On Its 20th Anniversary, Norah Jones Shares How Come Away With Me Almost Didn't Come to Be

Norah Jones, pictured here from around the time Come Away With Me was released 20 years ago. A 20th anniversary three-disc edition is being released April 29,
Norah Jones, pictured here from around the time Come Away With Me was released 20 years ago. A 20th anniversary three-disc edition is being released April 29, Joanne Savio
When Norah Jones first released her debut album, Come Away With Me, it was very much a slow burn. The album, which turned 20 in February, was an interesting part of the zeitgeist of the early aughts. Taking influences from her jazz studies at Booker T. Washington High School and the University of North Texas, from her father, Indian composer Ravi Shankar, and from her time in New York’s music scene, Jones created a record that deviated from the pop sounds of the Britneys and the Christinas of that era. Still, it has stood the test of time more than 20 years after its release.

Ahead of the release of the 20th anniversary edition of the album, out this Friday, April 29, Jones recalls the strenuous journeys, the writing sessions and the various rejected demos that led to the album we know and continue to love.

Jones grew up in Grapevine but often spent her time in Dallas, where she attended arts magnet Booker T. during her junior and senior years of high school. Oftentimes, she found herself coming down to Dallas on weekends.

“I used to go to jazz under the stars at the DMA,” Jones says. “I saw some of my first concerts there. I saw Marian McPartland there, and I had been listening to her radio show all throughout high school. During my senior year, she actually came and played with a trio, and it was so sweet and special.”

When she arrived at UNT, Jones formed a band called Laszlo with guitarist Jerome Covington, drummer Bill Campbell, keyboardist and vibraphone player Aaron Crouch and Marc Rogers on electric bass. While Jones enjoyed her time in the band, she was looking to play more jazzy sounds.

She dropped out of UNT after her sophomore year and moved to New York in hopes of becoming part of the city’s jazz scene. She performed in various restaurants and bars, befriending songwriters and instrumentalists over time. Her peers helped her with songwriting, recording and cutting demos, which caught the attention of Bruce Lundvall, president and CEO of Blue Note Records.

“I had that core band [with Jesse Harris and Lee Alexander] and I was not sure what I should do,” Jones says. “Bruce really liked my demos, but I was still not sure what I was doing musically. I hadn't quite figured it out yet. So he gave me some money to make more demos, which was a great opportunity to sort of try some different things. So we mostly focused on that band. We did Jesse songs. We recorded ‘Don't Know Why,’ which ended up being the version that we used. We did Lee’s songs, we did a couple of my songs that I had written, and some covers and standards. And then the label decided they wanted to sign me, and I was very happy.”

"I really loved it, but when we got home with the rough mixes, they just didn't sound completely right." - Norah Jones

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At this point, Jones seemed to know what direction she wanted to go, but around that time, she had fallen in love with Cassandra Wilson’s New Moon Daughter album, which was produced by Craig Street. She asked Lundvall if she could work on her album with Street. The two later went upstate to Allaire Studios with Brian Blade, Bill Frisell, Kenny Wollesen and Kevin Breit to record the basis for Come Away With Me.

“It was a lot of the same material [as the final album], but it had a different vibe,” Jones says. “And I really loved it, but when we got home with the rough mixes, they just didn't sound completely right. My voice just didn't come through. I didn't know what to do. I figured we would need to remix them and figure it out, but then Bruce called me [and] didn't want to use them at all. He rejected them, basically. And that was the end of that. That was very confusing, and it was really hard for Craig and myself to never get to finish that, because it was great.”

Jones returned to the studio with Arif Mardin, who let her hire her core band from the demos she submitted to Blue Note before she was officially signed to the label. For the version of Come Away With Me that we know, Jones ended up using some of her favorite songs from her sessions with Street, as well as two of her pre-signing demos, one of which was “Don’t Know Why.”

“Don’t Know Why” proved to be a breakout hit for Jones, winning her Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 45th Annual Grammy Awards in 2003.

“That'll be the biggest song I ever have,” Jones says. “I'm sure. I'm thankful we got to use those demos for some of the album.”

Though Come Away With Me was released in 2002, it didn’t become a hit until the following year. It debuted at 139 on the Billboard 200, selling 10,000 copies in its first week, but would top the chart nearly a year later. In addition to the Grammys for “Don’t Know Why,” Jones would also receive awards for Album of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Album and Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical.

Although Come Away With Me was released at the time when peer-to-peer music sharing sites like Napster and Kazaa were prominent in the industry, Jones says she didn’t feel threatened by these platforms.

“I remember during my second record, [P2P] was becoming a huge deal, and everyone at the record company wanted me to take a stand, as a high-selling artist, against Napster,” Jones says. “And I always felt really funny about it because I had already sold a lot of records and I felt I didn't want to be greedy, you know? But I also wanted people who didn't have the money to buy the record to still hear it. Who knew it would lead to this era of music where nobody can make money selling records anymore? It's a real problem for artists, especially artists starting out, and especially young people who are coming up and have no way to make money except to tour.”

To date, Come Away With Me has sold more than 12 million copies, and she admits that the fame that followed the album was overwhelming at first. She never sought Britney- or Beyoncé-level fame, but before she knew it, the album’s success brought her into the mainstream.

“Daunting is one word I would use [to describe my fame],” Jones says. “Disorienting, fabulous and also totally cuckoo. It was so weird, but it was amazing and changed my whole life.”

For the album’s 20th anniversary edition, Jones and Street were able to remix some of their old session recordings with producer Tony Maserati to include an alternate version of Come Away With Me alongside its final version. The special edition will contain three discs: the final version of the album; a six-track EP of demos from the initial sessions; and 13 tracks from the Allaire sessions.

While Jones has held the recordings close to her heart over the past two decades, she admits she’s only listened to them a handful of times.

“It was a little bit jarring for this whole recording session to be rejected by the label,” Jones says. “They weren't really mixed, so to be able to actually mix them and hear that they were amazing, instead of just hearing the rough versions, is really beautiful. A lot of the songs are the songs that are on the record that people might know well, but they're just different versions. And then there are a few very special songs that have never been heard before.”

In the special edition’s packaging, Jones details the creation of the album in the liner notes, allowing the story to make sense to fans in one concise piece, as opposed to leaving them to piece together the story by way of sound bites. In the days leading up to the special edition’s release, Jones couldn’t be more ready to share the complete story of Come Away With Me.

“It was important for me to tell the story of what happened,” Jones says, “so that you can see the evolution of where these songs came from, where they went, where they came back to, and then where we ended up.”
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Alex Gonzalez has been a contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2018. He is a Dallas native whose work has appeared in Local Profile, MTV News and the Austin American-Statesman. He has eclectic taste in music and enjoys writing about art, food and culture.
Contact: Alex Gonzalez