Puss N’ Boots — the Brooklyn-based trio made up of Sasha Dobson, Norah Jones. and Catherine Popper — released their long-awaited sophomore album, Sister, on Valentine’s Day. And long-awaited it was, not just for fans but for the band members themselves.
Jones, as everyone knows, has a successful solo career (not to mention other side projects and two kids); Dobson is a respected singer-songwriter in her own right. And Popper is basically a bassist to the stars. Not only was she a full-time member of Ryan Adams and the Cardinals from 2004 to 2006, but she’s played with everyone from Jesse Malin to Grace Potter to the late Levon Helm.
Sister is a very different affair than No Fools, No Fun, the band’s 2014 debut. No Fools was a bit more ramshackle — a mix of originals, covers, and live songs, most of which the band had been performing live for years. This time around, most of the 14 songs were written explicitly for this album and recorded in the studio. The band is more confident, and the sound is more polished. But polish is not the same thing as gloss; Puss N’ Boots still sound charming and loose. There are more originals this time out, but the band still includes several covers as well (Jones’ vocals on Tom Petty’s “Angel Dream” are haunting). They recorded the album in Chicago and Brooklyn with help from engineer Tom Schick.
Dobson seems to have contributed the most originals to Sister (her “The Great Romancer,” in particular, stands out) but each of the ladies gets a couple of moments in the spotlight. And there are other instances — such as the title track and the instrumental “Jamola,” which opens the album — that are full-scale collaborations. The band members swap instruments throughout the disc. What stands out above the writing and playing, though, is still the singing. The trio’s three-part harmonies are exquisite.
Interviewing Puss N’ Boots feels a little like crashing someone’s slumber party. As with any group of old friends, there’s no shortage of talking over each other, or of telling dirty jokes (their name itself is a double entendre). But beneath the humor is a deep affection that all three members have for each other — and for this band. Being in Puss N’ Boots gives Dobson, Jones and Popper an opportunity to push themselves and each other to do things they might not do in other contexts — and to have fun while they do them. As I learned when I met the three of them on a frigid February afternoon, this band is about taking risks but not taking yourself too seriously.
What were the differences recording your sophomore album versus No Fools No Fun?
Popper: Sophomores like to do it! (laughter)
Dobson: I’m still a virgin! But I definitely feel a little bit less of a virgin as a songwriter… God, that first record. I remember Norah was like, “Sasha, you really need to finish that song.” And I was like, “Okay!” That’s where I was at [during] the first record. This time it was like, “Which song should we use?” I don’t know, I’m not really explaining myself.
Jones: I feel like this time, we got together after not playing for a couple of years. We hadn’t really played in a long time. And we got together [this time] and we planned it right. I feel like everybody [was] inspired to write…
Popper: Also — and we were just talking about this — but [with] our first record, it was like, “Let’s make some demos.” [They] were great demos at a great studio and stuff. But this record was like, “We’re going to make our second album.” Whereas the first one was sort of like, “Let’s [just] get this stuff down.”
There were some live [songs] on the first album.
Dobson: [With] the first one, what had happened was, we as Puss N’ Boots opened for my CD release [about] eight years ago. I had recorded that show and I remember I had listened to my set, and then I listened to our set, and it was killing. And I was like, “You guys! We’ve gotta record, we sound great!” So we started with these live tracks and then we went into the studio for a couple of days. Tom [Schick] was busy. We kinda had this mild deadline. (To Jones) I think it might have been because you were having a baby!
Jones: I was very pregnant, wasn’t I?
Dobson: Yeah! We didn’t know what we wanted to do, but we were like, “Let’s get this out of the way.” And then it just worked out. That’s kinda how we [recorded] that body of music. But most of it was very seasoned for us in that we’d been playing it for years. All this stuff was brand-new! So it’s a totally different energy.
Can I ask you about some specific tunes on the album? Tell me about the title track, “Sister.” I’m not sure which of you [to ask]. (laughter)
Dobson: I kinda took over that one! What we do, with a lot of our songs, is [that] we’ll get together to rehearse and then we’ll make up stuff on the side. Norah will be screwin’ around on some part, and then I’ll get on the drums. Some of the songs that we’ve written so far started out that way. [With] “Sister,” Catherine and I were sound checking —
Jones: I was in the bathroom!
