Better The Diva You Know.
Norah Jones plays the QPAC Concert Hall on Friday.
She may not be Britney Spears or Shania Twain but she is still one of the biggest success stories of the music industry this year. Her name is Norah Jones and she's not a pop singer but a jazz singer. Her debut album, Come Away With Me has already sold over three million copies worldwide and what's even more startling is tracks from the album are now being played on rock and pop radio stations, and her videos are being shown by MTV.
But then her music, even though its on respected jazz label Blue Note, is hardly pure jazz. Its more a cross between Sade, Carole King and Willie Nelson. Its jazz with a twist of country and a slice of folky pop on the side. Her sultry intimate version of Hank Williams’ Cold Cold Heart with its spare stand up bass as back up has more country running through it veins than a pick up truck full of Nashville divas, and her version of the Hoagy Carmichael standard, The Nearness Of You sounds like she is channelling the spirit of Billie Holiday. But covering standards is only a small part of Jones repertoire. Come Away With Me for the most part is an eclectic songbook of original material written by Jones and members of her band, bass player and boyfriend Lee Alexander and guitarist Jesse Harris.
Since the albums release last March reviews have been glowing and sales have been growing, which all comes a bit of a shock to the young 23 year old singer.
"I keep thinking they have me mixed up with someone else,” she says coyly. “It’s a mistake, right? I didn’t even think I would have an album that would be released in other countries, little own selling so many millions of copies. If I knew this many people were going to listen to it, I probably wouldn’t have released it. It’s only my first record and I still think I have a lot to learn.”
She is also feeling more confidence on stage. “It’s never been my forte being confident on stage and talking to audiences,” she admits. “Two years ago, it was almost painful to watch. I was so stiff. Now I'm feeling a lot more confident on stage and I'm really enjoying it. But to be honest I really thought I would just be playing clubs for a few more years and then maybe in five years or so I might be lucky enough to get a record deal. I really wasn’t prepared for this to happen so fast.”
Jones was born in New York but moved when she was four with her mother. She began singing in church choirs at age five and started paying piano at age 7. She attended Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts where she won student awards for her jazz compositions and played her first gig at an open mike night at a local coffeehouse on her 16th birthday singing a version of Billie Holiday’s I'll Be Seeing You. There is one fact in Jones' life that she tries to downplay, however, namely the identity of her father. It's legendary Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar, who was spearheaded to fame in the 60s thanks to the patronage of Beatles' George Harrison.
"I really don't have anything to hide, but I prefer not to talk about my personal life," Jones confesses. "My father and I were estranged for a long time but for the past five years we've had a relationship so I'm not going to keep it a secret, but it has certainly bit me in the butt the way people have reacted to it. I'm proud that he is my dad but it’s very separate to my music and he had nothing to do with my music, so I don't see why it needs to be in a headline about me."
Initially Jones’ recipe of diverse musical ingredients caused some concern for her record label. “They asked me whether I would prefer to be on a pop label, because what I was doing was not strictly jazz which is really what the label is known for,” says Jones. “But I wanted to stay with them, because I knew they weren’t going to be concerned with how I looked or doing flashy music videos. They would treat me with respect as a musician. So in the end they decided to let me go ahead.”
Jones sits up in her chair; her eyebrows frown in puzzlement as she struggles to answer why her album has made such an impact. “I think so much of music today just hits you over the head. A lot of videos just give me a headache, they move too fast. My record is not like that. What I’m doing is nothing new, but it’s hard to find these days. The diva thing has really gotten out of hand. Its all about technique and singing a million notes which gets annoying no matter how good a singer they are," she reasons. "I always think less is more.”