In 2002 Norah Jones, age twenty-two, released her debut full-length album, Come Away with Me. A low-key, acoustic work that defies categorization but includes hints of jazz, traditional pop, country, and folk; the CD is the kind of recording that would ordinarily have sold several thousand copies, earned admiring reviews in the music press, and then faded from view. In the beginning, that is exactly the path the recording seemed to take. But to the surprise of many, including Jones herself, Come Away with Me continued to sell steadily month after month, thanks to outstanding reviews, positive word-of-mouth, and unexpected radio play. It took nearly a year, but eventually the album reached the number-one position on Billboard 's album chart, selling some three million copies over twelve months. By 2004 it had sold eight million copies in the United States and an additional ten million worldwide. Far less well known than her fellow nominees, Jones earned five nominations for Grammy Awards. On February 23, 2003, the night of the 45th Annual Grammy Awards, she went home with an armload of trophies, winning for every category in which she was nominated. Her follow-up album, Feels Like Home, followed a different, steeper path when released in 2004: Jones's second effort shot straight to number one, selling one million copies in its first week alone.
"I'm not soft-spoken and romantic, at all. I must be, somewhere deep down, otherwise I wouldn't like that kind of music. But I'm only like that when I'm on stage. I'm pretty much just loudmouthed, obnoxious, and silly."
From NYC to Grapevine and back to NYC
Jones was born in New York City in 1979. Her mother, Sue Jones, is a nurse and music promoter. Her father, Ravi Shankar, is a world-famous musician hailing from India. Shankar became widely known for his association with the Beatles and other Western musicians; he taught Beatles' guitarist George Harrison how to play the sitar, a long-necked Indian stringed instrument, of which Shankar is considered a master. As early as age three, Jones began showing a keen interest in music, closely watching her father when he played his sitar. At age five she began singing in her church choir. She learned to play several instruments in her youth, primarily studying piano. Shankar and Sue Jones, unmarried when Norah was born, separated when she was still a young child. Sue took her daughter to live in Texas in a suburb of Dallas called Grapevine. Jones lived there for much of her childhood, having no contact with her famous father for ten years. Her musical influences during that time came from her mother's record collection. She felt especially affected by the works of great jazz, soul, and blues singers, including Etta James, Aretha Franklin, and Billie Holiday. Jones also spent countless hours listening to recordings of musicals such as Cats and West Side Story.
Brit Crooner Jamie Cullum
Norah Jones's surprising success with a style of music that generally doesn't reach the top of the Billboard charts has paved the way for similar artists, performers who now see the potential for widespread success with their more traditional musical styles, and whose labels are now more willing to invest in their music. One such performer, Britain's Jamie Cullum, has crafted a jazz-influenced style for his singing and piano playing, a blend of old-time pop standards and cabaret-style jazz with the occasional rock tune thrown in for good measure. With Twentysomething, Cullum has taken his native country by storm, selling more records than any other jazz artist in United Kingdom history, and outselling a number of major pop acts as well. He made a splash in the United States when his album was released there in 2004, with many critics comparing his swinging style to that of Norah Jones and Harry Connick Jr., and to the croonings of another famous performer, the late Frank Sinatra.
Just twenty-three years old at the time of his 2003 U.K. release of Twentysomething, Cullum took his newfound fame in stride, considering it the result of many years of working hard and paying dues. He has been playing guitar and piano since age eight, and he began playing for audiences in clubs and bars at about age fifteen. Encouraged in his love of jazz by his older brother, Ben, Cullum grew up admiring jazz greats Oscar Peterson and Dave Brubeck. In an interview with WWD magazine, he related that he was also heavily influenced by other types of music: "I grew up listening to Public Enemy and Kurt Cobain and the Beastie Boys and Guns N' Roses. That's really the influence that pervades what I do." He studied film and English literature at Reading University in England, releasing his first album, as the Jamie Cullum Trio, at age nineteen. His second release, Pointless Nostalgic, earned considerable airplay on British radio and earned him a dedicated fan base. The success of that album sparked a bidding war among record labels, with Universal Records winning out. Still in his early twenties, Cullum was signed to a multi-album deal worth over one million dollars.
Cullum has attracted attention for more than just his recorded music: his live performances indicate a young man with over-the-top showmanship. He does more than just play the piano: he bangs on it with his fists, pounds the keys, and occasionally kicks the keys for additional emphasis. When asked by WWD about his exuberant style, Cullum replied: "It's a very spontaneous thing. I just let myself go at the expense of looking like an idiot all the time and getting really hot and sweaty and not being very classy." While some reviewers have criticized Cullum for lacking subtlety, others have praised his boundless energy onstage and applauded his efforts to bring lighthearted fun to music that is usually played with a more serious tone.
