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Don’t Know Why – Norah Jones

She speaks to a huge group of people that the music business has forgotten and declared irrelevant.”

Don’t Know Why – Norah Jones

Blue Note (USA) Parlophone (UK)

Recorded at Sorcerer Sound & Allaire Studios, New York State

Released May 2002

Writer Jesse Harris

Producers Arif Mardin, Norah Jones & Jay Newland

USA #30   UK #59

Norah Jones’ debut album Come Away With Me (released in February 2002) was the music industry surprise hit of 2002/3, a sweet and sexy blend of jazz, pop, soul, folk and country which pop fans called jazz and staunch jazz fans called pop (or, heaven forbid, ‘easy listening’), though Jones was in fact signed to one of the most prestigious jazz labels, Blue Note, established in the late 1930s – the company’s long-time logo, ‘The finest in jazz since 1939’.  Ms Jones’ obvious, yet cleverly understated vocal expertise was a welcome breath of fresh air in an era when irritating vocal pyrotechnics (or former membership of Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club) were the norm for female vocalists. Born Geethali Norah Jones Shankar in 1979, Norah is the daughter of world-renowned Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar and American concert producer Sue Jones, and was brought up by her mother in Texas. Singing in church choirs and taking piano lessons as a child, she was a big fan of her mother’s Billie Holiday collection and majored in jazz piano at the University of North Texas before moving to New York with her eye on a career in music in 1999.

Playing around the NY scene, she swiftly made musical friends and, the following year, formed an ensemble with guitarist/songwriter Jesse Harris and recorded some demos including Harris’s composition ‘Don’t Know Why’ – Harris had written the song in 1999 and originally released it on his own album Jesse Harris & The Ferdinandos. A three-track demo (including ‘Don’t Know Why’) came to the attention of music-biz jazz veteran Bruce Lundvall (Columbia, Elektra, EMI-Manhattan) who was now running Blue Note for EMI/Virgin. (Lundvall signed Herbie Hancock to Columbia in the 1970s and Anita Baker to Elektra in the 1980s) On hearing these demos, Blue Note A&R chief Brian Bacchus told hitquarters.com’s Kimbel Bouwman, “We knew right away she had the goods, although there was a question of what direction her music might follow. So we let her find her own direction. We were a jazz label, but we knew if she could develop her songwriting and we could find great songs, it would work.” The final album included 2 Jones originals, 5 by Jesse Harris, 2 by band bass-player and Jones’ boyfriend Lee Alexander and a selection of blues, jazz and country standards.

An EP entitled ‘First Sessions’ and including demos of ‘Don’t Know Why’ and ‘Come Away With Me’ was distributed to media outlets in 2001 to arouse interest while work on her first album followed, and to all intents and purposes, the album was actually made twice! Most of the tracks were first recorded by producer Craig Street who had earlier supervised some Cassandra Wilson albums for Blue Note and also worked with Manhattan Transfer and Meshell Ndegeocello. However, Lundvall wasn’t happy with the result feeling it lacked the authentic and organic sound of the demos and hired veteran producer Arif Mardin (Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Bee Gees, Average White Band) to give it another go. This certainly confirms Blue Note’s faith in Jones’ potential, though they weren’t expecting major sales, anticipating perhaps a little jazz/pop crossover action.

Some of the Craig Street produced tracks were kept, but re-worked by Mardin who actually went back to some of the original demos that Jones and Harris had recorded, using them with few embellishments for several tracks (extra guitar and harmony vocals) including ‘Don’t Know Why’ which had originally been recorded, vocals and all, in just one take! Bouwman confirms, “Some of the demos were just great and we realized there was no sense in trying to fix something that wasn’t broken.” Speaking of Street’s initial work, Mardin told Sound On Sound magazine, “It was more of a guitar, folk-orientated approach – both Norah and the Blue Note people thought that it should actually go back and capture the original piano-flavoured demos. So the band knew the tunes and we went in and I produced about 80 percent of the album. It was actually very quick – I think we did it in less than a week.”

It’s interesting to note that when success was becoming an obvious possibility and ‘Don’t Know Why’ was scheduled as a single, Blue Note’s mother company Virgin, commissioned an up-tempo remix complete with synth-drums, masses of reverb and a stuttering Ms Jones singing ‘Don’t know why – why – why’. Jones was horrified, called the remix ‘absurd’ and Virgin agreed to drop the idea. Just as well, as this misguided exercise might very well have frightened off the adult record buyers who actually went out and bought Jones’ album in droves. Noting that the 23-year-old Ms Jones was selling records to people mostly twice her age, a Blue Note executive stated, “She speaks to a huge group of people that the music business has forgotten and declared irrelevant.”

These sentiments would soon be reflected by massive sales to an adult audience and following a slow start, ‘Don’t Know Why’ and it’s companion piece ‘Come Away With Me’ (written by Jones) were soon all over radio worldwide and the album began selling in unexpectedly large quantities (assisted by a US marketing-campaign where it retailed for a few months at just $8) – within 12 months it had sold 10 million copies worldwide, ultimately selling over 20, and finally reaching the top of the US/UK charts almost a year after release. The album also sold in large quantities around the rest of the world going platinum in France, Australia, Brazil, Argentina, Poland, Holland and Switzerland. Jones cleaned up at the 2003 Grammy’s where she won 5 awards including Album of The Year and Best New Artist while Jesse Harris won for Song of The Year and Arif Mardin as Producer of the Year.

Similarly sweet and well produced follow-ups have also sold in large numbers (over 37 million so far) and won Ms Jones further Grammy Awards while, from a songwriting point of view, this is a prime example of how one song can set you up for life. With over 20 million sales and vast and ongoing radio play, the success of ‘Don’t Know Why’ means that Jesse Harris won’t have much to worry about financially for the rest of his life – and he had another 4 songs on the album. This is quite similar to the royalties bonanza experienced by UK writer Rod Temperton who composed 3 songs (including the title track) on Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, with well over 60 million sales to date. Nice work if you can get it and like most things in life, just a question of being in the right place at the right time! (There has been some suggestion that ‘Don’t Know Why’ rips off David Gates early 1970s Bread hit ‘Make It With You’. Aside from the similar descending chords, I can see little comparison between the two)

 

Copyright © 2017 SongStories/Tony Burton

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