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"I’ve been playing gigs since I was 16—mostly restaurants and coffeehouses. But I’ve only been playing for people who are listening for about a year and a half now."
THE MELLOW ROSE OF TEXAS
New "It" Girl Norah Jones Speaks Out
About All That Jazz and More
At 23 years old, Norah Jones is the youngest artist on the Blue Note Records roster. Her debut, Come Away With Me, which first came out in February, has found its audience through word of mouth, and it’s primed to explode. The album, produced by the legendary Arif Mardin, is a remarkably assured first release. It’s a stylistically diverse affair featuring songs penned by members of Jones’ recording unit, along with covers from Hank Williams, John D. Loudermilk and Hoagy Carmichael.

Norah grew up in Dallas with her single mom. Although it has been downplayed in her official bio, Norah’s father is famed sitar player Ravi Shankar. While attending Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (whose other alumni included Erykah Badu and trumpeter Roy Hargrove), Norah earned Downbeat Student Music Awards for best jazz vocalist in 1996 and 1997. She entered the University of North Texas to major in jazz piano studies. In 1999, she went to New York to spend the summer, and never looked back.

Norah spent about a year fronting the fusion band Wax Poetic before hooking up with the musicians who would become her band. While continuing to hone her chops, she guested on the Charlie Hunter release Songs From the Analog Playground, singing a song by Nick Drake, "Day Is Done," and Roxy Music’s "More Than This"—not your usual jazz fare.

To further complicate format matters, Norah met up with hitsdailydouble.com foreign correspondent Brian Griffith "To Be Tied" backstage at San Francisco’s historic Fillmore Auditorium as she was preparing to open for fellow Texan Willie Nelson.

How is it opening for Willie?
It happened so suddenly, I still can’t believe it’s happening. I’ve been a huge fan of Willie Nelson’s for most of my life. This has been like a dream.

How have the crowds been?
Different every night. It’s hard being an opening act, especially for someone like Willie. The crowd is really there to have a great time. They don’t want to sit and be quiet, but it’s been cool. I don’t expect the whole Fillmore, sold out for Willie Nelson, to be quiet for me, but we play a very quiet set. We’ve had to adjust, featuring most of our louder, quicker songs. We definitely are leaving out the ballads.

I got a copy of your EP, First Sessions, back in the fall, and I was really anxious for the album to come out so I could hear how working with Arif would change your sound. I was pleasantly surprised…
It didn’t change—not much.

Did you use many of the same basic tracks from the EP?
We used two of the same tracks, but we added background vocals in one case, and some organ on the other. There were three tracks that came from a session upstate with Craig Street, but the rest were conceived with Arif. I was really nervous working with him, but he totally put me at ease. He didn’t try to change anything. He knew I wouldn’t go for it.

How did Arif get involved?
[Blue Note President] Bruce Lundvall and he are old friends. I was reluctant at first. I didn’t know if I would feel comfortable enough to tell Arif "no," know what I mean? But it wasn’t an issue. He’s the nicest guy, very easy to work with. He recognized my concerns.

You defy categorization. That’s the main thing I like about you.
And the one thing the marketing people don’t like about me.

Where will we hear you?
[Laughs] I don’t know and I don’t really care. I was raised on a steady diet of NPR. That’s all my mom listened to. I know my record can find a home there. I know they’re pitching it to triple A and college radio. I’ve gotten a lot of support from people like Vin Scelsa and Rita Houston.

You do jazz dates, and now you’re here with Willie...
We just got back from London, where we did a jazz club for three nights. It’s different here at the Fillmore; like I said, I don’t expect people to sit quietly for us. The way we play is very well suited to jazz clubs—they’re small, they’re intimate, and that’s how we play. For the most part, we’re an acoustic band.

You’re not exactly a newcomer, are you?
I’ve been playing gigs since I was 16—mostly restaurants, coffeehouses, stuff like that. Then when I moved to New York, I started playing more in jazz clubs, nothing big, not like the Vanguard, and not the kind of clubs where people actually sit and listen. I’ve only been playing for people who are listening for about a year and a half now.

There are elements of soul, blues and country.
The funny thing is, I wanted to be a jazz pianist. I went to North Texas, where there’s a really big jazz-studies program. I was a jazz piano major for about two years. I had this demo where I sang and played piano, but all standards—that’s all I did, really. When I moved to New York, I got into songwriting. The songs I was writing didn’t fit in with the standards. They sounded more like country songs. When it came time to do the record, we tried to choose songs that we liked. We wanted to do the least amount of covers as possible. I don’t write—I only have like five songs to my name. But I think it’s really cool that we did a lot of stuff written by different members of my band. That just happened by luck, being at the right place and the right time.

Arif Mardin has such an amazing history, working with Aretha and Dusty Springfield.
He’s a genius. He had all these ideas for orchestrations and string parts. One night he brought me a cassette he had done at home of a string arrangement for the Hoagy Carmichael song, "The Nearness of You." He said, "Just to have as an idea…" And it was amazing.

How important an influence on your music were your parents?
My mom had lots of Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin records, stuff like that. She had good taste. She was a huge music fan. My dad’s a musician, a great musician…

Indeed he is.
[Laughs] I think most people would agree. But I didn’t grow up around him. In fact, I was estranged from my father for about 10 years. We have reconnected now, and it’s great, but I don’t think he had that much musical influence on me at all.

Perhaps genetically?
I guess. But if my mom hadn’t nurtured those genes, taking me to piano lessons when I was 7, it might not have made a difference.

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