Norah Jones - Biography

By David Downs


American singer-songwriter, pianist, keyboardist, guitarist, and occasional actress Norah Jones stands among the best selling, most award-winning musicians of the 21st century. Her success is a function of raw musical talent (she's the daughter of Indian music legend Ravi Shankar) and the context into which she was thrust - a signee by age twenty-two to Blue Note Records and hence worldwide exposure. The contemporary jazz and pop vocalist's three albums Come Away With Me (2002-Blue Note), Feels Like Home (2004-Blue Note) and Not Too Late (2007-Blue Note) have sold in excess of sixteen million units in the United States alone and more than thirty million worldwide. She's been nominated for ten Grammys and has won nine. Come Away With Me received five Grammy Awards including “Album of the Year”, with Jones winning "Best New Artist". Single "Don't Know Why" hit number thirty on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart. Other singles like "Turn Me On", "Sunrise", "What Am I to You?", "Those Sweet Words", "Thinking About You", "Until the End", and "Sinkin' Soon" a generally mellow, melodic and vocal-centered, earning her broad support and the attendant criticism of the alternative music world. She still records and acts occasionally.


Geethali Norah Jones Shankar was born in New York City on March 30, 1979. Her father was legendary Indian musician, Ravi Shankar, and her mother, Sue Jones, was a dancer. Shankar visited his daughter infrequently and in 1983, at the age of four, Norah moved with her mother to a Dallas suburb. The natural born beauty began singing in church choirs, learning to play piano and guitar. She last saw her father at age nine, and didn't see him again until age eighteen; she rarely speaks about him in public. Jones attended Interlochen Arts Camp, Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, Texas, and the University of North Texas, where she majored in jazz piano. In 1995 she played her first gig in a coffee shop open mic night, singing “I'll Be Seeing You” by Billie Holiday and won local awards for jazz vocals in 1996 and 1997. There she also met New York-born songwriter Jesse Harris and bandmates Marc Johnson, Tony Sherr, and Kenny Wollesen who were in town for a jazz clinic. Jones gave them a ride in her caddie, and they became friends and jammed. She soon dropped out of school and moved to New York city, playing The Living Room in the Lower East Side with bands in the downtown instrumental scene like Wax Poetic and the Peter Malick Group. This is the mid-90s, girls her age are in No Doubt or listening to Britney Spears. This is the height of the alternative, grunge era. Mall punk, pop, loud, brash indie rock -- if ever there were noticeable trends to dig into as a daughter of a famous musician New York in the mid'90s was the time. Yet Jones went into soft, acoustic jazz – the music equivalent of shuffleboard. In an era where rebellion was the mainstream and “garage rock” like the Strokes was selling millions, Jones' conservative, spare, soft diddies were a quiet, true rebellion.


New York City (2000-Koch) by Peter Malick Group features some of the earliest recorded Jones, made during August and September 2000. Norah sings on all seven, bluesy tracks. In October 2000, she started recording demos with Harris, Lee Alexander, and Dan Rieser, meeting with the venerated Blue Note label executives in 2001, who allegedly signed her on the spot. Blue Note was started in the '30s and is arguably the number one jazz and blues label in country. Its stamp of approval, along with her raw talent and genetic pedigree assured a shot at massive success. Jones began recording her debut record Come Away with Me in May 2001 in Woodstock, NY. The recordings went away from sparse, piano-oriented demos, so she returned in August 2001 to a studio in Manhattan to work with retired producer Arif Mardin, who had worked with Aretha Franklin, Willy Nelson, Barbara Streisand and Bette Midler. Mardin put Jones' smoky, warm, wry voice front and center, pairing the instrumentals to their bones – a charming little title for the jazz coffeehouse set that would soon go nova.


