The sultriest, most hummable Grammy-winning sound is coming from a 24-year-old wonder girl. Here she opens up about her Texas childhood, her famous father and influential mother, money and overexposure—and what she'll do for a second act.
The first time I heard Norah Jones's debut album, Come Away with Me , I was struck by what it felt like: the truth. I have that same feeling the day I meet Norah at a Manhattan Jewish community center called Makor, where the singer was discovered by someone from a record company just two years before her extraordinary five Grammy wins in February. Like her music, nothing about Norah seems false or manufactured: She greets me wearing a simple white blouse and jeans, just a hint of makeup, and a self-assuredness far beyond her 24 years. Even the piano rendition of a Duke Ellington song she later plays for me doesn't feel overly rehearsed. After spending an hour with this girl wonder from Texas, I understand why what she sings about and who she is both feel so honest. They are.
The daughter of former concert promoter Sue Jones and legendary Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar, Norah was raised by her mother in Grapevine, Texas, and began singing in church choirs at age 5. She saw her father a few times a year until she was 9, then reconnected with him when she was 18. At 13 she moved with her mother to Dallas and enrolled in Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts—the school that soul singer Erykah Badu and trumpeter Roy Hargrove once attended. Her first real gig was on her 16th birthday at an open mike night in a Dallas coffee shop, where she performed "I'll Be Seeing You," a song made famous by Billie Holiday.
After high school, Norah began studying music at the University of North Texas. But in the summer of 1999, when a songwriter friend offered her a sublet in Greenwich Village, she headed north and never returned home. She was scraping together a living in New York when Blue Note president Bruce Lundvall signed her to his label in 2001. Two years later, she tied with Lauryn Hill and Alicia Keys for the most Grammy wins by a female artist in a single night.
When Norah and I part, I tell her the same thing Quincy Jones told me after we'd finished filming The Color Purple : "Your future is so bright that it's going to burn your eyes!" The energy and vitality Norah brings to a room, the spirit of truth in her lyrics, and the bold stands she takes to define herself as a musician all give her an authenticity that can't be faked.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Norah Jones
Note: This interview appeared in the July 2003 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Oprah: We're here in a Jewish community center where you used to play that very piano for 20 people once a month.
Norah: I think it was only five people! Within a year, it grew to ten, then to 12—at the end, there was actually a good-size crowd.
Oprah: And didn't you consider it a great gig because it paid?
Norah: Yes. And since there was no cover charge, my friends could come—all five of them.
Oprah: I heard you made $300 for a performance.
Norah: Yes, but for the whole band.
Oprah: And that was considered doing pretty well?
Norah: For me it was—that was after living here for two years and playing five-hour jazz piano solo gigs for 50 bucks. This was a lot better. They fed us and gave us breaks. They had a sound technician and equipment on hand so we didn't have to bring anything with us.
Oprah: And two years before this gig, you were waiting tables.
Oprah: So was it surreal to be sitting at the Grammys and hear your name called?
Norah: Very surreal. I wasn't even that nervous because I felt like I was in a dream.
Oprah: When you were playing here, was a Grammy ever part of your vision for yourself?
Norah: No. I'd done recordings, little demos, since I was in college, which I used to get gigs. But I never thought I'd have a record label. That wasn't part of my plan yet.
Oprah: What was your plan?
Norah: I was just trying to find my musical direction. I'd been singing straight-ahead jazz, and three years ago, that was all I wanted to do. Then I began writing songs and playing with my friends, and I started getting into country music again. I was also singing in this acid-jazz band. I was just trying to decide—
Oprah: Where your voice was best suited and what felt like the truth for you?
Oprah: Much ado was made about the fact that at the Grammys, you didn't thank your father. I completely understand that—but can you explain?
Norah: I thanked everybody—my mom and my entire family. My dad is included in that. My mom was involved in the daily stress of making this record. We talk every day on the phone, no matter what. I talk to my dad every five months, so it's not like I dissed him by not singling him out. I didn't think it was appropriate for me to thank him, because he didn't help me with the record. It's not that he isn't supportive—it's just that I don't talk to him that often.
Oprah: Was he a big part of your life growing up?
Norah: He wasn't, though we've gotten close in the last five years and I love him very much. The fact that people made such a big deal of me not thanking him is ridiculous. The press in India had a heyday. They used words I've never used, like "deadbeat dad." It's sad.
Oprah: How does it make him feel?
Norah: Pretty bad. But I haven't said any of those things—the press just twisted it all.
Oprah: Of course. How does it feel to live in a world where much of what you say is distorted? What does that do to a 24-year-old's head?
