|'I still have the same band and the same boyfriend, and I go to the same places, and Iíve had this shirt for, like, five years, and itís ratty, but I wear it because I like it and itís comfortable. Itís not even like Iím really trying to stay the same. I like my life. I like my friends. I donít want to go anywhere else'
It is after midnight in New York. In the backroom of a Lower East Side bar known (perhaps for its scruffy intimacy) as The Living Room, a tiny gathering of maybe 30 music fans sits around tables, quietly drinking and watching the performers.
It is the centre of a local singer-songwriter scene. Thereís no entrance charge, but the audience shows its appreciation by dropping a few dollars in a hat.
Guitarist Jim Campilongoís idiosyncratic stew of blues, country and jazz is well received, although this may be because a good proportion of those who have braved sub-zero temperatures to make the gig are musical contemporaries.
It is no great surprise when Jim invites an audience member to join him on stage. Still, there is a murmur of anticipation as a casually attired girl (jeans, jacket) with long, black hair slips away from her friends to take the microphone.
If you werenít sure a moment before, there is no doubt when her honey and buttermilk vocals fill the room. It is Norah Jones, one of contemporary musicís new superstars, a world-famous chanteuse with 17 million album sales to her credit, singing her heart out in a bar for the sheer hell of it. Almost every popular music star will sincerely tell you that fame has not changed them at all, although Jones is more convincing than most.
ďThis is my favourite place to hear music,Ē she tells me. ďThis is the first place where I played original songs and these are people who inspire me beyond belief. Iíve been coming here for five years, and the only thing thatís changed is thereís usually somebody who wants to give me a demo, but thatís all right.
ďI still have the same band and the same boyfriend, and I go to the same places, and Iíve had this shirt for, like, five years, and itís ratty, but I wear it because I like it and itís comfortable. Itís not even like Iím really trying to stay the same. I like my life. I like my friends. I donít want to go anywhere else.Ē
When I insist that some things must have changed, she looks thoughtful for a moment. ďI have a nicer apartment,Ē she says. But then, after another momentís thought, she adds: ďBut I really liked my old apartment, too.Ē
Jones says she neither expected nor desired fame, certainly not on the scale her sensational debut album, Come Away With Me, delivered.
ďWell, not since I was nine years old and wanted to be Madonna,Ē she says, by way of qualification. ďOr a princess. Or a unicorn, for that matter! When I was 12, I got into jazz, and all I wanted to do was sing these old, obscure standards ó you know, play the piano and sing Cole Porter (an all-time great known as the ďspiritĒ of the 1920s) in smoky clubs.
ďI would have never, ever in my wildest imagination have thought any of this could happen. You see whatís on TV and whatís very successful these days, and Iím not a good dancer, you know. And you wonít be seeing my belly button any time soon.Ē
While it is true that Jones is not the kind of aerobically toned uber-vixen that seems to have become the cloned standard for a modern female pop starlet, the 24-year-old has a sensual beauty that is strikingly photogenic, tying in with the sexy warmth of her music.
In the blurred colours of her album sleeves, she looks like a gorgeous ingenue, although in person she has a tendency to hide behind black-framed glasses and frumpy clothes.
In every sense, Jones is not quite what she seems on record. She plays a brand of 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 preternatural awareness.
But, if her singing persona is soulful and wise beyond her years, she has the speaking voice of a mall teenager, all rising inflections that make everything sound like a rhetorical question. You know'
She seems sweet and well-balanced but oddly younger than her years. Describing her musical oeuvre, she says: ďIím not one for loud, squeaking, totally free avant-garde. I really love things with melody. I like records that flow really well and you donít have to skip around because thereís lot of different jumps.
ďAnd I really love mellow music, even though Iím not that mellow. I can be hyper. When I go out with my girlfriends, Iím like, ĎOhmigod, blah, blah, blahí, you know' My boyfriendís like, ĎGod, shut up, already.í Sometimes I talk too loud. Sometimes I talk too much. Iím not quite that melancholy girl that people might think from the first record.Ē
Yet, it matters not one whit how Jones talks or behaves in private if she is going to make records this lovely. Her new album, Feels Like Home, is another perfect blend of aural hot chocolate, smooth and warm and reassuring. The kind of record that makes you want to curl up and purr. The songs she has written (with her boyfriend, bassist Lee Alexander) and chosen are perfectly formed little nuggets, gently emotional, understatedly intelligent.
ďI like songs,Ē she says. ďItís not particularly either melody or lyrics; I like the colour and the texture. I just kind of try them on and see if they fit.Ē
Music, as she has previously acknowledged, may be in her genes. Her father is Indian music legend Ravi Shankar, although Norah barely knew him, and was raised in Texas by her American mother, Sue Jones.
While she is reconciled with her father, she is (understandably) tired of denying that her own musical development owed anything to him. ďI didnít even know my fatherís music until I was 18. I just knew he was famous for something.Ē
Similarly, she denies being emotionally driven by the angst of an abandoned child, a psychological profile all too prevalent in pop culture. Indeed, Jones claims she is not particularly driven at all. ďIf you give me something to do, Iíll work hard at it. But, if I donít have anything to do, Iíll just sit around all day. Ē
Jones seems remarkably content with her lot. She likes to make music and people seem to like the music she makes. As she says: ďIíve had my cake and Iíve eaten it, and I feel spoiled already.Ē