It wasn't too long ago that Norah Jones was living a double life, and trying hard to shield it from public view.
In the late-night hours, the smoky-voiced jazz singer and her friends would go out to one of the city's intimate music clubs and — in front of an audience no less — get on stage with her friends to belt out ... country tunes.
OK, so it's not exactly a juicy secret that would make the front pages of the National Enquirer (or any pages of the National Enquirer).
Still, the Grammy-winning chanteuse didn't want anyone to know. For Jones — who became a multiplatinum, record-setting sensation after the release of her first album and remained one after the chart-topping success of the follow-up — singing in that club with her friends was a crucial outlet. It allowed her the low-key, good time that had too often eluded her since her breakout success. And she didn't want a media frenzy to ruin it.
"I was terrified of that, because this is the most fun I've had in a long time, with this band," she explains.
But, two years later, Jones is ready to let not only the media, but the whole world in on her secret. Her band — known as the Little Willies — has released its first album, filled with rollicking covers of songs by the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Hank Williams Jr., plus a few penned by the Little Willies' own members.
"They're playing music that draws on the country tradition, but they're not really a country band — to me, they are more of a fun party," says Rita Houston, a radio host on WFUV in New York City. The band has performed at the radio station and for one of its functions.
That party vibe is evident even when the band is not performing. Sitting in the offices of Jones' label, Blue Note Records, Jones and the quartet of seasoned musicians — guitarist Jim Campilongo, guitarist and vocalist Richard Julian, drummer Dan Rieser and bassist Lee Alexander — interrupt each other's thoughts with laughter, jokes and anecdotes as they explain how the Little Willies came to be the coolest country covers band playing in a downtown New York club.
"Basically, the short story is that we're friends, we got a chance to play together a long time ago and we just wanted to again," says Jones. "It was sort of just an excuse to play together."
It started out as just a jam session here and there, whenever the friends could coordinate their busy touring schedules and recording sessions. But instead of playing their own tunes, or Jones' famous songs, they'd lean toward more rootsy music, and found they had a common love for classic country.
"I've loved country music my entire life," says Campilongo. "This isn't some one-off thing, because I'm briefly charmed by it. I really love this music and I really relate to it and it really calls my name and I think it sounds like Bach to me when it's done right."
"In all my years living in New York," says Julian, "mostly you talk about jazz or you talk about songwriters or pop music. I never really had, like, a hang where my friends were into Emmylou Harris or Willie Nelson ... It was just so cool, because I grew up with all of that."
For Jones, a Texas native with a longtime love for jazz, playing with the band helped her realize her own roots, back to the days when her grandmother would play the old-time country songs.
Though she's best known for the slow-paced, jazz-tinged songs like "Don't Know Why" off her blockbuster first album, "Come Away With Me," her rich voice is versatile, sounding downright folkie and twangy on one cut while bluesy on another. Fans may have gotten hints of her country side when she collaborated with Dolly Parton on her second album, "Feels Like Home" and the occasions when she has sung with friend Willie Nelson.
But it really came through when she performed with the Little Willies. Unlike touring with her own music, where she at times felt self-conscious as the focal point on a grand stage, with her friends she was just one of five, playing the piano, sometimes singing, but more importantly just having a blast.
"It's definitely a different side of Norah Jones. She's such a great singer, she can sing anything she wants to," says Houston. "(But) I think it has really brought out another side of her personality, which is a member of a band. ... The chemistry that the band has is unique."
The band realized they were doing more than just fooling around when they decided to do an extended gig at the Living Room, the small music space and bar that would become their base when they performed in New York.
"It's extremely natural — they're all so versatile that it's a real good fit with the five of them," says bar owner and friend Jennifer Jilson.
After performing there for a time, the band became more than just a hobby or a side project for its members.
"At the end of that, I felt that we had committed to the idea of recording it," said Campilongo.
But much like the band itself, the group's debut recording wasn't so much of a planned event as a chance one. Alexander and Jones, who are also a couple, were building a home studio and wanted to record something to test it out — and the Little Willies were the perfect experiment.
The whole album was recorded in less than two days and released on their imprint label, Milking B.
"That's what it was about — it wasn't about making everything perfect and making this Rembrandt you can look at but don't get to close to it," says Campilongo. "Most of the music I like, I guess, is raw, sweaty, and takes place in the moment."
Eventually, the band plans to take its act out of the Living Room and on the road. The biggest gig it's played yet is the annual music extravaganza, South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.
"I always thought that if we hit the road, we should do it in spurts, like manage the road thing the way that we did the Living Room thing," says Julian, working it out with the band mid-interview. "We don't have to blow it out all over the country."
Whatever happens, though, Jones is determined not to lose that small, intimate feeling she had when the Little Willies were flying happily under the radar.
"It's so fun, and we don't want to lose this sort of innocence," she says.