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JohnJ

The Norah Jones Effect

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The following is a rather long but interesting article (well I thought so) on the effect that Norah's success has had on the music industry, and on perceptions of jazz, in the U.K.

Keeping up with Jones

Jazz? Pop? Soul? It really doesn't matter any more. Norah Jones's phenomenal success has blurred music's traditional categories and opened the way for a stream of young, gifted and British divas

Neil Spencer

Sunday January 18, 2004

The Observer

Some acts change pop through their music, some through sheer chutzpah - haircut, attitude, showmanship - and some by the simple scale of their success. No prizes for guessing into which category Norah Jones belongs. Lovely and languorous though her voice and looks are, no one has yet branded the 24-year-old singer as a musical revolutionary. Au contraire, Jones's ascent to megastardom has been built on the most traditional of virtues - wistful melodies, understated playing and singular, engaging vocals. Come Away With Me - Jones's solitary, Grammy-strewn album, its sales now upwards of 17 million - included numbers from the 1940s (by Hoagy Carmichael and Hank Williams) alongside its original songs, and delivered the lot in the breathless style of a 1950s jazz chanteuse.

Jones herself remains the paradigm of unpretentiousness. Forget bling - Norah scarcely wears make-up - and forget hanging with the Hollywood in-crowd - she lives quietly with her boyfriend, Lee Alexander, who is also her co-writer and bass player. If you live in a nice neighbourhood, she's the girl next door writ large.

None the less, the pop world now is indisputably a post-Norah realm, one unimaginable two years back when Come Away With Me arrived to widespread but muted acclaim. Despite the record-breaking eight Grammys heaped on it, the record's success owes more to public approval than record company hype; no one, least of all its creator, seems to have imagined it would become a runaway hit. According to its producer, Arif Mardin, the album marked a sea change in attitudes. 'People were ready for heartfelt music. Norah is in the vanguard of another kind of pop music listeners have been yearning for. We're now in a period where listeners are looking for real artists.'

Mardin, whose illustrious career stretches back to Aretha Franklin and the Bee Gees, is not just indulging in wishful thinking. Evidence of the 'Norah Jones effect' is everywhere, especially in the hothouse of British pop, where smoky-voiced sirens delivering a mix of originals and classics are now what presses the buttons of radio's playlist compilers and record-company A&R men. Jazz influences, no longer commercial poison, are almost de rigueur.

The spectrum of newcomers is wide, from squeaky popsters such as Erin Rocha to jazz sophisticats like Gwyneth Herbert, but the sense of a seismic shift in industry attitudes and public taste is compelling.

The nominees for this year's Brit Awards include three solo vocalists - Jamie Cullum, Amy Winehouse and Katie Melua - who arguably wouldn't be in contention but for the Norah effect. It isn't that any of this talented trio has modelled themselves directly on Ms Jones - don't worry, each of them has a life - but that the music business now conceptualises young contenders in the light of her success. If you're a talented singer, a bit jazzy, a bit soulful, and mindful of tradition, then you're in Norah's shadow, like it or not.

Apart from a few bruises on your artistic ego, what's not to like? The Norah effect means there is now a simpatico media ear and a marketing strategy which weren't there in the dark age of manufactured idolatry from which Britpop (oops) is now dragging itself. Some unlikely tastemakers are involved. Nineteen-year-old Melua, a fame-school graduate whose mentor is veteran producer and Womble-in-chief Mike Batt, had her debut album, Call Off the Search , championed by Terry Wogan on his Radio 2 show. The station, whose star has grown brighter as Radio 1's has dimmed, is now an influential force in breaking acts and hits. The Christmas number one, Gary Jules's 'Mad World', is a case in point. The cult of Eva Cassidy (Melua's personal hero) was also a Wogan creation.

Another warhorse of the airwaves, Michael Parkinson, triggered a bidding war for Jamie Cullum after featuring the impish jazz vocalist on his Saturday-night TV show last year. The subsequent £1m deal with Universal already looks like good business, with sales of half a million in the bag for Cullum's Twentysomething album, and the lucrative markets of Japan and the US yet to be prised open. Cul lum's radical, beat-laden remake of 'I Could Have Danced All Night' is a long way from Norah's weepy piano balladry, but it's hard to imagine a major label having got behind him without her commercial precedent. 'An untapped market has opened up,' says Universal's jazz marketing product manager, Dionne Clarke. 'Previously, a jazz act would sell 10,000 copies top.'

