New York, Feb. 2: Think of Norah Jones as the anti-diva.
On the day her debut album picked up eight Grammy nominations, the petite, soft-spoken pop sensation is spending the dinner hour enjoying a glass of wine in a quiet Gramercy Park restaurant rather than some upscale celebrity spot. She’s dressed simply in a T-shirt and jeans, the same casual attire the 23-year-old usually wears on stage, and there’s no entourage in sight.
“The record industry has gotten so into image that image becomes more important than the singer,” says Jones, who has a smile so sweet Mona Lisa would be envious. “I don’t know if there are any less good singers than ever, but most don’t use their voices in ways that feel honest. Everyone just seems to go for the fast buck.”
On this night, she is only a few subway stops from the cafes and tiny clubs where she spent two years singing at brunches, happy hours and the like, often just for tips in front of 20 people.
Jones might have still been honing her craft in those rooms if Shell White, then a member of the EMI Music royalties department, hadn’t heard her one night in 2000 and arranged for the singer to meet Bruce Lundvall, the head of Blue Note Records, EMI’s respected jazz label. He signed Jones after listening to just three vocals on a tape.
Critics raved when her album, Come Away With Me, was released last February, comparing her soulful, melancholy approach to many of the singers Jones idolises, including Billie Holiday and Nina Simone.
Thanks to the buzz, the album soared onto the pop charts, selling more than 6 million copies around the world.
The wonder of Jones, however, isn’t her sales, but her artistry.
In an era full of great voices that have been plugged into formats that make them more manufactured than memorable, her success is leading record executives, always on the lookout for the next big thing, to search for singers again, not just voices with hit formulas.
“One of my colleagues told me that Norah was so far from what his bosses were looking for last year that he would have been fired if he had signed her,” says Arif Mardin, who was nominated for the producer-of-the-year Grammy for his work with Jones on her album.
“Now his bosses are saying, ‘Go out and find me a Norah Jones’.”
The sultry warmth and command of Jones’ vocals revives the old question: Is talent born or made'
By the time Jones got to Blue Note Records, she had been well schooled, with more than 1,000 hours of piano lessons. But the pop vocal sensation never had a single singing lesson.
Also mysterious is her sense of artistic integrity in a field in which so many young singers are willing to make virtually any compromise in hopes of fame.
One reason she signed with Blue Note, a sister label of the larger, pop-oriented Virgin Records, was that she knew there wouldn’t be pressure to sell a ton of records. Indeed, Jones began getting nervous as Don’t Know Why, a haunting tale of romantic regret, started getting massive airplay.
When the album reached the 1 million sales mark, Jones asked Lundvall if he could stop selling it. “I know it was naive, but I was starting to panic,” she says. “That was around the time Virgin Records took over radio promotion and they brought me a remix of Don’t Know Why, which they said radio would like better than the album version.
“I have no problem with techno music and remixes, but this one was horrible. They had drum machines on it and it was going, Don’t know why ... why ... why. It was the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard.”
Lundvall, a veteran record executive who has worked with such talents as Bruce Springsteen and Miles Davis, supported Jones’ decision to nix the remix.
You’re reminded how young and open Jones is at dinner when she describes the Grammy nominations — including album of the year, record of the year (Don’t Know Why) and best new artist — as “awesome” and giggles when confiding her nervousness at opening a show for one of her heroes, Willie Nelson.
Jones seems like a much older soul when she starts talking about music.
Jones is so in love with music that she gets so enthused when asked to name her five favourite singers that she stretches the list to eight. “How could I leave off Dinah Washington'” she says in a near panic.
Mardin points to the intensity that seems to fuel Jones.
“There is more than simply the voice behind great talents. Working with Aretha (Franklin) and others over the years, I’ve seen the inner flame that drives them, and Norah has that sensitivity and passion. It’s not something you can teach.”
Maybe so, but Jones’ path to a pop career was far from straight. She started piano lessons around six or seven, but she was no child prodigy. She was, she says, a lazy student who gave up piano for several years. If others didn’t recognise her talent and help mentor her, she might have easily given up music.
But then, the 5-ft-1 Jones does come with great musical genes. Her mother, Sue Jones, a huge music fan, was a concert producer for years in New York. Her father is sitar master Ravi Shankar.
Jones, born in New York near the end of her parents’ nine-year relationship, picked up most of her early musical taste from her mother’s record collection.
She saw Shankar sparingly during her early years and didn’t mention him in her press biography to avoid the appearance of using the relationship for publicity reasons. When reporters learned of the connection, some interpreted her silence as a rejection of her father, who was not married to her mother.
So Jones does now speak about him — but guardedly, because she wants to talk about music, not family. “I love my dad,” she says, to make sure there is no misunderstanding. “We are very close.”