Come away with Norah Jones, the daughter of Ravi Shankar, as she performs for the first time in the country this month She reunited with her father, the sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, only at the age of 18. Still, Norah Jones stood alongside her half-sister Anoushka Shankar on February 9 as they accepted the Lifetime Achievement Grammy award conferred posthumously on their father, who passed away in December.
The move indicates just how far she’s come in her her musical and personal life. She was born Geethali Norah Jones Shankar in New York City on March 30, 1979, as a result of Ravi Shankar’s nine-year relationship with New York concert producer Sue Jones. She grew up in Texas, growing close to her mum but seeing her father only a few times a year till she was nine.
Always interested in music, Norah played her first gig at 16, in a Dallas coffee shop where she performed I’ll Be Seeing You. By 2001, she was signed on by Blue Note Records, but nowhere near as famous as Ravi Shankar. "At the time I was scraping a living by playing gigs for change in New York’s Greenwich Village," she said in an interview to The Daily Mail, London.
Then, Norah released her debut album Come Away With Me, in 2002. To say that the album did well is an understatement. Norah was nominated for eight Grammy awards, winning five. But she did not enjoy the time at all. "If there’s one period of my life I wouldn’t wish to return to, it’s that time," said the determinedly low-key singer in the same interview. "Being pulled in so many different directions was unbearably stressful."
Norah continued to produce albums: Feels Like Home (2004) earned her three Grammy nominations, and one win. She also made her acting debut with Wong Kar Wai’s 2007 film My Blueberry Nights.
Her album Not Too Late (2007) was produced by Lee Alexander, her boyfriend at the time. Their breakup resulted in The Fall (2009), for which some of the songs were written in Delhi, while Norah was visiting her father and the family.
Norah and Anoushka collaborated with Indian musician Karsh Kale on a song titled Easy in 2007. The sisters’ relationship now is on an even keel, Norah has said that Anoushka once even tried to teach her the sitar. Now out with Little Broken Hearts, Norah is also finally at ease discussing her famous father and said to the Grammy audience: "We really miss him. He lived and breathed music."
I’ve always felt that the music we grow up with plays a huge role on the music we make as adults.
What music made the biggest impression on you as a child?
Probably the music of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson… stuff like that. I didn’t get into jazz until high school and then that played a huge role in the music that has influenced me. And then in college, I got into Bob Dylan and Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and all that stuff, so definitely all that kind of music.
With your music, it never feels like you’re just making stuff up. How much of your own life is in your sound and your lyrics?
It’s always hit and miss. It’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that. I think an honest lyric is the best lyric but it doesn’t have to be completely autobiographical, to be honest. It just has to be heartfelt. Definitely, a lot of my songs are autobiographical, and a lot of them have poetic licence. That’s the best part about songwriting – you’re not writing an autobiography, you’re trying to make the most interesting song or story, so there are a lot of bends in there that aren’t necessarily true to life; and I think that’s what makes more interesting songs.
It’s definitely evolved over the years. I grew up with less knowledge of it and over the years, going to visit, getting to know my family, I have more knowledge of it now. I think it’s very sweet that people feel a sense of pride because of my nationality. And I’m excited to come to India and sort of feel that kinship with the audience. I hope that we have a good time, you know. It’s very interesting to me and it’s also just an interesting thing about me personally – my background and my history, and my family history and all that – it’s a bit of an interesting family story, so for me it’s going to be fun to be in India.
What was it like finally working with Anoushka? Was the fact that you were sisters help bridge the gap between your disparate music styles? You’re working with Anoushka on her next album too...
It was really fun. We actually did it again this month and it was much more intense – it was more involved this time, so it was really nice. Yeah, I think being sisters, that’s the whole reason we’re working together even though we admire each other’s music – sort of wanting to work together is partly because we’re family. It was really fun, and I think it brings us closer – I understand where she’s coming from and she understands where I’m coming from, even though we play very different styles, and so it’s nice.
Working with you and Anoushka, I remember being most impressed with how well you knew your way around the recording process. What is your history with studios as a recording artist?
I think I just picked things up on the way. I mean, I learned from everyone I’ve worked with. I know in the studio, I get really tired easily, so for me, I know myself, it’s best to work fast and just get it done, and then you can enjoy lunch and hanging out in the studio. That’s my preference always – to not mess around too much. But I’ve learned from everyone I’ve worked with, from all the great engineers to the other artists I’ve collaborated with. I know what I like, and I know what I don’t like sonically as well – sometimes it’s hard to put that into words, but you learn the terminology over the years.
How do you feel about your first tour in India?