Norah: It could really screw me up if I let it—I'm trying not to let it. The Grammys were intense, and this whole year has been very crazy. But my friends keep me grounded. My boyfriend is the bass player in my band. My best friend, who was managing us on tour, is now singing with us. As long as I'm surrounded by these kinds of friends, I'll be okay.
Oprah: It seems you haven't bought into the hype. Even on Grammy night, you wore your own outfit, though a stylist was throwing designer dresses at you.
Norah: What I had on that night was a dress I got for free at a backstage party, but I liked it and it fit me, so I wore it.
Oprah: So you don't let people tell you how to dress?
Norah: No. During my first photo shoot, I was unhappy because they put so much makeup on me and straightened my hair. I've been stubborn ever since.
Oprah: Is it true that after your album sold a million copies, you went to Blue Note and said you wanted the record pulled?
Norah: That story has been a bit distorted. We'd already made a low-budget video for the single, and when sales started to pick up, the record company wanted us to go in and make a bigger-budget video, which I was not willing to do. The first had already been out there for six months and although it hadn't received heavy airplay, people had seen it. It would have been stupid to have a new video—and besides that, I didn't want to do tons of press interviews. That's why I said, "We've already sold a million records. Why do we have to cram it down everyone's throat? Haven't we sold enough?"
Oprah: But you never asked that your record be pulled from the stores.
Norah: No, I'm not totally naive.
Oprah: How did your record company respond to what you said?
Norah: They laughed—they're so used to working on commercial records. But I hate it when records and artists are overexposed.
Oprah: You're the only singer I know who's complaining of too much airplay.
Norah: There are some great songs, but when you hear them 20,000 times a day, you get sick of them. I'm already sick of my own song. My friends are sick of it, my sister's sick of it. My sister said, "I heard your song in the drugstore the other day—I'm so tired of it."
Oprah: In an industry that cares more about a singer's image than her music, how did you manage to stay so true to yourself on this album?
Norah: Until I started making this record, I wasn't that aware of what's involved in the industry of pop music—I was into jazz. I didn't even know what was on the charts.
Oprah: Until you were on the charts yourself.
Norah: Yes—and now I've been looking at the charts every week. I'm suddenly hyperaware, and I don't know if that's a good thing. We made this record in only three sessions. That's probably why it sounds honest—it was all live. The single ["Don't Know Why"] was from our first demo session, and it was also the first take. I didn't know it would be on the record until we'd recorded everything else and then said, "Wow, that was special—we should use it."
Oprah: I've heard you were inspired by Billie Holiday. What was it about her music that moved you?
Norah: It was very raw. You could just see her heart and soul.
Oprah: Could you feel her pain?
Norah: Sometimes too much.
Oprah: And I've read you were obsessed with Otis Redding when you were in high school. Who was popular on the radio then?
Norah: I wasn't very aware of pop music because I attended an arts school. For me, it was all about jazz. Everyone in my high school was a bit nerdy. We didn't even have a football team.
Oprah: That says it all! You went to a school that allowed you to create your own way of expression. When you're given that freedom, you tend not to care what everyone else thinks.
Norah: Yes, it was a great place.
Oprah: So what do you think of shows like American Idol?
Norah: I watched a bit of the first season and thought it was entertaining. And there were some talented people on the show.
Oprah: Do you think an American idol can be created through voting?
Norah: No. And in general I think this whole reality-TV thing has gotten out of hand. O: When you were younger, didn't you ever want to be famous?
Norah: When I was 10, I did. I think a lot of kids do. Then when I got into jazz, I left that notion behind. Five years after moving to New York, I probably would have wanted to get a record deal and become better known, but I hadn't gotten to that point yet.
Oprah: That's what the 20s are all about—figuring yourself out.
Norah: And I'm still doing that. Who knew I'd be figuring it out on my first record that millions would hear? If I'd known, I probably wouldn't have put it out just yet.
Oprah: How has your life changed since the Grammy Awards?
Norah: It's been a strange few months. I had that extreme high; then a week later, my boyfriend lost a family member. That snapped us back into reality, big-time. Now things are finally returning to normal.
Oprah: Didn't you move out of your apartment in Brooklyn?
Norah: Yes, to a much nicer apartment. Immediately after the Grammys, I didn't go back to my old apartment because reporters were standing outside. I just didn't want to deal with that.
Oprah: A lot has been said about that $1,400-a-month student apartment you'd been living in.
Norah: I think that's funny. Some people made a big deal about it being only $1,400, but coming from Texas, I'm thinking, "That's really expensive—even when you're splitting it with three people." When I told my mom how much I was paying, she was like "God, you're crazy."
Oprah: What an extraordinary year it's been for you! How do you figure this all happened to a young woman from Texas?
Norah: I think it's just luck.
Oprah: Do you believe in luck?