During her high school years at Dallas's Booker T. Washington School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Jones explored her developing passion for jazz. On her sixteenth birthday she gave her first solo performance, singing and playing piano at a coffeehouse on open-mic night, when anyone brave enough can try his or her hand at performing for the public. During that period Jones also played in a band called Laszlo and tried her hand at composing jazz tunes. She earned recognition from the highly respected jazz magazine Down Beat, winning their Student Music Award (SMA) for Best Jazz Vocalist two years running and also winning an SMA for Best Original Composition. After graduating from high school Jones enrolled at the University of North Texas. She spent two years there, studying jazz piano and giving solo performances at a local restaurant on weekends. She also became reacquainted with her father, and the two developed a close relationship. The summer after her sophomore year Jones decided to head to New York City and try her luck making it as a musician there.
Pounding the pavement
Working in a restaurant during the day and performing in downtown clubs by night, Jones felt excited to be part of the city's jazz scene, rather than just studying music in a classroom. She decided to stay in New York, forming a jazz trio, and also performing with other jazz groups, including the Peter Malick Group. While her professional life revolved mainly around jazz, she began listening often to country music. She told Texas Monthly, "It's funny, but I got into country music when I moved to New York. I was homesick, so I listened to [renowned country singer-songwriter] Townes Van Zandt." She created a demo recording of her solo work to send to record labels in the hope of getting a deal, but after a year of passing her demo around with no success, she began to feel discouraged.
On the evening of her twenty-first birthday, Jones gave a performance that connected deeply with a notable member of her audience. Shell White, an employee in the accounting department of the revered jazz label Blue Note, was so struck by Jones's talents that she arranged for a meeting between the young singer and the label's chief executive officer (CEO), Bruce Lundvall. After meeting Jones and hearing her sing, Lundvall signed her to a record deal on the spot. Lundvall explained to Time magazine's Josh Tyrangiel that such impulsive decisions had been made only twice in his career at Blue Note (the other artist was jazz vocalist Rachelle Ferrell). Lundvall described the essence of Jones's appeal: "Norah doesn't have one of those over-the-top instruments. It's just a signature voice, right from the heart to you. When you're lucky enough to hear that, you don't hesitate. You sign it."
"Snorah" Jones makes good
Jones began her relationship with Blue Note by releasing a six-song EP, a less-than-full-length recording, called First Sessions. This CD includes several songs that later showed up on Come Away with Me. For her debut full-length recording, Blue Note paired Jones with veteran producer Arif Mardin, who had worked with such legendary performers as Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield. When she and Mardin began recording Come Away with Me in May of 2001, Jones showed a preference for a spontaneous style in the studio, aiming to capture the intimate and natural qualities of live performance. She recorded fourteen songs for her debut; Jones wrote a few of the tracks but left most of the composing duties to others, including her boyfriend, bassist Lee Alexander, and New York–based songwriter-guitarist Jesse Harris. She also recorded two songs made famous by musicians legendary in their respective fields: country king Hank Williams ("Cold, Cold Heart") and revered jazz-pop composer Hoagy Carmichael ("The Nearness of You").
Released in early 2002, Come Away with Me earned positive reviews. Music critics expressed appreciation for her distinctive voice and authentic, understated style. Many critics wrote of Jones as a promising new artist, a refreshing change of pace from the slick packaging of pop stars like Britney Spears. Even the most admiring reviewers, however, did not predict that the album would gradually become a smash hit and that Jones would become Blue Note's best-selling artist ever. Come Away with Me became so successful that it seemed to be everywhere: on the radio, on television, playing over the public address system in shopping malls. Jones recalled to Tyrangiel that she heard one of the album's tracks in an unexpected place: "Once on a plane—you know how they play elevator music before you take off?—they played one of the songs." The album's exposure became so great that a small backlash arose, with some music journalists declaring that the attention was nothing but hype, and criticizing Jones's music as bland and boring. Some even started calling her "Snorah Jones," a nickname Jones found amusing rather than hurtful. She confided to Tyrangiel, "My mom calls me Snorah all the time now."
