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The New Chanteuses | NORAH JONES

Rougher around the edges

First in an occasional series of conversations with a new generation of "girl singers" reshaping pop

February 25, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

AT her piano, Norah Jones is at ease. Confronting the utterly casual atmosphere of Amoeba Music on Sunset, where fans wedged into the aisles the Friday night before the Grammys to witness an in-store performance from Jones and her Handsome Band, the world's ruling female pop singer moved between the ivories, a Wurlitzer keyboard, and, on one song, an acoustic guitar. Rarely looking up, she sang as if her voice was surfacing within those instruments.

Her allure emanated from the introspection of her style -- the sense that what mattered here was happening in the space between Jones' hands, feeling out an instrument, and her voice, reaching to connect with what it said to her. The songs weren't complicated -- by now it's become lazy thinking to call what Jones does "background music" -- but they drew listeners in, the way a soft command can gain attention more effectively than a shout.

This is the grace of Norah Jones, the first of a new generation of stars to succeed amid pop's current flash and crassness by putting music first. Her incredible rise since her 2002 Blue Note Records debut, "Come Away With Me," has made Jones the central figure in a quiet movement sometimes cruelly dubbed "the new easy listening" (or, in branded shorthand, "Starbucks music") but more accurately described as pop's latest translation of sophisticated ideas into common vernacular. Jones, as humble a personality as fame allows, has blazed the path for young artists, many of them female singers, who uphold and update the legacy of crossover pop.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 28, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Sarah Vaughan: An article in Sunday's Arts & Music section about singer Norah Jones misspelled singer Sarah Vaughan's surname as Vaughn.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 04, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Sarah Vaughan: An article in the Arts & Music section on Feb. 25 about singer Norah Jones misspelled singer Sarah Vaughan's surname as Vaughn.

But she didn't always own this shy charisma. "I grew up imitating my favorite singers," Jones, who spent her youth in Dallas, recalled at her hotel the afternoon of her Amoeba date. "Not always hitting the notes right but just loving to sing along with Sarah Vaughn or Billie Holiday. Or Ann Wilson from Heart! But I also played piano, and I thought, 'Maybe I should get it together where I could sing and play at the same time.' Because it's not easy. It's two things at once." She patted her head and rubbed her stomach to signal the disconnect.

She played, she sang -- at once

JONES worked through her problem in public. "I got this gig in college where I played and sang at a restaurant," she recalled. "For two years, twice a week, I just practiced for three hours. Nobody really listened; every once in a while people would clap. It was background music. It was supposed to be."

When she was discovered in New York a few years later, Jones was still playing jazz brunches and cocktail gigs. Years of fulfilling the lounge singer's command to set a mood without forcing anything on the listener led her to develop skills rarely valued in a pop star. When she became her own artist, she kept those skills intact.

"To these ears, her demos sounded like something people would buy," noted Craig Street, the producer who first brought her into the studio to record "Come Away With Me." "When [Blue Note Records chief executive] Bruce Lundvall first played them for me I told him that they sounded done. They had cool performances of cool songs and a personal stamp. She has an honest blend of all she's taken in, and it comes out in a way that folks love."

Jones gets prickly when asked about her reputation as "the queen of brunch music," as Slate critic Jody Rosen put it.

"I get attacked for playing 'background music,' and I think, 'Wow, that really insults not only me, but everyone who listens to my music,' " she said. "If you're listening, it's not background music." But Jones is just fine with people turning her records down low. She doesn't believe in forcing things.

"I don't really care how people listen, if they put it on in the background or on headphones, or if it makes 'em cry or laugh or fall asleep," she said. "Great music has helped me fall asleep! If it moves them in any way, that makes me feel good."

Perhaps this is why so many people deride Jones and so many more love her: She's just so accommodating. Though her persona suggests reserve, in person she's the opposite, talking a blue streak and reconsidering every opinion she offers from several angles. She's reticent on one point, though: describing her sound. The words Jones favors -- subtle, quiet, simple, slow, nice -- are vaguely pleasant, contradicting the rebellious individualism that's defined artistic genius not only in the rock era but since the Romantics. They don't get at that something else that's made her a bona-fide phenomenon.

"People often tell me that the music just makes them feel relaxed," she said, trying again. "I think it helps people slow down, and you need that sometimes." She looked frustrated. "I don't know, I'm talking out of my [here she mentioned an indecorous body part]. I don't really know why I'm popular."

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