Darkness delivered sweetly: That’s what drew together the improbable partnership of gentle-voiced Norah Jones and pop-punk arena rocker Billie Joe Armstrong, who leads Green Day. They decided to remake, of all things, an entire album from 1958: the Everly Brothers’ “Songs Our Daddy Taught Us” (Cadence).
The Everlys’ original is a contender for the most morbid album of the early rock ’n’ roll era. It arrived soon after their huge 1957 hits, “Bye Bye Love” and “Wake Up Little Suzie,” both of which appeared on their 1958 debut album. Within less than a year, Don and Phil Everly released “Songs Our Daddy Taught Us,” an unamplified album of stark traditional ballads and old country songs. The lyrics tell stories that feature dead and dying parents, lovers united only in death, a dying child, prisoners, cheating lovers and a few murders.
“We did some strange albums in our time,” Phil Everly said by telephone from California. “That one stands out because of the sparseness and the fact that the songs were our heritage.”
The tribute by Mr. Armstrong and Ms. Jones, “Foreverly” (Reprise), treats the songs respectfully, filling out the arrangements and usually keeping the Everly Brothers’ harmonies. While it adds an understated rhythm section, it lets the songs stay haunted. “Foreverly” is due for release on Monday, and Ms. Jones and Mr. Armstrong were in New York recently to talk about it.
They were an asymmetrical team for a conversation at, of all places, the venerable theater-district restaurant Sardi’s, in a booth presided over by caricatures of Katharine and Audrey Hepburn. They were relaxed with each other, regularly proffering mutual admiration. Yet they still made an odd pair: the ultra-skinny Mr. Armstrong, 41, wearing a cropped leather jacket with his black hair in a punkabilly updo of tangled curls, and Ms. Jones, 34, a dark-eyed, round-faced girl next door wearing a casual sweater.
Still, Ms. Jones’s most recent solo album, “Little Broken Hearts,” has a dulcet murder ballad of its own, “Miriam,” while Mr. Armstrong has prized melody and narrative in Green Day’s songs. If these two multimillion-selling, Grammy-winning singers were going to intersect, an album of Everly Brothers songs is a plausible spot.
“Songs Our Daddy Taught Us” could hardly be more sparse or ghostly. Its arrangements use just the close-harmony voices of Don and Phil Everly, backed by a lightly strummed guitar and a bass fiddle. Among the songs are folk standards like “Roving Gambler,” about a man who seduces and abandons a woman and kills a man at a card game; “I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail,” in which a mother bails out her son and then dies; and “Down in the Willow Garden,” about a wastrel who murders his girlfriend.
“Perfect for the holiday season,” Mr. Armstrong said.
But both took the music seriously. “It’s almost like a meditation,” Ms. Jones said. “Their voices are at times high and childlike in the most beautiful way, but these songs are so dark. There’s an innocence to their recordings, definitely. But that innocence, juxtaposed with the cheating lovers and everything — it’s just creepy when you hear it.”
The Everly Brothers, rooted in Kentucky, had been performing songs like those since they were children, appearing daily on a live family radio show at 6 a.m. They were more concerned with melody and harmony than what the words meant.
“I never thought about it too much as a kid when we first learned them,” said Phil Everly, 74, two years younger than his brother. “Those songs go back quite a bit. They’re real live songs about real things that were going on in people’s lives.”
The album’s severely minimal arrangements, Mr. Everly explained, reflected “the way you’d sing those songs on your porch.”
Mr. Armstrong said he discovered the Everlys’ album a few years ago and got the idea of rerecording the songs with a woman. But he was hugely prolific with Green Day in 2012, releasing three albums within six months: “Uno!,” “Dos!” and “Tre!” Green Day toured internationally through much of 2013, and it’s headed to Australia next year. But while blasting Green Day songs, as he has since the 1980s, Mr. Armstrong had also been considering the opposite end of the volume spectrum.
“Having big guitars and Marshalls for so many years, it kind of leaves your ears ringing,” he said. “I love the power of playing quiet.”
“Me too,” Ms. Jones said with a giggle; playing quietly is what she does.
Mr. Armstrong’s wife, Adrienne, was the one who suggested Ms. Jones as a duet partner. Mr. Armstrong had met Ms. Jones at the 2005 Grammy Awards, where her duet with Ray Charles on his album “Genius Loves Company” beat out Green Day’s “American Idiot” for record of the year and album of the year. (“American Idiot” was named best rock album.) On the broadcast, they stood side by side with Stevie Wonder, Bono and Alicia Keys in an awkward all-star rendition of the Beatles’ “Across the Universe.” But they had not been in contact until Mr. Armstrong proposed “Foreverly.”
“I’ve been asked to collaborate a lot, but I’ve never been asked to do a whole record like this,” Ms. Jones said.
Mr. Armstrong, who lives in Oakland, Calif., came to New York to make the album with Ms. Jones, who lives in Brooklyn. They didn’t tell their record companies. They booked five days in May — between Green Day tour dates — at the Magic Shop, a studio in SoHo, and returned for four days in August, for a total of nine days of recording with a rhythm section Ms. Jones chose the drummer Dan Riser and the bassist Tim Luntz.
They had decided to use the Everly Brothers harmonies as a template — Ms. Jones sang Phil’s parts, the upper harmony — and agreed not to listen to the many other versions of the old songs.
“When you have that two-part harmony as opposed to that shiny sounding, pretty three-part harmony, there can be dissonance,” she said. “Sometimes they jump in and out of perfect thirds. This is nerdery, but that’s what makes it so eerie.”
The priority was the vocal blend. “I was just trying to find myself in her voice,” Mr. Armstrong said.
They sang together live, making eye contact, as the Everlys had done.
And they nudged the songs just slightly: toward a barroom waltz with fiddle for “Barbara Allen”; a backwoods church hymn for a dying child’s song, “Put My Little Shoes Away” (complete with squeaking pump organ); a hint of rockabilly for the cuckold’s revenge of “Long Time Gone”; some spooky guitar reverb for “Down in the Willow Garden.” Ms. Jones’s piano often echoes the foursquare honky-tonk of Bobbie Nelson, Willie Nelson’s sister and longtime pianist. Mr. Armstrong completely sets aside his Green Day smirk.
“Foreverly” is the kind of side project that pop stars can do on a whim, schedules permitting. It doesn’t announce a new direction for Ms. Jones or Mr. Armstrong, except in one aspect, the spontaneity: “I don’t think I’ll ever make a record and tell anybody again,” Mr. Armstrong said. “It’s just better that way.”
Phil Everly said he was pleased with the remake: “They did a very good job, and they blend very well.” And he noted that “Foreverly” was as unexpected as “Songs Our Daddy Taught Us” had been.
“The formula today is to just keep doing what you’ve been doing,” he said. “I have to respect them for not doing that.”
Full interview at New York Times: HERE