The "insanity," as Jones frequently characterized the buzz surrounding her debut, seemed to reach a peak when the album was nominated for eight Grammy Awards. Competing against such high-profile artists as Bruce Springsteen and Eminem, Jones swept the awards ceremony in February of 2003. The album won all eight awards for which it was nominated, with Jones receiving five awards and the three others going to producer Mardin, the album's engineers, and songwriter Jesse Harris for "Don't Know Why." Among Jones's victories were trophies for Album of the Year and Best New Artist. As the ceremony progressed, Jones began to feel overwhelmed, as she related in Texas Monthly: "I felt like I was in high school and all the popular kids were in the audience and were, like, 'What's she doing up there?' I felt like I had gone in a birthday party and eaten all the cake before anyone else got a piece." Some aspects of her newfound fame pleased her, especially the positive reception from most critics and her increased ability to control the direction of her career. But for the most part Jones retreated from the spotlight. She preferred the idea of being a member of a group rather than a solo star, telling Billboard 's Melinda Newman, "Deep down, in my gut, all I want to be is part of a band." In the beginning, she didn't feel entirely comfortable performing in concert, making music videos, or talking to the press. Jones sought a quiet lifestyle, unexpected for such a young musician, preferring low-key get-togethers with her bandmates to late-night partying at clubs.
A homey follow-up
When work began on a follow-up album, Feels Like Home, many music-industry insiders speculated that it would take a miracle for the second album to sell as well as the first. Such predictions did not faze Jones. Her primary focus was the music; she was eager to branch out on her second album and explore different styles, having shifted away from jazz and toward country in her listening habits and writing. For Feels Like Home, Jones took a greater role in the songs' composition, writing or cowriting six of the album's thirteen tracks. The album was recorded after a series of collaborative sessions with bandmates, with each member contributing to various aspects of the project. Guest artists included country-music mainstay Dolly Parton and, from the influential rock group the Band, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson.
After the phenomenal success of her debut, people throughout the industry—record label executives, music retailers, and journalists—as well as millions of fans eagerly anticipated Jones's follow-up. Released in early 2004, Feels Like Home was snapped up by one million buyers in its first week, resulting in an instant rise to the numberone position on Billboard 's album chart. Determined to let her second album's reception happen somewhat naturally, Jones pressured Blue Note to devise an understated publicity campaign that wouldn't blanket the television and radio airwaves with commercials for Feels Like Home. Blue Note CEO Lundvall told Billboard 's Newman, "We're not hyping the record. We're not going out there and advertising all over the world." For her part, Jones remained calm under the intense pressure of following up a debut album that had sold more than eighteen million copies worldwide. She related in Texas Monthly: "It's funny, but I don't want to know about sales. I don't want to read any of the reviews; I don't want to see any of the articles. I just want to do what I do and have it be as unfussed-with as possible."
Music reviewers varied in their responses to Feels Like Home. Some expressed a wish that Jones would break out of her mellow approach and make edgier music. David Browne of Entertainment Weekly concluded that "Jones' voice conveys warmth and contentment but little in the way of urgency or intensity." Others felt that she had failed to commit to a specific style, instead sampling from a variety of genres. A few complained that Jones had written or chosen too many mediocre songs, relying on her lush vocals to overcome any writing shortcomings. But numerous critics found plenty to love in Jones's second release. Tom Moon wrote in RollingStone.com, "Far from blanded-out background music, Feels Like Home ... is a triumph of the low-key, at once easygoing and poignant." Matt Collar wrote for All Music Guide that, with Feels Like Home, "You've got an album so blessed with superb songwriting that Jones' vocals almost push the line into too much of a good thing." At the PopMatters web site, Ari Levenfeld wrote: "While many critics of the album complain about the slow pace of the music, relegating it to little more than background music, it's hard to believe that they were paying attention. There simply isn't another singer working in pop music now that holds a candle to Jones."
Millions of fans seemed to agree with Levenfeld's assessment, finding Jones to be a breath of fresh air in a stale pop landscape. She is a musician who has sought success but not necessarily stardom, and who seems more likely to share the spotlight than grab it for herself. At a time when young pop singers belt out every note with over-the-top passion, Jones opts for subtlety, understanding that a low-key voice stripped to its essence can pack a greater punch than one bellowed out at top volume. Tyrangiel explained, "She never fails to choose simple over flamboyant, never holds a note too long. She may prove to be the most natural singer of her generation."
For More Information
Browne, David. "Falling in Lull Again." Entertainment Weekly (February 13, 2004): p. 70.
Burwell, Alison. "The Jazz Singer." WWD (May 11, 2004): p. 4.
Jones, Norah. "No Fuss." Texas Monthly (April 2004): p. 60.
Moon, Tom. "As 2nd CD Is Released, Norah Jones Fights for Control of Her Image." Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (February 11, 2004): p. K4996.
