Q&A: Billie Joe Armstrong & Norah Jones Unveil Duets LP + Hear “Long Time Gone”
What is weirder than thinking about Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong casually chilling out with indie-jazz super chanteuse Norah Jones? How about if the two of them get together and record an album of Everly Brothers covers? In an instance of something so weird it actually makes perfect sense, the two musicians recently convened in NYC to bang out their own version of the Everly Brothers’ album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. The original album, released in 1958, was itself a kind of covers record: a collection of traditional country songs that were previously made famous by the likes of Gene Autry and Tex Ritter. Hearing Armstrong and Jones take on these songs is something of a quiet revelation. While a country standard might not exactly seem out of place in Jones’s oeuvre, hearing her harmonize with Armstrong — a vocalist who doesn’t always get the chance to show off the subtle range of his voice — is both surprising and pretty wonderful. Foreverly not only gives listeners the chance to hear a couple of very established artists creatively letting their hair down — purely for the fun of it — but it also brings to light some beautiful old songs that might otherwise never come to the attention of a contemporary audience.
I had to the chance to talk to both artists about the origins of the project and the experience of recording together. You can check out their version of “Long Time Gone” below.
STEREOGUM: I realized after listening to your new record that I actually have a history with the original Everly Brothers album.
NORAH JONES: Oh wow, but you didn’t realize it at first?
STEREOGUM: Not at first. That record, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, was played a lot when I was little by my grandparents in Oklahoma. I just never realized that’s what it was called.
JONES: That’s so cool!
BILLIE JOE ARMSTRONG: That’s great.
STEREOGUM: And the song about the shoes –- “Who’s Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet?” — is something that my great-grandmother used to sing. I always thought it was the weirdest song when I was a kid — that putting shoes on feet was a creepy and weird thing to sing about.
JONES: It is a weird thing to sing about.
STEREOGUM: I’m just curious how this project originally came to be. Were you guys friends? Did you know each other before this?
JONES: Well, we met 10 years ago at the Grammys, but other than that we didn’t really know each other that well. Then I got a call…
JONES: You tell him, actually, I don’t really know how it started.
ARMSTRONG: It all started with Stevie Wonder. [laughter] We sang together with Stevie Wonder and his band and a whole bunch of people, that’s how Norah and I first met. Then … well, I got into the Everly Brothers’ record a couple years ago and I thought it was just beautiful. I was listening to it every morning for a while off and on. I thought it would be cool to remake the record because I thought it was sort of an obscure thing and more people should know about it, but I really wanted to do it with a woman singing because I thought it would take on a different meaning — maybe broaden the meaning a little bit — as compared to hearing the songs being sung by the two brothers. And so my wife said, “Why don’t you get Norah Jones to do it?” and I was like, “Well, I kinda know her.” Well, I mean, we had Stevie Wonder in common. And so I called her and she said yes. So it was kinda like a … well, I keep saying it was kinda like a blind date.
JONES: It was, yeah. It was kinda like jumping into something. You know, we’ve both done a lot of different things in our careers but jumping into making a whole record with somebody is definitely the bigger commitment. I think we agreed to go into the studio for a few days just to try it out, remember? And…
ARMSTRONG: Yeah, yeah.
JONES: And we ended up pretty much doing the whole record in about five days. It was really fun. And then we went back a few months later to revisit it and do a few extra songs over again.
STEREOGUM: Norah, were you familiar with this material beforehand?
JONES: I was familiar with some of it. I wasn’t familiar with that entire record specifically, but I knew a lot of those songs and a lot of those recordings. I was kinda a huge Everly Brothers fan growing up — so I knew the Everly Brothers’ stuff — but mostly the more popular stuff. So I listened to the record a bunch and then when we were talking it just sounded so fun — and Billie Joe, you’re such an enthusiastic person, you totally sold me in three minutes. At the time I had just gotten off tour and I was kinda tired, and I didn’t know how I felt about jumping into making a whole record just then but it was pretty short and sweet, actually.
STEREOGUM: Well how did you approach it? Did you just start at the beginning and work your way through the record that way?
ARMSTRONG: Well, she got Tim Luntzel and Dan Rieser to play as the rhythm section, and then we just started. It’s kind of crazy ’cause we started to get together and started playing it with those guys, and we had acoustic guitars and then we were playing it live and I remember it was kinda a lot of talk here and there but then… I remember thinking “Oh my god it’s happening right now, it’s just going, there’s no real talking about it.” We just sort of took off and then Norah would make some changes here and there and then we kept going and it came together really fast, just song after song.
