By MIKE CHAIKEN
The musical conglomeration Puss n Boots is more about hanging out with some friends who share a common interest and a desire to try something new rather than carving a new path to stardom.
All three members of Puss n Boots had careers in full swing before they started playing as an ensemble in 2008.
The most noted member of the trio is Norah Jones, who won Grammys for her 2002 jazz release, “Come Go Away With Me.” She has released numerous albums since them and has taken detours into the world of country music with the group Little Willies and released some albums clearly rooted in the worlds of pop and rock.
Catherine Popper, the bassist, has performed with Norah as well as luminaries such as R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. She also has been a member of Ryan Adams and the Cardinals and toured with Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.
Sasha Dobson is a jazz singer, having performed first with her family at age 12, eventually moving to New York City at 17, where she immersed herself in the city’s jazz landscape. Along the way, she released two albums.
Puss n Boots, which just released its first album “No Fools, No Fun” this past Tuesday, comes to Hamden’s The Ballroom at the Space on July 22.
Calling from Brooklyn as she was on a summer’s afternoon stroll, Sasha explained that the roots of Puss n Boots go back to the jazz landscape where she and Norah had made their living. The two of them had met many times over the years but then went their separate ways. But they ran into each other in New York City in 2005 and began to re-immerse themselves into each other’s lives.
Although the both of them were known as vocalists, Sasha said she and Norah were talking and Norah spoke about wanting to learn how to play the guitar. So the pair dove straight in to the process. About a week and a half in, said Sasha, she and Norah were able to secure a gig at a local pool hall and took to the stage unannounced. They promptly demonstrated their new found skills on guitar.
In time, Sasha said she and Norah built up a sizeable repertoire of songs they could play with their nascent guitar skills. And in 2008, they brought Catherine into the fold.
“We had so much fun,” said Sasha.
Thus, Puss n Boots was born.
The group’s debut album, “No Fools, No Fun,” clearly is rooted in the world of Americana, traditional, and country music.
It includes the group’s covers of Rodney Crowell’s “Bull Rider,” which was made famous by Johnny Cash, “Down by the River” by Neil Young, and “Tarnished Angel,” which was made famous by George Jones. Even the originals on the album, such as Dobson’s own “You’ll Forget Me” have that country twang.
Except for Norah’s busman’s holiday with the Little Willies, however, there is little in the background of the trio to suggest a fondness for country.
Sasha said the detour to country actually is rooted in practicality and affinity.
“In the beginning, (playing country music) was just about finding songs we were connecting to as singers and could play,” said Sasha.
Besides the foray into country, Puss n Boots’s repertoire is ripe with three-part harmonies. At times, the trio sound like a distaff counterpart to Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
It’s a comparison that Sasha agrees with. “I can hear that. I can feel a kinship to that sound.”
Harmonies were something new for Sasha, Catherine, and Norah.
Since both Norah and Sasha come from the jazz world, typically, they sing lead without the benefit of any vocal collaborations, said Sasha. But, Sasha explained that even though she didn’t sing harmony in her performances, as a vocalist, she did hear where harmonies could go if she wanted to reach for them.
Puss n Boots gives the three performers an outlet for their harmony ambitions.
And a listen to “No Fools, No Fun” demonstrates the trio’s voices a perfect musical fit.
Sasha said, after some initial fumblings, Norah, Catherine, and she seem to connect very easily in those harmonies.
As noted the trio performs “Down by the River,” which has generated some buzz for the group. Sasha said the song was a request of Norah’s. “She wanted to stretch out on guitar,” said Sasha of the song, which was noted for Neil Young’s gritty solo in the original. Norah dives straight in when it’s time for her to wail away on the track. The song also gave Sasha a chance to work on her newfound skills as a drummer.
“Down by the River’ was just another example of how Puss n Boots allows the three to approach new ideas and new opportunities with “the excitement of a child,” said Sasha.
Although “No Fools, No Fun” is less than an hour of music, Sasha said the group has a lengthy repertoire of songs at its disposal after performing together since 2008.
“There are some fun covers,” said Sasha of the group’s set list, “and plenty of extra music.”
Some times when artists record albums, said Sasha, they have to figure out how to get enough material for a full record. This wasn’t the case for Puss n Boots, she said. “We struggled with what to take off.’
Some of the tracks on the album were recorded in the studio. Others are live tracks.
Sasha said all of the tracks originally were recorded in the studio. But, she said the tracks missed some of the “energy and freedom and fun” of the group’s live show.
The live tracks tapped for the album originally weren’t planned for a release, said Sasha. When she released her own album, “Aquarius,” she performed a gig to launch it out on to the world. She decided to have Puss n Boots as her opener. The set that night was recorded but set aside by the group.
However, when “No Fools, No Fun” was taking shape, the three musicians went back to listen to the recording and it sounded great, said Sasha. Puss n Boots decided to include those versions of the songs on the record instead of the subsequent studio recordings.
The Ballroom in Hamden is a small space where the audience is within arm’s reach of the performers. And it’s an atmosphere the three members of Puss n Boots enjoy. “We all love that intimacy,” said Sasha.
And it’s an environment not too far afield from where they often find themselves in their home back in Brooklyn, said Sasha.
As for where Puss n Boots is headed after the 2 1/2 week tour that brings them to Hamden, Sasha said it’s yet to be determined. She said Norah just had a baby and this tour is sort of a soft landing for her re-entry into the world of touring.
“We’ll take it as it comes,” said Sasha of Puss n Boots’s future. Since the group started in 2008, and it took six years to release a debut album, Sasha assured fans, “We’re not going anywhere.” But the future right now is “very open,” she said.
Puss n Boots comes to The Ballroom at the Outer Space, 295 Treadwell St., Hamden on Tuesday, July 22 at 8 p.m. Doors open at 7 p.m. The show is sold out.
For more information, go to theouterspace.net/ ballroom.php
Comments? Email mchaiken@BristolObserver.