It wasn’t too long ago that Norah Jones was living a double life, and trying hard to shield it from public view.
In the late-night hours, the smoky-voiced jazz singer and her friends would go out to one of the city’s intimate music clubs and — in front of an audience no less — get on stage with her friends to belt out . . . country tunes.
OK, so it’s not exactly a juicy secret that would make the front pages of the National Enquirer (or any pages of the National Enquirer).
Still, the Grammy-winning chanteuse didn’t want anyone to know. For Jones — who became a multiplatinum, record-setting sensation after the release of her first album and remained one after the chart-topping success of the follow-up — singing in that club with her friends was a crucial outlet. It allowed her the low-key, good time that had too often eluded her since her breakout success. And she didn’t want a media frenzy to ruin it.
“I was terrified of that, because this is the most fun I’ve had in a long time, with this band,” she explains.
But, two years later, Jones is ready to let not only the media, but the whole world in on her secret. Her band — known as the Little Willies — has released its first album, filled with rollicking covers of songs by the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Hank Williams Jr., plus a few penned by the Little Willies’ own members.
“Basically, the short story is that we’re friends, we got a chance to play together a long time ago and we just wanted to again,” says Jones. “It was sort of just an excuse to play together.”
It started out as just a jam session here and there, whenever the friends — guitarist Jim Campilongo, guitarist and vocalist Richard Julian, drummer Dan Rieser and bassist Lee Alexander — could coordinate their touring schedules and recording sessions. But instead of playing their own tunes, or Jones’ famous songs, they’d lean toward more rootsy music, and found they had a common love for classic country.
For Jones, a Texas native with a longtime love for jazz, playing with the band helped her realize her own roots, back to the days when her grandmother would play the old-time country songs.
The band realized they were doing more than just fooling around when they decided to do an extended gig at the Living Room, the small music space and bar that would become their base when they performed in New York.
“At the end of that, I felt that we had committed to the idea of recording it,” says Campilongo.
But much like the band itself, the group’s debut recording wasn’t so much of a planned event as a chance one. Alexander and Jones, who are also a couple, were building a home studio and wanted to record something to test it out — and the Little Willies were the perfect experiment.
The whole album was recorded in less than two days and released on their imprint label, Milking B.
“That’s what it was about — it wasn’t about making everything perfect and making this Rembrandt you can look at but don’t get too close to it,” says Campilongo.