Norah Jones has been a steady voice of warmth and reassurance for nearly 20 years.
Now, the nine-time Grammy winner and platinum-selling artist has just released her first holiday album, I Dream of Christmas. The collection of timeless seasonal favourites and affecting new originals that explore the complicated emotions of our times and our hopes that this holiday season will be full of joy and togetherness.
Jones joined us to talk about the making of that album and what the Christmas season has meant to her throughout the years.
You’ve talked about how some of the inspiration for the recording came from sitting around and listening to classic Christmas albums during the lockdown. I was wondering how much the events of the last two years made this holiday album a possibility?
I think a lot of it. I think being faced with 2021 and no work, no touring, I needed something to look forward to. I wanted to be creative, of course, and I knew I probably wouldn’t be doing any shows. I had so much fun making this album, and I don’t think I would have made it right now if it hadn’t been for everything that happened the last couple of years. I needed to lift my own spirits, so a Christmas album seemed like a great way to do that.
There’s a great mix of familiar holiday tunes and also original compositions. As a songwriter, does writing a Christmas tune present a different challenge than usual, because there’s already a built-in expectation of what that tune is supposed to deliver?
There are some difficulties. For one thing, all the rhymes have been used. However, there’s always something you can find — a different corner. I found that the Christmas songs I wrote, some of them were kind of weird. Some of them were more traditional-sounding, and some of them were out of left field and unexpected. Some of them told me how much I’d missed everyone. I had been powering through. I have young kids, so I had been with my family, but I didn’t realize how much I missed my friends until I wrote some of these songs. I think that happens a lot in songwriting.
Being alone and finding ways to connect are themes in a lot of the tunes you wrote for this recording. I wasn’t sure if that was to do with what was going on, or maybe sometimes just the melancholy that comes around the holidays.
Christmas isn’t always one thing. It’s many things for many different people. It’s a time to reflect. Sometimes it’s very sad, sometimes it’s lonely. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s a party. I tried to encapsulate a lot of different angles, but really, I just tried to encapsulate all the things I felt about Christmas.
I think for a lot of us, Christmas instills its feeling in us when we’re young people. For you, was it turkeys and trees and all the things that we traditionally think about the holidays?
Yeah, it was. It was just me and my mom growing up. She worked a lot. We usually went to my aunt’s or uncle’s or grandma’s house for Christmas. I think we hosted one time. And we went camping for Christmas a few times, just the two of us. Having young kids now, it’s that magic time where Christmas is just so fun. I think I’ve become more into Christmas the last 10 years because I do an annual Christmas show with my band Puss n Boots, and that’s been really fun. I never put up a tree as an adult until I was in my thirties. It definitely has grown into something really special for me. I think Christmas carries with it such a weight of nostalgia. It reminds you of things from your childhood, your favourite movies, your favourite music. There’s such a wave of nostalgia that it comes with that’s special to people — or sad. But it is what it is.
As I get older and more cynical, Christmas still seems to be hanging in there as something special that I want to celebrate.
Yes, there’s the commercialization of Christmas and all of the things that can be annoying. But I still love it. I just love it. I just love it! Maybe songs that get annoying because you hear them too much when you’re shopping, I still love them. It doesn’t matter.
Outside of writing the tunes, I imagine the process of choosing some of the classics for the album would be an incredibly fun experience but also very daunting. How do you approach something like that?
I found a great producer, Leon Michels. He was an awesome partner for this record. He made it sound exactly like I would imagine. We started talking about it and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it. I only wanted to do it if it felt right, and finding him was the first step. Deciding on the angle and all the covers was the second step. We had the most amazing playlist, going back and forth. It was incredible. There are so many great Christmas songs. There are also so many great obscure Christmas songs that nobody’s ever heard — some of them are hilarious, some of them are sad, some are touching. You get deep into 1960s country music Christmas albums, it’s a weird place to live in. Then Duke Ellington’s Christmas, that’s a pretty magical place to be in. All kinds of things. We started narrowing down the song choices based on stuff that I just loved and wanted to sing, and stuff that conveyed the right feeling for the album. Once we wrote all these originals, they steered the feeling — a little melancholy, but trying to find that joy and wanting to get into the spirit. A lot of the songs are about missing friends, missing family.
Do those songs sometimes not live up to the expectation you had in your head?
That happens, for sure. I think the beautiful think about making music on a record is that you can try lots of things, and if they don’t work, then you don’t put them on the record. We happened to have a couple songs that were great but didn’t make the final cut. Luckily, the ones that we cut get to make the deluxe version.
How are you going to be spending the holidays this year?
At home with my family. Hopefully we’re allowed to let friends in this time, because that’s what I missed last year.
This interview has been edited and condensed.