Guess Norah Jones’ favorite holiday. It’s Valentine’s Day, right? Her velvety ballads are the favorite snuggle soundtrack of couples everywhere, and of course, Jones’ new albums always hit stores right before Feb. 14. Actually, try again. ”I am a Halloween freak,” declares the 27-year-old singer, in a chipper, playful tone that’s not evident on her sophisticated discography. ”This year I did a gig dressed as ZZ Top. Last year was Eddie Munster. The year before was Batman.”
Playing dress-up has become more than just an annual event for Jones. Every couple of months, she dons a platinum wig and fishnets to front a goofy rock band at unannounced gigs in Manhattan clubs. With her eclectic third album, Not Too Late, and a starring role in a coming-of-age road-trip film, the Queen of Cuddle Pop is straining to expand the image that made her an eight-time Grammy winner at 25. ”You listen to my first album and you get a perception of me: very romantic, melancholy, sort of wispy,” she says of 2002’s Come Away With Me, which sold almost 10 million copies. ”It bothered me for a long time, because that’s never been my personality. [My music] is mellow and kind of sweet, but I’m kind of salty.”
How salty? Jones boasts that her first musical purchase wasn’t an Ella Fitzgerald record, but Digital Underground’s effervescent 1990 rap track ”Humpty Dance.” Still, her Dallas upbringing was filled with classic jazz and soul, foisted upon Jones by her single mom, a concert promoter-turned-nurse. Her father is the legendary sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar. ”I didn’t grow up around him,” she explains, though the two reconnected after her first album came out and now they’ve ”become very close.” In 1999, after her sophomore year as a jazz piano major at the University of North Texas, Jones moved to New York City and her rise was stunningly swift. Blue Note released her debut, and its timeless sound fueled massive sales, turning the effortlessly pretty singer into a saving grace for a music industry desperate for baby-boomer buyers.
Jones’ follow-up, 2004’s twangy Feels Like Home, sold a stunning one million copies its first week out, cementing her standing as a critical and commercial phenomenon. For her latest, she has rejiggered the formula: Not Too Late is Jones’ first CD recorded without her usual producer, Arif Mardin, who died last year. Jones’ boyfriend, bassist Lee Alexander, took over this time and the couple recorded most of the album in their East Village home studio. It’s also the first disc on which the crooner helped write every song. But that doesn’t mean the lyrics are ripped from her diary. ”I’ve been [with Lee] for seven years. Songs about functional relationships aren’t that exciting. It would be like,” she switches to a singsongy cadence, ”’We watched a movie. He liked it. I didn’t.”’
Movies are on Jones’ mind lately because she’s taking on her first film role, the lead in My Blueberry Nights, the English-language debut by Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-Wai. He cast Jones at their first meeting, but insisted the novice thespian not take lessons to prepare for the part of Elizabeth, ”a woman who,” Jones says, ”is a little bit lost in life and takes a cross-country trip to find her way.” Wong was beyond pleased with the results. ”Crying in front of the camera is one of the hardest things for a first-time actor to do. She nailed it on the second take. After, she turned to me, her eyes still red, and asked, ‘Do you want more?”’ recalls Wong. ”At that moment, I knew this lady could act.”
The Weinstein Co. project doesn’t have a release date; as expected with the meticulous Wong, the ending hasn’t even been shot yet. But Jones is already wary of the publicity the film — which also stars Jude Law, Natalie Portman, and Rachel Weisz — is generating. ”Now it seems like a much bigger deal than I thought it would be,” she says, nervously twirling her hair between her fingers. ”And if I had known that, I don’t know if I would have done it.”
Jones has similar anxiety about her musical moonlighting. The band El Madmo began as a way for Jones and her backup band to dress up as flamboyant glam rockers and let loose on electric guitars with bawdy, silly songs like ”Vampire Guy” and ”Head in a Vise.” But once bloggers began critiquing their gigs, the carefree, frivolous mood disappeared. ”It was annoying that people started saying things like ‘They’re not punk!’ You stupid people! We never said we were punk,” Jones balks, her lineless brow furrowing. ”This was a gig for us, not for you.” She leans forward and wraps her arms around herself. ”I feel weird talking about [this]…. I would just prefer if people didn’t know about [it],” she says, exasperated. At least Jones can always hide from the probing glare of fame in the freeing anonymity of a really awesome ZZ Top costume.