Norah Jones on Being Labeled 'Starbucks Music' and Why She's Happy to Have a 'Modest' Career

Norah Jones
Norah Jones. The singer-songwriter tells Newsweek she probably wouldn't be where she is today if she had to rely on streaming music rather than CD sales. Danny Clinch

A lot has changed in the recording industry since Norah Jones, now 37, first broke through to the charts and sold 26 million copies of her 2002 debut album Come Away with Me. Back then people still bought CDs, and Apple's iTunes music store—a precursor to streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music—was still a year away from launching to the public.

By her own admission, Jones tells Newsweek, she isn't sure if she would have made it today. "It's a whole different industry," she says. While her soothing brand of jazz typically plays to the record-buying, adult-contemporary crowd, today the charts and radio are invariably dominated by what's popular among the social-media generation, and is thus streamed in droves. There are a few exceptions—Adele being one of them–who can still command huge album sales. But for the most part, those days are gone—and so with it have huge profits for artists. When Jones speaks to Newsweek in early July, U2 and Taylor Swift are making headlines by challenging YouTube for better compensation for it being allowed to stream videos containing their music. "I was lucky enough to sell CDs back when people bought them. Now it's hard for people to make a living," says Jones.

Although it's a long time since she sold 26 million copies of Come Away with Me or won six Grammy Awards in a single night in 2003, Jones is grateful that she still has a recording career. Not only that, but she has found a perfect harmony between being a world-renowned music artist and living in relative anonymity with her husband and their two young children. (The fiercely private singer has never revealed the name of her husband, nor their children.)

As the nine-times Grammy winner prepares for the release of her sixth studio album, Day Breaks, released on October 7, she tells Newsweek why she's getting political on her new record, why she's happy to have more modest fame, and what it really feels like to be dubbed the queen of "Starbucks music."

Newsweek: Your new single, "Flipside," lifted from Day Breaks, has a political message. What is it about?

Norah Jones: All of this gun violence [was the inspiration] and also unarmed men getting shot by the police. It's such a bad situation. Each situation that happens makes you realize there's an issue. It's overwhelming, all of the bad news you see.

Is it quite a scary or fearful time in the U.S.?

I said to my friend last week: 'The whole world is falling apart.' It's not just in the U.S.—there's things going on everywhere. But, especially our country, we seem very not at peace right now. He said: 'The whole world has always been falling apart—you just haven't been paying attention.' He was kind of right.

But there's still stuff right now that needs to be addressed. Social media is bringing to light things that have always happened. It gets people engaged, which is a good thing, but it also makes it hard to sleep at night. It's everywhere. I'm not even on social media but I know about stuff more, and that is how stuff gets circulated now. It intensifies it… it's a good thing and a bad thing.

Is it cathartic to be able to put it into a song?

Whenever I see stuff like that, that's how I react… by writing about it. It doesn't fix anything, it doesn't help anything, but it gives a voice to the feeling.

Is part of the inspiration also the crazy presidential election race the U.S. is experiencing?

It's a bit tied up in everything, "Flipside." When I started writing it, it started after seeing one thing… I didn't finish it immediately and I kept writing and thinking about everything.

Politics has gone crazy. My household is very politically aware—my husband's obsessed with it, and I know everything that's going on to the point where it drives you crazy. It's a very flawed political system, we've come to realize. It is terrifying.

It's been 14 years since Come Away with Me. What is it like looking back on that period of whirlwind success—the album, the Grammys, [the hit song] "Don't Know Why"—now?

I was stressed out at that time. It was fun, but I wish I had more time to enjoy it. That's what happens, I guess, when you're doing stuff–you blink and it's over, and you're like, 'What happened?' It was an intense time.

Do you feel less stressed out now?

I wouldn't be doing this any more if I felt stressed out by it. I had to learn my limits and learn to say no to certain things and keep it fun for myself. If you get to do what you love for a living, that's very lucky.

When the music business is so new to you and you experience that kind of success right off the bat, did you have a feeling of 'Is it going to be like this all the time?'

I didn't know what it was going to be like–I didn't think that far ahead. Since then I've settled into a really rewarding career. I feel very lucky. I don't think I'd want to be on top of things like that again. It was intense—but it was awesome, and it afforded me all this freedom [in my career]. I like to be under the radar.

So the pressure's off now with album six?

I feel rewarded. I feel the love… there's still fans, and I appreciate playing and seeing them come out to shows. I feel satisfied. It's not like I feel like it happened and it's over. It happened, it was intense [at the beginning], and now I get to enjoy a more modest career, and it's pretty awesome.

It must be nice to be able to make and release music and then disappear and live your normal life?

I know, I feel very lucky…

Do you get recognized in the street a lot now?

No, and I don't want to! [Laughs] It's perfect. I love being where I am [in my life].

What about your record label? Is there a commercial pressure to try and match the success of your first record?

No. After all that happened I was like, I could let this drive me crazy and try to match it, or I can realize it's not about what I do next. It was a moment in time. Something like that, all that crazy success, it's about a lot of different factors… you can't recreate it. I mean, you can, and if you can great—but, for me, I wasn't trying to.

I just want to enjoy making music. If you try to match some crazy bar, that's very stressful. It's competitive and you should probably be doing something else.

What advice would you give someone in the position you were in then and Adele is in now?

If I could go back to myself at that age, I'd say: 'Relax. Enjoy it and take the freedom and run with it.'

I'm really glad I didn't try to make my other records the same [as Come Away with Me ]. I'm glad I tried different things. ( Editor's note: After her first piano-led record, Jones experimented with more guitar-led sounds.) I grew a lot from it and I was satisfied by my work. A lot of people who liked my first album don't like my last album, or the one before that, or nothing since my first album. But then people who liked my last album never liked my first album. That excites me… that means I've tried different things.

Do you keep up with what's going on in the music industry? A lot of artists have been vocal about streaming revenues, for example…

It's messed up. It's good that people who have big names stand up to it because it might help change things. But I don't know if we can go back [to a more lucrative music industry]... the money's out of the bottle. [Laughs] Hopefully it gets better. It's hard. It's a whole different industry. I'm still figuring out how to navigate it. Luckily, my label, that's their job.

If you had to rely on streaming instead of physical sales, do you think you would have made it in the business?

Probably not. Who knows? But who is buying Adele's CDs? She sells actual CDs! [Laughs] Somebody's still buying them. I don't know if I would have made it in this day and age… or this far [in my career]. I would have done music no matter what, but maybe I would have found a cool day job and done it as a hobby.

Some people have called your music 'Starbucks music.' Is that hurtful?

It is a soft spot, for sure. But I also hear Billie Holliday in Starbucks sometimes. Choose your battles. I feel pretty respected overall. Labels are labels.

Norah Jones releases Day Breaks on October 7. The single "Flipside" is available now.

Norah Jones on Being Labeled 'Starbucks Music' and Why She's Happy to Have a 'Modest' Career | Culture