Newman, Melinda. "Norah Jones." Billboard (January 31, 2004): p. 1.
Patterson, Troy. "No Place Like Home." Entertainment Weekly (February 20, 2004): p. 34.
Tyrangiel, Josh. "Come Away Again." Time (February 9, 2004): p. 64.
Tyrangiel, Josh. "Jazzed about Ms. Jones." Time (March 18, 2002): p. 84.
Willman, Chris. "Norah Jones." Entertainment Weekly (December 20, 2002): p. 36.
"The Complete Norah Jones." RollingStone.com. http://www.rollingstone.com/?searchtype=RSArtist&query=norah%20jones (accessed on June 21, 2004).
Levenfeld, Ari. "Norah Jones Hangs Her Hat." PopMatters. http://www.popmatters.com/music/reviews/j/jonesnorah-feelslike.shtml (accessed on June 21, 2004).
"Norah Jones." All Music Guide. http://www.allmusic.com (accessed on June 21, 2004).
Booking agent—Monterey Peninsula Artists, Attn: Joe Brauner, 24 E. 21st St., Ste. #802, New York, NY 10010. Manager—Macklam Feldman Management, Ste. 200, 1505 West 2nd Ave., Vancouver, BC V6H 3Y4. Record company—Blue Note Records, 304 Park Ave. South, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10010.
Sang in church choirs starting at age five; began taking piano lessons at age seven; performed first gig at an open mic night on her 16th birthday; performed with band, Laszlo, throughout high school; solo gigs at a restaurant, 1997–99; moved to New York and started playing nights in Greenwich Village, 1999; performed with Wax Poetic, 1999–2000; recorded with Peter Malick Group, 2000; released Blue Note EP, First Sessions, 2001; Come Away with Me released, 2002; appeared on the Tonight Show, 2002; toured with John Mayer and Charlie Hunter, 2002; performed at a Willie Nelson tribute show, 2002; toured Japan and Europe, 2002; performed at the Montreal Jazz Festival, 2003; performed at the Tribeca Film Festival, 2003.
Student Music Award for best jazz vocalist and best original composition, Down Beat, 1996; Student Music Award for best jazz vocalist, Down Beat, 1997; Grammy Awards for album of the year, record of the year, best new artist, best female pop vocal performance, and best pop vocal album, Recording Academy, 2003.
She has been compared to some of the greatest singers in music history, from Nina Simone to Billie Holiday as well as Sarah Vaughan and Joni Mitchell. Norah Jones came to widespread fame quickly and almost effortlessly. She was signed to a record contract the day she auditioned. Her quiet, reflective album took the Grammys by storm in 2003 despite competing with such established artists as rocker Bruce Springsteen and rapper Eminem.
Jones is a combination of hard–working jazz musician and guileless young woman. Her voice is what captures her listeners. Jeff Gordinier of Entertainment Weekly described it as follows, "Precociously rich and seductive, her voice seems to well up from the age of Dinah Washington and Nina Simone." She had dreams of a future cultivating her piano playing and her singing repertoire. Jones never expected her first album to go triple platinum and beat out the professionals in the pop music category.
Jones was born March 30, 1979, in New York, New York, the daughter of Sue Jones and the famous sitar player, Ravi Shankar. Jones's mother and Shankar were never married, and eventually separated after Norah's birth. Soon afterward, the younger Jones and her mother moved to Texas, where Sue worked as a nurse to support them. Jones grew up in Grapevine, a suburb of Dallas, but moved into the city of Dallas so that she could attend the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
While growing up, Jones had very little interaction with her father, who had become famous in the United States for his work with the British rock group the Beatles. Despite years of separation, she ended up establishing a closer relationship with him while she was in college. She explained to Entertainment Weekly's Gordinier, "It's not a secret. But I didn't grow up with my dad. [I]t's not something that contributed to my musical upbringing."
Jones' musical influences came from her mother's record collection, which included artists such as Aretha Franklin and Etta James. She also found a set of Billie Holiday records that she listened to constantly throughout high school. She discovered singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell while in college. Other early influences included musicals. She recalled to Jim Macnie of VH1.com that she memorized the songs from both Cats and Phantom of the Opera. She also enjoyed the film West Side Story for the energy of the gang scenes, not the romance of the love story.
