A sweet mystery

Times Staff Writer

Think of Norah Jones as the anti-Mariah.

In an age of pop divas, Jones sings with absorbing intimacy and seems refreshingly unaffected by the hoopla around her.

On the day her debut album picked up eight Grammy nominations, the petite, soft-spoken pop sensation is spending the dinner hour enjoying a glass of wine in a quiet Gramercy Park restaurant rather than some upscale, celebrity spot. She's dressed simply in T-shirt and jeans, the same casual attire she usually wears on stage, and there's no entourage in sight.

Jones could have captured lots of extra publicity earlier in the day by joining the parade of pop starlets giving "this is fabulous" sound bites to the media at a Grammy press conference at Madison Square Garden. But that's not her style.

Despite a smile so sweet that even Mona Lisa would be envious, the 23-year-old also avoids flashy, big-budget videos or posing for pin-up photos to gain better positioning in Rolling Stone or Blender.

"The record industry has gotten so into image that image becomes more important than the singer," Jones says. "I don't know if there are any less good singers than ever, but most don't use their voices in ways that feel honest. Everyone just seems to go for the fast buck."

On this night, she is only a few subway stops from the cafes and tiny clubs where she spent two years singing at brunches, happy hours and the like, often just for tips in front of 20 people.

Jones might still be honing her craft in those rooms if Shell White, then a member of the EMI Music royalties department, hadn't heard her one night in 2000 and arranged for the dark-haired singer to meet Bruce Lundvall, the head of Blue Note Records, EMI's respected jazz label. He signed Jones after listening to just three vocals on a tape.

Critics raved when the album, "Come Away With Me," was released last February, comparing her soulful, melancholy approach to many of the singers Jones idolizes, including Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. Thanks to the buzz, the album soared onto the pop charts, selling more than 6 million copies around the world. It has been No. 1 in the U.S. for the last two weeks.

The wonder of Jones, however, isn't her sales, but her artistry.

In an era full of great voices, from Mariah Carey to Whitney Houston, that have been plugged into formats that make them more manufactured than memorable, her success is leading record executives, always on the lookout for the next big thing, to search for singers again, not just voices with hit formulas.

"One of my colleagues told me that Norah was so far from what his bosses were looking for last year that he would have been fired if he had signed her," says Arif Mardin, who was nominated for the producer of the year Grammy for his work with Jones on her album. "Now, his bosses are saying, 'Go out and find me a Norah Jones.' "

The sultry warmth and command of Jones' vocals revives the old question: Is talent born or made?

Numerous people, from her mom to teachers in Texas, talked about watching her talent blossom and helping steer her to various arts programs in high school and college. By the time Jones got to Blue Note Records, she had been well schooled, with more than 1,000 hours of piano lessons. But -- and this is where the mystery comes in -- the pop vocal sensation never had a single singing lesson.

Also slightly mysterious is her sense of artistic integrity in a field in which so many young singers are willing to make virtually any compromise in hopes of fame.

One reason she signed with Blue Note, a sister label of the larger, pop-oriented Virgin Records, was that she knew there wouldn't be pressure to sell a ton of records. Indeed, Jones began getting nervous as "Don't Know Why," a haunting tale of romantic regret, started getting massive airplay. She hates the way radio stations play the same records over and over, and she didn't want people to start burning out on her music.

When the album reached the 1 million sales mark, Jones asked Lundvall if he could stop selling the album. "I know it was naive, but I was starting to panic," she says. "That was around the time Virgin Records took over radio promotion and they brought me a remix of 'Don't Know Why,' which they said radio would like better than the album version.

"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."

Lundvall, a veteran record executive who has worked with such talents as Bruce Springsteen and Miles Davis, supported Jones' decision to nix the remix. After more than 30 years in the music business, Lundvall looks at the creative process with awe.

"Some people have the touch of God on their head," he says. "They are born with a certain gift, but what gives them taste? That's the mystery."

Diverse influences

You're reminded how young and open Jones is at dinner when she describes the Grammy nominations --including album of the year, record of the year ("Don't Know Why") and best new artist --as "awesome" and giggles when confiding her nervousness at opening a show for one of her heroes, Willie Nelson.

You also see a youthful innocence when she talks about being so shy when spotting singer-songwriter Ryan Adams in a restaurant that she left an admiring note on his table when he wasn't looking, rather than introduce herself.

Jones seems like a much older soul when she starts talking about music. Though she and members of her band are songwriters, she collects others' songs the way some people collect stamps.

