Norah Jones' new album, Begin Again, isn't really an album. Each of its seven songs was recorded and released in isolation, created during separate studio sessions she booked with friends and collaborators. It was a more free, open-hearted approach to music that Jones was new to – a way to unbox herself from structure and let songs find their own way to completion.
"I still love albums – I put on albums, I listen to albums, I'm sure I'll still make albums," says Jones, 40, over the phone from New York. "But right now I'm enjoying doing it this way. I'm a little bit of a scatterbrain right now so it works, I can do different things and not commit to one thing.
"It's funny, each collaboration I've done, we get three to six songs, and each time I do it, I do kind of want to make a whole album with the person and just keep going," she says. "But I think it's nice to stop after three days – that's what we've been doing."
Her collaborators include Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman), Brian Blade and more. When seeking them out, Jones had a long list of people she wanted to work with – but she didn't want to just "throw darts at the wall". She needed some sort of connection, personal or musical, to spark creativity.
"I want to have an idea in my head, even if we stray from it and do something completely different," she says. "I want to have at least a jumping-off point to go in with somebody, otherwise it's kind of like a weird blind date where nobody knows what to do."
The songs on Begin Again are eclectic in style, from hints of jazz to more gentle notes of folk and Americana, such as on the haunting A Song With No Name. The gorgeous guitar-driven tune finds a vulnerable Jones calling nervously into the void: "Do I love you too much? Do I hold you too tight? Have you had enough?"
But true to her new approach to music, Jones didn't overthink the song, which was simply born out of a jam session with Tweedy, who she's known for years. "We were just playing guitar, and we put up some lights, and the whole thing was improvised," she says.
"The words just came out, and it just ended up being what it was. I thought we were just messing around and that it would all change and then we moved on, and then we came back to it three days later and were like, 'oh, this is pretty cool'," she says. "You can say the same lines about your dog, or your kid, and it works exactly as well."
It's not that words aren't important to her – in fact, she's been leaning on them more than ever. "The last few months… I've been writing a lot of words with no music attached in my head," she says. "That's never ever happened to me before in my life. Now I have all these lyrics with no music, and that is very weird for me, and I'm not sure what it's going to sound like."
Are they poems? "I guess so," she says. "But I have two little kids, so my poems – some of them are kind of heavy - are very influenced by Dr Seuss and Shel Silverstein right now, the way they rhyme. So it's kind of funny."
It's been 14 years since Jones was last in New Zealand, for a show at Auckland's Aotea Centre in 2005, and she's bent over backward to return. "I kind of planned this whole trip around the fact that I hadn't been there in so long," she says. "I really wanted to go back."
While she now has material from seven albums to choose from for her shows, her fans will be happy to hear she hasn't forgotten her breakout hits such as Come Away With Me and Don't Know Why.
"I still love singing those because the audience gets so excited, and I've found a way to make sure they always have life," she says. "The weirdest thing for me is that it was so long ago that all these people are like, 'I grew up on your music'. I don't feel like I'm that old, but it sure makes me feel old.
"But it's cool having people come to the shows and say they used to listen to my music when they were little kids, and that is really strange, but it's also nice because they're young adults now and it's cool to look out there and see those people."
Who: Norah Jones
What: New album Begin Again
Tour: ASB Theatre, Auckland, April 23; TSB Arena, Wellington, April 24; Regent Theatre, Dunedin, April 26; Queenstown Events Centre, April 28; Christchurch Town Hall, April 29