Don't Know How

On her way to an armload of Grammys, Norah Jones had to decide what to do -- and what not to do.

Norah Jones, with Richard Julian Scene Pavilion, 2014 Sycamore St. in the Flats 7:30 p.m. Monday, July 7. The show is sold out
Norah Jones says she just got lucky.
Norah Jones says she just got lucky.

Last summer, Norah Jones went into the office of Bruce Lundvall, the president of Blue Note Records, and asked him something no musician has ever asked a record label boss.

"Haven't I sold enough records yet?" she wondered. She was tired, cranky, and verging on burnout. Twelve-hour days spent giving interviews to the foreign press -- France today, Japan tomorrow, England the day after that -- will do that to a person. Promotional appearances, the dispiriting meet-and-greet, will do that to a person. Being a Top 10 artist with a platinum album will do that to a person -- particularly when that person is 23 and never expected to find herself atop the pops. Not so soon, anyway; maybe not ever.

All Jones wanted was for Lundvall and the label to cut her some slack. No more press, no more selling. All she wanted to do was play, let her music answer any questions. All she wanted then, as now, was to be left alone.

"It's not like the press is mean; it's just a lot of work that I didn't really want to do," she says by telephone from the other side of the world. It's 9:30 a.m. in Japan, and she's not yet out of bed. "I mean, a lot of another kind of work that I didn't really know I was going to have to do. Yeah, I guess I did say that to Bruce."

Lundvall likes to tell the story about the day Jones made the request; to him, it's unfathomable that a musician would want to stop selling albums. One can only imagine the grin on his face when he told Jones she'd become a commodity, whether she liked it or not. One can only imagine his expression when he said he couldn't very well mount a publicity campaign telling people to stop buying her album.

"This is all because of you," he told her. "There are no tricks. But there is a lot of work involved."

"I just don't wanna be burned out," she told him. "I want a career, and people might get tired of me."

Lundvall cannot imagine such a thing. So far, the sales charts prove him right.

At the end of February 2002, Blue Note released Jones's Come Away With Me, on which she sings like an angel and plays piano as though her fingertips were feathers. The album is neither jazz nor pop, but somewhere in the ethereal in-between, and it has sold beyond anyone's expectations -- especially Jones's and Lundvall's.

Come Away With Me, buoyed by the single "Don't Know Why," currently sits at the No. 10 position on the Billboard Hot 200 charts. The album has sold more than seven million copies, and after being recognized with eight Grammys earlier in the year (including for song, record, and album of the year), it shows no sign of slowing down.

"It's staggering," says an executive at another label. "It could be the biggest-selling jazz album in the last God knows how long. This proves you can't stop a hit album. And it makes me believe."

Wait, wait, wait. Hold up a second. Rewind the tape. Stop it right there: August 29, 2001.

That was the day Norah Jones gave only her second interview, and it was to this writer. Our conversation almost didn't happen, as that Wednesday was shaping up to be one hell of a day for the singer and pianist, who, not so long before, used to play for tips at an Italian restaurant in Dallas. First, she woke up that morning to find out that the talent booker from The Late Show With David Letterman had contacted Blue Note to see whether she was available to perform on that night's show. She was -- hell yeah, she was -- but it didn't happen; someone else got the slot. Fine, man -- whatever. Besides, Jones had other things to worry about: That very afternoon, she was hand-delivering the finished copy of Come Away With Me to Bruce Lundvall.

"Hopefully, he'll like it. I know he will -- but if he doesn't, then I do, so it doesn't really matter," she said then, laughing the nervous giggle of a woman at once proud and a little frightened of what lay ahead that afternoon. "I mean, it matters that he likes it, of course, but I feel 100 percent about it this time, so I'm pretty confident that if he doesn't like it, I don't belong here."

A little later that day, Lundvall hopped on the phone to insist he was in this for the long haul, that he didn't expect Jones to sell a million records. "I have to be realistic," he said two years ago. "We're not saying we'll have a platinum record. It's not about that. If the world's right and the music breaks through the crap we have to go through in this business, things on this record will catch on at radio, but it's not about that."

Today, it is. Good God, it's all about that.

At this very moment, Jones is a quiet pop star, in spite of her staggering fame. She never planned it, never expected it, never even wanted it. But there it is nonetheless -- almost despite her every action. As you will see, Norah Jones decides what she will and will not do to sell her album, and usually she decides not to do something. The fact is, she very well could have sold more copies of Come Away With Me, had she chosen to accept her fate as a pop star.