Other radio stations, like London's Jazz FM, which have an affluent thirty- and fortysomething audience as their target, have helped foster the new outlook. If their constituency digs Norah, why not some other intelligent, downbeat diva? Tanto Tempo, the 2001 debut from Brazilian Bebel Gilberto, has had a parallel career to Come Away With Me. Its lilting update of samba tradition started with critical acclaim before growing into an unexpected international audience. Now the most successful Brazilian breakout in history, with a million-plus sales, the album has been almost as constant a feature of Jazz FM's weekly Top 20 (hosted by another veteran, Paul Gambaccini) as Come Away With Me.

It would be a mistake, however, to think of the Norah effect as merely old-timers' revenge on a flagging pop scene. As Gambaccini puts it: 'It can't just be housewives buying all those Norah Jones records.'

Indeed, one of the most striking features of the nouveau traditionalists is their youth: 16-year-old Erin Rocha was on work experience in a Hampshire studio when she found herself called on to voice 'Can't Do Right For Doing Wrong', a lilting ballad that was to be pitched at Ms Jones herself. Instead, Rocha's version was scooped on to Radio 2's 'A' list. Now signed to EMI, Rocha is making her debut album.

Another 16-year-old is Joss Stone, though she sounds more like a 40-year-old Southern belle with a few too many affairs to her credit than a teenager just out of a north Devon comprehensive. Stone's justly acclaimed debut, The Soul Sessions, which was recorded in Florida's celebrated TK studios, convincingly revisits the Seventies heyday of TK stars like Betty Wright and Timmy Thomas, who play on the album. To remind us that she's a child of her time, Stone (real name Jocelyn Staller) throws in a smouldering funk version of a White Stripes song, 'Fell in Love With a Boy', which is surely destined to become a hit this year.

A blend of classic and contemporary is one aspect of the Norah effect. Take First Songs, the opening salvo from 21-year-old jazz singer Gwyneth Herbert and her guitarist sidekick, Will Rutter. While happy to return, one more time, to Gershwin, the pair also stir Mama Cass and Elvis Costello into the mix alongside their own compositions.

The jazz establishment remains as wary as ever of invasions of its hallowed canon - eyebrows arched when jazz diva supreme Cassandra Wilson covered Neil Young and the Monkees a few years back, and hardliners aren't wild about Cullum's taste for Jimi Hendrix, either. Jones, along with the likes of Diana Krall, has been labelled 'almost jazz' and 'dinner jazz', in case those millions of fans get uppity ideas about what they're enjoying. Yet part of the Norah effect has been to move the parameters of 'jazz' beyond the reach of its self-appointed guardians.

A case in point is singer Amy Winehouse, a feisty 20-year-old Londoner who is arguably the most precociously gifted of the UK's post-Norah crop, and whose debut, Frank, has won her two Brits nominations. With a Sinatra-loving father - one reason for her album's title, the other being her lacerating honesty - Winehouse's style reflects an upbringing absorbing Billie Holiday's moan and Sarah Vaughan's scat, though modern R&B divas like Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu are also a clear influence. Winehouse's abrasive look at modern romance is a tumble of tough and tender which spills into hilarity on 'Fuck Me Pumps', a caustic commentary on the shallow celebrity culture of Heat and Footballers' Wives.

If there is any justice at the Brits (stop laughing at the back), Winehouse will pick up a gong, either for the mysterious category Best Urban Artist (who, save Highland folkies, does that rule out?) or British Female Solo Artist, where she is up against Dido, whose own success prompted speculation that we are moving into an era of 'easy listening'.

So far, the new mood embodied by Norah and her contemporaries has escaped easy definition. A good thing too, according to broadcaster Gilles Peterson, an early champion of Winehouse on his eclectic Radio 1 show, Worldwide. 'The moment you put a label on music, especially "jazz" or "world", people start turning off,' he says. 'I find I can play more adventurous things than ever, whether it's Sun Ra or Amy; as long as you don't use the "J" word, people are interested.'

With the Norah effect melting the barriers between generations and genres, 'pop' and 'serious', twenty-first-century music is proving a surprising place. Perhaps Mardin's 'heartfelt music' is the phrase closest to describing what's happening. The top-down approach that has given us plastic fodder like Hear'Say and the rest won't disappear, but to judge by Joss Stone, who emerged via BBC TV's Star For a Night, even tacky talent shows can bring forth talent.

