INTERVIEW

"Come Away With Me" at 20: Norah Jones reflects on "hopeful, romantic" record but won't call it jazz

The musician looks back with Salon at her insanely successful debut record: "No one expected me not to be myself"

By David Masciotra

Published April 30, 2022 3:30PM (EDT)

Norah Jones (Photo by Shervin Lainez)
Norah Jones (Photo by Shervin Lainez)

The title of Norah Jones' debut record, "Come Away With Me," offers truth in advertising. Its collection of songs serves as an invitation to enchantment, blending elements of jazz, country, and singer/songwriter pop to charm the listener into a world of romance, joy, and the melancholic subtleties of deep feeling.

Released on the storied Blue Note Records label in 2002, it went from selling 10,000 copies in its first week to moving over 27 million and counting. It also won eight Grammy awards, including in the categories of Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Song of the Year. The record possesses beautiful intimacy and maturity throughout its 14 songs, and the massive hits that propelled its commercial success represent it well: "Don't Know Why," written by former bandmate and songwriting partner, Jesse Harris, a cover of "Turn Me On," which was originally released by Mark Dinning in 1961 and later performed by Nina Simone, and the Norah Jones-penned title track. 

In the two decades that have followed, Jones has steadily built an oeuvre of remarkable consistency. Whether at her jazziest on "Day Breaks," released in 2016, or experimenting with alternative pop on 2012's "Little Broken Hearts," Jones' music is tasteful, elegant, and emotive, broadcasting the reality of Wynton Marsalis' assertion that often the best music is "soft, but intense." 

Jones has collaborated with Marsalis, in addition to many other musicians, including Willie Nelson, Wayne Shorter, Jeff Tweedy, Mavis Staples, Billie Joe Armstrong, and the members of her side project bands, Puss n Boots and The Little Willies. 

RELATED: Norah Jones' "Feels Like Home"

To celebrate the opening salvo of a brilliant career, Blue Note has released a "super deluxe edition" of "Come Away With Me." The box set includes a remastered edition of the 2002 album, but also two discs of previously unreleased demos, outtakes, and finished songs that did not make the final cut. Most interesting and enjoyable is an alternative version of "Come Away With Me" that Jones recorded using different arrangements. Unlike the typical superstar box set, which seems superfluous, the updated and expanded "Come Away With Me" provides an essential experience for anyone interested in Jones' artistry. 

It also contains lengthy liner notes in which the singer/songwriter explains the album's genesis. After studying jazz piano in the late 1990s at the University of North Texas, near her hometown, she moved to New York. Armed with demos that she recorded in her high school band room, which are included on the box set, she began playing clubs and restaurants. 

Norah Jones; Come Away With Me: 20th Anniversary Super Deluxe EditionNorah Jones | Come Away With Me: 20th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition (Photo courtesy of Blue Note Records)On her 21st birthday, Jones played a jazz brunch with a trio at The Garage. Duly impressed by her performance, a representative from EMI publishing arranged for her to meet the late Bruce Lundvall, then president of Blue Note. Less than two years later, "Come Away With Me" hit the airwaves. 


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Norah Jones and I discussed the rest of the story of "Come Away With Me," as well as her reflections on the record over the phone.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity – including the deletion of when she took a break from the conversation to tell her dog, Ralph, to "chill," because he was barking at FedEx truck. 

You have such a marvelous body of work, but today we'll spend most of our time talking about "Come Away With Me," which was your musical introduction to most of the world. How did you develop the style that we hear on that record, combining elements of jazz, country, and singer/songwriter pop?

"I was longing for my Texas roots. I think that's where that came from ... finding a way to bring country back into the mix, or realizing that it had been there all along."

That's most of it, but there is also blues and soul – all the great American musical artforms. It came from growing up in a house, listening to Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson. Then, later in high school with Bill Evans and Miles Davis, and I got deep into jazz, and that became my focus for awhile. When I moved New York, I was still deep into jazz, but was beginning to open up to other styles. I started going to the Living Room in New York City, and seeing all these songwriters. I had written a couple of songs in high school, but they embarrassed me so badly that I never wrote after that, but when I started going to singer/songwriter clubs, like the Living Room, I was inspired to start writing songs again. Also, in New York, I started missing country music. I was longing for my Texas roots. I think that's where that came from – either missing my roots, and finding a way to bring country back into the mix, or realizing that it had been there all along. 