But as all those connected with Jones -- from Lundvall to her manager, from her booking agent to her producer, from her publicist to the label's marketing director -- will tell you, Jones is as stubborn as she is savvy. She will not acquiesce to the machine; she will not bend, for fear of breaking in half.

"In her naive statement [about wanting to stop selling albums], there's a great deal of homespun intelligence," says Steve Macklam, Jones's manager. "Think about it for a second. It's like be careful what you ask for. If you sell too many records -- which sounds like irony -- if everything you do on your first record lifts the bar and sets such high expectations, there's the danger people will have had enough or feel let down when the next record comes out. There's a common-sense self-regulation she sees instinctively. The intention is just to put out a good record and to not sell it as the Second Coming. That's not what it is."

Record-label executives pray for this, but they certainly cannot plan for it. Indeed, a label like Blue Note -- which is owned by the mammoth EMI Group, parent company of such labels as Capitol and Virgin -- is not allowed even to hope for something like this. Since its inception in 1939, it has been strictly a jazz label, a safe haven for artists who judge success between the grooves, not at the cash register. This is the label for which Miles Davis blew his horn, for which Thelonious Monk teased his piano, and later, for which Cassandra Wilson and Dianne Reeves sang their hearts and souls out.

"That is why Norah signed to Blue Note," Lundvall says. "She didn't want to be a pop artist."

Yet now she is, for better or worse. And though there are copious explanations -- she played the right gigs for the right people, she received good press in all the right places, she said no to all the wrong offers at the right time, she was just the right artist to come along at the right time -- how often do all those things add up to seven-plus million sold? Hardly ever. Usually never.

"She has no illusions about this success," Lundvall says. "She didn't expect this. She never expected to be signed. I told her we've been looking for this forever."

He pauses, and you can hear the grin over the phone.

"It's all a mystery."

Making Come Away With Me -- or, actually, remaking the album, since Jones and her band had done an earlier version with producer Craig Street -- reminded producer Arif Mardin of the "electrifying moments" he experienced recording "Jive Talkin'" with the Bee Gees in 1975. Jones's crossover success on the pop charts reminds her booking agent, Joe Brauner, of those early days with client Harry Connick Jr., around the time that 1989's When Harry Met Sally . . . met millions of customers who didn't normally buy big-band albums. Her focus on career over instant gratification reminds manager Steve Macklam of two of his other clients, Joni Mitchell and Diana Krall -- both strong and talented women who chart the courses of their own careers.

So yes, it's not as though Norah Jones is a freak of nature; she's not without precedent. She's simply a rarity in the world of popular music, where quality rarely wins out. If it did, critical favorites -- Richard Thompson, say, or Paul Westerberg or Aimee Mann -- would sell by the millions, while Justin Timberlake would be flipping burgers in Orlando. Do not presume that what follows, then, is a blueprint for success; it's more like a secret recipe. A would-be pop star could try to bake this cake, but without that one hush-hush ingredient -- some might call it extraordinary talent -- it will come out of the oven with a rancid aftertaste.

Frankly, there was no master plan. All Blue Note had to do was stay out of the way and let the music do the work.

At the beginning, great care and consideration were given to the selling of Norah Jones and Come Away With Me. During the summer of 2001, Blue Note made available on a six-song EP, "First Sessions," of demos Jones cut for the label in October 2000. It wasn't sent to radio or press -- at least, not until people began begging for it. The out-of-print collection now sells for more than $100 on eBay; Jones has a box of them at home and jokes about signing and selling them.

Time was on the side of those put in charge of getting her name and music out there -- four months between the album's mastering and its release. That was plenty of time to get New York writers out to the clubs, chiefly such small rooms as Makor and the Living Room, to hear Jones and fall in love with her. Which they did, like teenagers with schoolboy crushes.

"Just the fact we had as much time as we did was a key factor," says Matt Hanks, Jones's Brooklyn-based publicist. "It's a pretty arresting record -- the first time you hear it, you can tell she's really unique -- but the tools we had to work with were the lead time and the fact Norah was playing almost weekly in New York, and during that time we were inviting journalists to come out and see her. We also had rough mixes of the record we sent out, and there was an immediate response, which is where Norah's talent comes in."