Also of note -- the “First Sessions” EP by Jones came out in 2001, limited to 10,000 independently produced copies including the songs "Don't Know Why", "Come Away with Me", and "Turn Me On". Come Away With Me was released by Blue Note in 2002, featuring jazz musicians Bill Frisell, Adam Rogers, Brian Blade, and Sam Yahel, as well as the compositions of of Jesse Harris. Iconic and some say over-played single “Don't Know Why" was written by Harris and originally appeared in his 1999 album. Her version opens with muted guitar and brush stick-drumming, leading into her unmistakable voice on the verse. The instrumentals offer a substrate for her voice and an amplification of her tonality, but they never interfere. The song peaked at number thirty on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, but the innocuous album – which could be overheard but unnoticed in coffee shops across the land sold almost ten million copies in the U.S. and over twenty million worldwide and was certified diamond by the RIAA in 2005. The album swept the Grammy Awards in 2003 and became the highest-selling album in the history of Blue Note Records. The single alone won three Grammy Awards for "Record of the Year", "Song of the Year", and "Best Female Pop Vocal Performance".


Near the end of 2003, veteran Indian filmmaker Dev Anand was rumored to be planning to make film Song of Life featuring Jones's troubled relationship with her father, Ravi Shankar. Both Jones and Shankar spooke out against the project. Jones went on to tour the world supporting Come Away With Me, before hitting the studio for her follow-up.


Feels Like Home (2004-Blue Note) also features producer Mardin with Jones co-producing and many of her existing backing band members like Lee Alexander appearing. The album continued in the intimate vein of Come Away With Me adding more country and blues, reflecting her Dallas roots. “Creepin' In” features Dolly Parton. Single “What Am I To You?” features the country guitar styling of Tony Scherr and Garth Hudson on organ. Single “Sunrise” contains Jones characteristically innocuous lyrics, the parsing of which just leads to more questions than answers. Jones also covers Tom Waits and Townes Van Zandt along with Duke Ellington's "Melancholia," retitled as "Don't Miss You at All" and featuring Jones' lyrics. Now a household name, Feels Like Home sold almost two million copies in the first week and became the the second best-selling album of 2004. It debuted at number one on the Billboard charts, eventually selling over ten million copies worldwide. Jones toured globally with the Handsome Band, and backing singer Daru Oda.


Throughout 2004 and 2005, Jones contributed to The Little Willies (2006-Milking Bull/Parlophone) a self-titled debut album from rock music and country singers covering Hank Williams, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson and the like with original composition "Lou Reed" by Lee Alexander, Richard Julian, and Norah Jones. The album hit number forty-eight on the Billboard 200 and ten on the U.S. Top Country Albums. She also appeared on Sesame Street changing the song “Don't Know Why” in an alphabet song, singing “don't know why Y didn't come.”


For Jones' third record, Norah moved to a home studio, losing producer Arif Mardin, who died in the summer of 2006. Bassist and boyfriend Lee Alexander produced the project, with Jones often on piano. Jesse Harris played guitar and guest vocalists Daru Oda and M. Ward made appearances. Jones has said the project lacked a deadline and it translated into a care-free emotionality to the album, even on a jaunty Dixieland rag “Sinkin' Soon”. Piano-based, jazzy political satire "My Dear Country" was written before the the presidential election of 2004. Jones has said the album was her most personal album to date, written entirely by her and Alexander. The two broke up a year later. The album hit number one in the U.S. with 405,000 copies sold and has sold five million copies worldwide.


In 2007, Jones starred in director Kar Wai Wong's My Blueberry Nights (2007), along with Jude Law, Natalie Portman, and Rachel Weisz. Her music has also appeared in thirty-two television or film productions and will appear in the 2009 production Recording: The History of Recorded Music directed by Larry Rosen. She then released The Fall in 2009, followed by Little Broken Hearts in 2012.


In closing, Ravi Shankar's genes and Blue Note Records' prestige helped Norah Jones become one of the biggest-selling female vocalists in history, but they only amplified the reception of her already near-perfect voice, which she had been training since pre-adolescence. To certain critics, Jones' music is regarded as safe, placid, even tepid – but in an age of commercial rebellion, her understated, conservative style is genuine and resonates with millions of mainstream music listeners worldwide.

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