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this box set is to hear all of the different versions of the songs on "Come Away With Me," and the different possibilities for the record that existed. What was your criteria for choosing the material that made it on the record – both the songs you wrote and the covers?

It was sort of an evolution. I had a meeting with Bruce. I had jazz demos, and I had songs I had written with my friend, Jesse Harris, and Bruce wanted to hear more. So, we went into the studio. I had done jazz for so long, but this band with a different sound that Jesse and me had started playing with at the Living Room, was kind of cool. So, we decided to make more recordings with that band, and that informed the recording of "Come Away With Me." One of the demos we made was "Don't Know Why," we never beat the demo version. So, that's the version that made it on the record. Once I got the record deal, I wanted to stretch out and try new things. I loved Cassandra Wilson's record, "New Moon Daughter," and I loved the producer Craig Street's work. So, I asked if I could meet with him. I went into the studio with Craig and all these incredible musicians – Brian Blade on drums, Kevin Breit on guitar, Bill Frisell on guitar – and we recorded 21 songs over five days. We thought we made the record, but the label sort of rejected it. It wasn't what they fell in love with. The demos were much more straightforward. So, I went back into the studio with producer, Arif Mardin, and he helped me put the record together from those two sessions, and we also recorded nine more songs in the same vein as the demos with same band.

Earlier you mentioned Bill Evans, and you just mentioned Cassandra Wilson. When you listen to it now, who are some of the influences that you can hear yourself assimilating into your own style?

"'Come Away With Me' definitely has a looking-forward, hopeful, romantic quality to it, which was age-appropriate at the time."

I was always a fan of Ray Charles' piano playing, Aretha Franklin's piano playing, Bobbie Nelson, who just passed – her piano playing. Those and Bill Evans are my top four piano players who I have always tried to imitate in some way. The influence comes from, simply, listening to all their records. I wasn't highly aware that I was doing it. It was just what I liked hearing and playing. As far as singers go, I've had so many influences and favorites, but I don't think I sound like any of them on that record. More than anything I wanted to sound like myself, and I think I pulled it off on that record, even at such a young age. 

Norah JonesNorah Jones (Photo by Joanne Savio)As I listened to the record over and over again recently, it stuck me how there is a quality similar to the Ernest Hemingway novel, "The Sun Also Rises." There is a really melancholic quality to the record, but the lyrics are so romantic, and there is often a sense of joy. That makes for a moving moving emotional contrast. Was that something you were conscious of at the time, or is it something you think about now?

I definitely was thinking that exact same thing yesterday. I've been playing these songs to prepare for the live show we've put together, and I realized that I used to think that "Come Away With Me" was such a mellow record, but it is actually a sweet little record. Is it melancholy? Yes, but it also has so many hopeful notes to it. I don't even know how to do that sometimes now (laughs), because I am usually drawn to the sad lyric – maybe it is my age now, maybe it is from just living life. But "Come Away With Me" definitely has a looking-forward, hopeful, romantic quality to it, which was age-appropriate at the time. I definitely didn't think that at the time, though. I thought it was mellow. You know, I had grown up singing old soul songs. I used to sing "Lush Life" in high school. I didn't even know what the song was about then, but I was always drawn to the slow songs, the ballads, the sad songs.

I'm sure that's one reason why, in addition to how it sounds, because it is such a beautiful record, that it was so successful. 

Yes, it isn't so dark. It is mellow, but it has a light and hopeful message. I think the combination contributed to the success. That's true.

Speaking of the record's success, how did you react at the time? It was staggering – millions of records sold, multiple Grammy awards.

It was pretty weird, but I just dealt with it. You just do your thing, and keep doing it. We were doing it – playing gig after gig, doing interview after interview. I thought there was no way the record could get any bigger after the first jump in sales, but then the Grammys happened, and it was just insane. 

