Pop pales in comparison to Jones' soulful sound

February 18, 2003|By Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK - Think of Norah Jones as the anti-diva.

On the day her debut album picked up eight Grammy nominations, the petite, soft-spoken pop sensation is enjoying a glass of wine in a quiet Gramercy Park restaurant rather than some upscale celebrity spot. She's dressed simply in a T-shirt and jeans, the same casual attire she usually wears on stage, and there's no entourage in sight.

"The record industry has gotten so into image that image becomes more important than the singer," says Jones, 23, with a smile that could make Mona Lisa envious. "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 singer to meet Bruce Lundvall, 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 her album, Come Away With Me, was released in February 2002, 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 worldwide.

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

In an era full of great voices 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.'"

One reason Jones 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 widespread airplay.

When the album reached the 1 million sales mark, Jones asked Lundvall if he could stop selling it. "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 ditch the remix.

With that behind her, Jones expects to return to the studio soon in hopes of having her second album in stores by fall.

Jones was schooled in jazz, but she listened to a wide variety of styles, from soul to country, while growing up, and her album shows she can find the emotional heart in music as diverse as the heartache country of Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart" and the classy strains of Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington's "The Nearness of You."

On those and other songs, Jones never succumbs to overstatement, which is the curse of pop divas. She knows the value of space in phrasing, letting just a sigh or a whisper convey the emotional truth of a song. Sometimes, you just feel her breath on the microphone, connecting you to the words in a primal way that you can't write into sheet music.

"Norah has a certain calmness that is well beyond her years," says her manager, Steve Macklam, who also works with Joni Mitchell and Diana Krall. "She has this natural sort of self-regulating thing that makes her resist anything that appears to be hype or bombast."

"Like a lot of kids, I wanted to be famous, but that was when I was around 13," says Jones, showing that smile. "When I got into jazz, I just wanted to be a jazz singer, and I knew that wouldn't make me famous."

Jones' path to a pop career was far from straight. She started piano lessons around age 6 or 7, but she was no child prodigy. She was, she says, a lazy student who gave up piano for several years. If others hadn't recognized her talent and mentored her, she might have easily given up music.

But Jones does come with great musical genes.

Her mother, Sue Jones, a huge music fan, was a concert producer for years in New York. Her father is Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar.

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