I’m excited to come. It’s also bittersweet because my dad just passed away. I’ve never played in India, so that’s one reason to do it, and also my dad has always wanted me to play there. It’s always just been a matter of timing, and adding on to tours. It’s just never worked out in the past. I’m usually so tired by the end of the tour that I never want to add the faraway places because I’d be tired. This time I planned it a while ago and my dad was really asking me to do it, and I thought it would be nice for him and nice for me. So it’s very sad that he’s gone now, but I know he was very excited that I was going to be playing in India, so that’s a nice thing.
Norah Jones will kick off her three-city tour with a headlining performance at A Summer’s Day in Mumbai on March 3 at the Turf Club, Mahalaxmi; in New Delhi on March 5 and 6 at the Siri Fort Auditorium; and Bangalore on March 8 at Nice Grounds.
How she unwinds
In all kinds of ways. I love to cook, I love to hang out, I love to go on walks, I love to listen to music. I have this violin that a fan gave me a long time ago from Korea – a beautiful instrument that they made, and I've been learning how to play country fiddle on it, and that’s been kind of a fun random thing.
1996: Norah Jones wins the Down Beat Student Music Awards for best jazz vocalist. Next year, she earns the second best jazz
vocalist award. She starts writing songs and appears regularly with the trip-hop electronica band, Wax Poetic.
2000: She assembles her own group with Jesse Harris, Lee Alexander and Dan Rieser. The group goes on to record a handful of demos for Blue Note Records and on the strength of these recordings, Norah is signed by a jazz label the next year.
2002: Norah Jones debuts with Come Away With Me, which goes multi-platinum, selling 18 million copies and winning Jones five Grammy trophies.
2004: Jones releases her follow-up album, the very country Feels Like Home. The album sells more than one million copies in its first week in the US.
2006: Jones launches her next album, Not Too Late, which debuts at No 1 on the Billboard 200.
2009: Her next studio album, The Fall, is her second lowest first week for a Jones album after Come Away with Me.
2010: Jones does vocals for Danger Mouse’s (aka Brian Burton) project, Rome.
2012: Burton then returns the favour by producing and co-writing the songs on Jones’ fifth studio album, Little Broken Hearts. The album does not do well commercially, but is appreciated by music critics.
Karsh Kale interviews Norah Jones
Karsh Kale, the Indian-American musician, producer and composer, is the first person to work with both Anoushka Shankar and Norah Jones when they collaborated on his 2007 album Breathing Under Water. Kale, who has worked across such disparate genres as electronic fusion, Indian classical, rock, hip hop and Indian folk, gets the singer to open up, musician-to-musician
Norah and me, off the record
A couple of hours and some coffee... that’s all Anoushka, Norah and I needed to compose Easy, says Karsh Kale
I remember talking about collaborating with Norah with her sister Anoushka as we made plans for our Breathing Under Water album. This collaboration had been in the works for a long time, but nothing had happened yet because they operate in such different musical spheres. This album however was already throwing me in different situations, working with artists such as Shankar Mahadevan, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Sunidhi Chauhan, Salim Merchant, Sting, Ravi Shankar and a host of great artists from around the world, so this proved to be the perfect opportunity. Anoushka and I had worked on an instrumental piece that we had titled Mercedez (a working title) that we had put aside for a moment. This was going to be the piece of music that we would bring to Norah. At the time, there seemed to be a lot of press focusing on the family story and trying to stir up some drama, so there were many reasons why this collaboration needed to work.
I already knew from my experience with the family that all was good in the world of the Shankars, but the press didn’t want to hear that. I was initially a bit apprehensive about this collaboration as Norah came off to me like a bit of a snob, refusing to allow our cameras to be in the studio (we were filming the making of the album) etc. I thought she might prove to be difficult to work with, you know, a new diva on the scene making demands.
However my experience was quite the opposite. We went to Norah’s home then in the East Village of Manhattan to see what we could do. A couple of hours and a few cups of coffee later, we already had a song. Anoushka had penned some lyrics a few nights before and we had a structure and a musical space to start from, so he piece just flowed out. A couple of hours later we had a piece titled Easy.
The next day, we went to Right Track Studio in Manhattan to lay down the track. I have always been cautious of artists who have gotten too much too soon, and an artist who upon releasing her first album received 8 Grammys made me a bit wary of the experience, but working with Norah proved to be something else. Not only did she have an amazing command of her craft as a singer, but she seemed to know exactly what and how she wanted to accomplish this in the studio.
I remember being very impressed with how well she was able to make it happen, record harmonies, piano and all with such ease and grace. I have worked with countless singers in my day but the experience with Norah seemed to set a benchmark for future collaborations. She deserves all the accolades as she continues to push the boundaries of her own artistry.
I was initially a bit apprehensive about this collaboration as Norah came off to me like a bit of a snob, refusing our cameras to be in the studio etc.
I already knew from my experience with the family that all was good in the world of the Shankars, but the press didn’t want to hear that
From HT Brunch, February 24
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