"I think this is simply a voice that gets under your skin almost immediately, and people just fall in love with her."


An exclusive HITS dialogue with Blue Note President Bruce Lundvall by Roy Trakin
Record industry veteran Bruce Lundvall is a throwback to another, more genteel era in record industry history. The Blue Note President first joined Columbia Records’ marketing department some 43 years ago, ascending eventually to President of then-CBS Records U.S. During his tenure there, he worked with everyone from pop giants like Streisand, Dylan and Springsteen to jazz greats McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Al DiMeola, Freddie Hubbard, Dexter Gordon and Wynton Marsalis. He’s been at EMI’s Blue Note since resurrecting the legendary label in 1984, with a roster that includes Grammy winner Bobby McFerrin, Dianne Reeves, Medeski Martin & Wood, Stanley Jordan, Cassandra Wilson and his latest (and some would say greatest) artist development feat, Norah Jones.

Nine million albums sold worldwide, 4.6 million in U.S., and a total of eight Grammy nods later, Jones’ Come Away With Me, which first came out a year ago February, is one of the most remarkable industry success stories in Lundvall’s long and distinguished career. The vet seriously threatened that rep by sitting down with HITS’ own very unlegendary Roy "Horah Jones" Trakin.

These last few weeks have just had to be tremendously exciting, to see the culmination of a set-up that was over a year in the making.
I was wildly surprised at how many awards she won. I thought she might just win a couple. We were up against very, very tough competition with Springsteen in particular, and Eminem. I sat there with my wife, and when it got to the last category, I thought Bruce would win Album because he probably deserved to and then, BAM! Norah Jones again.

The momentum just seemed to be building up to the show and then throughout the evening.
When we got all those nominations, I was thrilled to death. I was particularly thrilled for Arif Mardin, who’s on my staff, one of the greatest producers in the business, and he works here. He was the one who produced this record. And I said, "Gee, if Norah could win a couple and then Arif could win, man, what a great thing!" Lo and behold, we won all of them.

It was a great sign that sometimes quality can rise to the top in this business.
I’ve seen it happen before, not to this extent, of course. I remember when Bobby McFerrin was nominated for all those Grammys, and ended up winning several, for "Don’t Worry Be Happy," it was also a surprise. But I never expected anything like this.

And then the sales explosion on top of that.
Amazing. We didn’t know what to think, and then to sell 600k-plus was just something. And then, with the DVD, we actually scanned 27k without any promotion, marketing or advertising, just out the door.

When you first heard Norah, did you have any clue to her potential?
The answer here is not genius. The answer is returning your phone calls, something a lot of people in our business never learn. I got a call from a woman in our royalty accounting department uptown, Shel White, whom I didn’t know. I thought it might be some accounting problem, so I called her back, and she told me about a young jazz singer she wanted me to hear. Her husband was a jazz musician who had heard Norah playing around town. So I invited her to come by the office, and she brought this shy, little, dark-haired girl with glasses, very beautiful, who had a CD demo with three songs. It included two standards, "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," a very difficult song written by Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman for an off-Broadway musical, The Nervous Set, back in the late ‘50s about the bohemian movement. It’s absolutely one of the best standards ever written, but it’s very difficult to sing, with a lot of chord changes, a big range. The lyric is also very hip. And she just nailed it. This is a song Sarah Vaughan and Dianne Reeves have also done on albums for us. Jazz instrumentalists like Stan Getz and Zoot Sims have also covered the song. I could not believe my ears. It was just voice and piano. I fell apart. She was in perfect pitch and felt the lyric, just nailed it emotionally and technically. I was stopped in my tracks. The next song was "Walking My Baby Back Home" and the third song was a Jesse Harris number. And I said, "Wait a minute. What’s this all about? Where are you from?" And I got the story about her being a jazz piano and voice major at North Texas State who was now gigging around New York, doing some jazz and pop dates with Jesse Harris’ band. I just said, "Well, you’re on Blue Note. I want to sign you now. Get yourself an attorney." That’s really what happened.

What did you do then?
We had a deal with her to do some demos, 20-odd songs over two evenings, mostly one-takes. It turns out the songs included many of those on the album, but also "Peace" by [jazz pianist] Horace Silver. Now how would she know that? Also, "Sentimental Mood" by Duke Ellington, and "Hallelujah, I Just Love Him So" by Ray Charles. There was also "Turn Me On," the John Loudermilk song and the Hank Williams song.

It had to amaze you a 23-year-old could be into songs like that.
I was completely stunned. There were several originals, including "Come Away With Me." When the deal was signed, Norah decided she wanted to work with Craig Street, who had produced Cassandra Wilson for us. He’s a terrific producer who has done kd lang and a lot of other people. They hooked up and made the record up in Woodstock with some pretty good musicians, but it was completely the wrong direction. Quite frankly, I was very upset. It was guitar-heavy, with no focus on her piano playing. I had to tell Craig, "This isn’t working for me at all." I even told Norah we’d put the album on the shelf and pay for it, but it wasn’t the direction I thought she should go. Craig realized it was the demos that everyone had fallen in love with, and we should release them. We weren’t going to do that, but we wanted to keep it in the same direction…because that seems to be the magic. The less production, the better.

