Sex Degrees of Separation: The ladies of Puss n Boots

Photographer: Richard Ballard

Puss n Boots’ Norah Jones and Sasha Dobson dish on their new album, No Fools, No Fun

 

Norah Jones and Sasha Dobson’s lives have run on such parallel courses that it’s almost like they were musical doppelgängers separated in the delivery room of a hospital.

They were born a day apart in March of 1979, both are the offspring of well-known musicians (Jones is the daughter of sitar master Ravi Shankar, while Dobson is the daughter of Bay Area jazz musicians Smith and Gail Dobson) and both moved to New York City at a young age (Jones when she was 20, and Dobson when she was 17).

With that kind of lineage, it was almost inevitable the pair would come together at some point for an artistic project. Add in fellow New York-based bassist Catherine Popper, and that current project is Puss n Boots – the alternative country band that has been blowing away audiences and critics on major stages and small clubs since 2008.

The three musicians share similar personalities, consistently laughing and telling jokes, as evidenced by their hilarious live World Cafe recording at the NON-COMMvention in Philadelphia in May – not to mention their slightly bawdy choice of band name. Dobson, who got her start in the jazz world and now plays guitar and drums in the band, says she feels spoiled to be working with such close friends. For Dobson, Puss n Boots has turned into the “most cathartic side project I’ve been in.”

“It’s always surprisingly easy with those girls,” Dobson says while walking on the sidewalks of Brooklyn. “It’s inevitable that we cut our nerves in half on stage. It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, we know what to do.’ It’s like family, so it can be hard at times. But mostly, there’s such a trust factor there that’s so great.”

Puss n Boots’ debut album – No Fools, No Fun – came out in July and features five original songs, including two each from Dobson and Popper and one from Jones, and seven varied covers, all taken from their live performances. Some of the highlights include a cover of Neil Young’s classic ballad “Down By the River” and Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.” (on which Jones famously mixed up the lyrics during the band’s first major performance – Young’s annual Bridge School Benefit Concert – in front of Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy in 2008).

The 12-song collection takes its name from a lyric from the Rodney Crowell song “Bull Rider,” later made famous by Johnny Cash. “Bull Rider” is one of three tracks Puss n Boots recorded live in June of 2013 at The Bell House in Brooklyn for No Fools, No Fun. The rest of the album was recorded over a three-day session at Studio G in Brooklyn with Grammy-nominated engineer and mixer Joel Hamilton, who also has worked with Tom Waits, The Black Keys and Pretty Lights.

“Joel kind of let us do our thing,” says Jones, while waiting in the Green Room of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon for the band’s performance in July. “He gave us great feedback when we really needed it. Mostly, he just captured our thing and made us sound good. It was a fun environment to record in – mellow, no pressure.”

Musically, No Fools, No Fun is a long way away from the jazz recordings that helped to make Jones a household name in 2003 when she scored five Grammy awards (including Album of the Year) for her debut release, Come Away with Me, and sold more than 26 million copies worldwide. The new album is filled with the sounds of Americana that now emanates from places like Nashville and the Appalachians and not as much from the Big Apple.

Pussnboots_pullThe quick three-day recording session was not a completely unique experience for Jones. Her first crack at a country-tinged band – The Little Willlies – recorded their 13-track self-titled debut in just two days in the studio.

“I like recording fast – especially these kinds of bands,” Jones says. “We’ve been playing live for so long that it made sense to do it that way. What we do on stage is what we did in the studio.”

Puss n Boots’ stage show had its origins a decade ago when Jones and Dobson decided they wanted to learn how to play the guitar in a live setting. Dobson started booking weekly shows at The Fat Cat – a jazz hall in the West Village – and the duo would play to small, inattentive crowds in the front pool hall.

Jones says she originally picked up a guitar when she was 10, learning how to play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and then she didn’t play it again for a decade, until she moved to New York. She had her mom send an old guitar that she owned because she didn’t have a piano in her apartment and needed something to write songs with. Jones ended up buying a Squier electric guitar for $100 and with it wrote “Come Away With Me.”

“I love playing the piano – it’s always my first instrument and I will always love it,” Jones says. “But as far as performing goes, it’s definitely more fun to stand up [with a guitar] and face your audience and to be able to move around and turn around and look at the drummer than to just be sitting stationary.”

While recognized now for their live show, No Fools, No Fun has garnered critical praise for Puss n Boots – especially its original tunes. Jones’ song “Don’t Know What It Means” describes someone who doesn’t know what it takes to be a friend, a freethinking person or a lover. She says she wrote the song in 10 minutes in Japan while playing her guitar loudly in the dressing room, with the line “You don’t know what it means to be my man” sticking in her head.

One of Dobson’s original contributions – “Sex Degrees of Separation” – first showed up on her 2013 solo album, Aquarius, but she says Jones convinced her to do a Puss n Boots version. Dobson started writing the melody to “Sex Degrees” while touring with Jones’ backing jazz band, finding inspiration in the abstract harmonies of Jones’ original songs and the classic harmonies on some of the country covers being performed live in concert.

While Dobson says the Puss n Boots members are “amazingly supportive of each other,” there’s also a bit of shyness that goes on when deciding whose songs to sing. She says it usually takes one of the members to say they love a song and want to perform it.

“None of us want to impose our own music on the band,” Dobson says. “The band’s just about doing something different and doing songs you don’t normally get to do.”

Puss n Boots has certainly come a long way from playing for no one at The Fat Cat to The Tonight Show and the Bridge School Benefit Concert in California (they perform at it again this month along with Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Brian Wilson). R&B legend Mavis Staples even performed a song with them at this year’s Newport Folk Festival, which Dobson called “surreal” and “like going to church.”

Dobson says while each band member has several different projects going on at once – including Jones giving birth to her first baby earlier this year – they all take the stress and success in stride.

“Sometimes I wonder how I got myself into this shit – especially when we’re playing festivals and the whole back of the stage is surrounded by amazing musicians who are there to listen,” Dobson laughs. “We try not to psych ourselves out too much. And then if I look over at Norah and she smiles, I’m golden.”

 

Puss n Boots play Fed Live (234 N. Second St., Harrisburg) on Friday, October 10. 8pm doors. 21+. $25-$30. Click here for tickets.


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Posted in Headlines, Music, Music – Harrisburg

Michael Yoder has been writing stories at numerous publications for more than a decade. His interests include impersonating Santa Claus, performing stand-up comedy and drawing circular objects. His dream is to win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Michael is a former features editor for Fly; he left in 2015.

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