Jones was schooled in jazz, but she listened to a wide variety of styles, from soul to country, while growing up, and her album shows she can find the emotional heart in music as diverse as the heartache country of Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart" and the classy strains of Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington's "The Nearness of You."

On those and other songs, Jones never succumbs to overstatement, which is the curse of the pop divas. She knows the value of space in phrasing, letting just a sigh or a whisper convey the emotional truth of a song. Sometimes, you just feel her breath on the microphone, connecting you to the words in a primal way that you can't write into sheet music.

Jones is so in love with music that she gets so enthused when asked to name her five favorite singers that she stretches the list to eight. "How could I leave off Dinah Washington?" she says in a near panic.

"Like a lot of kids, I wanted to be famous, but that was when I was around 13," says the soft-spoken Jones, showing a smile. "When I got into jazz, I just wanted to be a jazz singer and I knew that wouldn't make me famous."

Producer Mardin points to the intensity that seems to fuel Jones.

"There is more than simply the voice behind great talents. Working with Aretha [Franklin] and others over the years, I've seen the inner flame that drives them, and Norah has that sensitivity and passion. It's not something you can teach."

Maybe so, but Jones' path to a pop career was far from straight. She started piano lessons around 6 or 7, but she was no child prodigy. She was, she says, a lazy student who gave up piano for several years. If others didn't recognize her talent and help mentor her, she might have easily given up music.

A distinguished lineage

The 5-foot-1 Jones does come with great musical genes.

Her mother, Sue Jones, a huge music fan, was a concert producer for years in New York. Her father is Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar.

The first time anyone outside her family had a chance to marvel at little Norah Jones was at Sunday services at a Methodist church in Dallas in the mid-'80s. She was the shy child in the choir who sang louder than anybody else.

"The teacher told me I should sing loud and I took it literally," Jones says, smiling at the memory. "Singing was like a hobby because it was so easy. I think singing is in your body, something you can either do or you can't."

Jones, who was born in New York near the end of her parents' nine-year relationship, picked up most of her early musical taste from her mother's record collection, which was filled with works by a wide array of superb singers -- from Ray Charles and George Jones to Maria Callas.

She saw Shankar sparingly during her early years and didn't mention him in her press biography to avoid the appearance of using the relationship for publicity reasons. When reporters learned of the connection, some interpreted her silence as a rejection of her father, who was not married to her mother.

So Jones does now speak about him -- but guardedly, because she wants to talk about music, not family. "I love my dad," she says, to make sure there is no misunderstanding. "We are very close."

Shankar confirms the bond between the two. "I always knew Norah was very musical from when she was very young," he said in an e-mail. "After a gap of eight years when she came back to me, I was amazed with her musical growth." He noted he was "thrilled" by her success.

Jones' mom encouraged the youngster, but she wasn't a controlling "stage mother." Looking back at Norah's early years, she says, "Norah did so many other things, painting, drawing. Everything pretty much came easy for her, especially the singing. I just let her do her own thing. She always had a sense of the songs that were good for her voice."

When Jones expressed an interest in the piano, her mom bought one and arranged for classical lessons from Renetta Frisque, who remembers the quiet young girl with the same words you hear over and over from people who knew her: "She had a feeling for the notes that you can't teach."

But Norah got bored with the lessons after a few years and didn't resume studying until around the seventh grade, when she studied jazz piano with Julie Bonk, who noticed that the teenager sometimes liked to sing along as she played.

"A lot of kids study singing in school or a choir and they come out singing so straight it drives me nuts," Bonk says. "Norah sang right away with feeling. We used to talk about how Ella Fitzgerald and other great singers make each word sound special and how they think about the meaning of the song."

Bonk was so impressed she helped Jones get into the same magnet arts school in the Dallas area that Erykah Badu had attended, and later into Interlochen, the prestigious summer arts camp in Michigan.

"She had a sense of phrasing and style and quality that just seemed to be well beyond her years," recalls Kent Ellingson, her piano teacher at the Booker T. Washington School for the Performing Arts and Visual Arts in Dallas. "She was ready for a professional career from the moment I met her."

Two years into studying piano and theory in the jazz program at the University of North Texas outside Dallas, Jones saw her future when some New York musicians visited the campus and told her about the exciting underground jazz scene here. One of them was Jesse Harris, who wrote "Don't Know Why" -- which just picked up a song of the year Grammy nomination.