Jones exhibited musical interest at age three when her parents noticed her listening intently while Shankar practiced his sitar. By age five she was singing in her church choir. She eventually learned to play several instruments but felt most comfortable with piano. She briefly attended Grapevine High School where she played saxophone in the marching band. Her interest in jazz blossomed when she was in high school. Her talents were recognized early on by the premiere jazz magazine, Down Beat. She was awarded the Student Music Award (SMA) for Best Jazz Vocalist two years in a row. She also showed talent as a composer. In 1996, she was awarded an SMA for Best Original Composition.
Jones's first public performance as a solo pianist and singer came on the day of her 16th birthday. She performed "I'll Be Seeing You," a song made famous by Holiday, during an open mic night at a coffeehouse. She continued to hone her performing skills by playing in the band Laszlo, named for a character from the film Casablanca. After high school she attended the University of North Texas where she majored in jazz piano. On weekends she would perform solo at a restaurant, an experience which she claims as an important part of her development as an artist. She told VH1.com's Macnie, "[T]hat was the best practice I could have ever had. That's where I learned to coordinate my singing and my piano playing."
The summer after her sophomore year in college, Jones moved to New York City to get a taste of the jazz scene there. She subleased a friend's apartment and worked as a waitress during the day; nights she would perform at venues throughout Greenwich Village. In addition to her solo gigs, she contributed her talents to bands such as the Peter Malick Group and Wax Poetic. She told Josh Tyrangiel of Time, "It was pretty much everything I wanted." Even though she was satisfied with the work she was doing, she became frustrated when she was not signed to a record label after almost a year of passing her demo around. She wanted to return to Texas, but her mother encouraged her to stay in New York and keep trying. Jones told People, "My mom said, 'As much as I want you to come back, you should stay. Otherwise you'll feel like a failure.'"
Failure was not in Jones's future. Instead, she won the dedication of Blue Note employee Shell White. White was in the audience the night of Jones's 21st birthday, and was so impressed by Jones's performance that she vowed to help Jones get a recording contract. Through White's intercession, Jones presented her demo to Blue Note chief executive officer Bruce Lundvall. Lundvall, who has always accepted unsolicited material, met with Jones and was impressed. He explained to Time's Tyrangiel, "Norah doesn't have one of those over–the–top instruments. It's just a signature voice, right from the heart to you. When you're lucky enough to hear that, you don't hesitate. You sign it." It was only the second time during his tenure as head of the record label that Lundvall had signed an artist on the spot.
Right off the bat, Jones recorded an EP with Blue Note titled First Sessions, which was released in 2001. She continued to record throughout 2001, working with legendary producer Arif Mardin, who had produced for singing stars such as Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield. Her voice and the piano were emphasized, and even though Blue Note is decidedly focused on jazz, Jones was allowed to interpret songs her own way. The end result was an album that defied categorization. When Lundvall first heard it, he wanted Jones to rerecord some of the songs. However, Jones was eventually allowed to maintain her musical integrity, remaining true to the style she had cultivated for years. Produced at a legendary jazz label, containing jazz standards as well as old country hits and new songs with hints of the blues and pop, Come Away With Me added up to a best–selling debut album.
Released in February of 2002, Come Away With Me slowly accumulated interest as listeners discovered Jones's quiet and sultry sound. The media campaign for the album was based on giving those who heard it a sense of discovery. Mardin, the producer on Come Away With Me, explained the appeal of Jones's style of music to Entertainment Weekly's Gordinier, "People are bored with formula records. There's a certain age group that would like to get their hands on records that feel natural.…"
Despite the low–key marketing of the album, it was gaining increased attention as 2002 wound down. Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly both included Jones on their lists of top new artists. By late 2002, the album had created a low–level buzz. On January 7, 2003, that buzz was turned up several notches when the Recording Academy published their list of Grammy nominees. Jones's subtle and nuanced debut album had received a not–so–subtle eight nominations. As testament to Jones's unassuming nature, she was sleeping when the Grammy announcements were made.
On Grammy night, Jones walked away with an armload of awards. She won in each category for which she was nominated: Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Best New Artist, Best Pop Vocal Album, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. The album also won three other awards: songwriter Jesse Harris won for Song of the Year for "Don't Know Why," Arif Mardin won Producer of the Year, and Jay Newland and S. Husky Höskulds won the Best–Engineered Album of the Year. In total, Come Away With Me won eight awards, putting Jones in a tie with Lauryn Hill and Alicia Keys—other women whose albums had won as many awards at the Grammys.
Throughout the hype that led to Grammy night and afterward, Jones maintained a nervous humility. She explained to Larry Flick of Billboard, "It's such a blessing. It's so far beyond what I could ever imagine might happen for me and my music." When questioned about what she would do next, she told Flick, "I just keep doing what I'm doing, nothing more. This is a once–in–a–lifetime moment.… My objective is to enjoy this moment and then put it on the side and get on with what I've been doing all along, which is to make music."
