It Takes All Kinds

a Few Stories and Profiles by Erik Hedegaard
mainly from inside the pages of Rolling Stone
(with additional commentary and folderol provided by the author aka Charlie, sometimes)

Cool-Hot Norah Jones

Posted on | October 8, 2008 | No Comments

The Hot Side of a Cool Chanteuse

Going away with Norah Jones

Norah Jones, if anybody needs to be reminded, is the twenty-three-year-old singer-pianist whose languorous pop-jazzy debut album, Come Away With Me, was released in February and marched right on into the Top Twenty. It’s been quite a speedy trip, so we recently took a trip ourselves, to Amsterdam, where she was on tour. We wanted to see how it’s going for her, dealing with that kind of rapid rise, which can be difficult at times and lead to tears and despair, if not worse.

Jones greeted us before a show at a club called the Paradiso, wearing flowy black pants, a sleeveless green top and studious rectangular glasses. She looked great, too, with her large, moody eyes and her river’s rush of long black hair. When she heard that she’d sold out the house, she said what any happening jazz cat might say. She said, “Cool.” Then she got onstage with her mostly acoustic trio and slinked through her songs. They border on blues and country, as well as jazz and pop, and throughout her atmospheric performance, she looked pretty cool herself, entirely self-possessed and serious and mellow.

Afterward, however, while talking to an autograph-seeking fan, we thought we heard her refer to her music as “soft-cock rock.” This stunned us, for it suggested a far different Norah Jones than the one we’d imagined from looking at her and hearing her sing. “Did you really say ‘soft-cock rock’?” we asked her later.

“Yes,” she said, laughing. “I do call it that. I’ve also called it ‘mock soft-cock rock.’ See, everybody thinks I’m so serious and mellow. But I’m not. I can’t take it too seriously. It’s already turned into more job than fun. But, hey, let’s go drink some whiskey. You want to come hang out with us?”

We most certainly did, so we followed her back to her dressing room, where she grabbed her left boob and gave it a playful, taunting squeeze for the benefit of Adam Levy, her spiffy guitarist, and then went on to say to Andy Borger, her subtle drummer, “It’s nothing personal, but I just have this urge to French-kiss you.” Immediately we liked her. She was high-spirited and fun, and she spread it around so liberally that we thought, in a perfect world, it should last all night long.

The next day, Jones woke up around three in the afternoon, ambled over to the Van Gogh museum with Lee Alexander, her quietly friendly boyfriend and bass player, found that it was closed, nearly cried because that’s how much she wanted to see the exhibit, made do by admiring the Van Gogh postcards at a kiosk, was superpleased not to have a show to play that night, was even more than superpleased not to have to talk to the press at all that day (once, her reps lined up fourteen interviews for her in a single day), went to bed late, slept more uneasily than usual, tossing and turning and thrashing over various concerns (“other shit,” she called it), woke up early, opened the blinds on warm Amsterdam sunshine, brushed her teeth vigorously, went to the bathroom, got dressed in knockaround jeans, sneakers and a black tank top, talked to some Dutch press and wound up pondering the lunch menu at an outdoor restaurant on Korte Leidse Dwarsstraat.

“Rump steak,” she said brightly. “I’ve always liked the sound of that. Is it really the rump? I guess that’s why they call it that. It’s the ass. It tastes like ass.” She laughed at her own train of thought. She ordered a beef tenderloin, cooked medium, as well as a cucumber salad and avocado dip; and then, with all that to look forward to, launched into a brief account of how she got here in the first place.

Born in New York, she was raised in Dallas — a noisy, hyperactive kid who enjoyed shaving her Barbie dolls’ heads and listening to whatever music her mom, Sue, a nurse, cared to play: equal parts Ray Charles, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Aretha Franklin, Frederic Chopin, Willie Nelson and Luciano Pavarotti. In junior high, she proudly wailed on the alto sax in her school’s marching band, but by the time she entered Dallas’ Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, she’d started singing and playing the piano. After graduation came the vaunted music program at University of North Texas, where she cruised around in a “cool-ass, big-ass” sky-blue 1971 Cadillac Sedan DeVille, dressed “like a slob,” and looked kind of like Thora Birch in Ghost World.