Much to her mother's chagrin, Jones quit college and headed to Manhattan, where she began focusing more on singing than piano because it was easier to get singing gigs. She worked jazz rooms initially, often with bassist Lee Alexander and Adam Levy, who are in her band (along with drummer Andy Boerger and backup singer-percussionist Daru Oda).

But when jazz standards lost their appeal, she began hanging out at a club called the Living Room, where she renewed her interest in country and pop. The album she ultimately recorded for Blue Note proved to be so pop-oriented that Lundvall suggested to Jones that they release it on Manhattan Records, a pop label also under his control.

"I told Norah that this isn't really a jazz album, but she insisted on being on Blue Note," Lundvall says. "So I decided it was time to break some of the rules around here."

It wasn't the last time Lundvall would bend the rules to protect Jones' vision -- another example of the nurturing in her career.

Accommodating label

You can tell a lot about the priorities at Blue Note Records from the label's second-floor lobby in the city's Flatiron district. Instead of the usual rows of gold and platinum albums, the main wall is covered with covers of some of the label's classic albums -- works by Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Miles Davis. As much as possible in the record industry, the emphasis at Blue Note is on art, not just sales.

It was in Lundvall's corner office that he heard Jones' tape. He sent her into the studio a few weeks later to put down some tunes for an informal "demo" to get a better idea of her musical range and specific vocal strengths.

Thrilled, Lundvall arranged for her to make an album with Craig Street, a much-admired producer best known for his work with Cassandra Wilson.

It seemed like a magical teaming, but Lundvall and Jones were disappointed with the results. There was too much embellishment in the arrangements. Lundvall wanted more of the simplicity and grace of the demo.

He turned to another producer, Mardin, and told him to redo the album by focusing on the essence of Jones' voice. This time Lundvall and Jones loved the results.

There are now two platinum album plaques in Lundvall's office. One certifies the sale of 1 million copies of Jones' album in the U.S. The other certifies the sale of 3 million. What about a 2 million plaque?

Lundvall smiles.

"The album moved from 1 million to 3 million so fast that we didn't have time to order it."

Nature versus nurture

Near the end of the two-hour dinner, Jones pauses when asked whether she thinks talent is born or made. She stares out the window at the traces of snow on the ground as she thinks about the question.

"I was lucky to tap into it early and be exposed to a lot of great music around the house. If I didn't have the upbringing I had with my mom and a lot of wonderful teachers, it might not have amounted to anything, genes or no genes."

Jones still seems comforted by a strong relationship with her bassist, Alexander, and a solid network of family and friends -- support she feels has helped her keep her balance during this dizzying onrush of success.

"Norah has a certain calmness that is well beyond her years," says her manager, Steve Macklam, who also works with Joni Mitchell and Diana Krall. "She has this natural sort of self-regulating thing that makes her resist anything that appears to be hype or bombast."

After some more touring this spring, Jones expects to return to the studio in hopes of having her second album in the stores this fall. She and her band members have already written half a dozen or so songs for it.

As she leaves the restaurant, she turns suddenly, as if she wants to clarify something. Maybe a final thought on the nature-versus-nurture issue. Or maybe she has second thoughts about talking about her father?

I reach for my notebook to make sure I quote her accurately.

"Otis Redding!" she says with her youthful enthusiasm. "We can't leave him off the list."

Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached at robert.hilburn@latimes.com.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Her 'five' vocal faves

Norah Jones has so many favorite singers that she felt "guilty" about limiting her top five list to nine. Her choices, in no particular order:

RAY

CHARLES

He can sing anything -- from standards to country -- and it sounds like Ray Charles and it's beautiful. He's the perfect singer to me.

ARETHA

FRANKLIN

Pure heart. She puts so much of herself into the music. She finds the meaning of a song and makes you feel it.

WILLIE

NELSON

He is someone like Ray Charles who can sing anything and put his own stamp on it.

JONI

MITCHELL

Everyone talks about her style of writing as so unique, but she is just as unique a singer -- her phrasing is amazing. I still love everything she does.

BILLIE

HOLIDAY

She was my first favorite among jazz singers. She bares her soul so much that it can be painful, but there is also such beauty to what she does.

DINAH

WASHINGTON

You can say it all in three words: "raw soul" and "brassy."

SARAH

VAUGHAN

I just love the way she would take a song and interpret it in her own way. It often had nothing to do with the way the song was written.

ETTA

JAMES

She has so much heart as a singer. I was really influenced by the way she approached standards.

OTIS

REDDING

When I was in the 11th grade, I was just obsessed with my Otis Redding tape. His voice was amazing on things like "These Arms of Mine."

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