Norah Jones and Sasha Dobson were born within one day of each other in March, 1979, so as Dobson sees it, “We had so much in common right away. It was impossible for us to not hit it off. ”
It was another 20 years before they actually met one another, however, when both were sitting in on the same jazz gig in New York City. They had accumulated more common interests than their shared zodiac signs in the intervening decades, and soon the two were sharing another gig on alternating weeks before Jones’ career exploded with the release of “Don’t Know Why” in 2002.
Dobson and Jones shared jazz roots and musical families; Jones’ father was renowned sitar master Ravi Shankar, while Dobson’s father, Smith Dobson, was a jazz pianist who played with the likes of vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, saxophonist Joe Henderson, and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.
The two fell out of touch as Jones’ debut album, Come Away With Me, netted her five Grammy Awards and became ubiquitous on the radio and in coffee shops. But at a chance meeting after the release of her 2004 follow-up, Feels Like Home, Jones and Dobson discovered that they were both trying to improve their guitar skills and began playing unannounced shows together at the West Village pool hall Fat Cat. “We duked it out at the pool hall for about a year and a half and once we reached a somewhat functional place we talked about how great it would be to invite Catherine, who’s amazing for a multitude of reasons, and find a gig.”
That would be Catherine Popper, a bassist and vocalist who was a member of Ryan Adams and the Cardinals and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. When Popper signed on the trio became Puss N Boots and began playing intimate, unannounced shows for audiences chiefly made up of friends in New York clubs. They gradually accumulated a catalogue of country songs by influences including Johnny Cash, Rodney Crowell, and Roger Miller and roots-inflected rock tunes by Neil Young and Wilco, supplementing the covers with a few well-chosen originals.
With the release of their debut album, No Fools, No Fun, this month on Blue Note Records (the title comes from Johnny Cash’s song “Bull Rider,” which appears in a live version recorded at the Bell House in Brooklyn), Puss N Boots is graduating from their low-key club settings to festival stages and larger venues. They’ll play the TLA on Friday night.
With all three members busy with their own more high-profile careers, Puss N Boots was always considered more of an outlet for camaraderie than a serious pursuit, according to Dobson. “For years we never charged a cover,” she says. “We played just for fun, working on new things, trying different instruments.”
All three switch off between various instruments on the album and in their live set, with Popper playing guitar and bass, Jones picking up the fiddle for one track as well as playing guitar, and Dobson playing both guitar and bass as well as drums. One of her first experiences on the drums was playing the legendary Levon Helm’s kit, opening for the late Band drummer at one of his Midnight Ramble events, held regularly at his barn in Woodstock. Dobson says that her jazz background has helped her to adjust to playing different instruments in a variety of situations. “That’s the nature of being a jazz musician,” she says. “You have to learn how to work in so many different environments. It’s very rare in jazz that you just work with one band. Part of the reason I’d even consider playing drums is because I think I have a strong sense of time from my jazz singing.”
That experience, shared by Jones, also explains why they sing together so harmoniously, she continues. “I think that’s why we have such an easy time following each other,” Dobson says. “We’re phrasing in a unique way but we’re both hearing things in a similar way, so we can follow one another without really having to plan too much. And that, at least in my experience, is kind of rare.”
While Popper comes more from the rock than the jazz world, Dobson says that the bassist shares similar facility with both her voice and her playing. “Catherine doesn’t talk about it as much, but she’s also a total ex-jazz nerd. She went to school and studied classical and jazz music, and because she’s always working as a sideman singing harmony and playing bass she’s very good at working with all kinds of different musicians. When we opened for Levon at the Ramble – which was life-changing – his bass player couldn’t make it so Catherine sat in and literally played two hours straight with no music. That kind of knowledge is certainly from jazz.”
While jazz may pave the way for Puss N Boots to achieve their harmonious sound, the songs on No Fools, No Fun stick solidly within an amiable roots feel, with a looseness resembling a campfire singalong. The most obvious precedent is the pair of trio recordings released by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris. The album leads with sweet, twangy three-part harmonies on Tom Paxton’s “Leaving London” and proceeds through a live “ooh-la-la” rendition of Neil Young’s “Down By the River, a tongue-in-cheek, down-home (and occasionally profanity-laced) romp through Roger Miller’s “Tarnished Angel,” and an introspective take on Jeff Tweedy’s “Jesus, Etc.”
All three also contribute originals, including Dobson’s pun-filled “Sex Degrees of Separation” and cowboy-trot closer “You’ll Forget Me;” Jones’ rockabilly shout of defiance “Don’t Know What It Means;” and Popper’s haunting “Pines.” The repertoire, Dobson says, has grown along with the trio’s abilities. “A lot of the music at the first shows was based on the songs we could actually play,” she laughs. “We definitely weren’t trying to bust out jazz standards – we didn’t have that ability yet. It just kept evolving from there.”
Considering her father’s experiences with Bobby Hutcherson, whose recent release Enjoy the View makes him the only artist to have recorded in every era of the label’s storied existence, Dobson feels a special thrill at being signed to Blue Note, even in such an unexpected capacity. “It’s insane what a joy it is,” she says. “Ten years ago I made my peace with letting go of that dream and allowing new ideas and new ways of approaching music into my world, and it took off so much more than my jazz career. So it’s hilarious to be signed to Blue Note in a country band, but it’s also a dream come true.”
Tickets and information for Puss N Boots at The TLA can be found here.
Puss n Boots