20 Years Later, Norah Jones Looks Back on Her Epic Grammys Sweep: ‘a Hangry Blur’
Despite tough competition from Bruce Springsteen’s 9/11-inspired album The Rising and Eminem’s blockbuster The Eminem Show, it was Norah Jones who dominated the 2003 Grammys. The then-23-year-old newcomer swept the night’s big four categories (Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist), thanks to her breakout single “Don’t Know Why” and her ubiquitous debut album, Come Away With Me, which earned eight awards total that night.
Looking back on it 20 years later, Jones admits, “It feels like another life.” And yet, that was only the beginning of her ongoing relationship with the Grammy Awards—this year, she nabbed her 19th nomination for I Dream of Christmas (Extended), up for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. She remembered to vote this year (something she’s occasionally “slacked on”); she’s planning on attending the ceremony (where she’ll have a family reunion with her half-sister Anoushka Shankar, a nominee for Best Global Music Performance); and she’s excited to return to the Grammys with much fewer expectations than in ’03—and hopefully with more food in her stomach this time around.
This Sunday’s ceremony will also give Jones, 43, the chance to catch up with some of her industry peers in person, though she’s been doing a stellar job of doing that over the past several months with her podcast Norah Jones Is Playing Along. Each episode finds her welcoming a different musical guest to talk and play songs together; so far, she’s had everyone from Mavis Staples to Logic to Jeff Tweedy on the show.
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The Daily Beast caught up with Jones over Zoom, to revisit her epic Grammys sweep and discuss her foray into the podcasting world.
There was a full year between when you released Come Away With Me and when the Grammys actually happened.
Yeah, it was a long, slow rise.
When did the idea of winning the Grammys start to enter your mind? Was it during the release of the album, or only after you were nominated?
I don’t think that was something that I ever thought about. When I was 20, winning a bunch of Grammys was the last thing I thought was gonna happen. As the year started going and going, it wasn’t really on my mind because we were so busy working. We were riding a wave. And I say “we” because my band at the time, we were all very close, and I felt like I was riding this wave with my friends. By the time the Grammy stuff happened, I don’t even think I was in the States. I don’t even remember where I was when I got the word that I was nominated. That's how quick everything was happening.
And then, when it came down to it, it was just the craziest night. I was starving the whole time. That’s all I remember, I was starving. And then by the end, I was embarrassed that I kept going up there, and I felt like people were annoyed with me. Those are the two things I remember the most, being starving and being embarrassed by the end.
Yeah, I guess they don’t feed you at the Grammys, do they?
No, I didn’t get fed! I mean in hindsight, of course I was so grateful and excited and it felt really good to have the album acknowledged and feel like people appreciated what I did. That’s the best feeling. To have Aretha Franklin in the first row, bopping along when we’re singing “Don’t Know Why,” I mean, I remember that so vividly. It was just a wild night.
I was looking up YouTube clips from that night, and it was Aretha and Bonnie Raitt who presented the Record of the Year award to you. That must have been a pinch-me moment.
Oh, yeah. I mean, idols. I was so happy to get the award and say thank you, but I really just wanted to hang out with them and talk to them. But yeah, not everybody gets to do that.
I know you said you don’t remember where you were when news of the nominations happened. But at some point, did you have people telling you that you were the frontrunner or favorite to win? Did you feel in any way prepared for the possibility that you might win all four of the major awards?
Not really. I don’t think my label or management and I talked about stuff in that way at that time. I think we were already so ahead of where we thought we’d be; the album was already becoming so much bigger than we imagined. I think that whole year, there wasn’t a lot of scheming or looking ahead. We were doing a radio tour, I remember, that December, where we’d be on a plane at six in the morning every day, doing a radio show by nine, a lot of early mornings. I was exhausted. So I remember just taking things one day at a time.
So does that mean you didn’t prepare any acceptance speeches?
I mean, I think I had a list in my head of everyone who played on the record, and I wanted to thank the label.
