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A sweet mystery

Norah Jones' artistry stands out in a world of prefab pop. Where'd it come from?

January 26, 2003|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

New York — Think of Norah Jones as the anti-Mariah.

In an age of pop divas, Jones sings with absorbing intimacy and seems refreshingly unaffected by the hoopla around her.

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 T-shirt and jeans, the same casual attire she usually wears on stage, and there's no entourage in sight.

Jones could have captured lots of extra publicity earlier in the day by joining the parade of pop starlets giving "this is fabulous" sound bites to the media at a Grammy press conference at Madison Square Garden. But that's not her style.

Despite a smile so sweet that even Mona Lisa would be envious, the 23-year-old also avoids flashy, big-budget videos or posing for pin-up photos to gain better positioning in Rolling Stone or Blender.

"The record industry has gotten so into image that image becomes more important than the singer," Jones says. "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 still be 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 dark-haired 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 the album, "Come Away With Me," was released last February, comparing her soulful, melancholy approach to many of the singers Jones idolizes, 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. It has been No. 1 in the U.S. for the last two weeks.

The wonder of Jones, however, isn't her sales, but her artistry.

In an era full of great voices, from Mariah Carey to Whitney Houston, 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?

Numerous people, from her mom to teachers in Texas, talked about watching her talent blossom and helping steer her to various arts programs in high school and college. By the time Jones got to Blue Note Records, she had been well schooled, with more than 1,000 hours of piano lessons. But -- and this is where the mystery comes in -- the pop vocal sensation never had a single singing lesson.

Also slightly 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. She hates the way radio stations play the same records over and over, and she didn't want people to start burning out on her music.

When the album reached the 1 million sales mark, Jones asked Lundvall if he could stop selling the album. "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. After more than 30 years in the music business, Lundvall looks at the creative process with awe.

"Some people have the touch of God on their head," he says. "They are born with a certain gift, but what gives them taste? That's the mystery."

Diverse influences

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