The new year began with a most unexpected gift, a belated Christmas present. On New Year's Day, Time music critic Christopher Farley appeared on NBC's Today to talk about albums and artists to watch in 2002. Jones was chief among his picks: "Norah Jones is someone to look out for," Farley told Today's Ann Curry. "[She's a] great young jazz performer . . . a big young talent." Hanks says Farley's plug was "a big one."

During the fall of 2001 and into January of last year, booking agent Joe Brauner also put Jones and her band -- bassist and boyfriend Lee Alexander, guitarist Adam Levy, and drummer Andy Borger -- on the road for long weekends. The goal was twofold: to expose Jones to new audiences and to polish the band before the album's release, when the spotlight would grow, at the very least, a little brighter. And Brauner was adamant about where he wanted Jones to play -- not jazz venues, but folk clubs populated by other singer-songwriters.

Only once did she play a traditional jazz venue -- Scullers in Boston, for two nights in early January; both sold out strictly on word of mouth. On January 5, Bob Blumenthal, The Boston Globe's longtime jazz critic, who caught one of the shows, gave her a glowing review: "She is clearly a talented artist who falls between established niches," he wrote, "and may have the rare means to create a niche of her own." Six days later, after Jones played the Washington, D.C. club Iota, The Washington Post called Jones "a musician we'll be hearing a lot from in the near future."

In short order, Jones was tagged as a Next Big Thing by two magazines: In its January 25 issue, Entertainment Weekly included her in its 2002 music guide, "Brand New Heavies." A week later, Rolling Stone praised Come Away With Me's "timeless groove" while including Jones in its special section, "10 Artists to Watch."

"We were pitching Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly from the outset, because we didn't see Norah as strictly jazz," Hanks says. "We saw her from the beginning as an artist who could appeal to a lot of different audiences."

Blue Note released Come Away With Me on February 26, and the following day, six months after the Letterman tease, Jones appeared on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. When the album sold 10,000 copies its first week, the numbers were fairly staggering for a new artist -- jaw-dropping, some might say, especially when the Leno stint was factored in. (She would finally appear on Letterman's show in May, and the host was so taken with Jones that he asked whether she'd return every night -- though it's Leno who has asked her back twice.)

But there's another simple reason why Jones's album sold well, at least initially: Blue Note made the first 100,000 copies available at a "developing artist" rate of $7.99. The label's research revealed that since it was so inexpensive, people were buying several copies at once and handing them out to friends and family. Lundvall and Zach Hochkeppel, head of marketing at Blue Note, decided to keep the price low until it sold 250,000 copies.

"My mom used to say, 'Why is your CD so cheap? That doesn't look very good, Norah,'" Jones says, laughing. "You know, you always think, it's in the bargain bin; it must not be selling. But I think it's a good idea. I think $18 is too much for any CD, much less a new artist."

So by the time Jones arrived in Austin in March 2002 for the annual music-biz circle jerk South by Southwest, it was amazing that you could hear her over the burgeoning buzz. In three days, she played six gigs, which proved way too much, too soon. Yes, she received an astonishing amount of good press out of SXSW, but she discovered during her stay in Austin that, if selling Come Away With Me meant giving away herself, well, it just wasn't worth it.

"I had a breakdown because of it," Jones says of her South by Southwest experience. "It was a long week, man. It was a really hard week for me, and it was way too much stuff, with way too many people coming at me -- weird. It was a turning point, and I was learning that I need to just chill out, because I can't do every single thing. I have a lot of rules now that are set into place for the label and management, and if they need me to break one, they approach me very warily, because, you know, it's a sanity issue."

At the end of March, Jones went out as the opening act for John Mayer, whose Columbia/Aware release Room for Squares was becoming the soundtrack to a thousand frat parties. An opening act, Carl Perkins once said, is nothing but something standing between the audience and what they really came for. Just this once, he was wrong.

"It's amazing what Norah has done," says a Sony Music executive. "EMI didn't offer any incentives to retailers. There were no rebates, no nothing -- just great fucking music."

As the longtime house producer and arranger at Atlantic Records, Arif Mardin worked on some of that label's best artists' best albums: Dusty Springfield's Dusty in Memphis, Aretha Franklin's I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, Willie Nelson's Shotgun Willie. In fact, Jones was reluctant to work with him at first; how would she, a rookie in her 20s, tell the 70-year-old legend "no" whenever she disagreed with him? He reassured her during a meeting, when he told her, simply, "You're the artist, you're the boss." It would, in time, become her mantra.