The summer of her sophomore year, she sublet an apartment in Manhattan and ended up staying there. That was three years ago. Waitressing during the day, she played bars at night, singing jazz standards for fifty dollars a gig — “if I was lucky.” Then, on the night of her twenty-first birthday, a music-industry accountant named Shell White heard her and got her demo tape into the hands of Bruce Lundvall, the president of Blue Note Records, the respected jazz label. Shortly thereafter, according to legend, Lundvall invited Jones to meet with him and signed her on the spot.

Of course, it didn’t exactly happen like that. “No way,” said Jones, frowning. “It was actually almost a year before I signed a contract.” But that’s the kind of myth-making that now whirlwinds around Jones and her undeniably great music — and Jones herself isn’t exactly pleased with it.

“We’re all young, and we just want to be dumb, and I shouldn’t complain,” she said, putting down her fork. “But it’s been really kind of scary. It makes me very anxious. No one expected the record to do this well, and I also never really wanted it to. I mean, I never wanted to do a lot of interviews and stuff. It’s scary, and it’s gotten me down a little bit.”

She smiled wanly and resumed eating.

Not wanting to upset her more, we turned to other matters and soon learned, for example, that her favorite cuss phrase is “Suck my ass,” which she knows in both Dutch and German; that a big pet peeve of hers is “watching TV with someone else in the room who’s asleep”; that she has smoked dope, but that “it kind of makes me sick, like I’m going to puke”; that when she cooks, she cooks with care (“I make you a tuna sandwich, it’s made with love”); that she has sung Britney Spears covers and been impressed by Britney’s belly (and by Jewel’s rack); that, historically, she dates mostly drummers, though she would date Jon Bon Jovi “in a heartbeat” if she wasn’t so in love with Alexander; and that the rather prominent birthmark on her hand bothers her not at all.

Another mark of her birth, however, does still trouble her greatly. Her father happens to be sitar king Ravi Shankar. Her mother and Shankar were together only briefly, and for the first nine years of her life, Jones saw him only about nine times; then ten years went by with no contact. More recently, the two have been in touch, but she still doesn’t like talking about him. “I don’t like talking about him because he doesn’t have anything to do with me or my music,” she said. We let it go, though we did find ourselves wondering how she might deal with it if, for instance, some bastard didn’t give her a choice.

That night, Jones went to a nearby TV studio to play a song on the popular Dutch talk show Barend & Van Dorp. Backstage, seeming stressed out, she spoke at length to her tour manager about the demands being made on her. “I’ve given in to everything the record company has asked for, even the dumb-ass, really bad video,” Jones said. “Then people told me this was going to be a European tour, but I get here and it’s all mostly press. So then I’m a pain in the ass and say, ‘No, I’m not doing it, no way’; but ten minutes later, they’ve convinced me to fucking do it.”

She sighed, said, “I’ve been such a bummer lately” and sighed again.

“I don’t want to quit,” she went on, “but the thought has crossed my mind more than it should in the past two months. More than I ever thought it would. Guess I’ll just do whatever I have to do to make it fun again.”

That said, she bucked up and went onstage, where one of the hosts introduced her as Ravi Shankar’s daughter, even though he had been asked not to because it would upset Jones. And it did. Sitting at her piano, she looked wilted, and hurt.

Afterward, she was able to stifle her tears but not her feelings.

“That was totally not cool,” she said to her Dutch representative. “It’s just, like, fuck, if I had a good relationship with my dad, fine. But you know what? That’s my fucking one thing. My one thing! I almost got up and walked off. You saw my face. I don’t even want to be on a goddamn national TV show if that’s how it’s going to be; I just don’t. Maybe it’s childish, but it’s my life.”

Suddenly she spun around and faced us. “Don’t you have enough yet?” she shouted in our direction. “Haven’t we given you enough?”

We blanched, fearing more and worse, but Jones was only kidding. In fact, she was laughing, and soon we were laughing, too.

Here’s what we think: Angry one minute, full of humor the next – if that’s how she deals with the bastards, she’ll be OK out there; really, she will.

(June 17, 2002)

Erik Hedegaard



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