So I suggested Arif Mardin. He’s the greatest producer in the business, an arranger, a musician, a composer. Norah was intimidated at first. I said, "Just meet with him because he’ll know exactly what to do." Arif went up to this club in the 60s where she was running through new material every week. He had a number of basic suggestions, like, "Try this in a major key." And it sounded even better. Arif has a way of working with artists on a totally musical level. And he always serves the artist. It’s never a producer’s record; it’s always the artist’s record. That’s his reputation. And after they met a few times, Norah called me and said, "I really like him. Maybe I should just try a couple of songs with him." From that point forward, the album was finished. Some of the tracks on the album are the demos, and some are what Craig did. It became that sort of process. Let’s get back to what we all fell in love with, which were the demos. Arif just added colors, focusing on her vocals and piano-playing. I went to the studio to see what was going on, and it was really a magical process. He would do stuff like add a sustained organ on the bottom of "Turn Me On," where before, it was just piano. Or add a violin. He kept the space. And that was the magic of it.

How did people hear about this?
I’ll tell you how it really started. You know how you have to sell your own people, then the trade, and finally, the public? Those steps take place with everything. I brought the Norah tape to an international A&R presentation for EMI labels around the world in Rome. I decided to play one song by Norah Jones, "Turn Me On," because it was the one, when people heard it, they went nuts. I introduced her as a new artist I believed in strongly and showed a single slide I had of her. "Just listen, and tell me what you think." They went insane. The whole room stood and applauded. When [EMI head Eric] Nicoli made his summing-up speech, he named Norah Jones as the one artist who really stood out in his mind. Alain Levy and David Munns got it immediately and said they’d make it a worldwide priority to break Norah. Munns told me he was up in Canada on holiday and Dean Cameron, the head of our label up there, was playing the record, and David just fell in love with it. But very early on, when the record came out, it was about the press and word of mouth.

You broke Norah Jones largely without the gatekeepers, Top 40 radio or MTV.
We started modestly, going after Triple-A radio first. Actually, Smooth Jazz radio, too. When Virgin got involved, we went after Hot Adult, Adult and, ultimately, Top 40. All of a sudden, people were slowly but surely coming on line. It’s been extraordinary.

It really doesn’t sound like anything else out there.
There are a lot of theories bandied about, for example, that the public has been waiting for something like this to come along. Or maybe it’s because of what’s happened since 9/11. I don’t agree with that. It may be part of it, but I think this is simply a voice that gets under your skin almost immediately, and people just fall in love with her.

Is Norah mainly a stylist, or will she grow into being an accomplished writer as well?
She’s going to be a very good writer. I’ve heard some of the newer things she’s written. She just has this gift. She’s very well-trained musically. She’s listened to tons of music as a kid. Her mother had a house full of records. Growing up, Norah listened to everything from Miles Davis to Bill Evans to Ray Charles to country music, all of it. As opposed to being just involved with the music her peers were listening to. She was listening to much more sophisticated music.

When did you find out Ravi Shankar was her father?
Maybe a month later, after we signed her. I had no idea. Brian Backus, my A&R man at that time, did all the demos with her at the beginning. He asked me, "Do you know who her father is?" And, of course, Ravi is signed to Angel, our classical label. As is Anoushka, her stepsister, so now we have the whole family.

How has she changed since achieving this recognition?
I don’t see that she’s changed at all. Obviously, she’s thrilled with the success, but she has her feet on the ground. I don’t think you’ll ever see her with piercings or tattoos.

She’s not about to pull a Christina Aguilera, then?
She’s not about that at all. She can’t wait to get into the studio to get the next record started. She’s getting bored with these songs after having performed them for 18 months. I must say, unlike many other examples we all know about, this girl is about the music. She’s very natural. She said to me at this dinner party after the Grammys, laughing, "I guess it’s all downhill from here," and I said, "Not at all. Just keep doing what you’re doing." And she said, "Well, I have to."

Are you now getting a lot of tapes from the next Norah Joneses?
I am getting a lot of music from acoustic singer-songwriters, yes. Not imitators, yet. But they’ll start coming.

Is this a positive sign for the music industry?
Yes. First of all, our business has ignored the adult market to a great degree. Whether it’s Diana Krall, Jane Monheit, Cassandra Wilson, Josh Groban, Sarah Brightman, Russell Watson, James Taylor or Tony Bennett, bigger than ever at 76. It’s a very large audience. And now, Norah’s being embraced by a younger market, too. So, it’s spread down. But there are so many examples. Last year’s O Brother soundtrack or Buena Vista Social Club from a few years back.