"Don't Know Why" was Norah Jones' first single and the song that launched her to stardom, but she didn't write it. It was written in 1999 by a New York City-based songwriter-guitarist named Jesse Harris. A few weeks after he wrote it, he recorded it with a violinist and released it under the name Jesse Harris and The Ferdinandos
. He sold the album on his website.
Harris had met Jones a year earlier when he travelled to Texas with a group of other musicians to put on a clinic at the University of North Texas, where Jones was a student. They stayed in touch, and at his urging she moved to New York City to pursue music in 1999.
Many have enjoyed a latte at a coffee shop or filled in a crossword puzzle while this song plays as a mellow backdrop, but the lyric is anything but soothing. The singer is left catching teardrops in her hand when her lover is a no-show. According to its writer, Jesse Harris, it's not autobiographical - he often writes songs about loss that have nothing to do with his personal life.
A more lyrically uplifting song is the title track
, which is one of three songs Jones wrote on the album.
After Jones came to New York City, she started performing this song with Jesse Harris, who thought it was a good fit for a female voice. Jones changed the key to fit her voice, added a drum beat, then recorded a demo of the song with Harris in October 2000. That demo got the attention of the jazz label Blue Note, which signed Jones and sent her to the studio to record with a group of session musicians. The results were too convoluted, so Jones was assigned to a different producer, Arif Mardin, who had worked with many famous artists, including Aretha Franklin. He was brought in to capture Jones' distinctive sound, which he did by keeping the original demo take and adding some guitar and a vocal harmony, making Jones harmonize with herself.
Jesse Harris played guitar on the original demo, which ended up being used on the final recording. He almost stopped the take because he didn't like the mix in his headphones. He kept going and was glad he did, since that was the keeper. Jones and her band were willing to do another take, but the engineer, Jay Newland, thought it was perfect and wouldn't let them.
The Come Away With Me album was released in February 2002. It found a following in the jazz community, but didn't land a bigger audience until that summer, when "Don't Know Why" was issued as a single and picked up by US public radio stations, which typically have a very mature and upscale audience. This helped get it played in coffee bars, bookstores, and other retail venues. Jones was just 21 when the song was recorded (22 when the album was released), but she appealed to the older crowd because of her sound and her father. Her dad is Ravi Shankar, an Indian musician famous for teaching George Harrison how to play the sitar. Most of the MTV generation had no idea who he was, but the public radio audience did, and it made a great logline.
The first few months after the Come Away With Me album was released, it was priced around $8 in an effort to boost sales. This was a time when many listeners had discovered the internet and were able to spread the word online, which they did, leaving overwhelmingly good reviews. This "slow build" strategy worked incredibly well. "Don't Know Why" charted only at #30 in the US and not other singles from the album charted at all, but Jones' secret weapon was her complete lack of showbiz pizazz, making her an antidote to the Mickey Mouse Club alums that ruled the charts. The album went on to sell over 10 million copies just in America, making it by far the best-selling jazz-influenced album ever.
Grammy voters were enamored with Jones, nominating her in five categories, with "Don't Know Why" up for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. After the nominations were announced, the album went to #1 in America, claiming the top spot on January 25, 2003, 11 months after it was released.
Jones cleaned up at the Grammys, winning all five awards she was nominated for, with Come Away With Me earning Album of the Year. Jones also won Best New Artist and performed "Don't Know Why" on the show.
After the Grammys, the album returned to #1 for a week, unseating R. Kelly's Chocolate Factory.
Even after he was nominated for a Grammy for writing this (Record of the Year), Jesse Harris continued to play small clubs in New York City for tips. The night of the Grammys, he was scheduled to play a club that fits about 80 people.
Jay Newland, who engineered the recording, said he was trying to make this sound like the records he grew up listening to in the late '60s and early '70s, especially Joni Mitchell.
EMI, which owned Blue Note Records, thought that Top 40 radio stations would prefer a different version of "Don't Know Why," so they remixed it with a dance beat and processed vocals. Jones thought it sounded ridiculous and insisted on distributing the original version to radio stations. "That was ludicrous, because the reason people liked it in the first place was that it wasn't commercial," she told the Sunday Times. "I'm not Britney, and that is not the way I want to go."
Jones performed this on Sesame Street with lyrics lamenting the letter "Y" - "Don't know why Y didn't come." The letter "Y" eventually shows up, everyone gets along, and we learn something in the process.
The song spent 24 weeks on the Hot 100 before it reached the top 40, the longest ever ascent by a woman in one chart run.
The song's writer, Jesse Harris, performed this at the New York Songwriters Circle long before it was released. Tina Shafer
, a songwriter and vocal coach who runs the Circle, told Songfacts: "I love Jesse Harris. He was a student of mine for a couple of years. He used to play that song and I used to look at him and say, 'You are like the Woody Allen of songwriting.' He would just write these beautiful vignettes. They were so unique and so poetic. He used to play that at the Circle; he used to play at the Circle all the time, he and Richard Julian before he met Norah. And then when they went out to the University of North Texas, Norah was kind of their tour guide when they went to the school out there to perform. He brought Norah back with him - she was totally unsigned at the time. Yeah, he played that song long before she sang it. But how lucky that she did."
In The Office episode "Goodbye, Toby" (2008), Darryl sings this at Toby's going away party.