After winning five Grammy Awards earlier this year, Norah Jones, 24, has been touring the United States, playing big concert halls and arenas. But when the young singer made a stop July 9 at an arts festival at a summer camp in Northern Michigan, the appearance was a bit of a homecoming. Eight years ago, Norah Jones was a camper herself at Interlochen Arts Camp, where young students have come for 75 years to train to be musicians and artists.
When Norah Jones was a camper at the Interlochen Arts Camp, she wasn't one of the top musicians in the jazz ensemble. In fact, she was a pianist in the second band. But she also sang with the ensemble, and Paul Brewer, who's taught at Interlochen for 14 summers, remembered being struck by the poise and maturity of her voice.
"In order to express yourself in the blues idiom, there has to be an intimate relationship with that music," he said. "I heard that in Norah's voice immediately, just within the first measure or two of her singing, so I knew at that point she had a chance to do something."
Interlochen booked Norah Jones for its summer arts festival before she won multiple Grammy awards in February. The concert sold out faster than any in the camp's history.
"You know I went to camp here right?" asks Norah Jones from the stage.
Norah Jones was in high school when she came to Interlochen in 1994 and 1995. She took mostly jazz courses but also studied painting and sculpture. Her former instructor Paul Brewer thinks her charm is the simplicity of her voice.
"What we've heard in pop for the past couple of decades is a vocal technique that's really challenging and in your face and over-pronounced in my opinion, and Norah's really the opposite of that, she has an understated and relaxed quality," he said.
Mr. Brewer thinks the variety of influences on her music is also part of her broad appeal. That opinion is echoed by some of the campers who spoke to her while she was here, like Cisco Deemas.
"It's very versatile, she has a lot of styles in her music, a lot of country… all kinds of stuff and that's why a lot of people like her," said Cisco Deemas.
The high school camper who's studying trumpet went to a chat session with the performer before the concert. No reporters had a chance to talk to her during her visit, but Emma Epstein, who also went to the chat, says Norah Jones dropped by her cabin the day of the show. She says the pop star is down to earth and her music is "real".
"So much stuff on the radio now is fake," said Ms. Epstein. "It's just so nice to hear someone who can sing and actually plays something." Reporter: I don't understand, what do other people do? Epstein: Like so much of it so produced and people will just sing and can't play an instrument. And it's kind of cool because it's real.
Norah Jones' concert was one of 500 performances that will take place at Interlochen Center for the Arts this summer… including appearances by some other well-known names like Tori Amos and the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra. Another 250 events are held during the rest of the year, most featuring students of the Interlochen Arts Academy, the first independent high school in the United States dedicated to the arts. This focus reflects the educational philosophy of the institution.
"We learn to do by doing," said Interlochen President Ed Downing, who added that the emphasis here is on performing… as it has been since the camp was founded 75 years ago by Joseph Maddy as a summer orchestra for America's most talented youth.
"We don't learn by reading about the arts, talking about the arts, or writing about the arts," explained Mr. Downing. "We learn about music dance whatever it is by doing that art form. And that's why we have 750 performances over the course of the year."
The night before Norah Jones performed in Kresge Auditorium, Interlochen hosted its signature event on the same stage "Collage," an annual sampler of the camp's programs. The 4,000-seat house was full… and the area around the pavilion was filled with young artists painting and creating new works. On stage, performances included a 30-piece trombone ensemble, an old English round, a jazz guitar ensemble and a poetry reading. 10-year-old Caroline Goulding brought the audience to its feet with her violin solo.
This summer more than 2,000 campers, age 8 to 18, will come here from all fifty U.S. states and 37 countries, to study music, writing, dance, theatre and visual arts. The Interlochen Arts Camp concludes on August 10, as it has for 75 seasons, with a performance of Franz Liszt's symphonic poem Les Preludes.