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Out front, knowing why

Guitarist Jesse Harris, the Grammy winning writer behind Norah Jones' success, finds his own tour liberating.

September 13, 2003|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

Nobody ever said pop music was fair.

Case in point: While some losers of the most recent song of the year Grammy race are on tour filling sports arenas, the winner, who wrote the cornerstone song on an album that's sold more than 6 million copies in the U.S., found himself second-billed Thursday at the Knitting Factory Hollywood, strumming in front of maybe 60 people. Counting the bartenders.

To top it off, those in the room appeared evenly split between the rapt and the rude, many obliviously chattering away as singer-songwriter Jesse Harris wistfully sang his atmospheric odes of the lovelorn.

Some might find that distressing, but not the 33-year-old New Yorker, who wrote or co-wrote five songs on Norah Jones' hit debut album, including "Don't Know Why," the Grammy winner. Harris finds it liberating to continue down the hardscrabble road he was on before spotting Jones as a diamond in the rough and helping bring her to the world.

He's a skilled guitarist and a writer with a gift for poetically sculpted sketches of romantic yearning. His songs are grounded in the folk-rock tradition, evidence of his love for Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen.

His songs also frequently include jazz inflections that reflect his admiration for the likes of Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Of trumping one of his heroes on Grammy night last March, Harris says, "Bruce Springsteen has been a songwriter and performer that I've admired for a long time, and I love his lyrics. So yeah, it felt a little bit weird to win. But then I thought, 'Bruce Springsteen's doing OK, and I'm just starting out. I think he'll be all right.' "

Harris also appears to be doing all right even though he wasn't tapped to be in Jones' touring band, despite being one of the key contributors to her album as a songwriter and instrumentalist.

"I'm glad I didn't go on the road with Norah. I think it's been a lot more interesting because of it," Harris says a few hours before his show, sitting in his closet-sized dressing room.

"Had I done that, I probably would have been playing the same guitar parts every night for a year and a half. Instead, I get to work with a lot of different people, I got a [major-label] record deal, I got to make a record and I'm going to make another one. Just to be out playing in clubs with my group is great, something I haven't done much of in the past."

In fact, it was while he and members of his band, the Ferdinandos, were on their way to a gig in California a few years ago that they stopped in Texas to catch a performance by a musician friend. Jones, then a University of North Texas student, was asked to chauffeur Harris and his buddies to that show.

Upon hearing her sing, Harris urged her to abandon the Lone Star State and move to the Big Apple and try her luck there. She did, and they became friends as well as collaborators on what would turn into the biggest pop success story of 2002: Jones' "Come Away With Me" album.

"I have a certain amount of ambivalence about the degree to which I want to take the whole thing anyway," says Harris, whose tousled curls, scruffy beard and rectangular glasses give him the look of a hipster grad student. "My tendency is to go with the flow, to just do whatever happens.... Doing what Norah does takes up a lot of time and freedom. I guess I got accustomed to the bohemian lifestyle."

He also got accustomed to the ups and downs of the music industry before Jones came into his life. In the mid-'90s he had a band called Once Blue that recorded two major-label albums, only one of which was released. Since 1999 he's released four albums with the Ferdinandos, the first of which, "Jesse Harris & the Ferdinandos," contains his original version of "Don't Know Why" (which he didn't perform Thursday).

As a singer he lacks Jones' vocal prowess and seductively languid phrasing, but he does convey guileless vulnerability with his boyish tenor. He and his band rock things up a bit more on their albums than Jones does, but his strength remains late-night mood pieces such as "Long Way From Home," a song from his 4-month-old album, "The Secret Sun," (on Universal's Blue Thumb label) that he sang Thursday in a duo setting with bassist Tim Luntzel.

It also sounded perfect for Jones, but how far their partnership will extend is up in the air as she continues her ride through the pop stratosphere.

"Norah is still a really good pal of mine. We hang out all the time," he says. "She already asked me to play guitar on a song for her next record. Not one of my songs."

Indeed, Jones was quoted recently saying, "I only want to do somebody's song if I can do something with it that I feel is me. That's part of why we're probably not going to do one of Jesse's songs on the next album.... They're wonderful the way they are."

Harris beams an easy smile at a comment that perfectly embodies the notion of mixed emotions.

"I think Norah is the kind of singer who could take almost any song and make it sound like her own, so I don't think that's really the reason," he says. "I think now she wants to try other stuff and she wants to sing songs that her band has done. And that's fine."

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