Band. And again, Jones and her band would leave the interview to play a show at a venue far smaller than Jones could play on her own. The big difference between now and 10 years ago seems to be, there’s less expectation to match the runaway success of Come Away With Me, and more time to bask the joy of Puss N Boots. Meanwhile, hopefully this project will expose more people to Dobson’s writing, and maybe even encourage Popper to write a bit more.
Oh, and yes, I kept up with Norah and Sasha. after a forty minute conversation, we’d each gone through a whopping beer and a half, winning no rock and roll awards for hedonism. Here’s how it went:
So, how did you guys all meet? Your bio says that you’ve been playing together since 2008. Norah, I remember when your band the Little Willies opened for Ryan Adams and the Cardinals at Town Hall (in 2006)…
Norah Jones: No, we met in New York clubs.
Catherine Popper: Did you guys open for us?
Jones: I don’t know if you were still in the band then.
Popper: We all met years ago, we’re all sort of in the same scene.
When did you decide to make a record?
Sasha Dobson: About six months ago, and it took about three days. Basically, we recorded a live show and it sounded great, and we’ve been playing casually so often when we’re all around New York City. It’s such a fun project, we love playing together.
Jones: There’s no agenda ever.
Dobson: Our friends are like, “When are you gonna record?”
The album is called No Fools, No Fun, after the lyric in “Bullrider,” [a Rodney Crowell song popularized by Johnny Cash] which you covered.
Jones: That’s one of the first tunes we did, Sasha brought it in years ago, Sasha and I did it on my tour. It’s one of the live recordings from the Bell House [in Brooklyn]. We recorded for three days in the studio, but we loved the energy of some of the recordings from the show.
Norah, you’ve been doing some projects lately: you did the Foreverly album with Green Day‘s Billie Joe Armstrong and now this.
Jones: I like playing music with my friends: new friends or old friends. I love playing country music. It’s my favorite thing in the world to do. It’s not that it’s “easy,” but it feels like home. Playing three chord songs and you sing your heart out.
The cover of the Band’s “Twilight” was a very interesting one, I like yours better than the original, a 1975 single later released on 1976’s The Best of the Band).
Popper: That’s the wrong version: you have to listen to the bonus track version on Northern Lights Southern Cross. We played a tribute show – here at Hill Country – to Levon Helm. It was for the Levon “Keep It Going” thing after he passed [a series of shows to raise funds to help his family to keep his property in Woodstock, New York]. Northern Lights Southern Cross isn’t one of their more popular albums, but it’s my favorite.
Another great cover on the album is Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.” Norah, you’ve done that before, right?
Jones: I did it at my gig at the Bridge School Benefit, but I had these girls be my band. We were playing a lot of shows together at the time. At the Bridge, I did half my set, and half Puss N Boots. We did “Jesus Etc.” at that gig, because Wilco was also on the bill. I just thought it would be fun to do that song.
Popper: I remember we had played it before that, and then we were like, “Should we do it?”
Dobson: You [Norah] were like, “Should we ask Jeff [Tweedy]?” And I said, “No, don’t ask him!”
Popper: I went up to him. I knew some of the other guys in the band, but I didn’t know him, and I was like, “Hey man, just so you know, we’re doing ‘Jesus Etc'” and he just said, “Okay.” I said, “Does that freak you out? Are you intimidated?” And then he said, “Well, we’re going to do it too!”
Jones: It was so much fun, they did it, and then we did it. We got the lyrics wrong. I thought the line was, “Our love is all we got, honey.” I didn’t even Google the lyrics. After the gig, Tweedy said, “We loved it, it was great! I liked how you changed that lyric, it was cool.” And I said, “What are you talking about?” I guess I just heard it wrong: the line is “Our love is all of God’s money,” which is way heavier. [laughs]
Chrissie Hynde told me about covering Neil Young while opening for Neil Young, and that she felt a little cheeky doing it.
Jones: It was all in good fun.