At 24 years of age, Jones has made plenty of good music. What she hasn't done a lot of is prepare for the pop starlight. She is nervous at interviews, afraid of saying too much. When asked who made the dress she wore Grammy night, she had to ask someone to check the tag. Jones excused herself from a press conference by stating she had to go to the bathroom. She is not a contrived pop star. She explained her intentions to RollingStone.com, "I didn't want to be on a pop label, because I know what comes with that. I didn't want to make videos. I didn't want to be expected to sell millions of records. I didn't ever want to be a celebrity."
One reason for wanting to eschew celebrity is her inherent shyness. Her sound and her performing style have been portrayed in many articles as seductive, moody, and romantic. Jones takes issue with these portrayals, explaining to Chris Willman of Entertainment Weekly, "It's funny, this image thing, because I'm not soft–spoken and romantic.… I'm pretty much loudmouthed, obnoxious, and silly." She further explained, though, that she is nervous around strangers and that her nervousness probably comes off as mysteriousness.
Despite her intentions, Jones has become a pop star. Her recording label asked her to do a video for her album. Then they asked her to do it again. Her album has sold millions. She told RollingStone.com that she had agreed to do a lot of the things she originally had said she did not want to do. Still, she takes it all in stride, recognizing that she has a larger audience than she ever dreamed of attaining. Already gifted with an incredible talent, she has the time to mature into an even more impressive expression of that talent. Eric Felten of the Washington Times reviewed a concert she performed in June of 2003, "Miss Jones' voice had more strength to it than on her debut record, with a potent emotional core more yearning than vulnerable, more womanly than girlish. The young singer, already impressive in her subtle ability to emote, is clearly growing as an artist."
First Sessions, Blue Note, 2001.
(Vocals) Songs From the Analog Playground, Blue Note, 2001.
Come Away With Me, Blue Note, 2002.
(Guest appearance) Get Your Glow On, 301, 2003.
(Piano and vocals) Peter Malick Group/Norah Jones, Koch, 2003.
(Guest appearance) Willie Nelson and Friends: Live and Kickin', Lost Highway, 2003.
Feels Like Home, Blue Note, 2004.
Billboard, March 8, 2003, p. 1.
Entertainment Weekly, March 22, 2002, pp. 72–73; December 20, 2002, p. 36.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, February 24, 2003; March 6, 2003.
People, February 24, 2003, pp. 61–62.
Time, March 18, 2002, p. 84.
Washington Times, June 23, 2003, p. B5.
"Jones Sweeps Major Grammys," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2003/SHOWBIZ/Music/02/03/grammys/ (August 16, 2003).
"Norah Jones," AskMen.com, http://www.askmen.com/women/singer_100/149c_norah_jones.html (August 16, 2003).
"Norah Jones," RollingStone.com,http://www.rollingstone.com/features/coverstory/featuregen.asp?pid=1255 (August 16, 2003).
"Norah Jones: Quiet Is the New Gold," VH1.com, http://www.vh1.com/artists/news/1459679/05082002/jones_norah.jhtml (August 16, 2003).
Norah Jones took the music world by surprise with her debut album Come away with Me. The multi-platinum selling release from a small jazz label made its way into the psyches of music listeners almost by osmosis. The album had no initial radio promotion and no video in high rotation, just Jones's smooth voice and an audience ready for something quiet and classic. Neil McCormick of the Daily Telegraph called her music "rich, smooth, jazzy soul that seems utterly timeless, inhabiting gentle songs of love and heartbreak with an understated eroticism that lends her an air of preter-natural awareness."
Jones was born on March 30, 1979, in New York City. At the time her mother was a music promoter who was involved with, but never married to, the famous Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar. Not long after Jones was born she and her mother moved to Grapevine, Texas, just outside of Dallas, where her mother supported them by working as a nurse. She had little contact with her father while growing up and wasn't even aware of his music until she was 18. Eventually they moved to Dallas where Jones attended Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
Jones's classic style came from the various musical genres she listened to while growing up. She loved the pop songs she heard on the radio, but also spent a great deal of time delving into her mother's album collection, where she heard great women performers like Aretha Franklin and Etta James as well as singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell. She also enjoyed listening to musicals like Cats, Phantom of the Opera, and West Side Story.
