Barely three years ago, Norah Jones, a piano-playing beauty with haunting eyes and a voice to match, became an unlikely superstar. Although the camera loved her, Jones should not have blown up the charts with her debut, 2002's Come Away With Me, a collection of quiet, jazzy pop tunes shaded with a little country and the blues. It was much too reserved to be a monster pop album. (No hip-hop beats? No Jay-Z cameo?)
Plus, she seemed too shy and a little mysterious. Just 21 at the time, Jones was never heavily made up in photos; there were no MTV-ready videos with suggestive dance routines.
But her record took off anyway, fueled largely by word of mouth and key TV appearances. Before she could catch her breath at the end of 2002, Jones, who plays Merriweather Post Pavilion tomorrow night, had sold 18 million copies of Come Away With Me worldwide. And she took home five Grammys in one night. (The debut won eight in all.)
Her sophomore album Feels Like Home, essentially an extension of its predecessor, came out in April and quickly moved nearly 5 million copies.
Sudden fame unnerved her before, but Jones, now 25, has adjusted.
"I'm starting to enjoy it finally," says the singer-musician, who's calling from her New York home. "In the beginning, it was freaky. I'm just a musician, you know, and all of a sudden I'm supposed to be this star."
Everywhere she turned, it seemed, her face was in some magazine. Writers and critics went on and on about her rootsy, slightly folkish approach to jazz-pop balladry -- a style Cassandra Wilson had mastered nearly a decade before Jones appeared. For the most part, the press gave the impression that the Texas-raised vocalist was somewhat withdrawn -- too serious, a little awkward.
"I stopped reading stuff about me early on, 'cause it would screw with my head," says Jones, who sounds bubbly on the phone, a little girlish. "People think I'm really melancholy and romantic and all whispery," she says with a giggle. "I'm not at all. I'm very direct. I think I get that from my mother."
Jones was born in New York, but she and her mother, Sue, moved to Dallas when the singer was 4. (Indian performer Ravi Shankar is her father, but Jones refuses to discuss the guy; he was absent most of her life.) Sue fostered the artist's love for music early on, surrounding her with the sounds of Billie Holiday, Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin and others.
Jones studied piano at Dallas' Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, whose graduates include Erykah Badu and Roy Hargrove. While in high school, she played gigs in coffeehouses around the city. After graduation, she entered the University of North Texas and studied jazz piano for two years before dropping out and moving to Manhattan in 1999.
Jones wanted to pursue a career on New York's ever-vibrant music scene. "I was a little depressed at first," she says. "In New York, you feel lonely surrounded by millions of people. In Texas, after I played two gigs, I had money to spare after the rent was paid. It wasn't like that in New York."
By 2000, she had assembled a group with songwriter-guitarist Jesse Harris and bassist Lee Alexander, who's also her boyfriend. The next year, Jones was signed to Blue Note Records.
After early recording sessions were rejected by the label, the legendary Arif Mardin, who's produced classics for Aretha Franklin, the Bee Gees, Chaka Khan and others, was brought in. His seamless work on Come Away With Me garnered Mardin the producer of the year Grammy in 2002. He also helmed Feels Like Home, whose overall sound sparkles with more pronounced country overtones.
Just as she was during the recording of her debut, Jones was very involved with her latest album.
"I'm a control freak," she says. "If I'm putting my name on it, come on. Some people lay back and let the producer do everything. But I'm always there. We record everything live, and I'm there for everything -- even the mixing. It's a band effort, really. But it's not like I'm at home while the tracks are being recorded. I'm there."
Feels Like Home is "just a reflection of me and the band. The recording is just a slice in time. That's all," Jones says. "I'm anxious to move on. I'm only 25. I want to have fun and play good music. As long as I'm doing the best I can do, that's all that really matters."
Norah Jones and the Handsome Band play Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, tomorrow night at 8. Tickets are $40-$58 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting www.ticketmaster.com.
Hear Rashod Ollison on the radio, Tuesdays at 1 p.m. on Live 105.7 and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on WTMD-FM 89.7.