Last summer, Norah Jones went into the office of Bruce Lundvall, the president of Blue Note Records, and asked him something no musician has ever asked a record label boss.
"Haven't I sold enough records yet?" she wondered. She was tired, cranky, and verging on burnout. Twelve-hour days spent giving interviews, dispiriting meet-and-greets, and the shock of being a 23-year-old with a boatload of Grammys and a platinum record will do that to you.
"It's not like the press is mean -- it's just a lot of work that I didn't really want to do," she explains. "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 that story: To him, it's unfathomable that a musician would want to stop selling albums. "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 responded. "I want a career, and people might get tired of me."
At the end of February 2002, Blue Note 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 hers -- to the tune of seven million copies and eight Grammys, including song, record, and album of the year.
"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."
Rewind to August 29, 2001, the day Norah Jones gave her second-ever interview, and to this writer. That very 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, adding a nervous giggle. "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."
Later that day, Lundvall hopped on the phone to insist he was in this for the long haul. "I have to be realistic," he said two years ago. "We're not saying we'll have a platinum record. 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, in spite of her staggering fame. As all those connected with Jones will tell you, she's as stubborn as she is savvy.
"In her naive statement [about wanting to stop selling albums], there's a great deal of homespun intelligence," says Steve Macklam, her manager. "It's like, 'Be careful what you ask for.' If you sell too many records, 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. There's a common-sense self-regulation she sees instinctively. The intention is just to put out a good record and to not sell it as the Second Coming. That's not what it is."
Certainly, Blue Note couldn't have predicted this. Since its inception in 1939, it's been strictly a jazz label, a safe haven for artists who judge success between the grooves, not at the cash register: Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Cassandra Williams, Dianne Reeves.
"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 -- the right gigs, the right critics, the right timing -- how often do all those things add up to seven-plus million sold? Usually never.
"She has no illusions about this success," Lundvall says. "She didn't expect this. She never expected to be signed. I told her we've been looking for this forever."
He pauses, and you can hear the grin over the phone.
"It's all a mystery."
The Lovesick Critic Snowball
Making Come Away with Me reminded producer Arif Mardin of the "electrifying moments" he experienced recording "Jive Talkin'" with the Bee Gees in 1975. Jones' crossover success reminds her booking agent, Joe Brauner, of his client Harry Connick Jr. around the time 1989's When Harry Met Sally wooed millions of customers who didn't normally buy big-band albums. Her focus on career over instant gratification reminds manager Macklam of two other clients, Joni Mitchell and Diana Krall.
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