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Norah Jones comes of age, so does her artistry

Singer, and now songwriter, Norah Jones reveals her many facets on ‘Not Too Late,’ her most adventurous — and arguably finest — CD to date.
/ Source: The Associated Press

It’s not as if Norah Jones had never written a song before.

On her blockbuster debut, “Come Away With Me,” the alluring singer penned three tunes, two of which she wrote all on her own. But it was her interpretation of others’ music that really drew listeners — her breakthrough Grammy-winning song, “Don’t Know Why,” was written by pal Jesse Harris.

Harris returns on Jones’ new CD, “Not Too Late” — but as a guitar player. There was no need for another lyricist: Jones wrote or co-wrote each track on the 13-song CD, and has become a seasoned songwriter in her own right.

“If you asked me (to describe her) four years ago, I would have said, ‘Great singer-pianist,”’ Harris said recently. “Now you can’t really say that she’s just that. She’s a lot of things now. There’s another element that has come in — there’s different sides to her now.”

Jones reveals her many facets on “Not Too Late,” her most adventurous — and arguably finest — CD to date. Though she still croons the kind of slow, melodic tunes that turned her into a surprise multiplatinum sensation, the issues behind the songs have become more complex, and in some instances, biting and political.

The album’s first track, “Wish I Could,” invokes a soldier killed in war; the second assails the captain of a rudderless ship, with allusions to today’s commander in chief. While that song is a bit subdued, “My Dear Country” is defiant and obvious, as she warbles about the past election day: “Who knows maybe it’s all a dream, who knows if I’ll wake up and scream.”

More aware of the world around her
Jones, who turns 28 in March, says the increasingly troublesome political climate and her own maturation have made her more aware of the world around her — and willing to sing about it.

“The most obviously political song on this album kind of sums it up for me. I really try to see both sides of things, and in the end, there are things I see very clearly. ... Right now for me it’s just hard to not question what’s going on,” she says. “I feel like more people need to inspired, I feel like we need a flame lit under us right now to find something to hold on to and believe in.”

However, “Not Too Late,” is hardly “Living With War,” Neil Young’s blistering anti-war musical tirade of last year. Though the politically tinged songs are the most buzzworthy, they do not define the album. Instead, the melancholy disc touches on various aspects of lament, from the status of our world to the troubles of a relationship: “Wake Me Up,” about a lover’s goodbye, sounds like an old-time country heartbreaker, while “Thinking About You,” the album’s first single, is a wistful remembrance of a past love.

Jones wrote many of the songs with bassist (and boyfriend) Lee Alexander, who was also the album’s producer; a few, including the caustic “My Dear Country,” she wrote on her own.

Jones’ lack of songwriting on her two previous albums led a few critics to label her as just a song interpreter. But Harris said she always had the ability to write.

“She concentrated on being the songwriter this time around,” he said. “Before the first record, she didn’t focus on songwriting as much, and after the first record came out she didn’t have the time.”

For her part, Jones said she never felt any particular pressure to prove herself as a songwriter; she wrote more this time around simply because she had more to say.

“I think less than feeling more comfortable is just the fact that I had ideas for songs and I wrote them. I think I was a little self-conscious to write, but also, I just didn’t,” she said. “If I had all these songs and I thought they were really bad, I probably wouldn’t have put them on the record, but, I’m really proud of them. I really like the songs, and I think there’s variety in them.”

That’s reflected in the varied musical sources that have been influencing Jones of late. When she first started out, she was more of a torch-singer, a jazz chanteuse with a folky bent. “Feels Like Home,” out in 2004, explored her country inspirations, including Dolly Parton, who appeared on the album. Last year, she even put out a country-inspired album with the covers band she played with on the side, the Little Willies.

Over the last couple of years, she’s listened to alternative artists like M. Ward, who is on the album, and Martha Wainwright and PJ Harvey; she also befriended Ryan Adams (and hopes to work with him soon). And Jones, who is known to perform around New York in bars and lounges with different bands, explored her rock side with a couple of her female friends and created a new group, the Sloppy Joannes.

“It’s silly; it’s for fun, and I play the guitar, which is really funny because I can barely play the guitar,” she said, laughing. “I just play these solos and the top string, my one-string solos.”

But even if she’s not perfect on the guitar, she’s willing to try; it reflects her experimental state toward music overall: While the album has a cohesive, smooth sound, it is influenced by an amalgamation of many sounds, from jazz to blues to folk to country.

She’s also expanding outside of music; she acts in the upcoming film “My Blueberry Nights,” starring Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Rachel Weisz, among others. She landed the part without auditioning — the director, Kar Wai Wong, personally requested she be in the film.

“I thought maybe he wanted some music for a movie, and he asked if I wanted to be in a movie. And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know if I can act — have you seen my music videos?”’ she laughed. “I’m pretty uncomfortable in front of the camera, and he said, ‘No, you’re natural, I like that.”’

The film helped Jones lose some of her shyness; the trepidation and guarded tone that defined her persona in the early days of her fame has largely evaporated. Nowadays, Jones appears more outgoing and buoyant, onstage and off.

“(With) the first record I was very overwhelmed — a scared little chicken — because I felt like people were staring at me and I didn’t have any clothes on or something,” she giggled. “Now, people aren’t really staring at me, so I’m able to be more comfortable with myself.”