As her 2017 spring tour inched closer to its May 23 date at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, the more Norah Jones understood there would be an imperative for her set list that night: “Black Hole Sun,” the signature tune by Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell, whose last concert before dying at 52 was at the Fox five days before.
Nine-time Grammy winner Jones, who knew Cornell, performed the song on her piano, then never again. She considered it a matter of honor to include the cover as the closing tune on her new 14-track live album “’Til We Meet Again,” released April 16.
“I grew up listening to Chris Cornell. He was part of my ‘90s teenage-hood, for sure,” says Jones, 42, who first met him at a Bridge School benefit they both played in Mountain View. “We shared a bathroom, and he was super sweet. And we watched him sing that night, and it was just beautiful.”
At first, she wasn’t aware that the Fox had been Soundgarden’s Alamo. But by the time her band arrived in Detroit, she realized she had to do something special. As a fan, she knew “Black Hole Sun” by heart, but hadn’t attempted to play it before mastering it that very afternoon.
The performance became one of her all-time favorite metaphysical moments onstage, and something listeners can hear on the record, as the pleasantly-surprised audience immediately recognizes her slow-skeletal take.
“There was just something in the air that night,” she says.
Jones always knew that Cornell was a truly unique talent. Yet she says, “But when I was playing through ‘Black Hole Sun’ that night, I had no idea just how deep his song really was, just musically. I mean, lyrically? Yes, of course. But the music itself was really complex and harmonically advanced, so it was really nice to get inside it.”
A video of the Detroit rendition quickly made its way online, and fans have been requesting encores ever since.
Not believing that she could play it with such ardor again, she added it as icing on the “Meet Again” cake, which opens with her jazzy, inventive reading of Hank Williams’ “Cold Cold Heart.”
“You’ve got to make it your own. That’s how you tackle any song that you didn’t write,” she says, admitting that there have been some songs she just couldn’t interpret. “It’s like dating, you know? The chemistry’s either there, or it’s not.”
Initially, the singer wasn’t planning on releasing another album so soon after 2020’s “Pick Me Up Off the Floor.”
But when a radio show requested some concert cuts, she found herself focusing on one of the last shows she played in December 2019 in Rio de Janeiro.
“I remember it being a great show, but it also translated through the recording, so I thought, ‘Well, let’s just put this out as a live album,’” she says. But ultimately unhappy with some of the Brazilian versions, she retained five before digging through her tour archives for alternate takes, like her signature “Don’t Know Why,” culled from a July 2018 gig in Perpignan, France. (“Cold Cold Heart” came from a September 2018 appearance at Santa Rosa’s Luther Burbank Center for the Arts.)
On the topic of last year’s “Pick Me Up,” Jones concedes that it might seem quixotic issuing new material during a grim pandemic.
“But if one person finds comfort in the music I make, then it was all worth it,” she said at the time.
Though she currently has no plans for a 2021 tour, she says that with the new album, she wanted to remind everyone who might have forgotten just how warm, comforting and communal a concert can be. During playback, she says, “It was just really nice to hear the audience, and to hear that electric energy. You really feel the love of a lot of people, together, and that’s kind of what we were going for.”
Undertaking such projects kept the artist sane during lockdown, as did home solo performances she live-streamed in which she compensated for the absent bass by stressing rhythmic notes with her left hand. And with two Zoom-schooled young children underfoot in the family’s rural New York retreat, she’s too exhausted to even scroll through Netflix at the end of a long day.
“But my mom (Sue Jones; her father was the late sitar master Ravi Shankar) is living near me now, so that’s good, and we just had our first vaccine shots, and it felt like a weight had been lifted,” she adds.
In upcoming weeks on her Facebook page, Jones will be highlighting a different music-related charity. “Putting out this live album, I wanted to make it clear that so much goes into live music other than just the band,” she says. “Like the venue workers, the touring crew, people that have been out of work for so long. Because who knows when it’s going to get back to normal?”