Meet The Twangy Trio That Took Over Newport

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Things almost got ugly toward the end of the recent Puss n Boots tour. Norah Jones, her fellow New York City-based singer-songwriter Sasha Dobson, and their good friend Cat Popper — an acclaimed bassist-for-hire and budding songwriter to boot — found themselves with a couple hours of downtime, and they nearly got in to some real trouble. Not with booze or drugs or anything, but rather with shopping. “I hurt myself we shopped so hard,” Popper shares.

“You did pretty good,” Dobson adds. “You were pretty controlled on this tour.”

“I put all that shit back,” Popper counters with a laugh. “But, I was ready to throw down.”

Luckily, Puss n Boots saved its throwing down for the stage. The trio’s brief tour was in support of its debut album, No Fools, No Fun, a collection of five twangy originals and seven of the country and rock chestnuts they’ve been covering since 2008, when the three pals got together on a lark. As Jones, Popper, and Dobson shared with us just before taking the stage at the Newport Folk Festival, Puss n Boots has always been about having fun. They’ll certainly play live again and possibly make another record, but beyond that, there’s no telling where this wagon trail leads.
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How did you go about picking the songs you’ve covered live and on record?
Norah Jones: “It was kind of gradual.”
Sasha Dobson: “These guys tend to travel a little more than me. I do a lot of work locally in New York and Brooklyn. If I’m traveling, it’s because I’m doing my own thing — not quite like Norah, obviously. But, I’m mostly in New York. If either of them is ever in town, I’m like, ‘You guys want to get together and play?’ And often, if we have a gig booked, one of us will be like, ‘By the way, I’ve got this one song that’s really been in my head.’ So [we picked songs] really organically if we had a gig, which were sporadic. It had a lot to do with schedules."
Cat Popper: "Sasha was pretty much always the catalyst. ‘Are you guys around to do this thing?’ It’s awesome."
SD: "We’re close, but when you just get back from a long tour, sometimes the last thing you want to do is local things right away. But, everyone always seemed so in alignment, just raging right away.”
NJ: “We never thought about making records. It was like, ‘Let’s go play and have all of our friends come out.’ It was like a bar gig.”

One of the standouts on the record is the cover of Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.” That song has become kind of a modern standard, no?
NJ: “It’s kind of become like an our-generation classic, which I didn’t even realize until we covered it for a couple years. I realized the audience was like, ‘I love this song.’ People would sing along. I love that song — I guess I thought I was special — but everyone loves it.”

What do you think makes a song a modern classic?
NJ: “I don’t think there’s a formula. It’s just you hit it or you don’t. It strikes a chord with people or it doesn’t.”
CP: “I always find that's not on purpose. I’ll like the song where people are like, ‘I don’t remember that song.’ So, I think I might be wrong. Whenever someone is like, ‘Let’s do a Captain Beefheart song,’ I’m like, ‘Let’s do 'Observatory Crest.'' And they’re like, ‘What the fuck is 'Observatory Crest?'' Well, it’s my favorite Captain Beefheart song."
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That’s pretty cool; you go for the obscure song.
SD: “We were trying to do mostly obscure covers at first — weird Wanda Jackson stuff, like ‘In and Out of Time,’ stuff that was almost too difficult to even ponder.”
NJ: “When we started playing with Cat, we had this idea we were going to be a rockabilly band. But, we didn’t want to go too far in one direction.”
SD: “It’s cool. There’s an openness and freeness to what we’re doing. Because it’s just the three of us, it feels like the songs go together. It doesn’t have to be only rockabilly, but somehow, there’s a sequence that makes sense.”

If you make another record, would you ever go off in another direction — maybe a disc of synth-pop covers?
NJ: “I don’t know if we’re looking that far ahead. I’m sure we just want to keep playing.”
SD: “Synth-pop covers sound really fun, actually. But, I don’t think anything would be that one-dimensional that it would mean we couldn’t do other songs. The band is the concept — it’s not that we’re going to do concept records.”
NJ: “I like that. I’m going to use that!”
SD: “We can switch instruments, and it’s all about our vocals. It’s vocal-heavy. It’s inspired the way I write my music. It’s all about the voices.”

Cat, do you think this will inspire you to write more songs?
CP: “Whenever I did write songs, I was like, ‘Who am I going to get to sing these?’ It literally never occurred to me to sing the songs.”
SD: “Well, she’s like the go-to bass player, and she sings harmony with all the bands she plays with. We don’t have to make it too much like she’s never sung before. Cat’s been singing for years and years. I saw you singing harmony with Ryan [Adams] 10 years ago. I was there. I saw it. And, you sounded great!”
CP: “It just never occurred to me that it would be okay to step out front.”
NJ: “And, it’s scary to step out front for the first time. Especially when you’re singing, because you can hear those nerves.”
CP: “You pushed me.”
NJ: “Every time she’d try to cancel her songs in those sets, and she was like, ‘Let’s skip this one.’ I was like, ‘Nope! Go shake that ass!’”
SD: "If someone really didn’t want to do it, it’d be okay. It’s not about tough love. But, we can see through the anxiety most times with each other. It’s supportive."
CP: "I can’t believe you guys let me, and pushed me."
SD: "It’s positive."
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Norah, do you think this project will affect your next batch of original songs?
NJ: “Every experience you have affects everything you do. There’s no way for me to predict how, but I’m sure, yeah. This band has been part of the reason I’ve played more guitar just in general, so that’s definitely already happened.”

What’s next for you ladies?
NJ: “I’ve got nothing. It’s kind of exciting. After tomorrow, I’ve got nothing booked.”
SD: “I’m going to try to really go back to the drawing board. I put out a record last year, and then this project came shortly after that was put to a close. So, I’m really eager to find the space. You dive back into life. There’s a lull, and it can be an anxious thing. As soon as you realize that it isn’t a drag, that you have time, then things get busy. I’m going to try to utilize the little bit of downtime.”
CP: “I’m going to go explore Civil War battlefields of the Northeast and South. That’s all I have planned.”
NJ: “And [laughing]…”
CP: "I bought a metal detector. I’m going to try to find Civil War relics. I’m just coming out [as a metal-detecting enthusiast], so it’s a little bit awkward."
SD: “Is that Cat on the beach? Oh yeah, that’s her with her metal detector!”
CP: “The beach is for people looking for little girls’ gold rings. I want to go find mini balls and fun stuff in the woods. I’m going to wear a hat and really big glasses.”