"The record company wanted a remix of 'Don't Know Why' that they could sell to pop radio. At the time, I was horrified by the idea."

Were there any commercial pressures in the immediate aftermath? You've had such authenticity and consistency in your body of work. Even when you experiment and collaborate, there aren't any frivolous fads. But was there pressure to go in that direction?

Well, the record was already made. So, that ship was sailed. We just did what we did, and it was straight from the heart and honest. I do remember that the record company wanted a remix of "Don't Know Why" that they could sell to pop radio. At the time, I was horrified by the idea. It went against everything that the song was to me. Now, I'd actually be more open to it, and embrace the opportunity for creative collaboration, but I said no at the time. So, we didn't do it, but we got on pop radio anyway, and to this day, I don't know how. It was baffling to me. Other than that, I was lucky to be on Blue Note. The whole team became my family, and everyone watched out for me. Bruce was my friend and a mentor. No one expected me not to be myself. Plus, I was pretty stubborn those days, and I was pretty hot under the collar if anyone tried to tell me to do something that didn't make sense. I get that from my mom.

Do you ever feel like, even if jazz is just one element of your work, that, because of your success in pop that you are an ambassador for this traditional form of music?

I've never taken that on. I love that artform, but I'm the first to say that my first record is not a jazz record. There was some confusion there with people. It certainly leans that way, but I have too much respect for the artform of jazz to say that it was a jazz record. If I was in college and someone tried to say that something like "Come Away With Me" was a jazz record, I would have been like, "No, it's not!" I try not to think about genre too much.

What approach did you take with "Feels Like Home," your second record? Did the "Come Away with Me" experience change your approach to songwriting or performing?

Well, I was pretty new to songwriting at that point. There are only three songs that I wrote on "Come Away With Me." So, during the entire period, I was really excited about writing and inspired, and so was my band. We had been on the road for a year at that point, and we had a lot of songs we had written. So, I recorded a song from everyone in my band. Lee Alexander, the bassist, and I had written several songs together. We were listening to a lot of bluegrass and country at the time. So, the record leans a little more toward the country side. But, I was excited just to be playing music, which meant that that "follow up" pressure didn't get into the studio. We just did what we did.

RELATED: How Miles Davis electified jazz

That reminds me of what you said just a moment ago in reference to your vocals on "Come Away With Me": You are just trying to sound like yourself. There are probably many people who consider that easier said than done. How do you manage that?

In high school, I was obsessed with Sarah Vaughan, specifically her live recording, "My Funny Valentine." I was so into imitating her. I also did a pretty good Billie Holiday impression. I was even cast in the role of Billie Holiday for a high school musical. It was a Black History program that they did every year at my school. I loved mimicking other singers. I would put on Aretha Franklin records, and pretend to be one of her background singers. That was how I learned to sing. I don't know, though. After high school, I just started to sing without worrying about the rest. Part of it was probably because I felt like a natural singer since I was young. I never felt like I had to struggle to sing, whereas with piano I had to work hard to learn. With singing, I did feel like it was a natural thing. This isn't to say that I don't ever sound like other people, or that I've never tried on different voices that don't quite fit. I do feel, though, that I shed that by time I got to New York.

Looking back 20 years later, what do you feel that the Norah Jones of 2002 was right about, and if you could tell the Norah Jones of 2002 anything now, as an artist, what would it be?

As an artist, I don't think there are wrongs. You are on your path. The record represents where I was at that time exactly. It is an exact record of where you are when you are making it. That's what it means. It is a recorded moment, literally. So, "Come Away With Me" is a snapshot of my musicality of my time. I guess I would tell myself at that time to enjoy everything a little more. It is OK to stop and smell the roses. I had a lot of fun, because I was surrounded by my best friends. They were all in my band. We had a lot of fun, but I was very uptight at the time. It was a stressful time for my family. It was a weird time for me personally, and success made it weirder. But, I would tell younger self to stress less, and try to enjoy what you're doing.

Watch the "Come Away With Me" 20th anniversary livestream, via YouTube.

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David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters" (Bloomsbury Publishing) and "Mellencamp: American Troubadour" (University Press of Kentucky, 2015).

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