AT her piano, Norah Jones is at ease. Confronting the utterly casual atmosphere of Amoeba Music on Sunset, where fans wedged into the aisles the Friday night before the Grammys to witness an in-store performance from Jones and her Handsome Band, the world's ruling female pop singer moved between the ivories, a Wurlitzer keyboard, and, on one song, an acoustic guitar. Rarely looking up, she sang as if her voice was surfacing within those instruments.
Her allure emanated from the introspection of her style -- the sense that what mattered here was happening in the space between Jones' hands, feeling out an instrument, and her voice, reaching to connect with what it said to her. The songs weren't complicated -- by now it's become lazy thinking to call what Jones does "background music" -- but they drew listeners in, the way a soft command can gain attention more effectively than a shout.
This is the grace of Norah Jones, the first of a new generation of stars to succeed amid pop's current flash and crassness by putting music first. Her incredible rise since her 2002 Blue Note Records debut, "Come Away With Me," has made Jones the central figure in a quiet movement sometimes cruelly dubbed "the new easy listening" (or, in branded shorthand, "Starbucks music") but more accurately described as pop's latest translation of sophisticated ideas into common vernacular. Jones, as humble a personality as fame allows, has blazed the path for young artists, many of them female singers, who uphold and update the legacy of crossover pop.
But she didn't always own this shy charisma. "I grew up imitating my favorite singers," Jones, who spent her youth in Dallas, recalled at her hotel the afternoon of her Amoeba date. "Not always hitting the notes right but just loving to sing along with Sarah Vaughn or Billie Holiday. Or Ann Wilson from Heart! But I also played piano, and I thought, 'Maybe I should get it together where I could sing and play at the same time.' Because it's not easy. It's two things at once." She patted her head and rubbed her stomach to signal the disconnect.
She played, she sang -- at once
JONES worked through her problem in public. "I got this gig in college where I played and sang at a restaurant," she recalled. "For two years, twice a week, I just practiced for three hours. Nobody really listened; every once in a while people would clap. It was background music. It was supposed to be."
When she was discovered in New York a few years later, Jones was still playing jazz brunches and cocktail gigs. Years of fulfilling the lounge singer's command to set a mood without forcing anything on the listener led her to develop skills rarely valued in a pop star. When she became her own artist, she kept those skills intact.
"To these ears, her demos sounded like something people would buy," noted Craig Street, the producer who first brought her into the studio to record "Come Away With Me." "When [Blue Note Records chief executive] Bruce Lundvall first played them for me I told him that they sounded done. They had cool performances of cool songs and a personal stamp. She has an honest blend of all she's taken in, and it comes out in a way that folks love."
Jones gets prickly when asked about her reputation as "the queen of brunch music," as Slate critic Jody Rosen put it.
"I get attacked for playing 'background music,' and I think, 'Wow, that really insults not only me, but everyone who listens to my music,' " she said. "If you're listening, it's not background music." But Jones is just fine with people turning her records down low. She doesn't believe in forcing things.
"I don't really care how people listen, if they put it on in the background or on headphones, or if it makes 'em cry or laugh or fall asleep," she said. "Great music has helped me fall asleep! If it moves them in any way, that makes me feel good."
Perhaps this is why so many people deride Jones and so many more love her: She's just so accommodating. Though her persona suggests reserve, in person she's the opposite, talking a blue streak and reconsidering every opinion she offers from several angles. She's reticent on one point, though: describing her sound. The words Jones favors -- subtle, quiet, simple, slow, nice -- are vaguely pleasant, contradicting the rebellious individualism that's defined artistic genius not only in the rock era but since the Romantics. They don't get at that something else that's made her a bona-fide phenomenon.
"People often tell me that the music just makes them feel relaxed," she said, trying again. "I think it helps people slow down, and you need that sometimes." She looked frustrated. "I don't know, I'm talking out of my [here she mentioned an indecorous body part]. I don't really know why I'm popular."
Even as she tries to define and defend the gentle art she's perfected, Jones also seems to be stepping away from it, cautiously. "Not Too Late" shows Jones thinking beyond the influence of the record producer and crossover-pop founding father Arif Mardin, who died last June; Lee Alexander, Jones' longtime companion and the bassist in her band, helmed the boards. Jones wrote or co-wrote all of the album's tracks. She and Alexander were going for a less refined feel, she says, but found it, paradoxically, by giving in to the singer's natural velvet.
"The kind of music I really love, like Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, they brought the grit," she said. "But I just have a smooth voice. I've tried everything to sound like Ray Charles, but I just don't." Once Jones accepted this about herself, she said, she and Alexander had to find a way to uncover her version of grit. "I want to mess everything up a little bit. I want it to sound more homemade."
'Allowing the music to happen'
IT'S a subtle shift. Some songs, like the haunting ode to a departed soldier, "Wish I Could," turn the Handsome Band's effortless groove slightly chilly. Others replace the vague niceties of earlier hits with a subtly menacing aura of mystery -- a darkness that's never heavy-handed, more like a shadow in a room. The album's few off cuts, like the silly Tom Waits tribute "Sinkin' Soon" and the retread hit "Thinking About You," are also the least exploratory -- Jones doing what others might like, whether they're her hit-seeking record label or the critics who want her to act out, instead of going further within.
"I feel like I'm singing a lot differently and allowing the music to happen differently," she said. "It's not that I restrained anything before, but I didn't let it go to certain places. Because I was still in the frame of mind that I played kinda jazz."
Jones has also given herself permission to play outside the realm of her superstar day job. Though she'll tour with the Handsome Band for the rest of this year to promote "Not Too Late," she's keeping several side projects simmering. She has an electric trio with her regular backing vocalist Daru Oda and drummer Andrew Berger, explored her Texas roots in the urban-cowboy band the Little Willies, and guested with hip-hop tricksters OutKast and experimental metal king Mike Patton.
Most intriguingly, she'll star in her first feature film -- the English-language debut of the great Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, whenever the notoriously slow auteur gets around to finishing it.
Jones says these efforts all represent aspects of herself. She grew up listening to hard rock like Patton's former band Faith No More, loves OutKast, and country music was "always in the periphery" in Texas. As for acting, she's always wanted to try it and would consider doing more, though she insists, "Music is what I do."
She's kept these other Norahs out of her main gig; like the respectful entertainer of that college restaurant job, she's kept up her boundaries. But the gate is cracked open now.
"I would love to branch out," she said. "I will always work with my community in New York, but I think the best thing for me would be to really take me out of my comfort zone at some point." She laughed. "I might not like it, but it would be good to try."
Next: British "It" girl Lilly Allen