JONES: Yeah, we just started with the first song off the record because I didn’t know where else to begin and then we just kinda skipped around as we felt it, you know? We kept putting off the last song on the record until we actually forgot we hadn’t done it yet. Because it’s just so slow, it’s so heavy.
STEREOGUM: Your voices work nicely together. I would imagine that might be the biggest unknown if you haven’t played together before: how you are going to sing together. Was that an easy thing to come to, figuring out how to sing the harmonies?
JONES: I feel like on the first song it started coming together. But it definitely took a minute to get super, super comfortable. But then after hearing what the first song sounded like I thought, “Oh! It’s gonna be great, it’s gonna be fine.”
ARMSTRONG: Yeah. I remember we were singing and I remember Norah saying, “Turn around so I can see your mouth.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s how you’re supposed to do it!”
JONES: We have to look at each other. [laughter] We’re in the same room, we’re next to each other, you have to look at me though, at least a little bit!
STEREOGUM: Billie Joe, you’ve certainly stretched yourself in a variety of ways over the past few Green Day records, but this is very different. It must be nice to show off this quieter side of yourself, this other aspect of your voice that doesn’t always get to present itself in Green Day music.
ARMSTRONG: Well, me and [bassist] Mike [Dirnt] have always sang harmonies together, ever since the beginning of Green Day. One thing I’ve always loved is… I like being in a band or a group atmosphere, so with me and Mike, even in the earliest songs that Green Day wrote there were always two singers. I don’t know. The average listener might be like, “Well, that’s not punk rock” or whatever in regards to this record, but I like doing different things — it’s fun, it makes life more interesting.
STEREOGUM: As you worked your way through these songs, were you surprised by things that revealed themselves to you in this material?
JONES: Yeah, they’re dark!
JONES: It’s always fun singing these songs, they’re so good — they’re simple, but good. And very dark.
ARMSTRONG: Yeah, when you really start exploring what the songs are about and — you know, they don’t really leave any room for guessing; there’s no riddles about these songs. They’re just straight-up songs about a kid dying from consumption and a guy killing his wife and throwing her in a river and a song about the loss of love and blah blah blah. So it just kind of gets down to the root of things. It reminds you what the singer-songwriters were really all about.
JONES: Yeah, these songs are real story songs too.
STEREOGUM: A song like “I’m Here To Get My Baby Out Of Jail” — they all involve some kind of great narrative. At the time the original record was released, back in 1958, it was apparently considered a kind of risky move by the Everly Brothers. They were just starting to really take off and then they decided to release this album of very traditional songs.
JONES: Because it wasn’t pop enough?
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I guess so.
JONES: Well, it happens. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: It would be nice if this project might, in some way, lead people to go back and explore this material. The fact that you two made this record will bring to light these songs for a lot of people who might never discover them otherwise.
JONES: Yeah, of course. I hope so.
STEREOGUM: Can you imagine performing this material? Will you do any shows together?
JONES: I don’t know if there’s gonna be time. We’ve got a lot going on. It would be fun though, I know that.
ARMSTRONG: I’ve got a whole tour booked, I’ve got the itinerary. We’re actually gonna talk about that right after this phone call… No, no, I’m just kidding. [laughter] I don’t know. We kinda just take things slow. We’re still mastering it.
JONES: We still need to finish the artwork.
ARMSTRONG: Yeah, exactly. The one thing we really wanted to do was like, let’s keep it fun and make it simple and not get in over our heads. I didn’t want Norah to feel like I was being too pushy. I love the project and stuff like that, but it only works if everyone is feeling good about it. How do you feel about it, Norah Jones?
JONES: I think it’s nice to do projects when there’s not a looming press schedule and tour over your head. It makes it more appealing to me, and more fun. We actually just went into a studio to make music. There’s no agenda. We started thinking about artwork and the record cover two weeks ago, but only after we had finished the album. There wasn’t like a looming plan while we were recording, which is why I wanted to do it. I like to do stuff like this because I don’t have to go nuts and break my neck and tour all over the place for it. Even though I do like to tour… and it would be fun to play some shows for sure.
STEREOGUM: How long did it take to make the record?
JONES: Two sets of five days, I think. We did nine days, right?
ARMSTRONG: Yeah, nine days.
