"Haven't I sold enough records yet?" she wondered. She was tired, cranky, verging on burnout. Twelve-hour days spent giving interviews to the foreign press will do that to a person. Promotional appearances, dispiriting meet-and-greets, 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.
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.
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 his expression when he said he couldn't very well mount a publicity campaign telling people to stop buying her album.
"I just don't want to 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 have proved him 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 Billboard Hot 200 chart. 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 sold 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 figure.
"It's staggering," says an executive at another label. "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 right there: August 29, 2001. That was the day Norah Jones gave only her second interview, to the Pitch's sister paper, the Dallas Observer. The conversation almost didn't happen; that Wednesday was shaping up to be one hell of a day. First, Jones woke up to find out that the talent booker from The Late Show With David Letterman had 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, whatever. Besides, Jones had other things to worry about: That afternoon, she was hand-delivering the finished copy of Come Away With Me to 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. "I mean, it matters that he likes it, 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. 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."
Today, it is. Good God, it's all about that.
At this very moment, Jones is a quiet pop star, a woman on the verge of staggering fame. She never planned it, never expected it, never even wanted it. But there it is nonetheless, almost despite her every action. Norah Jones decides what she will and will not do to sell her album, and usually she decides not to do something. The fact is, she could have sold more copies of Come Away With Me had she chosen to accept her fate as a pop star. But as all those connected with Jones -- Lundvall, her manager, her booking agent, her producer, her publicist, the label's marketing director -- will tell you, Jones is as stubborn as she is savvy. She will not acquiesce to the machine; she will not bend, for fear of breaking.
"In her naïve statement [about wanting to stop selling albums], there's a great deal of homespun intelligence," says Steve Macklam, Jones' manager since February. "It's like, be careful what you ask for. If everything you do on your first record lifts the bar and sets such high expectations, there's the danger people will have had enough or feel let down when the next record comes out. If people buy 3.5 million copies of the album, glory hallelujah, but the intention is just to put out a good record and to not sell it as the Second Coming."
Record-label executives pray for this, but they cannot plan for it. Certainly a label like Blue Note -- which is owned by the mammoth EMI Group, parent company of such labels as Capitol and Virgin -- is not allowed even to hope for something like this. Since its inception in 1939, it has been strictly a jazz label, a safe haven for artists who judge success between the grooves, not at the cash register. This is the label for which Miles Davis blew his horn, for which Thelonious Monk teased his piano and, later, for which Cassandra Wilson and Dianne Reeves sang their hearts and souls out.
"That is why Norah signed to Blue Note," Lundvall says. "She didn't want to be a pop artist."
Yet now she is, for better or worse. And though there are copious explanations -- she played the right gigs for the right people; she received good press in all the right places; she said no to all the wrong offers at the right time; she was just the right artist to come along at the right time -- how often do all those things add up to two-plus million sold? Hardly ever. Usually never.
Making Come Away With Me -- or remaking the album; Jones and her band had recorded an earlier version with producer Craig Street -- reminded producer Arif Mardin of the "electrifying moments" he experienced recording "Jive Talkin'" with the Bee Gees in 1975. Jones' crossover success on the pop charts reminds Jones' booking agent, Joe Brauner, of his early days with client Harry Connick Jr., around the time 1989's When Harry Met Sally met millions of customers who didn't normally buy big-band albums. Jones' focus on career over instant gratification reminds manager Steve Macklam of two of his other clients, Joni Mitchell and Diana Krall, both strong, talented women who chart the courses of their own careers.
So it's not as though Norah Jones is a freak of nature; she is not without precedent. She's simply a rarity in the world of popular music, where high quality rarely wins out. If it did, then critical favorites -- Richard Thompson, say, or Aimee Mann -- would sell by the millions. Do not presume that what follows, then, is a blueprint for success; it's more like a secret recipe. A would-be pop star could try to bake this cake, but without that one ingredient -- some might call it extraordinary talent -- it will come out of the oven with a rancid aftertaste.
Frankly, there was no master plan. All Blue Note had to do was stay out of the way and let the music do the work.
At the beginning, yes, great care and consideration were given to the selling of Come Away With Me and Norah Jones. Time was on the side of those put in charge of getting her name and music out there, with four months between the album's mastering and its release. That was plenty of time to get New York writers out to the clubs, chiefly such small rooms as Makor and the Living Room, to hear Jones and fall in love with her. Which they did, like teen-agers with schoolboy crushes.
The new year began with a belated and unexpected Christmas present. On New Year's Day, Time music critic Christopher Farley appeared on NBC's Today show to talk about albums and artists to look forward to in 2002. Jones was chief among his picks: "Norah Jones is someone to look out for," Farley told Today's Ann Curry. She's a "great young jazz performer ... a big, young talent."
Last fall and into January of this year, booking agent Joe Brauner put Jones and her band -- bassist and boyfriend Lee Alexander, guitarist Adam Levy and drummer Andy Borger --on the road for long weekends. The goal was twofold: to expose Jones to new audiences and to polish the band before the album's release, when the spotlight would grow, at the very least, a little brighter. Brauner was adamant about where he wanted Jones to play -- not in jazz venues but in folk clubs populated by other singer-songwriters.
Only once did she play a traditional jazz venue, Scullers in Boston, for two nights in early January; both sold out strictly on word of mouth. In short order, Jones was tagged as a Next Big Thing by two magazines. In its January 25 issue, Entertainment Weekly included her in its 2002 music guide, "Brand New Heavies." A week later, Rolling Stone praised Come Away With Me's "timeless groove" while including Jones in a section called "10 Artists to Watch."
