The version of "Don't Know Why" heard incessantly on the radio and nominated for the Record of the Year Grammy is the first take of a demo recording session Norah Jones did live with her band on October 8, 2000.
"I just remember we walked into the control room thinking we would try it again, and the engineer looked floored," recalled Jesse Harris, who wrote the song and played guitar on it. "He said, 'Man, that is amazing. That was it.' "
If lightning only strikes once, it hit Sorcerer Sound in Manhattan's SoHo district that afternoon. The recording, engineered by jazz expert Jay Newland, perfectly captures the honesty of a then-21-year-old singer with the world in her eyes, recording the first of a few songs she hoped might get her a record deal. It's pleasantly raw, yet technically flawless. It's also a take that nearly didn't happen.
"When we were recording that particular take, the bass was too loud in my headphones and I didn't realize until we started playing," Harris said. "I thought for a quick second about stopping the take and telling everyone I need to turn down my bass, but I decided to just wait and play through the whole tune anyway. And I'm glad I did."
Harris wrote "Don't Know Why," which is also nominated for Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, in January 1999 and recorded it a few weeks later with a violinist accompanying his own singing and guitar. Soon after the song was released on a Jesse Harris and the Ferdinandos album (available from Harris' Web site), Jones invited Harris to join a band she was putting together.
Harris remembered thinking "Don't Know Why" would be good for a female voice, so he presented the song to her. Jones changed the key and added a drum beat that "gave the tune a groove," he said.
Built around the lyric "I don't know why I didn't come," the song is about the empty feeling of being alone -- or at least that's the common interpretation. Harris prefers not to discuss lyrics. "I think songs have different meanings for different people, so I'm reluctant to impose my own meaning," he said.
"Don't Know Why" immediately resonated with at least one music executive, Bruce Lundvall, who signed Jones to his Blue Note Records and sent her to record a full-length album with producer Craig Street, whose résumé includes contemporary jazz artists Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Cassandra Wilson.
When the results came off as too busy, Lundvall suggested veteran Arif Mardin to capture the essence of Jones, especially her smoky voice.
"She said to her manager, 'I can't work with this man. How can I criticize or say no to a man who has worked with Aretha Franklin?' " Mardin remembered. "She was intimidated. So we had a meeting and I guess I charmed her and we became friends."
Mardin -- who is nominated for the Producer of the Year, Non-Classical Grammy for his work with Jones -- wanted to keep the original "Don't Know Why" take, but he decided to experiment with "dressing it up" a bit. He invited Harris and Jones' bassist and drummer into the studio, but in the end added only a guitar line and vocal harmony to the song.
"Norah Jones' was like a session I used to do in the '60s and '70s," Mardin said. "It was a very democratic session. It reminded me of the Bee Gees' Main Course album. Everybody would come up with great ideas and I would be the circus master: 'Put that in!' "
Mardin's idea to include Jones singing her own harmony came from her telling the producer she sang that way at home. "I said, 'Why don't we do it for the record.' "
Jones' Come Away With Me was finished and released last February. The album garnered rave reviews, even in publications outside of the jazz community, and soon radio picked up "Don't Know Why."
By summer, it was apparent the song was a smash, so Virgin Records, Blue Note's parent company, moved in to help guide Jones' career.
"They brought me a remix of 'Don't Know Why,' which they said radio would like better than the album version," Jones told the Los Angeles Times. "I have no problem with techno music and remixes, but this one was horrible. They had drum machines on it and it was going, 'Don't know why ... why ... why.' It was the most absurd thing I've ever heard."
Jones nixed the idea, and her version of "Don't Know Why" went on to become one of the biggest hits of 2002 anyway. The same take Harris almost stopped.
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