HIGH SCHOOL WAS DEFINITELY WHEN I realized that I could do this forever. In the tenth grade, I transferred from Grapevine High School to the arts magnet school in Dallas, Booker T. Washington. It’s probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever gotten to do. I was surrounded by people my own age who were doing all these crazy, creative things. There were dancers dancing down the hallway and singers singing everywhere. It was just a totally different atmosphere than I was used to.
My second year there, one of my friends said I should audition for a singing part in this show that the school was putting on for Black History Month. He knew I sang a little bit; really, I was a piano player. But he told me I should come audition, and I did. For some reason I got the part. I played Billie Holiday, and I had to sing “Strange Fruit.” It’s a really heavy song. It’s about lynchings in the South. At first I felt silly singing it, because I’m white, you know? But everyone encouraged me. The director gave me great instruction. I don’t know if I did it perfectly, but I did the best I could. I appreciated the song for what it was: an amazing piece of poetry. It was a beautiful experience learning about Billie Holiday.
I started getting gigs while I was still in high school. It was cool making a hundred bucks every once in a while. My first gig was at a coffeehouse on Greenville Avenue, down the street from the Whole Foods. Then I studied jazz piano at [the University of] North Texas, and I started playing weddings and restaurant gigs and private parties—stuff for money. I had a regular gig at an Italian restaurant in Dallas called Popolos, at Preston and Royal. I played there for two years, two nights a week. That’s how I made my rent. Usually people didn’t listen to the music because they were too busy eating their dinner. But some nights they would listen. And I’d think, “What can I play next to keep them clapping?”
I went to New York City the summer after my second year in college, and I ended up staying because I loved it so much. It’s funny, but I got into country music when I moved to New York. I was homesick, so I listened to Townes Van Zandt. Things started happening here pretty fast. I got a record deal. I had no idea how crazy it would get. But it’s still easy to walk around New York unrecognized. I’m kind of nerdy and not fashionable, so people don’t give me a second look.
Right before my first record came out, just over two years ago, I met Willie Nelson. My band and I were opening for him in San Francisco, at the Fillmore. No one had heard the record yet, so it was the first really huge thing that happened. We performed with him for four nights. I didn’t get to talk to him much, but the last night, I went out and sang “Help Me Make It Through the Night” with him. I was so nervous I was shaking. I couldn’t even enjoy the show until I was done, I was so freaked out. But I did it. It felt so amazing to be onstage with him. I learned a lot from watching him. Every night, he’ll sign autographs until the cows come home. He’ll sign until the last person is gone.
That was the first big thing. And then the record came out, and weird things started happening all the time. The record got bigger and bigger, and it started reaching more and more people. I thought we’d go back into the studio in a month and the hype would be over, but it just kept going. By the time the Grammy nominations came around, it was insane. The night of the Grammys, I was really excited at first. But the later it got and the more awards we won, the more I freaked out. I thought, “Oh, no—people are going to hate me. It’s not my fault!” I was scared, because who could say I deserved all that? It was like a dream where you’re naked. I felt like I was in high school and all the popular kids were in the audience and were, like, “What’s she doing up there?” I felt like I had gone to a birthday party and eaten all the cake before anyone else got a piece.
I was so overwhelmed that I became almost anesthetized to it. I mean, that was a huge moment for me, but it all seemed so ridiculous. It was a total circus; it was too much. At a certain point it starts to take you away from the music. And the music is the whole point.
The new record came out in February, and it sold more than a million copies the first week. It’s funny, but I don’t want to know about sales. I don’t want to read any of the reviews; I don’t want to see any of the articles. I just want to do what I do and have it be as unfussed-with as possible. When it was selling like crazy, I told my management, “I know this is what you guys get excited about, but it’s not that big of a deal. So don’t get all weird.”
Norah Jones, 24, lives in New York City. Her first album, Come Away With Me, won eight Grammy awards. Her second, Feels Like Home, debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart in February.