Monday, March 3
A sweet mystery: Norah Jones' artistry stands out in a world of prefab pop. Where'd it come from?
By Robert Hilburn, Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2003

"One of my colleagues told me that Norah was so far from what his bosses were looking for last year that he would have been fired if he had signed her," says Arif Mardin, who was nominated for the producer of the year Grammy for his work with Jones on her album. "Now, his bosses are saying, 'Go out and find me a Norah Jones.' "

The wonder of Jones, however, isn't her sales, but her artistry. [...]

The sultry warmth and command of Jones' vocals revives the old question: Is talent born or made?

Numerous people, from her mom to teachers in Texas, talked about watching her talent blossom and helping steer her to various arts programs in high school and college. By the time Jones got to Blue Note Records, she had been well schooled, with more than 1,000 hours of piano lessons. But -- and this is where the mystery comes in -- the pop vocal sensation never had a single singing lesson. [...]

A distinguished lineage: The 5-foot-1 Jones does come with great musical genes.

Her mother, Sue Jones, a huge music fan, was a concert producer for years in New York. Her father is Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar.

The first time anyone outside her family had a chance to marvel at little Norah Jones was at Sunday services at a Methodist church in Dallas in the mid-'80s. She was the shy child in the choir who sang louder than anybody else.

"The teacher told me I should sing loud and I took it literally," Jones says, smiling at the memory. "Singing was like a hobby because it was so easy. I think singing is in your body, something you can either do or you can't."

Jones, who was born in New York near the end of her parents' nine-year relationship, picked up most of her early musical taste from her mother's record collection, which was filled with works by a wide array of superb singers -- from Ray Charles and George Jones to Maria Callas.

She saw Shankar sparingly during her early years and didn't mention him in her press biography to avoid the appearance of using the relationship for publicity reasons. When reporters learned of the connection, some interpreted her silence as a rejection of her father, who was not married to her mother.

So Jones does now speak about him -- but guardedly, because she wants to talk about music, not family. "I love my dad," she says, to make sure there is no misunderstanding. "We are very close."

Shankar confirms the bond between the two. "I always knew Norah was very musical from when she was very young," he said in an e-mail. "After a gap of eight years when she came back to me, I was amazed with her musical growth." He noted he was "thrilled" by her success.

Jones' mom encouraged the youngster, but she wasn't a controlling "stage mother." Looking back at Norah's early years, she says, "Norah did so many other things, painting, drawing. Everything pretty much came easy for her, especially the singing. I just let her do her own thing. She always had a sense of the songs that were good for her voice."

When Jones expressed an interest in the piano, her mom bought one and arranged for classical lessons from Renetta Frisque, who remembers the quiet young girl with the same words you hear over and over from people who knew her: "She had a feeling for the notes that you can't teach." [...]
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