Dobson: I was like, (sings) “Sister, I don’t wanna know!” And Catherine was like, “Did you just make that up?” We came up with a groove right away.
Jones: This was like a ’50s funk [thing]. I came out [and] was like, “Don’t stop!”
Dobson: We quickly turned it into a song, you know?
Popper: I think you wrote the lyrics over lunch.
Dobson: I think we were in the studio and this one was lingering. And we didn’t have a ton of time to [say] “Maybe you should change this line.” We wrote the song collectively, [but] the lyrics I came up with.
Tell me about “The Great Romancer.”
Dobson: Yeah! Okay, so we do these Christmas shows; they’re pretty fun. And every year, I’m like, “I’m gonna do a Christmas song.” And every year, I bail out. It’s just too busy, too crazy, sometimes we have tons of guests. So this year, I was like, “Goddamn it, I’m gonna do it!” I moved to the Rockaways specifically to isolate myself and write more – it was a big commitment that I made to myself. So I was real settled in to my writing routine, and I was determined to finished this song for the Christmas show.
I’m friends with Don Was, who runs the label [Blue Note]. He is a mentor. And I was in touch with him about something, maybe him coming to town, and I asked him a question. Like, “Do you have any ideas? I have to finish this Christmas song and I’m completely drawing a blank.” And he sent me a text that said, “All I want for Christmas is a fucking answer.”
Jones: Oh, that’s where it came from?!
Dobson: So I basically was like, “Okay, I’ll talk to you later!” I missed yoga, which is crazy for me. And I tried! I really tried to figure out how to use that line, “All I want for Christmas is a fucking answer.” (laughter) Two hours later, I was like, “I got nothing.” It’s really hard to eloquently make sense of that. So then he wrote back, “All I want for Christmas is the answer.” And then he wrote back again, “All I want for Christmas is an answer.” And I was like, “Gotta go! That’s all I need.” I never did that before [but] I think because it was Don, you know, I forced myself to finish.
It started with him. [But] all the contribution he made was that line — which was plenty. I figured you were bringing it up — I don’t know if you saw the liner notes [but] it says written by Sasha Dobson and Don Was!
I just thought it was a pretty song.
Dobson: Oh, thank you! That song was definitely written for this band.
Jones: I remember you came in [and] you were like, “I wrote a fucking Christmas song!”
You [also] did a few covers on this album. I’m a huge Tom Petty fan, so I definitely wanna ask you about “Angel Dream.” Why that song? It’s beautiful, but it’s not a well-known Petty tune.
Popper: Well, Norah picked it.
Jones: Yeah, I used to do all these Tom Petty tribute shows with this BestFest band in New York. I never got to do that song, but I heard it [at one of the shows]. It’s on that soundtrack from the ’90s, She’s The One, and it’s so beautiful. I actually started covering it on a tour I did [and] then I was like, “Guys, can we do this song?” when we started playing again. Sasha came up with this really different beat. (to Dobson) It was cool because I don’t know if you knew the song before we started playing it.
Dobson: Not very well.
Jones: [But] you instinctively did something that was so different — and it was really fun. So we just decided to record it.
Dobson: This band is all about “ignorance is bliss!” We ride a wave of intuition.
Didn’t Trump describe his presidency that way?
Jones: Please don’t compare us to that!
Popper: This is how I talk about my own playing. My style is dictated by my limitations, and it’s a beautiful thing… If I could do everything, then I could sound like anybody. But because I can only do certain things, I sound like me. So when I pick up an instrument that I don’t know how to play well at all, then my style comes out even [more]. It’s very spiritual for me.
I’ve played for bass for 30 years or something. And I was so in my head about it all the time. And then I was like, “Maybe I don’t have to get better at bass; maybe I have to stop caring about what I can’t do.” And then all of a sudden, my playing solidified in a way.
I think you (Catherine) sing lead on the Concrete Blonde cover [“Joey’]. Tell me how that came about.
Popper: Yeah! Well, when they asked me to play with them, they were doing mostly country covers. And I just said, “I wonder what would happen if brought this in.” And Norah was like, “Oh, I grew up listening to that song.”
Jones: My favorite song ever!
Popper: I think that was the first song where you guys [said], “Wait a minute! You’re not doing anything weird in this band, and you need to do something.” And I was terrified.
Jones: To sing it?
