Art, it’s said, should always please the artist first. But every once in a while—either by design or mere happenstance—an artist produces exactly what the audience is needing at that particular moment.
Take Sister for instance, the new sophomore set from nine-time Grammy winner Norah Jones and her playful side project with Sasha Dobson and Catherine Popper, Puss N Boots. It’s a perfect feel-good panacea that blends Jones’ dusky murmur with Dobson’s airier warble and Popper’s warm, bluesy rumble somewhere in the middle, on loping, comfortably-paced folk/R&B/country originals like “Lucky,” “Sister,” “You and Me,” and “It’s Not Easy,” augmented by smartly-chosen covers by Tom Petty (“Angel Dream”), Johnette Napolitano (“Joey”), Dolly Parton (“The Grass is Blue”), Paul Westerberg (“It’s a Wonderful Lie”), and Dobson’s aunt, Helen Rogers (”Same Old Bullshit”). It’s a calm, relaxing confection guaranteed to relax even the edgiest among us, who fear that our nation is sailing headlong into dark, ominous waters where—in the worst-case scenario—such creative expression could end up being outlawed because it displeases our self-appointed new king.
Artists, of course, feel this seismic Constitutional shift even more acutely. Dobson puts it diplomatically. “We can talk about that, or we can talk about the stuff that we can control,” she says, sighing. Popper remains conversely optimistic: “It’s a really weird and scary thing,” she observes. “But doomsday thinking is not helpful, especially for the boots-on-the-ground people who are doing the work, and I know quite a few. But there was an article that changed my whole perspective on it called ‘Letters to a young climate activist on the first day of the new decade’—it gave me a lot of hope.”
But Jones takes a blunter tack, noting that, “It’s getting bad everywhere now, it’s getting dark. It goes deep, and it’s a lot to take in, every day now.” Although she didn’t specifically pen any protest anthems with Puss N Boots, she adds, “I think you write what you feel, and if you’re feeling something, it comes out, whether you name someone or details about it or not. So as an artist, I don’t think about it like, ‘I really need to write about this.’ I just write what I feel, and I feel some things very deeply. So there are songs where only I know what they’re about, and I’ve always been like that. But I think everybody is feeling what’s happening now, no question.”
Puss N Boots, naturally, was never formed as a socio-political outlet. Jones met Dobson back in 1999, when she first left her native Texas for exotic New York City, where she started frequenting jazz clubs in search of lounge-singing work, long before her official 2002 Blue Note debut Come Away With Me would make her a multi-platinum superstar and earn her five Grammys. A mutual drummer friend asked both to sit in on his show one night, where they traded off on vocals, and the percussionist invited them to continue at another venue, only switching weekly this time. “We shared that gig and became good friends, but we fell out of touch until 2004,” says Jones. “She was dating somebody in the songwriter scene, and that’s how I saw her again, and we were instantly good friends again. And she said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this gig in a pool-hall room , where nobody’s really paying attention, and I really want to play guitar!’” Jones expressed a desire to switch from piano to guitar, as well, and that’s how PNB began—as a fun low-pressure exercise in experimentation wherein members pushed each other into playing unfamiliar instruments and musical styles.
Bassist Popper—who met Jones at the Big Apple’s Living Room venue in 2001—soon joined, and likens the trio’s approach to classic DIY/punk rock. Initially, when they coalesced in 2008 just for local concerts, the girls played simple country covers as they mastered their new instruments, with Popper waiving her signature bass for pedal steel. “And when I first joined, I didn’t realize I would be singing, but we were all challenging ourselves to do things that we didn’t know how how to do,” she gulps. “Norah said, ‘Okay, Cat—it’s time for you to start branching out more, and it was terrifying. Initially, she and Sasha said, ‘Play acoustic guitar,’ and I said, ‘I don’t know how!’ But they said, ‘Who cares?’” By 2014, everyone felt comfortable enough in their diverse roles to record a full debut disc, “No Fools, No Fun.” For all her worldwide popularity at the time, she says, “Norah was always this fun, easygoing person who always said what was on her mind. She’s not inscrutable and she doesn’t keep you guessing what she’s thinking.”
Jones would continue to improvise in her solo career, recently releasing nearly a dozen standalone singles that she felt didn’t connect as a full album, as she wrote and recorded them. Popper stayed busy backing rockers like Jack White, Brian Fallon, Levon Helm, Willie Nelson, and playing in the pit orchestra for the Go-Go’s musical “Head Over Heels” and the new Princess Diana project “Diana.” Dobson—who hails from a renowned jazz family that includes her keyboardist father Smith Dobson, vocalist mother Gail Dobson, and drumming brother Smith Dobson V—released a debut album “Modern Romance” and has just finished a new EP “Simple Things,” the first of a projected trilogy. She also has backed Jones on world tour. They would usually regroup annually for a series of New York concerts around Christmas—no pressure, just a fun, cathartic release for everyone involved.
But last year, Jones—now a mother of two—made her pals an offer, after Puss N Boots performed “The Grass is Blue” at a MusiCares event honoring Dolly Parton in Los Angeles (she had cut the song years earlier for a Parton tribute album). She had a three-month chunk of pre-holiday time available on her crowded schedule, during which she thought the trio should get together for some serious rehearsals. Dobson—who had begun writing music on bass—had some new non-EP tracks, and Popper had new material, as well. Jones had a wealth of cuts from her singles sessions, all of which resulted in Sister which was finished in only five days. “And we all switched around even more on this album,” Jones explains. “Sasha let me play the drums, and Cat even played the drums on one song. Then Cat played more guitar, and Sasha played more bass. She even wrote two songs on bass, and you can tell because the bass is super heavy . It’s been fun for all of us to mix it up, and this is still one of the most fun bands I’ve ever been in.”
Sister features one instrumental, the tambourine-augmented shuffler “Jamola,” with Jones on guitar, Dobson on drums, and Popper on bass. The rest feature the composer who wrote it on lead vocals—like Dobson’s funky “You and Me,” Jones’ jangling “You Don’t Know,” and Popper’s Southwestern-forlorn “The Razor Song”—with the their warm tendrils of harmonies wreathing vine-like around each chorus. “That’s always been our stock in trade,” Jones admits. The Parton track was included as a perfect example of how a great country song used to be written, from its bluesy barroom melody to its cleverly-phrased lyrical sentiment of “I just can’t make it one day without you/ Unless I pretend that the opposite is true.” “It’s an incredible study in heartfelt songwriting, and I first got to sing it with Dolly herself about 16 years ago at the CMAs,” Jones recalls. “It was on an old bluegrass album that she put out 20 years ago, and it just made sense to do it with Puss N Boots at the MusiCares event last year. And I’ve learned so much just by watching her over the years—she’s hilarious, she’s unapologetic, and she’s just a badass musician.”
The kind of artist we’ll need more of in the coming year, as art itself is under attack, alongside humanity itself as the disastrous effects of climate change—and the ignorant politicians who deny its very existence—threatens to doom us all. For now, we can placate ourselves with an enjoyable effort like Sister, and maybe feel better about things for a while. Just don’t dig too deep into the clever wordplay, warns Popper, chuckling mischievously. “It’s funny, because somebody was asking me just the other day, ‘C’mon, this isn’t dark night of the soul stuff, right?’ But I write songs for myself, about things that I’m having a hard time with. And I’m really careful, because nobody wants to know my deep, personal business, and I don’t want them to know it, so I talk in metaphor as often asI can.
“But you can tell that there’s some self-soothing and sadness in these songs, for sure. I always say to Sasha and Norah, ‘What are we gonna write today? Carnival or coal mine?”