Don't Know How

On her way to the Top 10, Norah Jones had to decide what to do--and what not to do

Two months ago, Norah Jones went into the office of Bruce Lundvall, the president of Blue Note Records, and asked of him something no musician has ever asked of a record label boss.

"Haven't I sold enough records yet?" she wondered. Simply, she was tired, cranky, verging on burnout. Twelve-hour days spent giving interviews to the foreign press--France today, Japan tomorrow, England the day after that--will do that to a person. Promotional appearances, the dispiriting meet-and-greet, will do that to a person. Being a Top 10 artist with a platinum album will do that to a person, particularly when that person is 23 and never expected to find herself atop the pops. Not so soon, anyway, maybe not ever.

All Jones wanted was for Lundvall and the label to cut her some slack. No more press, no more selling. All she wanted to do was play, let her music answer any questions. All she wanted then, and now, was to be left alone.

When Come Away With Me started receiving positive press long before its February release, Norah Jones started to panic. "My first thought was, 'Oh, my God, they're overexposing me already.'"
Clay Patrick McBride
When Come Away With Me started receiving positive press long before its February release, Norah Jones started to panic. "My first thought was, 'Oh, my God, they're overexposing me already.'"
Norah and her team, from left, go for the gold (record): Blue Note Records President Bruce Lundvall, producer Arif Mardin, EMI Recorded Music North America Chairman Dave Munns, Jones, EMI Recorded Music Chairman and CEO Alain Levy, managers Sam Feldman and 
Steve Macklam and producer Craig Street.
Norah and her team, from left, go for the gold (record): Blue Note Records President Bruce Lundvall, producer Arif Mardin, EMI Recorded Music North America Chairman Dave Munns, Jones, EMI Recorded Music Chairman and CEO Alain Levy, managers Sam Feldman and Steve Macklam and producer Craig Street.

"It's not like the press is mean; it's just a lot of work that I didn't really want to do," she says now, from the other side of the world. It is 9:30 a.m. in Japan, and she is not yet out of bed. "I mean, a lot of another kind of work that I didn't really know I was going to have to do. Yeah, I guess I did say that to Bruce."

Lundvall likes to tell the story about the day Jones made the request, because it's so unfathomable to him that a musician would want to stop selling albums. One can only imagine the grin on his face when he told Jones she'd become a commodity, whether she liked it or not. One can only imagine his expression when he said he couldn't very well mount a publicity campaign telling people to stop buying her album.

"This is all because of you," he told her. "There are no tricks. But there is a lot of work involved."

"I just don't wanna be burned out," she told him. "I want a career, and people might get tired of me."

Lundvall cannot imagine such a thing. So far, the sales charts prove him quite right.

At the end of February, Blue Note Records released Jones' Come Away With Me, on which she sings like an angel and plays piano as though her fingertips were feathers. The album is neither jazz nor pop but somewhere in the ethereal in-between, and it has sold beyond anyone's expectations, especially Jones and Lundvall's.

Come Away With Me, buoyed by the single "Don't Know Why," currently sits at the No. 6 position on the BillboardHot 200 charts. Each week, with rare exception, the album floats higher and higher toward the top of the charts. Two weeks ago, according to figures provided by Nielsen SoundScan, Blue Note moved 72,636 copies of Come Away With Me; a week later, 74,835 copies. As of last week, Come Away With Me has sold 1,113,195 copies in the United States; foreign sales more than double that stat.

"It's staggering," says an executive at another label. "Come the holidays, it will break 2 million, I guarantee it. If they can maintain the airplay, the visibility, the publicity for the next month, shit, it could be the biggest-selling jazz album in the last God knows how long. This proves you can't stop a hit album. And it makes me believe."

Wait, wait, wait. Hold up a second. Rewind the tape. Stop it right there: August 29, 2001.

That was the day Norah Jones gave only her second interview, and it was to this newspaper. Our conversation almost didn't happen, as that Wednesday was shaping up to be one hell of a day for the singer and pianist who, not so long ago, used to play for tips at an Italian restaurant in the Preston Royal Shopping Center. First, she woke up that morning to find out the talent booker from The Late Show With David Lettermanhad contacted Blue Note to see if she was available to perform on that night's show. She was--hell yeah, she was--but it didn't happen; someone else got the slot. Fine, man--whatever. Besides, Jones had other things to worry about: That very afternoon she was hand-delivering the finished copy of Come Away With Meto Bruce Lundvall.

"Hopefully, he'll like it. I know he will, but if he doesn't, then I do, so it doesn't really matter," she said then, laughing the nervous giggle of a woman at once proud and a little frightened of what lay ahead that afternoon. "I mean, it matters that he likes it, of course, but I feel 100 percent about it this time, so I'm pretty confident that if he doesn't like it, I don't belong here."

A little later that day, Lundvall hopped on the phone to insist he was in this for the long haul, that he didn't expect Jones to sell a million records. "I have to be realistic," he said a year ago. "We're not saying we'll have a platinum record. It's not about that. If the world's right and the music breaks through the crap we have to go through in this business, things on this record will catch on at radio, but it's not about that."

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