Popper: Yes! I’m not a lead singer. You know — I get onstage and I’m foolin’ around and makin’ eyes at people in the crowd. And all of a sudden, I’m in the front. Are you kidding me? It was terrifying!
Jones: And she has a beautiful voice. We were like, “You’ve gotta do something that you wanna do but you’re scared to.” So she started [singing] and then writing songs — which are also amazing. What I really like is that each of us brings in different songs, cover-wise. I mean, Cat comes from a very different place. Except [for] “Joey,” you brought in a couple of songs I [didn’t] even know.
(to Norah) Are the songs that you would write for PNB different than you would write for a solo album?
Jones: I think the songs I wrote for this album were with this in mind — with [our] harmonies in mind, with [Sasha’s] drums in mind. I think I wrote “Tell Yer Mama” [from her album The Fall] for this band. But then I put it on my [solo] record. But for sure.
One [reason] I wanted all three of you in the same room is that I want to ask each of you what the next person brings to the band that is unique. Sasha, we can start with you. Catherine, you can tell me [about] Norah. Norah, you can tell me [about] Sasha. Sasha, what does Catherine bring to Puss N’ Boots that is unique?
Dobson: Oh my God! Where [do] I begin? First of all, Catherine is one of my heroes. She can play any kind of music, she can play by ear, and she’s also very studious. [She] knows theory [and] tons of shit on bass. She can play with anyone. I really admire all that Catherine has accomplished as a bass player and also — I don’t mean for a woman, but because she’s a woman, it’s just that much more inspiring. It’s really amazing to be in a band with two other women. Especially when you grew up playing music with men.
Jones: You’re either gonna make us barf or cry.
Popper: I know, I’m crying a little bit!
Dobson: Sorry! [But] I love her. And I feel inspired by these women. The only thing I wish is that we could play more. Because I work with two very busy women. (to Catherine) Your turn! We should do more of these, you guys. It’s really therapeutic.
Popper: Well, the first time I met Norah, it was at The Living Room… There was a big crew at this club called The Living Room. Everybody was just part of the scene. And Norah just walked up to me [and said], “Hey! You were playing bass at the wedding,” and started talking to me. And I was like, “I love her.” And when you guys reached out to me to play, I couldn’t believe that you were doing something you didn’t know how to do unapologetically — which is really hard for me.
Jones: We were shittin’ all over the place!
Popper: But you were having so much fun! And your guitar solos — it was that thing I’m talking about, where the musicality was coming out in this limited capacity. But people would come to the shows and be riveted. And it was so fun. ’Cause when I first started doing things I didn’t know how to do in this band, I was horrified. And I would say to both of them, but especially to you [Norah], “I don’t know how to do this.” And you would say, “Shut up! (counts off) One, two…” And it was great! I needed [that]. Like, I will stand on the high dive for five minutes, and everybody’s cheering, and I will climb back down. You know what I’m saying? And Norah is just like, “I’m gonna push you and give you a kiss as I do it.”
Jones: I feel like my life would be very different without Sasha Dobson. As a friend, but [also] as a musician. We met in 1999, shared a jazz gig and we were instantly [friends]. But then we kind of lost touch. Then we got back in touch and we were, like, instantly best friends again. That was in 2004-ish. She was like, “Hey, man, I really wanna play guitar.” And I said, “Me too.” I had been playing a little guitar in this other band but I wanted to get better. And she was like, “I got this gig at The Fat Cat, man! Let’s play!” The Fat Cat is a pool hall in the West Village. They have a jazz room in back. But Sasha said, “I can get us a gig in the pool hall part where it’s not a big deal.” This was around the time my second record was out. And I just wore a baseball cap and I was like, “Alright!” She booked us this gig and we just, like — we could barely [play guitar]. We really saved it with our harmonies. But as an artist, it was like, “If she’s doing it, I’m doing it too!” It was fearless. I felt the same way, like she pushed me off the edge. We have a “feel” connection, like we were separated at birth. And it’s not normal necessarily; it’s not like everybody has that [but] I always felt like that about you.
Dobson: Thanks, Norah… I’m grateful for my sisters.
Top photo by Danny Clinch
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Dave Steinfeld has written about women in popular music more than any male journalist in America. In addition to BUST, he has contributed to Curve, Bitch, Rockrgrl, Essence and all the major radio networks. He grew up in Connecticut and is currently based in New York City.