The singer celebrates the 20th anniversary of her landmark album, Come Away with Me, with a U.S. tour
Norah Jones knows that the mere mention of “Don’t Know Why” is probably enough to get the tune stuck in your head. That soothing hot water bottle of a song was the centerpiece of her spectacularly pleasant debut album, Come Away with Me. Released in 2002, when Jones was just 22, Come Away with Me brought home eight Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year, Song of the Year for “Don’t Know Why,” and Best New Artist for Jones. Since then, it has sold nearly 30 million copies worldwide and anchored countless Sunday morning playlists. “It will always be my biggest success,” says the fiercely private Jones, 43, speaking via Zoom from the Brooklyn home she shares with her husband and two children. “It might be the only thing that some people know about me, and that’s fine.”
Come Away with Me turned 20 this year, an anniversary that occasioned the release of a “super deluxe” three-disc box set featuring never-before-heard demos and alternate versions of popular tracks, as well as a 25-date U.S. summer tour. Jones grew nostalgic sorting through old photos of the band, which included an ex-boyfriend, as well as her frequent collaborator Jesse Harris, who penned a portion of the album. “I only wrote two songs on my first album, because I was so embarrassed by a couple of songs I wrote in high school that I just shut down and stopped,” explains Jones, who grew up in Texas before moving to New York City. “When I listen to Come Away, I hear something that is so far from what I think of as the kind of music I make now. Each album has had steadily more of my songs.”
Not counting side projects, Jones has released 10 albums, a few of which share the jazz-pop DNA of her debut, with others evincing her diverse taste. Take 2012’s Little Broken Hearts, on which Jones brought her sultriness to the eldritch arrangements of artist/producer Danger Mouse (Gnarls Barkley, U2): to hear her gently whisper “I’m going to smile when I take your life” on the murder ballad “Miriam” is to witness another side of the singer/multi-instrumentalist entirely. “I’ve had amazing opportunities,” she says. “I feel lucky. I feel heard.”
How does it feel to be talking about Come Away with Me 20 years later? Have your thoughts about the record changed over time?
I don’t really pore over the past often, so it was bittersweet. That’s the thing about time: It makes you want to go back, and you know you can’t. But at this point in my life, it feels really nice to revisit it. I was in a much different place around the 10th anniversary. I was putting out the album I did with Danger Mouse and I wasn’t quite ready to embrace looking back. I can appreciate the record in a different way now. I feel like [Come Away with Me] had a more hopeful circle around it than I ever realized before. Even though it was a very mellow album, mood-wise, and it had a lot of ballads and it had some melancholy moments, the songs and the lyrics are hopeful. Maybe because I was so young, starting my adult life out, and excited for love.
“Don’t Know Why” remains one of your best-known and most beloved songs. When you recorded it, did you know instantly that it was a hit?
No, I didn’t think in terms of hits back then. I didn’t think anything I did was going to be a hit. That’s not the kind of music we heard on the radio. It was basically the first thing we recorded—a snapshot of what we were trying to do, but we weren’t even sure yet what we were doing. It was me moving away from singing old jazz standards, playing piano, and singing Jesse’s songs. We knew it was a great take. We knew it had something special. It was like catching fish. We caught it and then we looked at it and decided, yes, this is what we want. Any session after that was chasing that energy, that vibe. There was no trying to beat it.
Obviously you couldn’t have known how successful this record would be. What were you doing for money at the time?
I started waiting tables when I moved to New York City in the summer of 1999. When I got this record deal, it wasn’t a lot of money. I was still waiting tables. I didn’t hate it, but it wasn’t great. I will say, I preferred it to playing music I didn’t want to play. For instance, I got called to do a bunch of weddings. I remember being asked to sing a lot of songs that I might’ve liked, but it wasn’t what I was trying to do with my life.
Like what, the “Chicken Dance” and “Shout” and that sort of thing?
Yeah, and there’s nothing wrong with that! But it didn’t make sense for me.
Presumably, the success of Come Away with Me came to define you in a lot of ways. But you’ve worked with so many great collaborators, including Foo Fighters, OutKast, and Jeff Tweedy. Do you feel you’ve gotten equal amounts of attention and respect for these projects, or do you get the sense that people still equate you with this first record?
