It has been five years since Norah Jones eased her way into the world's ears with the 8 million-selling, eight-Grammy-winning album Come Away with Me. Since then, she has toured relentlessly and defied those who thought her initial success was an anomaly by continuing to softly and sweetly dominate the charts. Jones spoke with TIME's Josh Tyrangiel about her third No. 1 album, Not Too Late, her coming film debut and, of course, American Idol.
Is it still exciting to have a No. 1 album?
Yeah, it's still pretty cool. [Laughs.] It's definitely different than the first time, though. There's never going to be another first time, but everyone at the label gets really pumped up, and someone sends out a big e-mail.
What's the subject line like on one of those e-mails?
The subject line is always in all caps and has about a thousand exclamation points. It's very subtle.
This is the first album on which you co-wrote all the songs. Is there an emotional difference between singing your own words and singing someone else's?
There can be. I grew up singing jazz standards, so I connect to interpreting a song. But I still feel better singing my own.
One of your chief collaborators is your boyfriend, Lee Alexander. Does that make the process harder or easier?
It's just different from the other part of our lives. When he's working on a song, he's very shy about it, but me, I'm like, "Hey! Check out this song!" But we've been joined at the hip for almost seven years, so there's no need to mask our criticisms.
If you could claim credit for any song written over the past 10 years, which one would you pick?
I love that White Stripes song We're Going to Be Friends that they used for the Napoleon Dynamite theme. I've always thought it was just a sweet, beautiful little song, maybe because I've watched Napoleon Dynamite a bazillion times.
Do you watch American Idol?
I actually have a friend I went to college with who's on this season, Brandon Rogers, so I'm trying to watch for him. It really is entertaining. I'm not sure how many times I need to hear some of those songs sung poorly, but it's great television. And the bottom line is, there are some really talented people. Kelly Clarkson is a really good singer. It's not the kind of music I usually listen to, but she's got a really good voice. It's nice to see someone make a career from that show.
You currently have three relatively obscure side projects going. Is there a thrill in escaping out of the spotlight and back into a regular old band?
Oh, yeah. The first time I started playing with the Little Willies--that sounds weird, but you know what I mean--it was right when my first album came out, so it was amazing for me to go back to places I used to play and do gigs for people who were only too happy to ignore me. It's very grounding.
You've done duets with Andre 3000, Willie Nelson, Dave Grohl, Ray Charles and Dolly Parton. Which one was most memorable?
Dolly, because she came into the studio with our band. I mean, sometimes when you do these duets you're not even in the same room. With Dolly, it was a live take, which just makes it so much more exciting. And Dolly's adorable and hilarious, and she just sings her butt off.
You're making your acting debut in My Blueberry Nights in June. How exactly did that happen?
Oh, man, I don't know. It's kind of nutty. I got a call that this filmmaker, Wong Kar Wai, wanted to meet with me. So, O.K., I'll have lunch with him, because I thought he wanted music. Then he asked me if I wanted to be in a movie, and I said, "I love film. I'd love to try it, but I don't know if I can act." And he said, "Ah, you'll be fine."
And are you fine? I mean, it's a lead role. You're in scenes with Jude Law and Natalie Portman.
It made me soooo nervous. I agreed to do the movie and had no idea who else would be in it. I just figured he wouldn't have actors of that caliber and fame because I thought it was a little indie movie. All of a sudden, it was Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz, David Strathairn and Jude Law, and it's like, "Oh, crap, what'd I get myself into?" But it was too late to pull out. If it doesn't work, though, I hope I can always go back to my day job.