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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Norah Jones could fairly be called an accidental superstar, as "Rolling Stone" magazine once dubbed her. She started out as a teenager just wanting to make music, then she made an album - and it went multi-platinum, winning eight Grammys. That was five years ago, when Norah Jones was just 22. Her next CD made its debut at number one on the Billboard charts.

Now the young singer/songwriter and pianist is out with album number three. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg met Norah Jones in Manhattan as she prepared for a private concert for family and friends.

Ms. NORAH JONES (Musician): That's too fast now. Did you speed it up?

Unidentified Man: I did.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Her regular drummer broke his wrists snowboarding, so Norah Jones put a substitute through his paces on stage at Webster Hall, an ancient funky theatre in the East Village.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JONES: (Singing) Well, here I am looking for time to lead me…

STAMBERG: In a soft red sweater and faded jeans, Norah Jones is very small and very beautiful - big dark eyes, long dark hair - and seems very grounded, direct and open. Twenty-seven now, she talks often about her mother, Sue Jones, clearly a guiding force.

Ms. JONES: In fact, I mean when I moved to New York and I got approached by Blue Notes, she used to go, oh God, you're not ready for a record deal. Come on. I'm like, but mom. I mean she wasn't being negative and she wasn't really trying to sabotage anything. She was probably right. I wasn't ready for any of that. I was 21 when I signed a record deal. But I'm still glad I didn't listen to her.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JONES: (Singing) She says loving (unintelligible). He was my man but they didn't care.

STAMBERG: Norah Jones' new Blue Note album is a blend of ballads, jazz and almost country. She started writing this one when a friend got married.

Ms. JONES: I was thinking about love, and then I started thinking about this guy I went on a date with when I first moved to New York. And he was in the military, and I can't remember much about him except that he was really sweet and that we never went on another date and I never spoke to him again. And I started thinking about, gosh, I wonder if he's OK. And that song just kind of came out from that, actually.

STAMBERG: And do you remember his name?

Ms. JONES: Pete. I never knew his last name.

STAMBERG: Imagine if he hears this some day. He'd have no idea that he was the one behind it.

Ms. JONES: I don't think so. He was a nice person.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: The main man in her life for years has been Lee Alexander, her bass player, sweetheart and collaborator.

I get this feeling he finishes your sentences for you sometimes. Not that you need to finish, but he'll come in at a certain point with a song.

Ms. JONES: With the songs, yeah. He's a great writer. We have very different styles. I'm very, oh, this is from my heart and it's there and that's it. And he's like, yeah, but that line needs some work, buddy. And I'll say, but it's honest. And he'll, yeah, but it stinks, you know? We're a good balance.

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Know Why")

Ms. JONES: (Singing) I waited 'til I saw the sun, I don't know why I didn't call…

STAMBERG: This is the song that launched Norah Jones. Her soft, gentle voice and intimate piano playing absolutely massaged the melody. Written by Jesse Harris, it's a song you always thought you knew. And "Don't Know Why" got onto her first album almost as a fluke.

Ms. JONES: The first record was all just sort of a let's throw stuff at a wall and see what sticks, to be honest. Which is I think why it was well received because it was kind of innocent in that way. But didn't really want to do that song necessarily for the record. It was the first take and it was the first song we recorded; and it just felt really good, so we kept it. And it ended up being the single and being a big song.

STAMBERG: With this accidental hit and a second hit album, Norah Jones, the accidental superstar, got all sorts of musical opportunities, including the chance to sing a duet with one of her heroes, Ray Charles.

(Soundbite of song "Here We Go Again")

Mr. RAY CHARLES (Musician): (Singing) Here we go again…

Ms. JONES: I started crying when I met him. Started bawling my eyes out. And I felt like such a dork.

(Soundbite of song "Here We Go Again")

Ms. JONES and Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) She'll break my heart again…

Ms. JONES: I got to stand a foot and a half away from Ray Charles and watch him sing and play. And I remember just looking over, thinking - what the, who am I? What's going on here?

(Soundbite of song "Here We Go Again")

Ms. JONES and Mr. CHARLES: (Singing) One more time.

STAMBERG: Two years ago, after the hits and all the international touring, Norah Jones decided to take a break - staying home for a while, hang out with friends, not be a superstar.

Ms. JONES: I've been able to be off and not have to think about my career and everything. And I've been able to be a normal musician and play in a bunch of different bands and get inspired again, and that's what's important. I finally realized that I needed to keep that going if I was going to be able to live this life also, and do shows and put out records and deal with the record companies and that kind of stuff. I need to still have my moments where I love music.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JONES: (Singing) It's not too late for love…

STAMBERG: Finally, Norah Jones grew ready for a new album. For the first time she wrote or co-wrote all the songs on it, and recorded it not in some fancy professional place but in her home studio whenever she and Lee Alexander and her band felt like making music.

Ms. JONES: We had to try out stuff that you don't really get to try out in the studio. Even if you have unlimited budget and money, something about, you know, just fooling around when you're paying that much, it just doesn't fit well. But at home you can fool around all you want. So I could wear my bathrobe if I wanted to go in and play a song.

We would be working on a bass part and maybe he needed some time to spend. I would go make us some dinner. You know, so it was very relaxed.

STAMBERG: The result is called "Not Too Late," a collection of musical accidents and sometimes mellow intentionals from Norah Jones and her band, which includes the boyfriend and a gal she met at band camp when she was 15, all making personal music together.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JONES: (Singing) Well, an oyster cracker on the stew and honey in the tea…

MONTAGNE: You can hear songs from Norah Jones' new album, "Not Too Late", at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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