Norah Jones has been a superstar since she was 23 years old, just a few years after she left her studies at the University of North Texas for New York. Her debut, 2001’s Come Away With Me, not only earned her Album of the Year, Best New Artist, and Record of the Year Grammys on its way to becoming certified Platinum a whopping twelve times—making it the thirty-first best-selling album of all time—it also laid the groundwork for a career that helped reinvent piano-forward jazz and pop songwriting for a new century.
Jones followed up Come Away With Me with a pair of albums in a similar vein, recorded with the same band, but found herself creatively restless toward the end of the aughts. She worked with new musicians on 2009’s The Fall, but her creative breakthrough came in 2011, when she collaborated with Brian Burton—better known by his stage name, Danger Mouse—on three songs from the superproducer’s spaghetti-western-themed concept album, Rome. The following year, Jones and Burton renewed their partnership in a robust way, recording Jones’s fifth solo album, Little Broken Hearts, with Burton behind the board.
Little Broken Hearts represented a departure from the Sunday-afternoon jazz that Jones had built her career on—lyrically dark, sonically adventurous, and packaged alongside visuals that recalled sixties exploitation filmmaker Russ Meyer. Relative to Jones’s career prior to its release, the album had a weak commercial performance, but earned her critical attention from outlets that had previously ignored her career. Still, it was difficult to fully understand where Little Broken Hearts stood in the context of Jones’s full catalog until earlier this year, when she revisited the songs in two different ways—first in March, with a Record Store Day exclusive release of a new live recording of the album, performed at upstate New York’s famed Allaire Studios in early 2022, and then in June, as an expanded deluxe edition complete with unreleased songs from the studio session, a handful of remixes, and a full live recording of her 2012 Austin City Limits taping.
It’s not often that a commercially underperforming album from eleven years ago gets that kind of renewed attention, but Little Broken Hearts is the rare record that warrants it. Texas Monthly caught up with Jones ahead of a string of European dates (where she’s bringing a handful of Little Broken Hearts songs with her) to revisit the experience of making an album that may well be her finest work.
Texas Monthly: Little Broken Hearts is a swerve, if not a full detour, in the trajectory of your career. How do you think about it in the big picture of your catalog?
Norah Jones: I don’t look back at it the way you would, but for me, it was such a transitional time in my life. My longtime band and I parted ways before the album previous to that, and I was searching for new things and new ways to record. I wanted to find a way to make things sound different. I wanted new sonic landscapes. And so this was just another stop on that road, and working with Brian was just so special. He was a friend before we made this record because I met him on the Rome record and I had asked him to produce The Fall, actually, because I was already searching for something different. I already had all the songs written and he said that that’s not really how he works, but when I’m done, we can try something else together.
I was totally out of my comfort zone when we ended up doing this, because I went into the studio with no songs, and I wasn’t used to working that way. We wrote in the studio: We started stuff with a guitar part or a keyboard part, or a drum loop or a lyric. I had never worked that way—it’s how a lot of people work, but it just had not been my experience. That was the first time I did that, and doing it with him was so great. We had so much fun. We were in L.A. in his studio for two months, and I rented a little house. It was my only time ever living in L.A., too; it was just such a special time. I remember at the beginning, he asked if I was interested in making something really dark, because he was envisioning something very dark, and I was totally down for the ride. I was just excited to be doing music and trying something new. That’s as far as I went with my overthinking. I was just excited to try it.
Texas Monthly: What what was your writing process like prior to working on this?
Norah Jones: I would come into the studio with songs that were done. Whether they were mine or I was doing other people’s songs, I would go into the studio knowing what songs I wanted to record. And they were done songs, so, building from the ground up was really new.
Texas Monthly: What were you looking for, creatively or emotionally, in the transition from The Fall to Little Broken Hearts?
Norah Jones: I think, somewhere around maybe like 2005 to 2007, I was just listening to a lot of music and thinking, “Oh, I like that sound. I want to try that.” I needed to try different engineers and get different drum sounds, that kind of thing. I was coming from the singer/songwriter place of recording things, which was cool, but I wanted to push the limits of sonics a little bit, and try different things, production lines, especially to not have things be as stripped back. It had served me well and I liked it, but I’m an artist and I want to try new things. I still do, that’s what’s fun about my job. Emotionally, I’d had a big breakup, and my band and I had parted ways, and I was just ready for some new stuff. I was 26 years old and I think that’s a pretty normal time to be going through transitions.
Texas Monthly: Once you got into that studio for those two months in L.A., how long did it take you to figure out, “Oh, we’re working on something special here”?
