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20 years ago, Norah Jones redefined pop stardom on ‘Come Away with Me’

Norah Jones - 'Come Away with Me'

Blue Note was one of the most legendary jazz labels of all time. With a distinctive art direction and a bevvy of the genre’s best talents putting out records on the label, Blue Note was the home to some of the most iconic names in jazz: Miles Davis, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, and Freddie Hubbard all released classic records there.

Despite being synonymous with one of America’s most famous art forms, Blue Note never really had a blockbuster album during its first 50 years. John Coltrane’s Blue Train was probably the closest thing to one, having eventually been certified gold by the RIAA. Instead, Blue Note made its bones by releasing a huge number of albums every year, complete with their iconic branding that would lure jazz purists. They had a sterling reputation, and they were always seen as a jazz snob’s favourite label.

So when Norah Jones released her debut album Come Away with Me in 2002 on Blue Note Records, the jazz faithful were stunned at the perceived betrayal. Sure, Jones used jazz musicians on the album and had quite a bit of jazz in her musical DNA, but Norah Jones is most assuredly not a jazz artist. She’s a pop star, more in tune with the likes of Sarah McLauchlin than Sonny Rollins. What had Blue Note done? Where were they going to take this mellow folk-pop singer?

Evidently, the answer was straight to the bank. Come Away with Me went platinum in America almost immediately, and the album hit number one on no less than 15 different countries’ album charts. It hit big immediately, and then it continued to consistently sell for nearly three years after its original release in the early months of 2002. By 2005, Come Away with Me had sold 10 million copies in America alone, and the last time it was certified by the RIAA in 2016, the album had sold 27 million copies worldwide, making it one of the highest-selling records of all time.

Here’s a quick list of artists whose debut albums sold more than Norah Jones’: Linkin Park, Meat Loaf, and Guns ‘N Roses. Here’s a quick list of artists whose debuts sold less than Norah Jones: Britney Spears, the Spice Girls, Whitney Houston, The Beatles, Lauryn Hill, and Mariah Carey, just to name a few. In February 2003, the 23-year-old Jones walked away from the 45th Grammys with six awards, including Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Best New Artist. Come Away with Me won two additional awards that night, putting the total number for Jones and her debut album at eight Grammys.

In spite of all of this insurmountable hype, these ludicrous sales figures, and this mind-boggling amount of critical acclaim, Come Away with Me is still an underrated album. That’s because, just like it had to be done in this article, the incredible success of the album often overshadows the album itself. It’s especially strange when you consider how Come Away with Me isn’t a game-changing, culture-shifting, monumental kind of album. It’s slow, quiet, insular, and incredibly charming without the weight of the entire world behind it.

‘Don’t Know Why’, the album’s leadoff track and first single, became Jones’ defining track – it remains her only Top 40 hit in America, but it peaked at a relatively modest number 30. Still, that song alone notched Jones three of her six personal Grammys, and she never ends a show without it. How you feel about Jones likely depends on how you feel about ‘Don’t Know Why’, but the rest of Come Away with Me is surprisingly diverse.

‘Seven Years’ dips into the folkier side of Jones’ style, while her cover of Hank Williams’ ‘Cold Cold Heart’ bridges the disparate worlds of country and jazz. Jones herself had diversity sewn into her soul: her father was legendary sitar player Ravi Shankar, but Jones rarely saw her father as a child. Instead, her mother raised her on a steady diet of “oldies”: country, soul, R&B, and, yes, jazz. Billie Holiday was an early hero, even though Jones found a more refined and malleable tenor in her own voice.

‘Feelin’ the Same Way’ has more in common with the then-modern pop sensibilities – a direct line between the gentle acoustic guitars and insistent rhythms of ‘Feelin’ the Same Way’ can be drawn to the later sunshine pop of Natasha Bedingfield and Colbie Caillat.

But it’s on the album’s title track where Jones truly begins to use her stripped-down quiet storm to maximum effect. Equipped with a near whisper and sparse accompaniment, Jones sounds intimate and inviting to an audience who couldn’t help but want to hear more. There were a whole lot of people who had never even heard of Blue Note Records that bought Come Away with Me, and it wasn’t because Jones messes around with jazzy inversions. It’s because her directness and gentle coos were intoxicating to millions of listeners.

The album’s back half is devoid of hits but remains even more endearing than the over-exposed front half. ‘Shoot the Moon’, ‘Lonestar’, and ‘Painter Song’ continue to blur the lines between folk and jazz, while ‘Turn Me On’ shows off a prominent gospel influence. Although she largely relies on songwriters like Jesse Harris and Lee Alexander, Jones gets her on credits on songs like ‘Nightingale’ and ‘The Long Day is Over’.

Almost as if she was expecting a backlash from purists, Jones finishes the album with the Hoagy Carmichael classic ‘The Nearness of You’ that any jazz band worth its salt would have in their repertoire. The seemingly endless debates over whether Jones was “actually” a jazz singer didn’t even seem to cross Jones’ mind, as she transcends the label by the end of her 14-song subtle strike on popular music.

Come Away with Me was unlike any kind of pop that had come before it, and Jones was the antithesis of a modern pop star in the early 2000s. That has served the album well when it gets revisited two decades later – instead of playing into the times, Come Away with Me sounds timeless, even if it can also occasionally sound toothless. But the ultimate victory was for Jones, who invented a new kind of pop star practically overnight. Figures like Amy Winehouse and Adele would bring jazz into a greater light a few years later, but few albums remain as calming and pleasing as Come Away with Me is 20 years later.