What I’ve Been Listening to: Norah Jones/Pick Me Up Off the Floor

In May, I featured Tryin’ to Keep it Together in one of my Best of What’s New installments, a bonus track from Norah Jones’ then-upcoming Pick Me Up Off the Floor. Then, I completely forgot about the album that since appeared on June 12 – until a few days ago, when Jones popped up in my streaming service provider. While the title doesn’t exactly sound cheerful, listening to Jones puts me at ease, especially after a quite busy week. I find there’s something really special about her voice and the warm sound of her music. Both draw me in.

For a long time, I’ve been aware of Norah Jones and her piano-driven lounge style jazz, though I haven’t really explored her music. Jones was born Geethali Norah Jones Shankar on March 30, 1979 in New York City to American concert producer Sue Jones and Indian sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar. After her parents separated in 1986, Jones lived with her mother and grew up in Grapevine, TX. When reading about Jones for this post, I realized she’s been around for 20 years. That’s kind of mind-boggling to me. I still well remember when Jones emerged in 2002 as a 23-year-old!

Pick Me Up Off the Floor is the seventh studio album by the now 41-year-old singer-songwriter who returned to New York in 1999 and still lives there. It follows her EP Begin Again from April 2019, and is her first full-length studio effort since Day Breaks released in October 2016. According to a song-by-song review Jones did for Apple Music, Pick Me Up Off the Floor is her first album inspired by poetry. Emily Fiskio, her friend and a poet, encouraged Jones to give it try. The two women ended up collaborating, and two of the resulting tunes are on the album.

In this June 8, 2020 photo, singer-songwriter Norah Jones poses for a portrait in Hudson, N.Y., to promote her latest album “Pick Me Up Off the Floor.” (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP)

Poetry “…opened me up to a different avenue of writing,” Jones explained. “Plus, when you read Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein to your kids every night, weird rhymes float around in your head.” Apparently, Jones had not set out to make another album. Instead, she recorded tunes spontaneously as they came together. “I was collaborating with different people and just trying to make singles rather than forcing an album. It was very freeing.” Let’s hear some of the results!

Here’s the opener How I Weep written by Jones. “This song began as a poem, and then I sat on it for a few months, unsure what was going to happen,” Jones told Apple Music. “I knew I eventually had to try to turn it into a song, because that’s what I do, so one night, I waited until the house was quiet, and played and sang until it came together.” It certainly did! How I/How I/Weep for the loss/And it creeps down my chin/For the heart and the hair/And the skin and the air/That swirls itself around the bare…The lyrics sound deeply personal, yet Jones’ voice and the string arrangement soften the impact.

Flame Twin, another tune solely written by Jones, injects a dose of blues. I dig the Hammond B3 accents from Pete Remm who also plays electric guitar. And, of course, there’s more of Jones’ great singing. I also enjoy her piano playing. “This is another song that came from a poem,” Jones stated. “I brought it into the studio one day and was like, ‘Well, let’s see if I could put some music to this real quick and record it.’ And it came together pretty quickly.”

Heartbroken, Day After is one of her favorite tunes on the album, Jones told Apple Music. “I love how it came out with the pedal steel. It’s very mournful and heartfelt. And of course it references something specific, but I like that it’s still open to your own interpretation. It’s interpretable to the listener. So I’m not going to tell.” But again, Jones’ delivery and even some of the lyrics don’t make it an all-out bleak song…Hey, Hey/It’s gonna be okay/At least that’s what I tell myself/Anyway/Hey, hey/Don’t look so sad/It’s not that bad/Or is it?/It might be today…

For writing and recording I’m Alive, Jones teamed up with singer-songwriter and producer Jeff Tweedy, who is best known as the lead vocalist and guitarist of alternative rock band Wilco. ” I’ve known Jeff for a long time,” Jones pointed out. “He was one of the first people I thought to call when I wanted to start doing collaboration singles, because I thought it’d be a great way to connect.” The tune’s lyrics have clear political undertones…He screams, he shouts/The heads on the TV bow/They take the bait/They mirror waves of hate…No name calling needed here!

The last tune I’d like to highlight is Were You Watching, one of the tracks Jones co-wrote with Emily Fiskio. “I wrote this song in March of 2018, and it was the very first session I did for anything that wound up on this album,” Jones said. “I knew it needed harmonies and I liked the idea of adding vocals that weren’t me, so I called my friend Ruby Amanfu. She and her husband Sam Ashworth came to New York and did a bunch of harmonies on four or five songs. Then I had this great violinist, Mazz Swift, who I’ve always wanted to work with, come in and add violin. She did a great job. She sounded like she was on the original live recording. It felt perfectly spontaneous.” Nothing to add other than the clip.