At the age of five Jones started singing in a church choir. She also took piano lessons as a young girl and played the saxophone in marching band while attending Grapevine High School. When she transferred to the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts she began to focus on jazz, winning prizes at the annual Down Beat magazine Student Music Awards for Best Jazz Vocalist and Best Original Composition.
She studied jazz piano at the University of North Texas and played jazz standards at a restaurant on the weekends. She told Rolling Stone that that the songs of crooner Frank Sinatra were often the best received, but "[t]he only one I wouldn't do was 'My Way.' It sounds beautiful when Sinatra sings it, but I'm gonna sound like an idiot … I'm twenty years old! I can't even drink yet!" She claimed to Jim Macnie of VH1 that those gigs "[were] the best practice I could have ever had. That's where I learned to coordinate my singing and my piano playing."
After two years studying jazz at the university, Jones decided to try her skills in New York City. She moved into a friend's apartment and started exploring the jazz scene, working as a waitress by day and performing at small clubs in Greenwich Village by night. She met other artists and began to perform and record a little, but after about a year she began to despair of ever having a record deal. She wanted to go home, but, Jones told Steve Dougherty of People, her mother counseled otherwise. "My mom said, 'As much as I want you to come back, you should stay. Otherwise you'll feel like a failure.'"
Instead of moving back to Texas, Jones kept playing at small clubs. On the night of her twenty-first birthday she was performing when Blue Note employee Shell White took notice. White made it possible for Jones to audition for the label's CEO, Bruce Lundvall. She was an immediate hit, and for the second time in Lundvall's career as CEO he signed an artist on the spot. He told Josh Tyrangiel of Time, "[She has] a signature voice, right from the heart to you. When you're lucky enough to hear that, you don't hesitate. You sign it."
Almost as quickly, Jones began to record her first album. She was paired with producer Arif Mardin, who had worked with Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield. He kept things simple, highlighting Jones's piano playing and voice. When they were finished recording Come away with Me, they had a quirky album that mixed jazz standards, romantic originals, and even a bit of Hank Williams.
Come away with Me was released in February of 2002. By the end of the year, the album had crept onto several "favorites" lists and Jones had been highlighted in Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly as a rising star. The album eventually went multiplatinum, much to Jones' amazement. She told the Daily Telegraph, "I would have never, ever in my wildest imagination have thought any of this could happen. You see what's on TV … I'm not a good dancer … And you won't be seeing my belly button any time soon."
Jones and Blue Note were even more astounded when the album was nominated for eight Grammys. When awards night came around, Jones walked away with an armload of statues—five for her and one each for Jesse Harris who wrote the title song, for Mardin, and for engineers Jay Newland and S. Husky Höskulds. Jones was now a top-tier artist like Lauryn Hill and Alicia Keys, who won multiple Grammy awards in previous years.
Jones's rise to pop stardom has far outstripped her dreams of her success, and sometimes even her comfort level. She told Rolling Stone, "I didn't want to be on a pop label, because I know what comes with that. I didn't want to make videos. I didn't want to be expected to sell millions of records. I didn't ever want to be a celebrity."
In February of 2004, Jones released her eagerly anticipated second album. Feels Like Home proved the power of this unlikely pop star, rocketing to the top of the Billboard 200 chart within days of its release. Sales in the first week reached higher than any album since the 2001 release of the pop group N*Syncs' Celebrity. It also came in at number two for sales by a female artist in one week, bested only by pop singer Britney Spears's 2000 album Oops … I Did It Again.
For the Record …
Started piano lessons at age seven; first public performance night of her sixteenth birthday; member of band named Laszlo throughout high school; sang in clubs and restaurants, 1997–99; moved to New York, 1999; performed with Wax Poetic, 2000; performed with Peter Malick Group, 2000; released EP First Sessions on Blue Note, 2001; Come away with Me released, toured Japan and Europe, 2002; performed at the Montreal Jazz Festival, 2003; released second album, Feels Like Home, 2004.
Awards: Down Beat magazine Student Music Awards, Best Jazz Vocalist and Best Original Composition, 1996; Down Beat magazine Student Music Award, Best Jazz Vocalist, 1997; Grammy Awards, Album of the Year, Best New Artist, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, and Best Pop Vocal Album, 2003.
Sales, airplay, and name recognition make Norah Jones a pop star. But her daily life still revolves around the close-knit group of friends she formed in her early days in New York. She eschews celebrity for funky comfort, and hasn't changed her style or her manners for anyone. "It's not even like I'm really trying to stay the same. I like my life. I like my friends. I don't want to go anywhere else," she told McCormick. As long as she keeps producing music that soothes the masses, it probably isn't going to matter.
