Music Production Analysis – Norah Jones – Happy Pills
Today is the last day to grab your copy of the Music Production Strategies series before the cart closes.
What I’m going to give you today is one of the first music production analysis I did when I started working on the course. I never really found a good place for it in the course so I thought I’d give it away as as a standalone analysis so you can get a better feel for some of the things you will be looking at throughout the course.
I think it’s actually a really cool song and a very different sound than the Norah Jones I used to know so it’s very fun to listen to and analyze.
In addition to the analysis below I’m also including the Excel spreadsheet to download so you can look at the arrangement visually as you listen.
Norah Jones – Happy Pills
Album: Happy Pills
Writer: Norah Jones, Brian Burton
Producer: Danger Mouse (Brian Burton)
Genre: Indie pop, rock, jazz
Effectiveness of the music
“Happy Pills” is has three distinct flavors when it comes to appreciating it.
First, it’s a song about breakup, or really about someone that absolutely doesn’t want to be with the other person. So it has a sad/mad character to the lyrics but that’s contrasted pretty heavily by the poppy feel-good nature of the chord arrangement that’s in Cmajor(the happiest of keys if you ask me).
And finally, the retro-style production from Danger Mouse gives the song its third dimension, making the whole production a fairly unique one.
“Happy Pills” has four distinct parts.
- The intro/chorus part with the suitcase organ/guitar lead line
- The syncopated, stop-chord verse.
- The pre chorus with the arpeggiated guitar chords
- The “out of my picture” hook that closes the chorus
There’s also a slight outro that simply repeats the C chord riff for a few measures before the end of the song. It’s a simple, but effective way to end the song.
The simple instrumentation plays mostly power chords that don’t necessarily hint at a major or minor key for the verse while the synthesizer play chords stabs in the background.
The arpeggiated chords in the pre-chorus play full chords and the lead lines throughout reinforce the major key of the song by hitting certain important notes, such as the major 3rd over the C major chord.
The arrangement is an exercise in subtle simplicity that still creates a lot of interesting things. The drumbeat is super simple and doesn’t change throughout the entire song except to accent the rhythmic changes and syncopation of the whole arrangement.
The guitar and bass section have a real groove to them that weaves in and out of the beat. Listen to how the rhythm section chugs slightly around the beat, with certain strums being on the beat and off. It takes a couple of listens to hear how groovy they sound while still sounding incredible tight.
Right off the bat we have the distinct lead line that acts as the song’s hook. Another synthesizer sits in the background playing chord hits that fleshes out the guitar’s power chord riffs.
To create contrast with the intro and to signal the start of the verse the whole arrangement plays syncopated hits on the first and third beats of the first two measures of the verse and also on the fourth beat of the second measure that moves the instrumentation into the normal groove of the song for the remainder of the verse. This is repeated for every verse. The vocal sings by itself with no backing vocals.
The synthesizers play arpeggiated chords in the pre-chorus, sounding almost like a harpsichord in the background. The guitars also put more emphasis on playing full chords to contrast with their power-chord playing. This is the first time we hear background vocals that sing in the second phrase of each line of the pre-chorus.
The instrumentation in the chorus sounds the same as in the intro but Norah Jones’s voice is now doubled and harmonized. The “out of my picture” hook has multiple doubled voices singing a different melody over the same instrumentation and arrangement of the chorus.
Combining the “out of my picture” and “I’m gonna get ya” is a cool way to combine two different lyrics for an added effect to the song meaning.
This arrangement repeats for another round with the outro simply being a C chord chugged along for a few measures before an abrupt stop.
There are some very interesting, while subtle things, that are going on in the production.
The drum beat has a hard, retro feel to it. The snare is tightly compressed to the beat as you can hear it open and close tightly every time. It could also be a cleanly done gated reverb that gives it that tight space around it.
To be honest, since it is Danger Mouse I suppose it’s just a really good sample, but that’s how you could reproduce it if you were trying it with a live drum-kit.
The lead line is an interesting part of the production. It seems to be layered with multiple instruments. Watching Norah Jones play this live on television shows her playing the lead line on her suitcase organ but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were doubled with other instruments, such as an electric guitar or even modulated vocals.
It wouldn’t be the first time that’s been done. Boston’s “More Than a Feeling’s” recognizable lead line was doubled by the lead singer in the studio and blended underneath.
The vocal has a really cool sound. Norah Jones spoke to Keyboardmag about her vocal sound for her record and said “I loved it because it wasn’t only reverb or delay. Sometimes you’re hearing a Leslie speaker on my voice. That kind of experimentation was really fun.”
Her vocal effects from the album were from the Line 6 Echo Farm, the Waves H-Delay, and Avid ReVibe and she used a Neumann U47 microphone through a Brent Averill 1272 preamp and Empirical Labs Distressor, according to the same Keyboardmag interview.
The backing vocals add a lot of dimension in the pre-chorus but don’t take away from the lead vocal. By using them only at the end of each phrase they serve as a reinforcement to her lead melody.
One of the main ways her vocal sound is changed throughout the song is with the use of spaces and reverbs. You can hear how distinctly drier her voice sounds in the verse and pre-chorus as opposed to the chorus and hook.
Even though her vocals have some sort of echo chamber on them at all times, it’s the combination of the different spaces in different parts of the song that create this contrast. The additional reverb on the vocal in the chorus creates a bigger and catchier chorus, but it’s carefully constructed to not clutter the rest of the mix.
The hook, “get you out of my head” part has even more vocal parts, with doubled and panned vocals all over the stereo spectrum. And once they’ve hit the extreme end of their vocal processing and space they reel it all back in with the dry second verse, bringing the production full circle.
The subtle synths should be mentioned for their excellent use as background, pad-like instruments that are only noticeable every once in a while.
Removing them would retract from the production because even though they are subtle, they do serve a very important part both in the arrangement of the chords as well as a foundational production element.
Key Take Aways
Layer lead lines – If you have a cool lead lines, try recording them with multiple instruments to make it unique. Don’t just put different synth sounds together. Try playing a guitar, piano and even vocals underneath to make it come alive.
Mix up the reverbs – Use a few different reverbs for each part of the song to make each part distinct.
Use effects on vocals – But keep it within the production. Try to make something unique that still sounds cool in the song.
Pan lead vocals – Pan doubled lead vocals in catchy chorus parts to make it stand apart from the rest of the song.
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