Norah Jones: I wasn’t thinking that way. Or, I mean, I thought it was special from the day we started. We had already done two or three days about a year prior to trying out, so I knew what it was like to do it already, and I knew that it was cool, and I knew we already had a couple cool song ideas. So I was excited about it from the get-go—and also just being around Brian and being friends. We had a good hang the whole time, you know?
Texas Monthly: Do y’all still keep in touch? Have you written together since?
Norah Jones: We’re still good friends. I see him every once in a while. I’d love to do something with Brian again. We say we will, and then schedules are tricky. I talked to him a few months ago and we were talking about how the album’s getting rereleased. He said something that I say often: “Man, that was a fun summer.” It just made me so happy. We just had so much fun. Even though the record’s very dark, we had so much fun playing with it.
Texas Monthly: It is a very dark record, but there are a lot of moments where there’s a really acid sense of humor on some of the songs.
Norah Jones: I had gone through a very dramatic late-twenties breakup, and I had some family stuff going on as well. I was feeling lonesome. I was living in this house in L.A. for those two months, and I was going to the studio every day with my dog. Brian’s studio is very dark, you know, so it’s sunny L.A., but all the windows have blackout shades on them, so that kind of helped. I was going through a lot of stuff personally, but we just laughed all day making this record. I feel like, musically, there’s so much fun stuff to play with at this studio and so many cool sonic ideas. I think of the playfulness of that as just like a kid in a candy store. It was the best. A lot of the extra-dark stuff was so comically dramatized.
Texas Monthly: “She’s 22” is a sad song, but it’s also a sick burn. “Miriam” is a murder song, but you don’t come away from it thinking, like, “Oh, someone’s going to die at the end of that.”
Norah Jones: No, it’s theater. Which I love. That song is very . . . yeah, it’s intense, but it’s meant to be. It’s about me, it’s not about a person named Miriam. It’s more about me and, like, being stuck in this lightning flash of a feeling, and then exploring that through this medium.
Texas Monthly: The record feels like it’s about finding these really specific examples to explore certain feelings.
Norah Jones: Yeah, I like that. A lot of people think it was a concept album, but that’s never how we went about it. I mean, the concept is me and Brian working together and what’s that going to be, basically. I think it’s more about me and my feelings and wading through the muck of wherever I was that summer than anything else.
Texas Monthly: The feelings you have in your forties are different than the ones you have in your twenties. What do you think would happen if you and Brian decided to make another record together? Was this one lightning in a bottle, or would you have to reinvent the partnership?
Norah Jones: No, it would be fine. I think we would come up with something awesome. Feelings change and maturity happens, but we still feel deeply. Sometimes it’s shifted a little. It’s maybe less dramatic, maybe more deep? But I don’t think anybody’s feelings have changed. We’re still human, after all.
Texas Monthly: Little Broken Hearts really does sound different from your previous work. When you took that to your label, how did they react?
Norah Jones: I wasn’t really worried about it because at that point in my career, I was just set on doing whatever I wanted to do. There were some younger people at my label that were super stoked about it, loved it. I got good feedback. But it’s funny, Bruce Lundvall, the head of the label, who was in his seventies at the time—he was really such a good friend and such a mentor to me; he signed me, and he always supported me and let me have freedom—we were getting lunch. We had these epic, like, three-martini lunches where we would talk about love and life, which was so fun to have a friend like that in his seventies. We got together, maybe after the album came out, and he was like, “You know, I’ve got to be honest with you. I wasn’t really into this album when you turned it in. And I wasn’t even into the last album that much when you turned it in,” but then he said, ”You know, but I’ve come around to it. I get it now.” And I thought that was cool. I wasn’t offended at all. Coming from where he comes from, I understood him not really getting it. I’m glad that he told me.
Texas Monthly: You’ve done a couple solo records since this one. Do you feel like there are fingerprints of Little Broken Hearts on the things that have come afterwards?
Norah Jones: I feel a lot more confident going into the studio with something that’s not completely finished, which I’ve done more of for sure since then. Right now, I’m working on something that is a lot like the process with Brian, and I think it’s so fun making things that way. When you’re with the right person in the right place, with the right instruments around and the right engineer. I feel like capturing moments is what it’s about when you’re recording, and doing it this way was interesting. It’s a different thing than going in with a band live and trying to capture moments that way. Trying to layer the moments and capture them the way we did here is pretty awesome.
Texas Monthly: Do you have a favorite memory of this period?
Norah Jones: Making it was so fun. I’d come home to my rental house every day and eat mac and cheese, have a martini, and swim in the pool. It was awesome. I was in Los Feliz. I literally went to dinner three times those two months in L.A. I was home barbecuing every weekend, and swimming with friends and Brian, and having little get togethers. I was truly L.A.: I didn’t leave the house very much except to go to the studio. It was great.
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