JONES: Let’s call it nine.
ARMSTRONG: So badass!
JONES: I know! We did all the songs in the first five days, except for the one we forgot and then… it was nice! Personally, I really enjoy doing records in two sessions so you have some room to see how you feel about everything. It was nice to go back and have some room to just kinda re-record a couple of songs that we’d done in the beginning. We figured out which way the record was going at that point and what was missing and so when we re-did those songs we put in what was missing. We just hit it a little harder. I like doing it in two sessions like that.
STEREOGUM: Well, now that it’s done, what was your takeaway from this project?
JONES: It was fun! And I made a new friend!
ARMSTRONG: Yeah! [laughter] Yeah, I’m really happy. I think for the past 25 years, with my band, it was this constant building of chaos and this kind of beast that just grew and grew… and to sort of jump off that train for a while and just do something for the sake of loving the music and loving a project and there’s no agenda attached or anything like that… I don’t know, I loved it. I loved working with Norah. She’s great. She’s an incredibly talented artist and I learned a lot and we… I don’t know, it was good!
JONES: The thing that was so fun for me was that we had no agenda and we got to play around. We just hired a bass player and a drummer and we both play guitar and piano. We got to experiment a lot but we didn’t linger on anything, we didn’t over-think anything, which was just really nice. I like working with people like him because he’s fast, smart, and he’s focused, and he’s present. There’s no bullshit. It was fun and it was easy.
STEREOGUM: Sometimes it’s just that simple.
ARMSTRONG: I’m easy! [sing-song voice, laughter] The thing too is just getting into the purity of the recording. The reason why it was fast was because we were just really kind of getting to the heart of making it really simple. It is rootsy sounding, for lack of a better word. I don’t know, it sounds really pure to me. And honest. And that’s what I brought away and took home from the project.
JONES: Yeah, it was just fun being open and working with someone who was so up for trying out different things — these songs are pretty straightforward and it’s a lot of the same tempos but, you know, we’re doing our own thing. We’re not the Everly Brothers. We wanted to play around with the arrangements a little and that was really fun.
STEREOGUM: I know how easy it is to sort of go down the rabbit hole spending too much time on things that should or could ostensibly be really simple.
JONES: Yeah, I never had the patience for that, but I don’t know. Billie Joe, would you say I’m impatient? [laughter]
ARMSTRONG: You’re pretty patient.
JONES: I don’t know.
ARMSTRONG: Nah, she’s bossy! [laughter]
JONES: I am kind of bossy. I’m not impatient in a mean way, I’m just kind of like, I can’t, my brain shuts down if there’s too much thinking about the same thing.
ARMSTRONG: I remember that we were texting about this project, and she was playing a show in Los Angeles, and she was staying in a certain hotel and she was saying: “Yeah I’m staying at blah blah place.” And I wrote back: “Oh! I stayed there before. I got thrown out for throwing a TV out the window!” And she wrote back: “I’m too lazy to do something like that.” And then I go, “Well I was really dumb. I’ll tell you what: You teach me how to be lazy, and I’ll teach you how to be dumb.” [laughter]
STEREOGUM: Did that end up working out then?
JONES: No, in the end I think we’re more alike than we thought.
ARMSTRONG: Yeah, she’s dumber than I thought!
JONES: I’m dumber than he thought. He’s lazier than I thought. [laughter]
STEREOGUM: People might be surprised by this pairing, but once you hear the record it really makes sense.
JONES: All my friends who I told about it were really excited but they had no idea what it was going to sound like. They were really blown away by how Billie Joe sounds… that he sounds so Everly-esque. Everyone has been so surprised and impressed.
ARMSTRONG: I get the same thing. You [Cole] mentioned being from Oklahoma and actually my mom is from Oklahoma, and she… you know, I’ve always been playing loud music my whole life and generally she likes it, but then I remembered to put this record on when she came over for dinner one night and she started two-stepping around the house. This 81-year-old woman is like, “Wow!” Life suddenly kind of came full-circle in this pretty rad way.
STEREOGUM: I can send this to my grandparents back in Oklahoma.
JONES: We’re all from Oklahoma deep down. [laughter] All of our families.
STEREOGUM: Finally, I’ve written about something my elderly grandparents will actually appreciate!
JONES: That’s nice.
ARMSTRONG: That IS nice!
Foreverly will be released on 11/25 on Reprise Records.