With the Grammy Awards less than a week away, many artists are acting like politicians at election time.
They're filling their schedules with interviews, radio and television appearances, positioning themselves to capitalize on the pre-Grammy hype. Norah Jones will have none of this. Not only has the 23-year-old singer turned down all press and performance requests, she's embarked on a tour of Australia and New Zealand so her publicity department can't pressure her into selling herself.
"I know I'm lucky, but [I think my career has been going] too fast sometimes," Jones said in November. "I've definitely learned to say no to a lot of things, and it's been good for me. This year has been crazy, and I've learned that when I start to feel overwhelmed I definitely need to stand back and say, 'Wait, maybe this is kind of going too far.' "
Despite her reluctance to participate in the pre-show hype, Jones is the betting man's favorite at this year's awards ceremony. Avril Lavigne and Eminem command way more attention, Bruce Springsteen touched more souls after September 11, but Jones is the kind of artist Grammy board members adore. She's unassuming, humble, talented and she straddles the line between poignant singer/songwriter and elegant jazz performer. Her honey-tinged vocals sweeten her melancholy piano lines, and her delicate melodies are both easy to listen to and difficult to ignore, blending the emotive flow of Billie Holiday with the earthy tones of Rickie Lee Jones.
"The smoky, fabulous voice is so intimate and so direct," said Arif Mardin, who produced her debut album, Come Away With Me, and who has previously worked with such legends as Aretha Franklin, James Taylor and Elton John. "It's almost like a laser beam hitting the listener, going through the heart — the simplicity of the arrangements and the sweet piano playing. How it spread like wildfire is incredible."
Jones' debut album has sold 3.4 million copies, according to SoundScan, and her sophisticated pop single "Don't Know Why" has subtly become ubiquitous (see "Road To The Grammys: The Making Of Norah Jones' 'Don't Know Why' "). Her album is nominated for eight Grammys: Best New Artist, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, Best Pop Vocal Album, Best Engineered Album Non-Classical and Producer of the Year Non-Classical. And she's slated to perform "Don't Know Why" during the program.
"She's not going to have this overly done performance with dancers and guest artists," said Zach Hochkeppel, director of marketing at her label, Blue Note. "She's just going to do her thing, and no one will ever be able to say the record label turned her into a monster and she's crazy and wants to be a big star. Our hands are clean and her hands are clean and if this sells 30 million copies it will be because it's good and not because it's pre-fabricated."
It's clear that Jones doesn't cherish pop celebrity, and probably would rue the flood of attention she would gain from an Alicia Keys-scale victory. At the same time, she doesn't want to be this year's India.Arie. Last year, Arie was nominated in seven categories, but walked away empty-handed. While Arie's album sales climbed before the Grammys, they dropped precipitously after the event.
"Obviously, we're hoping for something in the middle, which seems to be very much in the cards," said Hochkeppel. "She wants to win, but she wants to still be able to walk down the street without being mobbed."
The daughter of Indian music guru Ravi Shankar (known to rock fans primarily for the work he did with the Beatles), Jones was born in New York, but grew up in Texas with her mother. She was exposed to the sounds of Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday at an early age, and developed a real taste for jazz after her mom took her to a jazz concert at age 13.
She attended a high school for the performing arts in Dallas, where she won the Down Beat Student Music Award for Best Original Composition and Best Jazz Vocalist two years in a row. After high school, Jones attended the University of North Texas and majored in jazz piano, but she dropped out after two years when a friend invited her to go in on a summer sublet in New York's West Village.
"At first, I was depressed, but everybody gets depressed when they move to New York," Jones said. "It's hard to make money there and everything's so expensive. But I went out and heard a lot of great music and met a lot of great people and I got to love it so much I decided not to go back to school."
Like many struggling artists, Jones did her fair share of waiting tables. When she wasn't working at restaurants, she was writing, practicing and performing jazz gigs in small clubs. A woman who worked for EMI attended one of her early 2000 shows and introduced Jones to some friends of hers at jazz label Blue Note. Jones was quickly signed, and around that time started developing a love for country artists like Hank Williams Jr. and Johnny Cash and singer/songwriters such as Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. She formed a group with guitarist Jesse Harris and bassist Lee Alexander, who helped her write a batch of reflective, delicate songs, and invited drummer Dan Rieser into the fold.
"This record is my first attempt at doing something that's not jazz standards," Jones said. "It was all about songwriting and interpreting other songs that friends of mine and people in the band have written. This my first attempt at being me.
"The record's filled with simple songs and it's really mellow and quiet, probably more so than I intended," she continued. "But I've always loved records that I could put on and have a constant mood. You don't have to skip over anything. Something doesn't jolt you. If I want to be mellow, I want the whole record [I have on] to be like that."
There's no question that "Don't Know Why" has gained Jones a number of fans who don't usually listen to adult pop. It has also attracted consumers who don't normally buy CDs at all.
"The large bulk of the people who like this record are adults over 35 who just aren't used to finding music to buy anymore and have just given up," said Hochkeppel. "They hear this and go, 'I didn't think they made records like this anymore.' "
No one can say Jones is a product of excessive hype or that her record doesn't musically stand on its own feet. However, there were some clever marketing techniques that helped along the way. Before Blue Note signed Jones, she sent them a demo of six tracks. They dug it so much, they worked with her to record the tracks and press them on CD to sell at her concerts and on her Web site. As a result, eight months before Come Away With Me was released, radio programmers were calling Blue Note to be in on the buzz.
Since they were initially aiming at an older demographic than most pop artists, in addition to the more traditional avenues for marketing a new artist (magazines, talk shows, the late-night TV circuit), the label scheduled appearances for Jones on National Public Radio (NPR) programs "All Things Considered" and "Fresh Air." And when she started catching on with rock audiences, Blue Note pushed the "Don't Know Why" video to MTV2. Perhaps as crucial was the way the label marketed to mall goers and other shoppers.
"We sent the record out to coffee shops, vineyards, spas, boutiques — anywhere people loitered and there was music playing and it was meditative and quiet," Hochkeppel said. "People would start hearing it everywhere, and they'd go, 'What the hell is that?' "
Lastly, until Come Away With Me sold its first 250,000 copies — way more than anyone at the label expected at the get-go — the disc was sold at a "developing artist price" of $7.99. Not only were consumers more willing to take a chance, many who purchased the record bought two copies, Hochkeppel said. Then when the album was approaching the 250,000 mark, Blue Note warned retailers the price would go up on a certain date, so merchants gobbled as many copies as they could beforehand, so they could make more of a profit when they peddled the discs at the normal CD price.
Jones is pretty unconcerned about all the strategies Blue Note and its parent company Capitol have employed to sell her art, and she's fairly ambivalent about the Grammys themselves. Sure, it would be nice to win something, but she has no interest in celebrity glitz and is most interested in moving on with her life and doing what makes her happy — singing to fans that appreciate her for her music and nothing else.
"A year ago I had a lot more free time on my hands, and that was kind of nice," she said. "I cooked a lot and hung out a lot. Now, I've seen more hotel rooms than I have my own apartment in the past year. I really want to plan a break right now."
Even if she could get some time away, it wouldn't be an extended escape. As much as she enjoys playing songs from Come Away With Me, she's most interested in taking the next creative steps in her career.
"I'm dying to record a new album," she said. "We have some new songs, and we sound a lot different than we do on the [first] record. I love my record, but I'm ready to move on."
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