Both. I don’t have a weird defensiveness over the other stuff I’ve done, because I feel like enough people have heard it and responded to it. But, yeah, I know Come Away with Me is always going to be my definitive thing. Good thing I liked it at the time. I’m proud of it. It’s a testament to following what you want to do and not compromising. What if you become successful with something you hate? That would suck. I really learned how to let go of other people’s definitions of me early on. I had to, to be able to thrive in this new environment. You can’t please everybody.
So you don’t mind that more people don’t know about El Madmo, your indie-rock side project?
Aww, no one ever asks me about El Madmo. I loved it. That was at sort of the peak of the second album [2004’s Feels Like Home]. I was a little depressed; I felt a little lost. So, yeah, I didn’t even put my name on the album, because we didn’t want it to be a Norah Jones thing. I don’t think we would have been able to do that with a bunch of weird expectations. That’s what I’ve been striving for with most things. That’s why I try not to let in other opinions. It shouldn’t matter.
What has been the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry over the last two decades?
Streaming and social media. Everything’s completely different now. I feel glad I got to sell records when you could still sell records. And I didn’t have to worry about my Instagram account. I probably would have had a nervous breakdown.
Was it ever strange to be in your early 20s but not to be in the same spaces as your peers—like, say, at the MTV Video Music Awards or in the tabloids?
I was in the world I was in. I didn’t covet that stuff necessarily. I got nominated for an MTV2 award that year , and I went, and it was so fun because I grew up watching them. I didn’t grow up in a basement with just a record player. I grew up with MTV. But, yeah, I don’t think I would survive in a tabloid life. I certainly didn’t have any regrets there.
Maybe you didn’t grow up in a basement with just a record player, but was there an album that was particularly inspirational to your own pursuit of music?
I loved Aretha Franklin. When I got into jazz, I was really into Bill Evans and Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, but I also listened to alternative radio. I got obsessed with Nevermind, and I used to air drum to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I loved the Violent Femmes. But when I was listening to that music I never thought, like, Oh, I’m going to do this. And then in high school I started playing jazz and playing gigs, and people seemed to like the way I sang. It seemed very natural. That was my calling. I didn’t have another interest. I had no backup plan. It wasn’t even a plan. I was just doing it all of a sudden.
You starred with Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, and Natalie Portman in the 2007 Wong Kar-wai film My Blueberry Nights. What was that like?
That was a crazy experience. That’s one of those things I wish I could time-travel back to. I was so stressed and freaked out the whole time and trying to stay skinny. I guess you could say I was slightly out of my element. I’m not an actor. But it was life-changing. It was so amazing to watch Wong Kar-wai work, and getting to hang out with movie stars. We had a ball. I still have very good friends from the crew from that movie.
Have you been tempted to do 0ther public-facing projects, like The Voice or a podcast or something?
I don’t think I’ve ever been asked to be a coach on The Voice. I just hate being on camera, you know? I think the biggest annoying thing for me is being asked to talk on camera. Because that’s not my job, necessarily. I feel out of my own skin when I have to do that.
You’re happily married with two children, but you’ve also done two breakup records. Do you think the saying holds true that the best art comes out of pain or heartbreak, or do you feel just as creative when you’re happy?
I definitely think being in pain doesn’t hurt the art. The way I create and write songs has changed a lot over the years. I felt very consistently creative for the last five years, and I think it’s because of the way I think of ideas. They don’t always come from a deep feeling. It comes from a little melody, and you can’t get it out of your head. But I’ve also had periods where I’m not in a lot of pain but the whole world is, and it’s really easy to look outside yourself and feel that. At this point, it’s hard to write a song that’s hopeful.
You’re about to go on tour for the first time since the pandemic. How do you feel about it?
I’m excited. I think it will be a combination of being weird and also like nothing ever happened. Not in a dismissive way; sometimes when you fall back into life it feels like, Oh, yeah, this is normal. You pick up where you left off. It’s going to be special to feel that energy again.