That’s good, because you hear horror stories from people who are like, “I forgot to thank my spouse!” because they’re so overwhelmed and trying to remember people.
I think I said “shit” on live television. I remember getting some emails from friends like, “You said shit! That was awesome!” I think that’s before the five-second delay started happening. But yeah, I just remember by the end feeling really redundant and not sure what I was going to say if I won a fifth award at that point, or a fourth award, or [however] many it was. I remember the last one feeling like, “Oh God, they’re so sick of hearing from me! What am I gonna say?”
It was funny looking back at the other big nominees that night: Eminem, Bruce Springsteen, The Chicks, Nelly… it really ran the gamut. That being said, you were definitely more the new kid on the block. How did that feel?
It felt weird. I definitely thought Bruce Springsteen was gonna win everything. I just felt like an imposter, and I think that’s a pretty normal feeling. I think a lot of artists feel that way, even successful ones. I definitely had a lot of that.
Do you remember anyone else who you met or talked with that night? Any of those nominees?
I don’t. I don’t remember at all. I only remember meeting Bonnie and Aretha on stage. I think Justin Timberlake gave me one of the awards. But I don’t really know what else. I think it’s just a blur. A hangry blur!
I hope you got food afterward, at least.
Oh, I ate so much. I remember going to the big EMI party, and all I wanted was a martini and food. And I got a martini, but I didn’t even find any food there. I think they had some sushi going around, but I didn’t really get enough. And so I remember at four in the morning, my boyfriend and I—he played in my band and wrote a bunch of songs on that album—we were staying at the W Hotel that week. And I’ll never forget, we went to this 24-hour French bistro that we like called L’Express, and I ate the best cheeseburger of my life at four in the morning. And we just were like, “What the hell just happened?!” We were decompressing and eating a cheeseburger, and just like, “Wow, that was crazy!” And I think we watched the sun come up back at the hotel after our burger feast.
That sounds like a great night, actually.
Yeah, that part was really fun. It was just the two of us, and nobody bothered me. Nobody noticed me. That was the weird thing—the internet was already big and there were a lot of message boards and stuff, but it was pre-intense social media. I remember taking a long walk either the next day or the day after in SoHo to see a friend at a studio, and nobody even gave me a second look. I mean, it’s New York City!
That must be really trippy, though. You just had the biggest night at “music’s biggest night,” and then the next day, it’s back to regular life.
Yeah. I was on the cover of the New York Post the next day, and they put in a picture of my crappy apartment, and I couldn’t go back there after that because then weird, random people knew where I lived, which was kind of crappy of them. But it was just a different time, where you could still be a little anonymous. I also have always been able to fly like that a little bit, which is great. But yeah, it was a trip for sure.
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You were so young at the time, and in the years since, we’ve watched an artist like Billie Eilish also have a huge, awards-sweeping night at the Grammys after her debut album. Do you see any of yourself in someone like her, who’s crowned the next big thing at such a young age?
I do feel a little bit of relation to those big nights for those artists, even if the music is very different from mine. And also, I get really excited to see someone like Billie Eilish. I can’t wait to see what she is going to do. She’s already done really great things musically, and I think she’s just gonna do more great things. It’s insane to think of somebody… wasn’t she 17 when she made that record? Imagine when she’s 25, imagine when she’s 35. If she can stay tapped into her creativity the way she has been, it’s just gonna be amazing to watch.
I even feel that way about someone like Miley Cyrus, or Taylor Swift, who came out when they were very young and have come to just grow as an artist. I think that’s really fascinating and fun to watch. I love seeing people come into themselves and change and do different things and go in different directions than you think they’re gonna go. And you just hope that the world doesn’t beat the creativity out of these people, because that does happen too. But I’m just excited to see where people go. I think it’s fun to watch people stay creative.
There’s also the “Best New Artist curse” that some people have talked about with the Grammys, where the artists who win that award have to live up to the expectations that follow. There can even be backlash sometimes, if people feel like the wrong person won. Did you experience anything like that after the Grammys? Either feeling like you needed to prove that you earned it, or feeling any pressure on your next record?
