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

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: October 21

After more than two months, I thought this would be a good time for another installment of the recurring music history feature. These posts are driven by happenings that sufficiently intrigue me, which limits their number, plus I’ve already covered numerous dates. But it seems to me there is still plenty left to explore.

As on previous occasions, this post is an arbitrary selection of events, not an attempt to capture everything that happened on that date. For example, while as a parent I find child birth a beautiful thing, I don’t include birthdays of music artists’ children. However, birthdays of the artists qualify. But if you die to know, Jade Jagger, daughter of Mick Jagger and Bianca Jagger, one of eight children Mick has with five women, was born on October 21, 1971 in Paris, France. With that important factoid out of the way, let’s get to some other events that happened on October 21 throughout rock & roll history.

1940: Manfred Mann was born as Michael Lubowitz in Johannesburg, South Africa. In 1961, he moved to the U.K. and began his long music career. He initially became successful with a band named Manfred Mann and a series of hits in the mid to late ‘60s like Do Wah Diddy DiddySha La La and Pretty Flamingo. Immediately after that band’s breakup, Mann formed experimental jazz rock outfit Manfred Mann Chapter Three. They lasted for two years and two albums before Mann found long-lasting success with progressive rockers Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. They had hits throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, especially with covers of Bruce Springsteen tunes like Spirits In The Night and Blinded By The Light. After a hiatus in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the band still appears to be active to this day. Mann has also released various solo albums. Here’s a clip of Do Wah Diddy Diddy, Mann’s first number one single released in July 1964. Written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, the song was first recorded in 1963 as Do-Wah-Diddy by American vocal group The Exciters.

1941: Steve Cropper was born as Steven Lee Cropper on a farm near Dora, Missouri. An accomplished guitarist, who is ranked at no. 39 on the Rolling Stone list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists Of All Time, Cropper got his first guitar via mail order as a 14-year-old. At the time, he was already living in Memphis, Tenn. where in 1964 be became A&R man of Stax Records and a founding member of the label’s house band Booker T. & The M.G.’s. Together with the band, be backed soul legends, such as Otis ReddingSam & Dave and Wilson Pickett, and co-wrote some of their songs like (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay, Soul Man and In The Midnight Hour. Booker T. & The M.G.’s also released their own music. During the second half of the ’70s, Cropper became a member of The Blues Brothers. He has also worked as a producer with many artists. Here’s a great clip of a Sam & Dave performance of Soul Man from 1974 – always loved that tune and Cropper’s guitar work on it!

1957: Steve Lukather was born as Steven Lee Lukather in the San Fernando Valley, Calif. The prolific session guitarist is best known for being a longtime member of Toto, which he co-founded with David Paich (keyboards), Steve Porcaro (keyboards) and Jeff Porcaro (drums) in 1976. Lukather also is a songwriter, arranger and producer. He played guitar and bass on various tracks of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album from 1982. While Beat It was among those songs, he did not play the killer solo on that tune, which was performed by Eddie Van Halen. Lukather has also released seven solo records to date. He is currently on the road with Toto for their 40th anniversary tour. Here’s a clip of I Won’t Hold You Back, a ballad Lukather wrote for Toto IV, the band’s most successful album released in April 1982.

1965: As part of the recording sessions for their sixth studio album Rubber SoulThe Beatles were working at Abbey Road Studios. Following an unsatisfactory attempt to record Norwegian Wood 10 days earlier, they did three additional takes on October 21, of which they ended up selecting the last. Lyrically influenced by Bob Dylan and credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the tune is an early example of a Western pop song featuring Indian instruments. In this case, it was the sitar played by George Harrison, who had been inspired by sitar maestro and his friend Ravi Shankar.

1976: Keith Moon performed his last public show with The Who at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, Canada. It was the final gig of the band’s 1976 tour. Moon’s lifestyle had begun to impact his health and performance several years earlier. In perhaps the most infamous incident, Moon passed out on stage at Cow Palace in Daly City, Calif. during the first U.S. date of The Who’s 1973 Quadrophenia tour. Prompted by Pete Townshend who asked whether anyone in the audience was good at playing the drums, Scot Halpin, a drummer, stepped forward and played the rest of the show. Moon also faced challenges during the ’76 tour. By the end of the U.S. leg in Miami in August, a delirious Moon was treated in a hospital for eight days. When The Who performed a private show at a theater in London in December 1977 for The Kids Are Alright, a visibly overweight Moon had difficulty sustaining a solid performance. Moon passed away in September 1978 at the age of 32 from an overdose of a medication to treat alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Here’s a clip of Moon in action with The Who during a raucous 1967 performance of My Generation. As a guitar lover, I’m glad Townshend no longer smashes his gear these days.

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day In Rock, This Day In Music, The Beatles Bible, YouTube