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Norah Jones doesn't play it safe

By Mark Morgenstein, CNN
June 29, 2012 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Norah Jones performs at the 2012 MusiCares Person of the Year Tribute to Paul McCartney in February.
Norah Jones performs at the 2012 MusiCares Person of the Year Tribute to Paul McCartney in February.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Norah Jones is on tour with a new album
  • "Little Broken Hearts" debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200 chart last month
  • Jones says concert-goers have been receptive to the new music
  • The album is a collaboration with hip-hop beatmaster Danger Mouse

(CNN) -- It would be easy for someone with Norah Jones' commercial and critical success to keep making albums that sound the same.

In this millennium, where platinum (million-copy-selling) CDs are increasingly rare, each of her first four solo efforts has reached that lofty sales level, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Jones' 2002 debut, "Come Away with Me," reigns as a diamond (10 million copies) selling album, a feat that may not be revisited often these days, with CD sales lagging.

Jones' newest CD, "Little Broken Hearts," debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200 chart last month, making the singer five for five when it comes to her albums reaching the top three.

But Jones hasn't played it safe in recent years, taking serious stylistic detours.

Billboard named her its jazz artist of the decade for 2000 to 2009. But she has a history of diverse collaborations, including some with decidely non-jazz artists including the Foo Fighters, Willie Nelson and OutKast. In 2012, Jones has released an album with her country-tinged side project, the Little Willies, and her latest solo effort is a collaboration with a man best known for his hip-hop beats, Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton.

"I definitely don't make music based on other people's opinions or expectations, because I think that would be kind of weird," she said, adding, "I definitely don't want to make the same album over and over, and I don't think I have. And I think if you do know everything I do, it makes a lot more sense. If you just know my first couple of albums, absolutely, it seems a little different."

Jones said "Little Broken Hearts" is a natural progression from her last few albums and from her work on Burton's "Rome" project last year. Jones said she and Burton enjoyed working together so much, she wanted to continue that relationship.

"I asked him if he wanted to produce some songs for me that I already had written for my last album, because I was looking for sort of a different sound, and I loved working with him on the 'Rome' album," she said. "I knew that he had a whole different arsenal of sounds from what I was used to using.

"He said he'd love to work together, but he'd rather -- the way he works best, I think, is by being there from the start of the writing process," Jones continued. "So, that's just totally different, because usually, I go in with songs already finished. And on this record, I went in with nothing, and we just wrote together, which was pretty fun, pretty different from how I've ever worked."

Jones said she and Burton wrote the songs organically, picking up instruments and jamming.

"Sometimes, I would play bass, which I don't even play," she said. "But it sounded good, because he was playing drums and needed something to lock into the groove. Sometimes, I'd play guitar, or he would play guitar, and we'd both switch around on guitar and keyboards. "

Many reviews of "Little Broken Hearts" have focused on the angry, wistful lyrics and vocals that seem to depict a difficult breakup. Pointed songs such as "She's 22" and "Miriam" give the album emotional heft. But Jones says people may be reading too much into the album.

"It's just about sort of human interactions, which we all kind of go through. I mean, that's not really what we went into the studio trying to do," she said. "It always feels good to write a song about an experience if you're feeling it. But, it also was a lot of storytelling, you know -- a lot of writing interesting stories together. And once we got going, we sort of felt like there was a theme, so we just kind of kept going (down) that path. "

Now, Jones and her band are meandering through three North American tour legs and two European legs through the end of October. They have been playing most of the new album at the earliest shows on this tour, and Jones says fans have been responding positively.

"Sometimes, you know, you start with a couple of new songs, and they clap, and they're really excited, but you can't tell if they actually know the songs, and it can be interesting," she said. "But usually, people have already been yelling out some of the new songs, which is nice."

Days off from the job are few and far between on tour, so Jones and the band -- and her poodle Ralph, to whom she dedicated the song "Man of the Hour" at a recent show in Atlanta -- try to make the most of life on the road, delving into local culture.

"We definitely try to eat good local food. Whenever we're anywhere, the best way to do it when you don't have a lot of time is to make sure you get a good local meal," said Jones, who likes to cook when she's back home in Brooklyn.

On a recent day off in Memphis, she and the band rented a car and went to Graceland.

"At this point in the tour, we're still excited and energetic," she said. "You know, there's definitely those days where you just want to stay in your hotel all day and watch movies, and those are pretty nice. But usually, you try to do those in cities where it's raining or there's not much to do."

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