Norah herself will doubtless be back atop the charts next month when her second album, Feels Like Home, is released. Considering her megastardom, her profile has remained remarkably low, the most newsworthy item about her being the media's discovery that her father is sitar star, Ravi Shankar, Norah being the result of his nine-year affair with New York dancer, Sue Jones. A subsequent affair with his tanpura player, Sukanya Rajan, produced another daughter, Anoushka, two years later. After Shankar married Sukanya in 1989, he lost touch with Norah (whose Indian name is Geetali, meaning musical bee). The Joneses relocated to Texas, where Norah later learned her trade playing piano bars.

After Norah became famous, father and daughter were reunited, though it's half-sister Anoushka, a sitar prodigy who is heir apparent to Shankar's crown, with whom Norah has forged the closest link. The two independently famous half-sisters have become confidantes, even sporting the same star-shaped tattoo on their backs. Talk of a musical collaboration is brushed aside, but don't be surprised if Norah extends her genre-hopping eastwards.

Unsurprisingly, Jones's new record carries on where Come Away With Me left off. It's more country-hued - Dolly Parton guests and there's a song by late Texan troubadour Townes Van Zandt - but otherwise the same spartan sensuality prevails. Call it almost jazz, easy listening or just plain pop (and if 17 million sales aren't pop, what is?) but it is heartfelt. It's the Norah effect.

· Norah Jones's Feels Like Home is released on Parlophone/Blue Note on 9 February

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Wow not only is Norah lovely and talented but the daughter of Ravi Shankar to boot!!

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I took a brief time out from draining pints in London to catch 'ol Ravi at the Southwark Cathedral in '81........eggggggselent show. :tup

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This article makes me think...with the success of Norah Jones, and the Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, maybe the music industry will wake up and realize that the people don't want another underage hooker, menacing street punk, or angst-ridden heroin addict as their next star. Maybe they'll realize that people are more interested in good music than glitz and glamour. Maybe they'll realize that...wait a minute; my pipe's empty. Let me pack another bowl and I'll continue... :wacko:

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Decent article John. Although it doesn't really tell us anything we didn't already know. The popular music scene in this country (can't really speak for others) has long experienced 'blips' registering amongst the album pop/rock, singles pop and other sub- genres, whether it be Britpop or Nu-metal.

During the late 70's and early 80's a similar thing may have been the abundance of singer -songwriter artists; not especially photogenic or self proclaiming but quitely doing their own thing, much of it in the vein of Dylan, Neil Young or Nick Drake. Even lately we have seen the likes of David Gray slowly reap massive sales figures.

I suppose now it's OK to have, like they state, a little bit of the 'j' influence in there too.

For a perfect indicator just look at the nominees each year for the Mercury Music Prize!!!

In a similar article the Guardian a few years ago commented upon the rise of 'Dinner Party' music amongst the twentysomethings of this land ----- no surprises there ---- people grow up, mature and don't want a three-minute barrage of feedback distorted guitars while we're quaffing our Petit-Chablis and polenta.

They predicted (rather predictably!) that many of us would own an album by Portishead, Dido, Goldfrapp, Zero 7, Gray (that's Macy & David BTW). No shit Sherlock.

We can't be fourteen forever and listening to the stuff that would annoy our parents.

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Thanks for that article. Been thinking about what new British Soul might be on the horizon. Great to have some other names to watch out for. (Just hope that Josh Stone comes up with something new as her take on all of this is certainly based on some weird producing for the moment.) And I must confess that I'm a sucker for some good sultryness and Norah ain't got it for me.

I've been on a bit of an "acid jazz" (how I hate that moniker) tip lately courtesy of some cheap comps I've listened to. Any of you Londoners have some guidance to offer based upon this article? Please! Like telling me whatever happened to some great singers like N'Dea Davenport, Martine Girault, Dyanne Fearon, Marcia Johnson, Carleen Anderson, Shara Nelson, Caron Wheeler, Juliet Roberts etc... Or making some suggestions as to some truly great females to look out for. And certainly not coming from that Macy (my hometown girl) Gray, Badu / everythingbutthetrickyportisheadfrapp vibe.

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Wow not only is Norah lovely and talented but the daughter of Ravi Shankar to boot!!

You don't say. :P

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