Once Jones's album started breaking, Mardin began getting congratulatory calls from old friends at Atlantic. He attended a symposium held by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, where he sat next to an A&R man from another major label. The man leaned over and told Mardin the following: "If I brought in Norah Jones, I would have been fired. Now my company is saying, go find the next Norah Jones."

As Mardin recounts this story, he can't stop laughing.

Blue Note never intended to sell Norah Jones as a jazz artist. Lundvall even asked her, before the album's release, if she wanted to move to its pop subsidiary, Manhattan Records. She quickly and vehemently declined. Though Come Away With Me features a Hank Williams song, though she's as influenced by Willie Nelson as by Sarah Vaughan, though she's covering AC/DC's "Ride On" in concert, she insisted on staying with Blue Note. Everyone would just have to adjust.

And they did -- by putting Jones on bills with Nelson, the Dave Matthews Band, and the Indigo Girls; by getting her on adult-oriented pop radio stations; by sneaking her onto MTV2. Last June, she played the Bonnaroo Music Festival outside Nashville, a three-day gathering of jam bands -- including Widespread Panic, members of the Grateful Dead, and Phish's Trey Anastasio -- and the patchouli-abusers who love them. (Jones appears on the two-disc Bonnaroo 2002 collection.)

"I know that a lot of the jazz fanatics don't like that I'm on Blue Note, because it's not real jazz, you know?" Jones says, her voice coated in sugary sarcasm. "They always get their panties in a knot when something that's not real jazz gets successful."

Yet last May, she turned down VH1's invitation to perform at its Divas Live concert in Las Vegas. She was out of the country, but if she had been available, there was no way she would have gotten on that stage and tried to outsing the likes of Cher, the Dixie Chicks, Mary J. Blige, and Stevie Nicks. Where most labels would have insisted she go, where most managers would have demanded she appear, all were in agreement. Though it would have meant higher sales, though it would have endeared her to VH1 higher-ups who were already putting her low-budget video for "Don't Know Why" in rotation, they all thought it would have been a major mistake.

"I'm not a diva," Jones says, laughing. "That's not my personality. I would love to meet, like, Stevie Nicks or hang out with the Dixie Chicks or whatever, and I think it's really fun to watch, and all of those singers are great. I just don't think it's for me." Neither was cutting a new, bigger-budget video for "Don't Know Why," which Lundvall had suggested. Neither was releasing an edited version of the second single, "Come Away With Me." Jones knows what she wants -- and, more important, what she doesn't want. That's why she has rules, and why everyone must follow them.

"She's in complete control," says Blue Note's Zach Hochkeppel. "She isn't willing to go along because you tell her, 'This is what people do.' Her choices have been perfect. It's now to the point where we let her decide; her management has taken that stance, and it has made it a nicer relationship to be in."

Because, you see, this may be the end of this story, but it's only the beginning of Jones's career -- a baby step, not the giant leap most artists crave when they first sign to a major label. She could easily have sold out and bought in; she could easily play arenas every night on her current tour. Instead, Joe Brauner is booking her into slightly smaller venues -- ones that hold around 3,000-5,000 people, at the very most.

"It would be a shame to put everything into a first album and have audiences go, 'It's wonderful -- next,' adds Steve Macklam. "She has so much more to offer."

Lundvall expects Jones to go back into the studio this year; certainly she is desperate for time off. It has been difficult to write on the road, because she needs to be back in New York, back among friends instead of fans who can kill -- or at least injure -- the sensitive artist with their overwhelming kindness. This is the beginning, after all. And hasn't she sold enough, given enough, done enough?

"The moments I get astonished are when SoundScan comes, and the record just kept going up," Jones says. "Like I don't even want to know that stuff, but my boyfriend, Lee, gets it every week from Zach, because he's really interested in it. Every week he tells me the numbers, and we just take a minute and are like 'What the fuck is going on?' Like why are they still buying it, what's going on? And every week, I'm like 'Oh, wow, so this is where we peak. Next week it's going to start dropping.' I'm always ready for it to start dropping. It's weird that it hasn't yet. I guess it has a lot to do with timing. I mean, I don't think it's all because of me. I certainly don't. It's like, gosh, something was aligned, the stars are aligned, and all that hippy-dippy stuff, but it's kind of true, you know? I just got lucky."

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