Sources: Wikipedia; Apple Music; YouTube

Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

This latest installment of the recurring feature presents yet another new tune by Robert Allen Zimmerman, who finally revealed there will be a new album with original music, probably providing some relief among die-hard Bob Dylan fans. The piece also includes a new song by a German singer-songwriter who happens to be a yuge Dylan fan and has led my favorite German rock band for more than 40 years. There’s also a melancholic track by Norah Jones. And how about rounding out things with some smoking hot blues by an indigenous artist from Canada? Let’s get to it.

Bob Dylan/False Prophet 

False Prophet, released today, is the third new song by Bob Dylan that appeared in recent weeks. He probably thought three make a charm and also finally confirmed what many fans had hoped for: All these tunes appear on a new album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, set to come out on June 19. It’s Dylan’s 39th studio album, per Rolling Stone’s count, and his first release of original music in eight years since Tempest from September 2012. False Prophet, a guitar-driven bluesy tune, definitely speaks to me more than the previously released I Contain Multitudes and the nearly 17-minute Murder Most Foul. In fact, I kinda like it!

Niedeckens BAP/Ruhe vor’m Sturm

BAP or, since September 2014, Niedeckens BAP have been my favorite German rock band for now close to 40 years. I’ve covered this group from Cologne around singer-songwriter Wolfgang Niedecken on various past occasions, most recently here. One of their characteristic features is they sing all of their songs in Kölsch, the regional dialect spoken in the area of Cologne. Ruhe vor’m Sturm (calm before the storm), the first tune from the band’s next album scheduled for September, has rather dark lyrics, drawing a bridge between Germany’s past Nazi era and the growing influence of right-wing extremist ideology in Germany and other countries. “Everything that has happened in previous years, the populists that step by step are gaining power and those who are still in their starting positions…are developments that can frighten you and make you think, ‘how is it supposed to continue’,” said Niedecken during an interview with German broadcast station SWR1. “I’ve had many sleepless nights. I have now grandchildren…and don’t simply want to say, ‘ do whatever you want’ – I won’t accept that.” Niedecken who writes all of the band’s lyrics has spoken up against racism for many years. The song was deliberately released today, the 75th anniversary of Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Allies and the official end of World War II and one of the darkest chapters in human history.

Norah Jones/Tryin’ to Keep It Together

Every time I listen to Norah Jones, which for some reason I hardly do, I somehow feel at ease. There’s just something about the singer-songwriter’s voice I find incredibly powerful. Tryin’ to Keep It Together is a bonus tune on Jones’ upcoming eighth studio album Pick Me Up Off the Floor, which will appear on June 12. “I didn’t intend on releasing it early, but it kept running through my head,” said Jones in a statement, as reported by Rolling Stone. “It’s very much how I feel in this moment, so it felt appropriate to release it. Maybe it’s how others feel as well.” The song was co-written by Jones and Thomas Bartlett, a.k.a Doveman, who also produced it. Jones released the official video for the tune today. In a tweet she wrote, “The official video for ‘Tryin’ To Keep It Together’ was filmed at home and is out now. Thanks to my quaran-team house-mate, Marcela Avelar, for making this video.”

Crystal Shawanda/Church House Blues

Crystal Shawanda is an indigenous country-turned-blues artist. According to her website, she grew up on Wikwemikong reserve on an island in Ontario, Canada. While her parents exposed her to country music and taught her how to sing and play guitar, her oldest brother introduced her to what became her ultimate passion, the blues. She started her career in country music and her debut album Dawn of a New Day was released in June 2008. But while country music apparently brought her some success, she started feeling like a fish out of water and decided to take off some time. Shawanda returned in September 2014 with her first blues album The Whole World’s Got the Blues. Her new record Church House Blues was released on April 17. According to this review in Glide Magazine, it was produced by Shawanda’s husband and collaborator Dewayne Strobel, who also plays guitar on the record. The review notes influences from Shawanda’s heroes Etta James, Koko Taylor, The Staple Sisters and Janis Joplin. Regardless whether you agree with their take or not, one thing is crystal clear to me: That woman has mighty pipes and great energy. Check out the title track!

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; SWR1; Crystal Shawanda website; Glide Magazine; YouTube