Norah Jones was a reluctant sage at a closed question-and-answer session with University of North Texas jazz studies majors Wednesday afternoon.
The Grammy-winning artist is a UNT alumna (she learned that term and others from moderator John Richmond, the brand new dean of the College of Music) who's in town for Oaktopia music festival. The College of Music invited her to spend about an hour with jazz students and to award her the UNT Presidential Medal of Honor.
Students and faculty packed the recital hall for the session, and only standing room was available along the staircase well before the artist took her chair to enthusiastic applause.
"I should have dressed nicer for this," Jones said as UNT President Neal Smatresk led her to a table where a framed certificate and a medal hanging from "official UNT tartan green" waited.
Richmond started the session with questions before yielding the floor to students, who quizzed Jones about everything from staying healthy on the road to artistic integrity. Richmond and several students asked the artist about her success, which came in 2002 when her debut album Come Away With Me on Blue Note Records earned six Grammy Awards and the first single "Don't Know Why" scored heavy airplay on Top 40 and easy listening radio stations.
"I think success is an interesting term, you know?" Jones said.
"How to be successful in music is hard to answer," Norah Jones said. "It's a lot of hard work and a lot of luck."
"There's a lot of being in the right place at the right time, and you can't plan for that."
Jones seemed to be born with a preternatural gift for music. The daughter of concert producer Sue Jones and sitar master Ravi Shankar, Jones arrived on the UNT campus in 1997 after attending Dallas' competitive and prestigious Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. She recalled her short time at UNT -- she left for New York in 1999 -- as fun and fruitful. Jones' voice teacher at UNT, Rosana Eckert, said the star arrived on campus "with a beautiful musicality" already at her prodigious service.
The fable of Jones' path to stardom is said to start in Denton, in her 1971 Cadillac. The car was huge, and Jones got the assignment to drive jazz bassist Marc Johnson and his band (Jesse Harris, Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen) from the Radisson Hotel (where Apogee Stadium stands now) and bring them to campus for the clinic they were teaching.
Shortly after that, Jones was in New York, and several of Johnson's band members appeared on the winning Come Away With Me.
Jones said her first record climbed the charts while her manager started to shepherd her through a worldwide career.
"He got me a lot of international press, a lot of interviews, and I remember I was tired and was like, 'Why are we doing this?' My manager said, 'You have to build a fan base internationally,' and he was right," Jones said.
She told students that navigating the music business as it changes has been a riddle, but that her early success positioned her to negotiate a livelihood with longevity. Emerging artists have to do a lot more before they make money on their art, she said.
"It's a tough world out there now," she said. "If you're good at self-promotion, you might do better now that social media is such a big part of marketing your music. A lot of artists aren't good at that. You guys probably know a lot more than I do about this, too. I got some success when people were still buying CDs. And in a situation like that, your manager is able to do some of the work for you. I'd say that if you aren't good at promotion and social media, get a family member or a friend to do it for you. You guys probably more than I do."
Jones said she knows artists who have been able to make more on each unit they sell by leaving labels and working as indie artists.
"You make more on each album, but you have to sell more albums, too," she said. "It depends on your deals and who you are as an artist. I got the leverage that I can still get good deals on the record sales. But who's selling records? There's that, too. I had some things happen early on, and if I hadn't had some success, I [wouldn't have been] able to go back and fix deals. It's hard to make money on music."
Jones earned big laughs when Richmond announced her sixth solo album, Day Breaks, comes out on Oct. 7 on Blue Note.
"Just go stream it," she said, rolling her eyes and grinning. "Whatever!"
As for authenticity, integrity and compromise, Jones told students that to be honest in their music, they have to figure out what kind of career they want.
"You have to know what success means to you. If success means getting your music on pop music radio stations, then you do certain things, musically. You have to know where you want to go," she said.
One student asked Jones if the idea of packing up and heading to New York to make jazz music is still a viable way to live the dream.
"It's definitely different now than it was when I was here," Jones said. "Now, you move to New York City and it's so outrageously expensive. You won't even be able to get an apartment, and what you pay for a huge mansion in Texas will get you a tiny shoebox in New York. You can do it, but New York isn't the only option. You can live in a cool small town and gig every night.
"You can love your life in a small town. Look at Denton. I kind of wish I could live here, but it's too hot."
Jones answered lots of questions: The best songs feel good when you sing them, feel all the emotion, and don't overthink it. Some of her favorite musicians are old-timers who still tour and look like they're having a blast -- Willie Nelson and Neil Young. She's "terrible about discovering new artists."
"I always seem to go back to the old music, as I'm sure you guys do as jazz students," she said.
And she deals with artistic conflict according to the situation.
"If I'm working on someone else's project, I try to be cool and do what they want to do," Jones said. "When I was recording on a song with [hip-hop artist] Q-Tip, he wanted me to sing something and I was like, 'I don't know, that's kind of high. Can I rephrase it?' and he was like, 'No, sing it this way, it's going to sound good if you sing it high.' So I did it, and you know what? I really liked it."
The best advice she could offer? Make the music you love, even if it's the quintessential "side hustle." Even if it doesn't make money. Jones explores, too. She's part of the Hank Williams Project and has an all-female trio, Puss n Boots with Sasha Dobson and Catherine Popper.
Jones said her two years in Denton were spent studying just music and nothing else -- though she did take a tap dancing class, and performed a shy few steps.
"I had a really good experience here," she said. "I took no academics. If I had it to do over again, I'd spread it out more, maybe. But I had so much fun. I got to play so much every day."
Jones plays during Petty Fest, a Tom Petty tribute concert, at 8 p.m. today on the UNT Stage at Oaktopia. She returns to the festival's UNT Stage at 10 p.m. Friday.
By LUCINDA BREEDING, Denton Record Chronicle. Reach her at @LBreedingDRC.