NASHVILLE, Tenn. Billie Joe Armstrong has a future in sales if the music thing doesn’t work out. Just ask Norah Jones, who had every intention of turning down an interesting but odd pitch from the Green Day frontman because of tour exhaustion when she got on the phone with him.
Twenty minutes later, she’d agreed to an unlikely partnership that produced Foreverly, a loving re-creation of an all-but-forgotten Everly Brothers album out last week that is one of the year’s more left-field releases.
“He just seemed so excited about the project and just kind of open to making music,” Jones, 34, said in a phone interview. “He didn’t really have an agenda other than he wanted to sing these songs with someone, so it sounded really fun. We kind of made an agreement to try a few days in the studio and see how it went without any big commitments or anything. So that was nice for me to not feel a lot of pressure. We kind of eased in. Honestly, it happened so fast. All of a sudden we were making the record, and five days later we had most of the songs.”
The project is the first for Armstrong since he entered rehab for substance abuse last year during the release of an ambitious trilogy of albums. Talking by phone from Oakland, Calif., the 41-year-old singer-guitarist said he’s feeling great: “It’s a very cloudy and rainy day right now, but for me the sun is still shining.”
The Foreverly project taps into those sunny feelings and is a rare venture away from his Green Day bandmates. A fan of early rock ’n’ roll — the first record he bought was a compilation of Elvis Presley’s Sun Records work — Armstrong stumbled upon an old scratchy copy of the Everly Brothers’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us.
He was transfixed by the pioneering rock and country duo’s harmonies — something his band always incorporated in its music through a mutual love of Husker Du — and the dark subject matter lurking in the lyrics, yet obscured by the beauty of the Everlys’ simple arrangements. He could see parallels between the music of Don and Phil Everly and the more modern music he was also into.
“If you listen to, like, a Joy Division record, it’s really dark,” Armstrong said. “And when you listen to the Everly Brothers’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, there’s so much darkness in those old songs. I think mainly that’s just how people communicated when it came to mourning and loss. Then with the Everly Brothers it sounds like these two little angels that sing.”
Armstrong’s wife suggested Jones. The two had met briefly 10 years earlier at the Grammy Awards and were struck by how nice each one seemed. Once she signed on, Jones (who grew up in Grapevine) says she took over a little bit. She uses the word “bossy.”
Armstrong says he didn’t mind. He agreed to travel to New York. He arrived with two acoustic guitars and his engineer and decided to go with the flow when Jones started making suggestions on a rhythm section and how to broaden the songs they were recording.
“She was kind of in the driver’s seat, to be honest with you,” Armstrong said. “It was nice because I was able to kind of sit shotgun. I had no idea we were making a country record until after it turned out and she said to me, ‘I bet you didn’t know you were making a country record.’ I had no idea, but I sure as hell liked it.”