Dobson: It’s an honor, ultimately, when people cover someone’s music. Earlier this year, I opened for Willie [Nelson] for three dates, I felt stupid for not doing one of his songs.
Jones: I was so nervous to talk to Neil, even though I’d played the Bridge before.
Dobson: And he personally invited you!
Jones: He’s so nice, and he’s so happy to have everyone there. He still makes me cry when I see him play. But he popped his head in our dressing room and said, “What are you girls getting up to?” And I’m like, “Hi, Neil!” And — talk about cheeky — Cat and Sash said to him, “Hey, man, are you gonna sit in with us?” And he sat in with us. We did his beautiful song “When God Made Me.” He played the pump organ, and I played piano and we all sang.
Dobson: It was the first time I was ever on stage without an instrument! I was like, “What do you do with your hands?”
Jones: You weren’t worried about playing with Neil Young, you were worried about what to do with your hands!
Speaking of Neil Young, you guys covered “Down By the River.” It sounds like you may have added an extra note or into that guitar solo!
Jones: I love that guitar solo. I love it, that’s what’s so great! I thought, “I could maybe pull this guitar solo off!” Sasha had just started playing drums in this band, which didn’t happen until we’d been playing together for a while.
You learned to play drums for this band?
Dobson: My brother’s an amazing drummer; I grew up around musicians, it wasn’t totally alien. I play very simply, and I know how to follow the girls. I feel lucky that they’re comfortable playing with me on drums, it’s amazing. It builds my confidence every time we play.
Jones: Something clicked last year. We hadn’t played in six months, I don’t know if you were playing with [Dobson's other band] Tit N Twat a lot or what. Your drumming had gone from fun to groovin’! It was badass. I feel like when she started playing the drums it opened it up a lot and gave more variety, and didn’t make it such an acoustic trio.
Dobson: It made it feel more like a band.
Jones: It got a little same-y with just acoustic guitars. Having the drums is so nice.
You don’t have to call in anyone else if you want a drummer…
Jones: We would never do that anyway!
Dobson: So many people are like, “Dude, if you ever need a drummer…”
Jones: Sorry! That’s not the dealio!
Popper: There was a period where I was playing pedal steel with the band, we were doing small gigs so we can try new stuff. These women, their musicianship is so great, we would play gigs every now and then, and just improve on all the instruments every time.
Norah, you wrote one song for this album, “Don’t Know What It Means.” When you wrote it, did you know it was for Puss N Boots and not a solo album?
Jones: I tried it with my [solo] band. I wrote that in Japan on tour, my guitar tech had just bought a new guitar, I had it in my dressing room and I turned it up real fucking loud – I think I was mad at someone – and I wrote that song. I tried it with my band on that tour, it didn’t quite click. It wasn’t their fault, sometimes songs just don’t work out with certain groups for a reason. I think the reason was so that we could record it!
Sasha, both of the songs that you contributed ["Sex Degrees of Separation" and "You'll Forget Me"] are songs are from your solo albums…
Dobson: No, just one of them is…
“Sex Degrees” is from Aquarius and “You’ll Forget Me” is from your Run EP.
Dobson: Oh yeah! Catherine played on that EP, I released that myself. I don’t even think of that as “out.” “Sex Degrees,” I wrote that for this band, and when I was recording Aquarius, I recorded a different version; it was a long process. This was so much easier. When we got in the studio, I was like, “That was what I was trying to do!”
Jones: My favorite two songs of Sasha’s are “Sex Degrees” and “You’ll Forget Me.”
Dobson: We don’t push all of our songs on each other, but I’d love to do more of Norah’s music and Catherine’s.
Jones: We’re the ones who want to do Catherine’s. Cat will be shy about her songs, and we’ll be like, “Let’s do it!” I don’t think any of us are pushing our own songs. But “You’ll Forget Me” is a classic, it’s like a Willie Nelson song.
Dobson: Thanks, man.
