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"It seems that this is a good time for Norah’s record, because there’s just been so much crap out there, really."
——Capitol’s Bruce Lundvall
ON RECORDS: WITH NORAH JONES, EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
Elegance Sells, Thanks to the Rapidly Emerging
22-Year-Old Singer/Pianist
By Lenny Beer & Jon O’Hara

It’s magic time—so pay attention.

In a year that has seen left-field music embraced by the public—witness the huge, continuing story surrounding O Brother—now comes another unexpectedly huge breakthrough: New York-born, Texas-bred Norah Jones, whose debut album is in only its fourth week of release, is quickly becoming a household name and a sales phenomenon—all with a head-scratchingly understated set of songs and virtually no airplay.

The situation may not be easy to explain or understand at this early stage, but it’s impossible to deny.

Come Away With Me on Blue Note (yes, Blue Note) is an organic hit of the rarest kind, already proving itself a smash without the benefit of commercial radio. It is a highly unusual amalgam of musical influences presented by a stunning artist who is proving irresistible to buyers. Jones draws on jazz, blues, country, folk and pop idioms, making each her own with a sultry, jazz-informed voice that can only be described as captivating.

The evidence that her genre-bending approach works is equally unexpected: In its first three weeks, Come Away sold some 44,000 copies, adding another 26k this week for a total of 70k—unheard-of numbers for a non-mainstream new artist. The record has proved unbelievably reactive, with sales driven by listening post and in-store play, a still-nascent Adult Post Modern and NPR radio story and, of course, Jones’ live performances.

This isn’t hype; it’s real. And as the story of this smash grows with consumers, it is getting the attention of people from every corner of the business. This is the kind of record everyone waits for.

One measure of the album’s reactivity: Austin’s influential Waterloo Records has seen huge demand for Come Away following Jones’ South by Southwest appearances. The store moved about 800 copies of the record the week after, but even more impressive was that as of last Thursday, the store had sold 1,261 copies to date but had only logged 1,115 transactions in that time, meaning well over 100 customers bought more than one copy. People are turning each other on to this record.

Another measure: Come Away has been parked in the Top Five of Amazon.com’s list of best-selling CDs since its release Feb. 26 (it’s #4 this week) and has now sold over 7,000 copies. "Our marketshare on this is triple our average," says Amazon Buying Manager Ron Philips, who notes that Amazon recommended the album via e-mail to customers who had bought Diana Krall and Eva Cassidy. "We thought this was a record we could do something with," Philips says. "And because EMD/Blue Note gave us tools to work with, both in the developing artist price and co-op support, we decided to go to the mat with it." Retailers are turned on by this record.

Capitol Records President of Jazz and Classics Bruce Lundvall, who signed Jones to Blue Note as soon as he heard her, says Jones’ non-traditional approach is a plus, even for a jazz label. "The rules changed a long time ago," he says. "In fact, I love that she’s breaking out of the box." And so did everyone else at the label, where support for signing Jones was, unexpectedly, unanimous. Label people get this record immediately.

"The word of mouth has been extraordinary," Lundvall says of Come Away’s sales trend. To set up the album, Blue Note sent the demo EP First Sessions to radio and retail, to help get the buzz going. "I think we seeded the marketplace intelligently. The radio story is developing quickly now, but so much of it has been press and word of mouth."

Oh yeah—the press: Time, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today, Rolling Stone ("10 Artists to Watch"), The New York Times, Interview, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Elle, W, GQ, New York Daily News, New York Post, Boston Globe, Washington Post. On television: Extra, Today (both named Jones a "most promising new artist of 2002), The Tonight Show, The Late, Late Show. Tastemakers get this record immediately.

Jones, 22, grew up near Dallas, where she attended Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts—as did Erykah Badu. The daughter of sitar legend Ravi Shankar (whom she has only known for the last four years) and an Oklahoma nurse, her early inflences included Billie Holiday, Willie Nelson and Joni Mitchell. She spent two years at the University of North Texas majoring in piano and voice before moving to New York and meeting Lundvall. Legendary producer Arif Mardin (Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield) oversaw Come Away’s blissfully uncontrived sound.

While Jones’ subtle stylistic blend has led some critics to labels such as "neo-torch" or even "new cabaret," the pigeonholes don’t cover why she is connecting with people so quickly and so deeply. Several theories have arisen:

  • Is it a post-9/11 psychological reaction that has caused people to seek out music that feels more genuine and real?
  • Do Jones’ delivery and lyrics cause her to speak to people as a muse, la Vonda Shepard in Ally McBeal or Carole King’s Tapestry?
  • Is there a subliminal erotic message hidden in the lines of single "Don’t Know Why"?

Perhaps a more reasonable theory is that an increasingly numerous upper-demo audience, alienated by consolidated, homogenized radio and newly awakened to "roots music" (see O Brother), is now more actively seeking its "roots" through the press and non-commercial radio. Notes Lundvall, "It seems that this is a good time for Norah’s record, because there’s just been so much crap out there, really." Seconds Amazon’s Philips: "People are just getting burned out on overproduced pop. It’s getting old. This is something fresh and interesting."

Whatever the case, Blue Note has a winner on its hands. Having already played a series of dates opening for Willie Nelson, Jones is now on the road with John Mayer and is expanding her audience wherever she goes.

"This is not something that’s happened before this quickly," Lundvall says. "I’ve seen it happen before when you have a hit single, but this is different. This is more like a hit artist. And more than that, a real hit artist."

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