I think there’s a weird thing. You either let that get in your head or you don’t, and I think for me at that time, I really didn’t want it to get in my head. So I went in the studio in the woods, and we started working on the second album. And then I came to the realization that nothing I was gonna do would probably ever be as big as my first record. I just kind of knew it. I mean, the record was huge. It was a weird phenomena that happened. Do I think I deserved it? Do I think I’m talented? Sure! And I worked hard and all those things. But it still was the stars aligning, and something crazy happened there. And I can’t take credit, you know what I mean? I realized that and I thought, well, I’m gonna ride this wave, but I’m only gonna do it and enjoy myself and enjoy making music.
I also really didn’t want to make the same record again. I mean, I was 23. So I was already growing in exponential ways creatively, being turned on to different things that I didn’t know existed, getting really inspired by people who I hadn’t even listened to two years before. So I was just trying to capture what was inspiring me the most at the time, and I was really focused on songwriting, and I kind of was obsessed with Dolly Parton, and that’s why my second album has a little bit more of a country vibe to it. It’s just another step on the journey, and… I don’t know why I was able to see it that way, because I feel like that’s a lucky thing for me to not get hung up on the success matching. But it just felt like another step. And I knew that I had to take this step, I knew it was going to be a big deal. I knew that it wasn’t gonna be any easier the longer I waited. So I just tried to stay creative and just pull the Band-Aid off and do it.
That sounds like a really healthy and mature way to look at it, especially considering you were so young. And you were back at the Grammys the next year, so clearly something clicked.
Yeah, I agree, it was a very healthy way to look at it. And I have no idea where I got that because I haven’t always done healthy decision-making in my life. But that was a lucky thing.
Is there anything else you remember from that first Grammys that sticks out to you now?
It’s funny to think that my album was in the pop music category that year. I think that that was because it was just so popular—it was literal. But when you think of my music, I don’t know how you would categorize it. I don’t even know how I would categorize it. But I’ve been lucky to be nominated in the Americana category, and now it’s, like, Traditional Pop. I just think the categories are funny, and I don’t know who decides them, but I think it’s always fun to see where people pop up.
I want to ask you about your podcast, because I love how adventurous it is from a genre perspective. I would imagine that having those kinds of conversations and getting to play with artists from all different backgrounds must be invigorating for you as a musician.
It’s endlessly inspiring. After my second record, I got really into songwriting and I wanted to write more. Because on my first record, I only wrote two or two and a half songs on that record; most of the songs were by members of my band. And I really felt like I could write songs, but I wasn’t sure, and I was still a little timid about it. I got into a little bit of a writer’s block and I’ve figured out how to push forward over the years. But the last five years or so, I’ve been doing more collaborations, trying to put out singles with other people, and just try to keep myself busy like that in a fun way. And that, plus doing these podcasts, I’ve been more inspired in the last five years and written more than I ever have.
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You definitely feel that energy after an episode like the one with Logic. I would have never thought of you two together, but you sounded great together.
He’s so sweet. We had so much fun, and I felt a lot of mutual respect there. I think you can have that with someone who you don’t necessarily completely understand how they do what they do, and they don’t really understand how you do what you do. You can still meet somewhere in the middle, and I like that. If you’re open, which I feel like most people are.
Who’s on your wish list for a future podcast guest?
I mean, there’s a list of like 1,000 people. Dolly Parton would be incredible. Billie Eilish would be incredible. I want it to be versatile, and I just want to play with people. I feel like I’m versatile enough to where there’s not much I don’t feel like I could jump into with an open mind and musicality.
Maybe you’ll do some schmoozing at the Grammys this year and recruit some guests.
Oh, yeah, it’s like a haven for recruiting. That’s just what everybody wants, is me being like, “Hey, you wanna be on my podcast?!” Classy. Let’s get down to business!
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