Three talented women, including one superstar, find a common bond and a great band.
It’s tough to know what to do next after you’ve sold more than 60 million records, won multiple Grammys, acted in movies, and basically conquered the world.
Norah Jones did all that. Along with a slew of other projects after her run over the last decade or so, she decided to back off, blend in and get comfortable with two stellar fellow musicians on a burgeoning side project called Puss n Boots, a country-tinged, Americana-feelin’ cool-as-all-get-out trio featuring Jones, Catherine Popper and Sasha Dobson. By all accounts, including the band’s, it’s working out just fine. The group has a new record and a current tour underway including high-profile gigs at the Newport Folk Festival and Neil Young’s annual Bridge Benefit.
Most people know about Jones, but Popper and Dobson are accomplished musicians in their own right. Popper toured as bassist/background vocalist with Ryan Adams and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, and Dobson has hit the road as a sidewoman for, who else, Norah Jones, as well as having her own budding career as a jazz singer/songwriter. No surprise that everyone in her family is a musician, including her father, well-known jazz pianist Smith Dobson. (The whole family played the Monterey Jazz Festival when she was 12.) But it’s the connection and vibe that really brought these women together, as well as everyone playing equal roles.
“It is so much about that, as far as none of us having to be alone in it,” Dobson told me while walking her dog in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. “Neither Cat nor I have had to deal with the level of responsibility that comes along with being as widely known as Norah. It sounds like a dream come true, but it’s also probably one of the scariest, heaviest experiences ever. I can’t even imagine the pressure. So this band, even with higher-pressure gigs, it works because we’re together in it, and we really are together in it. From what I know of Norah and Catherine, it’s just been really super fun and low pressure.”
Jones and Dobson hooked up in 2008 after Jones returned from her second tour, amidst her stratospheric rise to super stardom when both were hanging around legendary NYC club The Living Room. Eventually, a bond was created that has only strengthened with time.
Dobson was just beginning to get into the scene at The Living Room when she caught up with Jones, fresh off her second tour. They lost touch, but soon, both picked up again and began playing a local pool hall. “We kind of learned how to play guitar at a pool hall for about a year or two,” Dobson remembered. “Our friendship has always included music, or been based around music.”
After honing their new guitar chops in that stimulating NYC environment, the two decided to start something tangible and added the respected Popper to the mix. Lo, Puss n Boots was born. Jones asked Dobson to open and perform as backup musician on her 2010 tour for her album “The Fall.” Dobson admitted that “I didn’t even believe that I could do the job, but it worked out.”
When the tour ended, the trio got serious and began writing songs for Puss n Boots, playing shows, and after a few years, eventually releasing an album, “No Fools No Fun,” in July 2014. A fun element of the project is that the three often play different instruments than they normally do. “Catherine has a couple songs where she plays guitar, and I play drums on a buncha stuff, and Norah plays guitar on pretty much everything,” Dobson said, creating yet another common bond for the group.
“Puss N Boots has been kinda about us all coming back together,” Dobson said, “and it’s been really fun to actually have a record out, because we can hone in on our thing a little bit more. We’ve never really had the opportunity to put so much time into it. It’s so fun.”
For all three, it keeps coming back to the relaxed and comfortable connection they have on stage. That’s what makes Puss n Boots what it is.
“If I don’t know what’s happening I just look over at Norah and she smiles and I’m good,” Dobson said. “Stay connected on stage and you’re golden. And it’s really nice that people enjoy that. It seems to be kind of what we’re riding on as far as it all working out, it not being like, a joke. It’s about having fun and sharing music and connecting, both with each other and the audience.”
Puss n Boots performs October 1, 2014 at the Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria, VA 22305. For tickets, click here.
Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for WashingtonLife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.wordpress.com. He is also lead singer for the successful Northern Virginia classic rock cover band Second Wind.