Jones: I wrote “Tell Yer Mama” for this band, but I recorded it for my album because we weren’t recording then. But I’m burnt on my stuff. I love doing new stuff with this band. It’s one thing if we come up with a different arrangement, like we did with “Sex Degrees,” it’s different than it is on Sasha’s album. But for me, I’m psyched to have a change of scenery.
Catherine, tell me about “Pines,” which you wrote for this album.
Popper: We were doing some originals, I felt awkward, because I have only written a handful of songs. “Pines” was one of them. I was like, “Norah, can you play this on acoustic guitar?”
Jones: I was like “No, I only play country chords!” [laughs]
Popper: The song was really sad, it was about a friend of mine who died, who overdosed on drugs. And then I wanted to do one more song, I wanted to write a pop song that people would dance to and would make people happy, to counter “Pines,” so that was the other song I wrote, “Always.”
What did you learn from your time playing in Jack White’s band; you never knew until the day of the show if your group, the Peacocks, or the all-guy backing band, the Buzzards, was going to be his band that night, right?
Popper: [Before Jack], I kinda went to “boot camp” with Ryan Adams. He would play a song we never heard, and we’re plyaing in front of 5000 people, and I would just have to play it. Coming from a jazz background, I was used to that. I’m not easily thrown. Jack was a great guy, a fun guy, a great guitar player, super talented. That guy knows what he’s doing.
Do you have a solo album in you?
Popper: Probably? I always used to say that I’m the one that doesn’t need to make an album. It’s funny: The older I get, the more I realize that my music is a service, people enjoy listening to music. It can seem like a selfish endeavor, because it’s so much fun!
People line up and pay to see your shows.
Dobson: There’s something about paying for something, it makes you more excited about it.
Catherine: I just bought Replacements tickets.
I did too!
Popper: It’s just so exciting! I don’t know if I’m even gonna be here [in New York] in September [when the Replacements perform at Forrest Hills Stadium in Queens on September 19].
Sasha, you mentioned opening shows for Willie Nelson: what’s it like when you meet someone you’ve listened to growing up, or when you get to play with someone like that?
Jones: I’ve cried before!
Jones: With Ray Charles. When I met him. I was drunk, but I cried, I weeped. They were tears of joy. I cry every time I watch Willie or Neil do a show.
Dobson: Or Lucinda [Williams]!
Jones: I cried at Lucinda too! I didn’t cry at yesterday’s [Lucinda show], but I have cried before. It’s great to meet your idols, especially when they’re nice. None of those guys are dicks, or if they are, they’re not to us. It’s scary but fun.
Popper: I did a record with Willie when I was in Ryan [Adams]‘s band. I didn’t know a lot about him at the time.
Popper: I know, I know. But I was like, “Holy s–t, he’s a great guitar player.”
Jones: My favorite quote about Willie is from [Little Willies guitarist] Jim Campilongo: “He plays like Django Reinhardt, if Django had only one finger.” It’s so true: he really does play like a slower Django, he’s badass!
Dobson: When I opened for him, the mix in the green room where we were listening to his show was off, all we could hear was his guitar… and it was so amazing.
Is there a second Puss N Boots record in the works?
Jones: We’re not looking that far ahead, but we have a lot of extra tunes.
Dobson: Norah’s “Tell Yer Mama,” we’re gonna use that as a bonus track. [Woody Guthrie's] “What Does the Deep Sea Say?”
Jones: You never want to do that song, by the way! Hello! You’re always trying to back out of doing that one!
Popper: There’s so many words in that song!
Do you have your other respective projects lined up?
Jones: I don’t, I’m stoked to do this right now. It’s really fun.
Dobson: It’s more than just music, it’s a community.
Popper: The thing is, we’re having fun on stage and we sort of forget about the crowd, and by virtue of that, it becomes more of a show.
Dobson: And if we make a mistake, the fans are all with us.
I think fans get a kick out of that sometimes.
Jones: That’s good, because there’s plenty of mistakes!
Popper: They know we’re gonna make errors, that’s just how we roll.
Photos by Paul Familetti for Radio.com