First Sessions (EP), Blue Note, 2001.
(With Charlie Hunter) Songs from the Analog Playground, Blue Note, 2001.
Come away with Me, Blue Note, 2002.
(With Adam Levy) Get Your Glow On, 301, 2003.
(With Peter Malick Group) New York City, Koch, 2003.
(With others) Willie Nelson and Friends: Live and Kickin', Lost Highway, 2003.
Feels Like Home, Blue Note, 2004.
Billboard, March 8, 2003, p. 1; February 28, 2004.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), February 12, 2004, p. 23.
Entertainment Weekly, March 22, 2002, p. 72; December 20, 2002, p. 36.
New York Times, January 25, 2004, p. 24.
People, February 24, 2003, p. 61.
Time, March 18, 2002, p. 84.
"Jones Sweeps Major Grammys," CNN, http://www.cnn.com/2003/SHOWBIZ/Music/02/03/grammys/ (August 16, 2003).
"Norah Jones," RollingStone.com , http://www.rollingstone.com/features/coverstory/featuregen.asp?pid=1255 (August 16, 2003).
"Norah Jones: Quiet Is the New Gold," VH1, http://www.vh1.com/artists/news/1459679/05082002/jones_norah.jhtml (August 16, 2003).
—Eve M. B. Hermann
Best-selling album since 1990: Come Away with Me (2002)
Hit songs since 1990: "Come Away with Me," "Don't Know Why"
Norah Jones's calling cards are her soothing material and unassuming stage presence, which form a stark counterpoint to her meteoric rise to stardom. The daughter of the concert producer Sue Jones and the Grammy-winning classical sitarist Ravi Shankar, Jones was raised almost exclusively by her mother. Her parents had a nine-year relationship, but Shankar subsequently married another woman. Sue and Norah Jones moved to the Dallas area in 1984.
Influenced by two towering jazz artists—singer Billie Holiday and pianist Bill Evans—Norah Jones displayed songwriting and piano skills at an early age. She enrolled in the University of North Texas's respected jazz program, remaining for two years. While studying there, she was asked to pick up the Ferdinandos, a visiting band from New York City, at the airport. She got along well with one of the members, Jesse Harris, who invited her to visit during the summer of 1998. She joined his band and, although she was living in a seedy neighborhood and struggling to make ends meet, she fell in love with her new life and decided to stay.
Jones's commercial potential was a compound of smoky, mature vocals—reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt and Rickie Lee Jones—formidable songwriting talent, and striking good looks. From December 1999 to December 2000, she performed with Wax Poetic, a jazz-funk band. She continued to work on her own material, however, and in October 2000 recorded a six-song demo that includes future hits "Come Away with Me," written by Jones, and "Don't Know Why," written by Harris.
The jazz label Blue Note signed her in 2001, and she set out to record her debut album, produced by the great Arif Mardin, whose credits include Aretha Franklin and the Bee Gees. The finished product, Come Away with Me (2002), comprises jazz-tinged soft rock with touches of blues and country. Jones's supple voice gives the acoustic-framed album its signature stamp. Mostly originals by Harris, Jones, and her boyfriend, the bassist Lee Alexander, the album also contains covers of Hank Williams's "Cold, Cold Heart" and Hoagy Carmichael's "The Nearness of You."
The album built slowly during 2002, as "Come Away with Me" and "Don't Know Why" garnered adult contemporary and smooth-jazz airplay, appealing to an audience at least a decade older than Jones herself. Constant touring and appearances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Saturday Night Live helped her gain momentum as 2002 ended. Jones was a favorite at the 2003 Grammys, but she and her CD surprised even her biggest boosters by winning eight awards, including Album of the Year, Record of the Year ("Don't Know Why"), and Best New Artist. In her acceptance speeches she thanked her mother but pointedly left out any mention of her father.
The Grammy boost finally helped Jones garner Top 40 airplay for "Don't Know Why," even though the youth-dominated format warmed to the track slowly. Meanwhile, the album hit number one more than a year after its release, becoming a must-have for the baby-boomer intelligentsia. Critics debate the significance of her Grammy and chart triumphs: Some praise her success as heralding the return of authentic personal songwriting with acoustic instruments, whereas others insist that her music is snoozy soft rock sweetened by a beautiful face. Although the idea of a young artist becoming successful by appealing to older audiences is an anomaly in the modern pop scene, Jones's triumphs have reminded audiences of the less-is-more power of simple, intimate music.
First Sessions (Blue Note, 2001); Come Away with Me (Blue Note, 2002).