"We were pitching Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly from the outset because we didn't see Norah as strictly jazz," says Matt Hanks, Jones' Brooklyn-based publicist. "We saw her from the beginning as an artist who could appeal to a lot of different audiences."
Blue Note released Come Away With Me on February 26, and the following day, six months after the Letterman tease, Jones appeared on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. When the album sold 10,000 copies its first week, the numbers were fairly staggering for a new artist, even considering that Blue Note made the first 100,000 copies available at a "developing artist" price of $7.99. The label's research concluded that because it was so inexpensive, people were buying several copies at once and handing them out to friends and family. Lundvall and Zach Hochkeppel, head of marketing at Blue Note, decided to keep the price low until it sold 250,000 copies.
"My mom used to say, 'Why is your CD so cheap? That doesn't look very good, Norah,'" Jones says, laughing. "You always think [if] it's in the bargain bin, it must not be selling. But I think it's a good idea. I think $18 is too much for any CD, much less a new artist."
By the time Jones arrived in Austin, Texas, in March for the annual music-biz circle jerk South by Southwest, it was amazing that you could hear her over the buzz. In three days, she played six gigs, which proved to be way too much too soon. She received an astonishing amount of good press from her appearance there, but she discovered during her stay in Austin that if selling Come Away With Me meant giving herself away, well, it just wasn't worth it.
"I had a breakdown because of it," Jones says of her South by Southwest experience. "It was a really hard week for me, with way too many people coming at me. It was a turning point, and I was learning that I need to just chill out because I can't do every single thing. I have a lot of rules now that are set into place for the label and management, and if they need me to break one, they approach me very warily, because, you know, it's a sanity issue."
At the end of March, Jones toured as the support act for John Mayer, whose Room for Squares was becoming the soundtrack to a thousand frat parties. An opening act, Carl Perkins once said, is nothing but something standing between the audience and what they really came for. Just this once, he was wrong: Mayer's album still lags behind Jones' on the Billboard charts.
As the Mayer tour and gigs with Willie Nelson, the Dave Matthews Band and the Indigo Girls suggest, Blue Note never intended to sell Norah Jones as a jazz artist. Lundvall even asked her, before the album's release, if she wanted to move to its pop subsidiary, Manhattan Records. She quickly and vehemently declined. Everyone would just have to adjust.
And they did -- by getting her on adult-oriented pop radio stations, by sneaking her onto MTV2 and by booking her at the Bonnaroo Music Festival, a three-day gathering of jam bands and the patchouli abusers who love them.
"I know that a lot of the jazz fanatics don't like that I'm on Blue Note because it's not real jazz, you know?" Jones says, her voice coated in sugary sarcasm. "They always get their panties in a knot when something that's not real jazz gets successful."
Yet in May, she turned down VH1's invitation to perform at its Divas Live concert in Las Vegas. She was out of the country, but even had she been available, there was no way she would have gotten on that stage and tried to outsing Cher, the Dixie Chicks, Mary J. Blige and Stevie Nicks. Most labels would have insisted Jones go. Most managers would have demanded she appear. But though it would have meant higher sales, though it would have endeared her to VH1's higher-ups, Jones' label and manager thought it would have been a major mistake.
"I'm not a diva," Jones says, laughing. "That's not my personality. I would love to meet Stevie Nicks or hang out with the Dixie Chicks or whatever, and I think it's really fun to watch. I just don't think it's for me." Neither was cutting a new, bigger-budget video for her first single, "Don't Know Why," which Lundvall suggested. Neither was releasing an edited version of the second single, "Come Away With Me." Jones knows what she wants -- and, more important, what she doesn't want. That's why she has rules and why everyone must follow them.
Because, you see, this may be the end of this story, but it's only the beginning of Jones' career -- a baby step, not the giant leap most artists crave when first signing to a major label. She could easily have sold out and bought in; she could easily play to 5,000 or more every night. Instead, Joe Brauner is booking her in smaller venues.
"This is a girl who went from 100-seat rooms in New York with options to play 4,000- and 5,000-seat venues," Brauner says. "Norah said, 'No, let me develop as an artist.' She didn't go for the quick buck."
"It would be a shame to put everything into a first album and have audiences go, 'It's wonderful -- next,'" adds Steve Macklam. "She has so much more to offer."
But the machine will roll on for a while longer. In December, Jones will play a handful of radio Christmas concerts, dishing out holiday thank-yous to stations that have programmed her -- and that number grows every week. She will do Leno again, and she will join Diana Krall, Lee Ann Womack and Natalie Cole on a Patsy Cline tribute, Remembering Pats, out later this year. At year's end, she will appear in the Hugh Grant-Sandra Bullock film Two Weeks Notice, performing "The Nearness of You" -- the rare occasion when she has said yes to the film industry.
Lundvall expects Jones to go back into the studio in March or April. She is desperate for time off. It has been difficult to write on the road; she needs to be back in New York, back among friends instead of fans who can kill -- or at least injure -- the sensitive artist with their overwhelming kindness. This is the beginning, after all. And hasn't she sold enough, given enough, done enough?
"The moments I get astonished are when SoundScan comes and the record just keeps going up," Jones says. "Every week, I'm like, 'Oh, wow, so this is where we peak. Next week it's going to start dropping.' It's weird that it hasn't yet. I guess it has a lot to do with timing. I mean, I don't think it's all because of me. It's like, gosh, something was aligned, the stars are aligned, and all that hippie-dippy stuff, but it's kind of true, you know? I just got lucky."