Songwriter Jesse Harris discusses his role in Norah Jones’ triple-platinum album

Songwriter Jesse Harris of New York City worked with Norah Jones on her triple-platinum debut album, Come Away With Me. The record has received eight Grammy nominations altogether; Harris is up for song of the year for “Don’t Know Why.” Arts Editor Ainsley O’Connell spoke with Harris on Friday about his career, the music business and the upcoming Grammy Awards, scheduled for next month.

Could you tell me a little bit about your musical background?

I started playing piano when I was ten, took classical lessons for about four years. Then I quit and I picked up the harmonica and then I started playing guitar when I was 17.

You played acoustic and electric for Come Away With Me?

Yes, mostly acoustic, though. I only played electric for one track, “Don’t Know Why.”

How did you first get started working with Norah Jones?

We were friends first. I met her when she was at school in Texas, and then she moved up to New York about a year later, after her sophomore year. She never went back. We became good friends and then about, I don’t know, eight months into her stay, she started singing some of my songs for fun and we made a recording of them and decided to start doing gigs.

Were you surprised by the Grammy nominations? Or was it in a way almost expected?

The success of Norah’s album, or I should say, the extent of the success of Norah’s album was not expected. I thought people would like it, I didn’t think it would be number one on the Billboard charts today. But as far as the Grammy nominations, yeah, I was surprised to get nominated. I wasn’t surprised that Norah was nominated, but still, to hear that the album got eight Grammy nominations altogether, I was pretty surprised by that.

It’s quite a lot. What was your specific role in the songwriting process?

Four of the songs I wrote by myself. We only co-wrote one song on the record, “The Long Day Is Over.” We were just hanging out one day in her apartment and I was playing that riff, and she sang a melody and then I took the melody, went home and used the melody she sang to write lyrics.

Do you have any other projects that you’re currently working on?

Well, I have my own group that’s my priority: Jesse Harris and the Ferdinandos. We just finished our fourth record and I’m working on finishing that album, but I’m also working on another singer for whom I’m co-writing songs and playing on his record. I’m doing those two things and lots of gigs and playing in my friend’s band.

Are your gigs mostly in New York? Or do you tour?

I tour a little bit, but I usually play in New York. I have a couple of albums out in Europe – I mean one album out in Europe and one out in Japan. I went to Japan recently to promote that CD. But mostly I play here.

Are there contemporary musicians or songwriters that you really admire?

Yeah, I really like Connor Oberst [a member of] the Bright Eyes. I’m a big Bjork fan. Those are a few.

What would you say is the most frustrating thing about the music industry today?

It’s just become a lot more … let’s say it’s become over-financed and I think that that affects the music. The stakes are too high all the time.

Because of the investment involved in promoting a musician?

People didn’t really ever sell tens of millions of records all of the time. It wasn’t expected and now I think a lot of major labels want that from every artist and if they don’t have that they get disappointed. I think the expectation is too high and I think that really great artists who wouldn’t sell millions of records, even at their peak, get lost because there’s no place for them in an industry where someone’s not potentially going to sell millions of records.

But what happens in the process is that a certain type of music, or a certain approach to music, becomes accepted as a possibility for selling a lot of albums and things that don’t seem like they would are overlooked when maybe they would [sell]. I think one of the reasons Norah’s record is refreshing is because she’s definitely not the kind of artist most labels would have looked at and thought, oh, there’s a number one artist.

The fact that she was on Blue Note Records is proof of the fact. So it’s refreshing that she broke through because it shows that real music can do well.

Do you feel like artists are sometimes removed from the decision-making process?

I’m not sure that they’re removed from it. I just think that it’s a certain type of music that is usually promoted and it’s usually more … preconceived, maybe? It has a lot more money poured into it.

How did you first get started in the business? When was your first CD?

My first record was with a group called Once Blue. We were signed to EMI Records. It was a situation where there was a female singer and I was writing the songs and playing guitar. That album came out in 1995.

A lot of people joke about the Grammys, saying that the artists nominated are not the best of the year. It’s certainly an honor, but how do you feel about the Grammy nominations?

[Laughs] I’ve always sort of held that point of view, and I think it’s obvious that the people who get nominated are really just the artists who have sold the most records and who had the most hype. And that’s certainly true. I don’t think the Grammys have ever been about seeking out records and trying to find the best. It’s such a subjective thing anyway. So I think the Grammys are usually just focused on the biggest artists of the year.

In light of that, though, it’s still exciting to get nominated.

I still think it will be fun and a good thing in a lot of ways. If a record gets nominated, a lot more people pay attention.

Because of the nominations a lot more people get to hear Norah’s record. And possibly a lot more people will get to hear my music.

It’s certainly a good thing, whether one considers the Grammys of merit or not is up to them, but it will be a night of entertainment.

Are you performing at the ceremony?

Norah’s going to perform and I’m going to play the song with her.

Does it seem nerve-wracking to be on national television?

[I’m] not nervous yet, but I’m certain I will be.

Where do you see yourself, 10 years down the road?

[Laughs] I don’t know. I don’t even know where I see myself in March, to tell you the truth … I never know what I’m doing more than a couple months ahead of time.