Norah: I do—and I've had a lot of luck in my life, knock on wood. I always get worried when something really great happens to me because I'm afraid that something really bad will happen next.
Oprah: Has that ever happened?
Norah: Not really—I just get nervous.
Oprah: I believe luck is preparation meeting opportunity. If you hadn't been prepared when the opportunity came along, you wouldn't have been "lucky."
Norah: True—I've worked hard. But a lot of people work hard, so I feel like "Why did I get this opportunity?" I have about ten friends who are better singers and songwriters than I am. I don't really understand it all, but I think it's okay not to understand it.
Oprah: Yes, you just have to accept it and own it. So what do you want next for yourself?
Norah: I want to make a good second album, and I think we're on our way, which is exciting. My band already has about ten songs, but we might redo a few things. I'm trying to find a name for our group—if you have any ideas, let me know. I want something that isn't too dorky.
Oprah: You've said your mother has always been your best friend. What wisdom has she imparted to you that you'll carry for the rest of your life?
Norah: She's really strong. She's a no-bullshit kind of woman. And she doesn't fake or play nice. If she doesn't like you, it's obvious.
Oprah: Are you that way, too?
Norah: I think I am—well, maybe a little less so. I'm not quite as blunt as she is.
Oprah: Was she upset when you left college to come to New York?
Norah: Yes, because I left with the intention of staying in New York for just one summer, and then I changed my mind. But she handled it well. After six months, I got really depressed and wanted to move home. I called and said, "Okay, Mom, I'm sorry I moved up here. I want to come stay with you and go back to school next semester." She said, "You know what? Why don't you just give it a year, and then come back if you still hate it." Since I knew she really did want me to return, I thought that was so cool of her.
Oprah: Your mom knew you had talent. How has she handled everything that's happened for you this year?
Norah: She's very proud, but I think it's also scary for her.
Oprah: Is it scary for you?
Norah: It was at first, but now I feel like the worst is over.
Oprah: The "worst" being five Grammys?
Norah: I almost had a breakdown a few months before the Grammys because I was doing too much and stressing out. I did eight hours of press every day. I was on my way to burnout. That's what I mean when I say "worst."
Oprah: So now you know when everything is becoming too much for you?
Norah: I do. Last May I said, "Either we cut all this press or I quit." I couldn't do it anymore. I don't care about all this crap if it's not fun. If it's fun and we're selling records, great. But if we're selling records and I'm about to go crazy, what's the point?
Oprah: So you're not going to allow yourself to be manufactured.
Norah: Right. I really can't be manufactured, because if you try to push me into something that's not me, I'll look very uncomfortable. It wouldn't work.
Oprah: Do you feel pressure with your next album?
Norah: There's a lot of pressure, but as long as I don't put it on myself, I'll be fine. The first album went over insanely well. I'll never make another record that will do as well as that one did.
Oprah: How do you know?
Norah: I don't expect to, and if I do, then it will be a nice surprise. If I don't make a record I love, then I won't be happy. If I make a record I love, then somebody will like it. Maybe not everybody, but that won't matter.
Oprah: With all the newfound fame comes money. Do you like to shop?
Norah: I'm a bad shopper. I shop about once a year for clothes.
Oprah: You're not normal!
Norah: Every once in a while I get in the mood, and I like to shop at Target. I'll buy about $200 worth of clothes. At Target, $200 will get you pretty far.
Oprah: This month in the magazine, our focus is on energy. How do you preserve yours?
Norah: I try to get at least eight hours of sleep. I used to stay out late for my gigs, squeeze in three hours of sleep, then go to work in the morning, then do another gig. I can't do that anymore.
Oprah: So you really are an eight-hour girl?
Norah: Nine! Ten is even better.
Oprah: What time do you usually get up—noon?
Oprah: Then what?
Norah: I love to cook—a bunch of boring stuff that doesn't sound fun but is. I like making pasta with homemade sauces.
Oprah: Do you do decorating?
Norah: I'm really bad at that.
Oprah: So you don't like to shop and you don't decorate. You didn't get your first check and go, "Whoa, I'm going to buy..."
Norah: No—never been like that. I'm looking to buy an apartment, which for me is a big, big expense.
Oprah: You're so responsible.
Norah: I'm really not that responsible. I like to go out to eat and buy dinner for my friends. Food is my biggest splurge.
Oprah: Couldn't tell that by looking at ya!
Norah: Well, I love to eat.
Oprah: Your favorites?
Norah: Anything spicy, like Thai and Indian.
Oprah: You seem so grounded—I love to see a woman who knows who she is. I'm proud of you.
Norah: Thank you.
Oprah: And thank you for getting up to talk with me before noon.
Printed from Oprah.com on Monday, March 10, 2014
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