With Little Broken Hearts, her new collaboration with Danger Mouse, NORAH JONES has expanded her sound in thrilling and characteristically subtle ways. Twelve darkly luminous songs. Twelve little broken hearts. Each an exploration of wounded emotions from various perspectives that invariably leads to a place of beauty and uplift.
Jones had known Danger Mouse, aka Brian Burton, since he called her in 2008 to contribute vocals to Rome, his valentine to classic Italian film score music. “I’ve always known about Norah’s voice,” says Burton, “and it was in my mind when doing the parts for Rome. We didn’t really talk about many people, but Norah was the first person we went to. She’s such a great singer.”
After those sessions Jones asked if they could work together again, and Burton suggested collaborating on something dark and moody someday. “I remember saying to myself that wasn’t necessarily the record I’m trying to make right now,” Jones recalls, laughing. “But I knew I wanted to do something with him – he has this terrific energy in the studio, and I was open to trying anything.”
So when the opportunity to spend a few days writing songs at Burton’s studio arose, Jones said yes right away. “It felt completely easy, not like working at all. We started from scratch and came up with five rough songs. Our goal was to just try things out, and if they didn’t work, cool. No pressure.”
Then reality intruded. Jones was locked into a heavy touring itinerary for her 2009 album The Fall, and Burton was on tour with Broken Bells and recording many other projects. Whenever the two crossed paths, they vowed to follow up on the promise of those initial songs they’d brainstormed. It took several years before their schedules eventually meshed. Jones rented a house in Los Angeles for two months, and the two established a regular work schedule.
Jones arrived empty-handed – no tunes, no arrangements, just a few ideas in a notebook. For her it was a complete change. Each time she’s entered a studio to record an album – from her debut Come Away With Me through The Fall – she has brought finished songs and at least basic arrangement ideas. Jones says she was initially excited about working in this way, then nervous about coming up with ideas. Once they started, it didn’t take long for her to warm to the challenges of creating on the fly, using whatever resources she and Burton had between them.
It helped that they listened to lots of music, bonding over, among other things, Fleetwood Mac and the Violent Femmes. “It seems that one trick in the studio has to do with inspiration,” Jones says, “and that’s a great thing about Brian – it was really cool to discover his influences, things I enjoy but am not nearly as influenced by. So he’d play something very innocently but you could tell there was a purpose, too, sort’ve a ‘let’s hear this and see what happens’ mindset. I really responded to that curiosity, because everybody jumps off the diving board and lands in a different spot.”
In Jones’ case, she landed in many different spots: Little Broken Hearts is a tour of stunningly nuanced environments too expansive to be labeled merely “pop,” each one a showcase for her intimate, seemingly effortless phrasing. While some tracks sound like classic Norah Jones – such as the contemplative opener “Good Morning” – most of them explore rhythms and textures far from her comfort zone. There are impressionistic forays into ’70s country (“Travelin’ On”); lonesome, bittersweet road songs (“Out on the Road”); moments of high-energy groove (“Say Goodbye”); and languid dream-sequence reflections (“After The Fall”).
Because they were writing as a team, Jones and Burton found themselves switching roles and instruments in order to capture what they were hearing. “There was a lot of ‘I might not be a great guitar player, but this works,’” Jones says, noting that many of the final takes are just the duo multitracking multiple parts. (Later, they brought in a band – including drummer Joey Waronker, bassist Gus Seyffert, and guitarist Blake Mills – to bolster many of the tracks.) During the writing phase, Jones and Burton took advantage of the extensive stock of instruments (keyboards, etc.) crammed into his small studio, seeking out specific tones and textures, letting the sounds define the scope of the songs. “I’d been much more literal about recording,” Jones says, “in terms of ‘the piano does this here…’ and so on. With Brian, it’s a lot about atmosphere and vibe.”
The ideas flowed quickly. Near the end of the project, Jones remembers, Burton was flipping through his cell phone and stumbled on a short recording the two did during their original songwriting sessions and had forgotten about. “It was just him playing these chords on guitar, and me singing gibberish. We were listening back, and around three minutes in it hit a melody that really worked.” They then worked on some words, and the next day they recorded the entrancing “Travelin’ On.”
That song, like most of the record, is told from the perspective of a wounded lover – in the time between finishing The Fall and beginning this collaboration, Jones went through another breakup. “Guess you could say ‘life happens,’ because even though I thought I was done with that kind of song for a while, it all just seemed to come out as we worked. We’d have these great conversations about love and relationship and the endless attempts to understand that stuff, and somehow they just seeped into what we were doing. That’s one of the great things about music, you can take the anxiety and anguish that you’re living and turn it into something that might really lift up somebody else.”
Jones says Burton was fully engaged with the lyrics as well. “He’d hear me and could relate, and then where I was stumped he’d find a way to say it. I didn’t realize what a completely amazing writer he is. His melodies, his way with words. He has a real gift.”
“Norah and I got very close as friends,” explains Burton. “When you know somebody really well and you start writing together, we’re able to talk to each other in conversation through lyrics in a way.” Burton’s input lent his perspective to some of the mysteries of male-female relationships that many of the songs explore. “In some ways it’s kind of seeing the other side of it. We’d have hours of conversations about very personal things so a lot of that would wind up in the songs. But the album is definitely from Norah’s perspective.”
“Miriam” – which finds Jones using a spellbindingly calm voice to deliver a not-so-veiled threat – is perhaps the most striking moment on Little Broken Hearts, a chilling flashpoint in a collection otherwise devoted to delicate, carefully shaded emotions from various points on the spectrum of hurt. And though the album has a narrative through-line, it is anything but bleak. There are tunes that tell of lingering bitterness through stirring, almost exuberant melodies. Meanwhile, the languid, misty settings occasionally prompt more philosophical, meditative lyrics, as they do on the title track, which is the story of an army of little broken hearts armed with knives on their way to attack the beautiful sleeping (unarmed) loves of their past: “When the beautiful awake, and see the sadness in their eyes. Will they want to find a way to make it alright?”
Then there’s “Happy Pills,” a buoyant parade of sunshiny hooks that startled Jones and Burton from the moment they wrote it. “That song came around week 3,” Jones recalls of the sessions, which lasted 6 weeks total. “We both were like “Oh my God, this is awesome” at first, and then went away and listened over the weekend. That’s when the second thoughts started – We didn’t know if it fit on the record. But I couldn’t stop singing it, and neither could Brian. Eventually we decided it was too much fun, it had to be there.”
Jones says that as she worked to fit the songs together into a workable sequence, she was pleasantly surprised to discover that it coalesced into a unified statement – even “Happy Pills,” with its talk of “tryin’ to make it so I never see your face again,” revolves around the overall theme. “I didn’t expect all the lyrics to tie in so well, especially since we wrote in such a spontaneous way. It turns out to be kind of a story. It has these different dimensions, things sneak up on you. And even though the record has all these cool sounds and interesting grooves that are Brian’s signature, mostly I’m proud of our writing together. The songs themselves.”