Norah's musical arc

Last Updated 16 March 2013, 14:22 IST

Her smooth voice poured into the music scene like warm sunshine. With nine Grammys to her credit, Norah Jones has had a rather eventful journey to the top, writes Joel Premkumar.

Sailing in on a smooth wave of gentle tunes, Norah Jones took the world by storm with her maiden solo album, Come Away With Me. It reached the No 1 position on the US Billboard 200 and went on to win five Grammys, instantly propelling Norah into global acclaim. Riding out the stress of the sudden rush of recognition, Norah went on to produce several successful records, winning Grammys and selling in the millions.

She had also actively collaborated with stalwarts in the industry, including the Foo Fighters, Willie Nelson, Outkast, Ray Charles, Dolly Parton and Herbie Hancock among several others. Norah has also toured extensively and performed around the world while juggling with a fledging career in films. Her commercial success might sound improbable and surreal, but there she is, in your face, purring a soft sultry melody.

Geethali Norah Jones Shankar was born on March 30, 1979 in New York City to concert producer Sue Jones and the very illustrious Pandit Ravi Shankar. The relationship between her parents soon became estranged, and the little Norah grew up in Texas with her mother. The relationship with her father was limited at best and she began to veer towards the musical influences of her mother and started taking piano lessons and singing in the school and church choirs. She was also in the band and performed on the alto sax.

In high school, she won the prestigious DownBeat Student Music Award for best jazz vocalist twice, and one for best original composition. She also attended the Interlochen Center for the Arts during the summers. At 16, she took her parents’ consent and changed her name to Norah Jones. Norah eventually went on to attend the University of North Texas, where she majored in jazz piano and sang with the UNT Jazz Singers.

Musically speaking

While at the university, Norah had a chance meeting with singer-songwriter Jesse Harris. Harris watched her perform with the band and was so impressed that he started sending her lead sheets of his songs. In 1999, she left for New York City and settled in Greenwich Village to start a career in music.

A year later, she joined Harris on his band after trying various musical options. Norah continued to perform for various major artistes and this lead to her three-track demo being passed around until it landed up on the desk of Bruce Lundvall, president of Blue Note Records, a label owned by EMI Group. He and the Brian Bacchus from the label agreed that Norah had great potential, but they did not at the time know the direction her music would take.

Although Blue Note Records was primarily a jazz label and Norah’s music was a mix of various genres and influences, they agreed to eventually sign her on.

She was assigned to experienced producer and engineer Jay Newland and immediately started recording demo tracks. They cut around nine tracks and several of them would go to the debut album, but some were released as a sampler in 2001. In 2002, her first solo album, Come Away With Me, was finally ready. It was recorded by Craig and produced by the legendary producer Arif Mardin.

The album was released early in 2002, and immediately got a load of publicity. Her striking beauty and the mention of her legendary father helped push it initially, although that annoyed the young artiste. Come Away With Me eventually went multi-platinum, selling 18 million copies worldwide and winning Norah eight Grammy awards, exceeding the expectations of the label many times over.

In 2004, she released her highly anticipated follow-up album, Feels Like Home, again with producer Arif Mardin. The album had a similar approach to the debut album musically, featuring a mix of blues country and piano jazz interpretations and Norah’s smokey vocals. Feels Like Home was nominated for three Grammys. It won Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for the song Sunrise. She also won Grammys for Record of the Year and Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals for her collaboration with Ray Charles in the same year. She also collaborated with a lot of artistes.

Late in 2006, she released a single, Thinking About You, announcing a return to her solo career. The track ended up on the album Not Too Late, which released in early 2007. This was the first album where she had written or co-written all the songs. The album sold almost half a million in the US and one million copies worldwide in its first week and reached the No 1 position in 20 countries.

Norah’s fourth studio album, The Fall, debuted at No 3 in November 2009, selling 180,000 copies in its first week. Despite that it was her first album to not reach No. 1 in the US. The album received critical acclaim, but was not very successful commercially.

In November 2010, Norah released a compilation of collaborations. The 18-track Blue Note disc did pretty well and showcased her ability to produce good music with great artistes. Her fifth studio album, Little Broken Hearts, that released in 2012, marks a clear departure from her earlier music. With guitar riffs, distorted vocals and a lyrical departure with darker undertones, this album was her boldest move musically. The album received good critique and has done pretty well on sales.

Apart from her album releases, Norah has also toured extensively and collaborated with a wide variety of imminent artistes and bands, which continually endears her to audiences across the world.

India tour

Norah recently concluded her first ever tour of India. Starting out by headlining A Summer’s Day music festival in Mumbai, she went on to provide dazzling performances in Delhi and Bangalore as well. Playing on the piano and then on classical and electric guitars, Norah showcased her talents and indulged the audiences with her hits and new material. Brought to India by Only Much Louder, Norah says she was very excited to perform here.

It was also a bittersweet experience, as her father, who wanted her to perform here, passed away earlier this year and has never seen her perform here. The concerts drew mixed audiences. Her performances and little chats with the crowd endeared her to one and all here, who already consider her an Indian, and being the daughter of Pandit Ravi Shankar is not something that anyone can shake off in this country.

She has also recorded for sister Anoushka Shankar’s new album, and on the new Willie Nelson album. Apart from that, she prefers to take future as it comes. Considering the direction her music is going, the fans of this pretty and incredibly talented artiste can look forward to some great stuff as she herself believes that the best is yet to come.

(Published 16 March 2013, 14:22 IST)

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