Norah Jones would never have lasted a semester in pop-star school. The 24-year-old singer, whose debut album, â€˜Come Away With Meâ€™, collected five Grammys last year and has sold more than eight million copies, is quiet and utterly inconspicuous as she wanders through her record companyâ€™s midtown offices. With her hair clipped back and her soft, pretty features framed by functional, dark-rimmed glasses, Jones looks more like a timid teenage intern than the labelâ€™s resident diva.
Norah Jones knew the pressure was on to follow up the sleeper success of her multi-platinum debut album, â€˜Come Away With Meâ€™, with another commercial smash. So for her new CD, â€˜Feels Like Homeâ€™, she enlisted a group of high-profile hitmakers to lend radio-friendly pop gloss to her understated, acoustic approach.
Well, not really. â€œIf I had done that, the people that liked me in the first place would totally not like me,â€ Jones reasons.
When asked to describe her all-important sophomore CD, â€˜Feels Like Homeâ€™, which will arrive on February 10 to intense anticipation and scrutiny, she seems stumped. No pithy sound bites or accounts of hard-won creative growth flow forth.
â€œI like the record,â€™â€™ she says, finally. â€œI think itâ€™s sweet.â€ Such curious behaviour makes more sense, of course, in the context of Jonesâ€™ unlikely rise to fame.
That the songs on â€˜Come Awayâ€™, with their gentle jazz and folk nuances, could slowly but steadily attract a mass audience in the
age of Britney Spears and â€˜American Idolâ€™ stunned even the
critics and industry insiders who endorsed Jones.
Jones also emerged as a poster girl for a more sophisticated brand of pop that struck a chord with older fans alienated by the edge and excesses of rock and hip-hop. A classically trained pianist, she seemed just as comfortable covering standards by Hoagy Carmichael and Hank Williams as she was singing her own tunes and those contributed by members of her band.
Jones still sees herself primarily as an interpretive singer, in the tradition of Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and her current labelmate Cassandra Wilson. â€œIâ€™m not saying Iâ€™m that great at it. But Iâ€™m still a new songwriter, and I really love being able to sing other peopleâ€™s songs.â€ Like her debut, â€˜Homeâ€™ features several covers, among them tunes by rock-era bards Tom Waits and Townes Van Zandt.
Co-produced by Jones and noted veteran Arif Mardin, who also manned the boards for â€˜Come Awayâ€™, the new CD doesnâ€™t abandon the subdued, bare-bones approach of Jonesâ€™ first outing, but adds subtle enhancements.
â€œWhen we made the last record, I was still listening to a lot of jazz,â€ says Jones. â€œSince then, Iâ€™ve started listening to more songwriter stuff, and a lot of country music.â€ Jones lists Parton, Alison Krauss and alt-country favourites Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch on her current hit parade.
Granted, at a time when the most prominent interpreters of traditional and contemporary pop include Rod Stewart and the plastic crooners and histrionic Mariah Carey wannabes competing on â€˜Idolâ€™, Jones risks being lumped in with less elegant company.
Jeff Allen, programme director of the new St Louis-based station â€˜Redâ€™ 104.1 FM, cites Jonesâ€™ success as a key factor in inspiring a playlist that now combines six tracks from â€˜Come Awayâ€™ with everything from Frank Sinatra gems to trinkets from Stewartâ€™s two â€˜Great American Songbookâ€™ collections.
â€œWeâ€™re calling it â€˜music with classâ€™ on the air,â€ Allen says of the format. â€œOther people have given it tags like â€˜new American standardsâ€™ or â€˜martini musicâ€™. Our target audience is the 40- or even the 30-year-old that goes to martini bars (where) this music is the hip, happening thing.â€
Itâ€™s doubtful that Jones, given her taste and creative pedigree, would be any happier to hear her songs characterised as background music for trendoids than Olâ€™ Blue Eyes would have been. Still, she realises that certain baggage comes with the territory â€” and not all of it is admiring.
â€œThereâ€™s been backlash,â€ Jones admits, noting that after her Grammy triumph, her Web site was inundated with grumpy notes from supporters of Bruce Springsteen and Avril Lavigne, two stars she beat in major categories.
Certainly, the armful of trophies that Jones earned last February could be viewed as a double-edged sword.
In recent years, Grammy voters have anointed new artists who have garnered critical and commercial cachet â€” many of them, like Jones, attractive women in their early 20s who write or co-write their music â€” with the kind of multiple honours seldom given even to esteemed veterans.
Jones insists that she doesnâ€™t feel overwhelmed by lofty expectations. She credits the support of friends and her colleagues at Blue Note, a jazz-based label that caters more to career artists than pop phenoms. Jones also acknowledges her mother. Sue Jones, a nurse and former dancer who broke up with the singerâ€™s father, renowned sitarist Ravi Shankar, when Norah was a child, nurtured her daughterâ€™s love of music but has sought to protect her from the potentially harsh aspects of the music business.
In stark contrast to peers such as Britney and Beyonce, whose ambitious parents seemingly conditioned them from the womb to embrace stardom, Jones encountered reluctance from her mom even as a 21-year-old being courted for a record contract. â€œShe thought I was too young,â€ Jones says. â€œI think Iâ€™ve handled it OK â€” I havenâ€™t gone crazy or anything. But Iâ€™ve been really lucky.â€
When asked about the perks of fame, Jones simply says, â€œIâ€™ve got a nicer apartment now, but thatâ€™s about it.â€
She pauses, and shyly amends her answer: â€œMy old apartment was nice too, though. I donâ€™t want the landlord to get mad.â€
Jones laughs, seeming just a little less nervous than she was half an hour ago. â€œIâ€™m always going to play music,â€ she says. â€œAnd itâ€™s OK if I donâ€™t always have a hit. I mean, hey, that would mean my life would be a little less crazy! I hope that the people who liked my last record will like this one â€” but Iâ€™m prepared if they donâ€™t. I feel like we were all honest, the band and me, and thatâ€™s really all that matters.â€