July 26, 2015

An Interview with Rickie Lee Jones

In interviewing Rickie Lee Jones about her music, come up with a question that piques her interest and you’ll likely end up fielding a few comparable inquiries of your own in return.

That Jones should welcome or even seek out such insights from those who admittedly appreciate her music isn’t all that surprising, however. Indeed, with such expository songs as “Chuck E.’s In Love,” “Stewart’s Coat,” and “We Belong Together,” the two-time GRAMMY® winner has not only distinguished herself as one of the most gifted and versatile singer/songwriters of the past 40 years but among the most sentient as well.

On her first new work of original material in more than a decade, The Other Side of Desire, Jones marries influences (from jazz to blues to Cajun to rockabilly to pop) that are often indigenous to New Orleans, where since leaving her Los Angeles stomping grounds last year she has lived and written songs with renewed passion and purpose. “I’ve got nothing to prove,” said Jones, 60, recently from her Big Easy abode. “I feel and want to spread a little joy, so that’s what I’m doing.”

And that’s what she’s done with the songs that make up The Other Side of Desire, culminating in one of her most intimately personal and poignant albums to date.

“One of the things I wanted to do was to write things that I could sing for the rest of my career and not have to do only old songs,” she explained, “things that would be fun and that the audience would want to hear as much as their sentiment with the old songs.

“I’m pretty sure that anything I write is relatable to anything else,” she added, “and there wouldn’t be that much of a difference because they’re all coming from my own personal color palette.”

Are you a songwriter whose songs naturally reflect your environment? Or, in the case of this latest album, did you deliberately intend for it to reflect musical influences of New Orleans?

Well, the first thing was to build a new life, and I also wanted to write a new record; and those things happened simultaneously. I think that’s why the environment is woven into the work, because they were one in the same. Then I thought, Why not? I’ve always shied away from that stuff because there’s something contrived about it, even if you make good work … because it always has an “I’m playing you” kind of thing about it. It’s not fair, really, to anybody, because so many people do that. They take an idea and they squash it to death, so that somebody who might sincerely feel that way, it’s harder to convince. At least now I don’t feel that way so much, because I think the sincerity of your heart is what people hear. But it’s harder to be heard, right? If you’re the twenty-seventh person making a record of Nelson Riddle stuff, even though the twenty six before you had never done jazz in their life… Anyway, all those reasons had made me shy away from thematic things, but this time I knew I didn’t want to do anything in L.A. and that act in itself is gonna make it reflect what I’m hearing around me and so in a roundabout way I did make the choice to reflect this music.

It seems to me that if you use any sort of filter into which you invest your heart and soul, your heart and soul would still reflect through the filter.

Most definitely. I think that there’s no getting around my personality and in this case they’re really simpatico, these kinds of music and how I feel and what I want to say.

One song from the album that struck me straightaway is “Infinity,” and for a couple reasons: its sense of transience; the way the lyrics are sung almost in a murmur, like water rippling off a rock; how the snare shots seem to punctuate each moment as if delivering each one to history. It’s a striking piece of music.

That song, in particular, that was a dream. I woke up and wrote it down exactly as it was and went into the studio the next day. It was a Sunday. Somebody had to come in [to produce it]. I heard it all whole. … Then I just sang it. It just came out like that. “This is where we’ve always been and it will always come again,” was so exciting to sing. It was very exciting. … I had a picture of what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to articulate it. I said to the producer, “I’m trying to evoke these sounds and feelings from the ‘80s or things that were more dance or ambient kinds of tracks.” I didn’t really know any names or things to use, but that was as close as I could come to tell him what I was trying to do.

On another song on the album, “Christmas in New Orleans,” you wrote a lyric, “And I still can’t recognize the sound my scars make when I sing,” that hit me especially hard.

Finally! I thought that was one of my better lines, and you’re the first person to mention it. Thank you.

It’s such a powerful reminder of how deep you cut in your music. You’re one of the few musicians I’ve seen in concert who doesn’t shy away from vulnerability. I’ve seen you cry on the stage, just overcome by a song in the moment. It must take a lot of guts to be that honest. Is that something you consciously strive for?

You’d have to be really courageous to do it [by design]. I think it’s just the way I am. It’d be hard to make a choice to be vulnerable. I can’t imagine any other way to sing a song but the way I sing it, because that’s the joy of singing it, is that I feel all of it every time I sing it. It’s like stepping into a movie instead of watching it, and I can be anybody I want to be in the course [of it]. I’m also the narrator, so it’s very wonderful and complex. Sometimes in acting or feeling one of the parts, when I pull back to be the narrator I get choked up sometimes and I do cry. I don’t mind that, but my dad said to me, “You must not cry. You have to pull back so they can cry, because if you cry they can’t.” It was really wise. As much as I enjoy feeling all that, as a performance it doesn’t really… I’m not ashamed of crying, but it’s not my favorite thing to do. But I allow it now. I don’t chastise myself for it. I just try not to go that deep.

Are there emotions or certain experiences that are too profound or painful to share in a song?

Yeah, I would say that’s true. I’m not sure if I would use the word “emotions,” but there are subjects that are still sore or active or haven’t been resolved and so to sing them is really to just bring them up on the table — and it’s not good. So, when that happens I just avoid those songs until I can sing them. You know, like, puppy dogs make you cry. Singing about my child is always emotional. Singing about anybody in my family, as a matter of fact, is emotional. And on stage, everything’s turned up louder. So, if I was sitting in a café with you and said something about my dad I might feel a tear, but I could breathe and hold it back and finish talking. But on the stage where things are turned up loud, it’s a much harder thing to do. So, I try to just avoid things that… You know, I don’t know if that’s true if I try to avoid them. I wish I would try to avoid them. [Laughs] But shows are really instinctual. I go here, I go there, and I always feel like I’m going in these directions because of the collective consciousness that’s directing me. That’s the audience and what I’m feeling from them, the way that their laughter, the way that their sighs tell me what direction to go in.

That’s in a live setting, but are there subjects you would avoid to even write about if you hadn’t processed them earlier?

No, no. Anything that wants to be said gets to be said whether or not it… I’d probably write some violent songs and listen to that expression and see if it finds its way to something else whether it’s a line or some part of a cynicism or whatever. When I’m writing everything gets to come out.

Some songwriters I’ve spoken to have conceded that they’re sometimes reluctant to reveal too much of themselves in what they write, but that’s clearly not how you approach it.

No. I’m just exploring all… There are so many ways to tell a story. I tend to naturally like to tell a story rather than tell a feeling, but in the course of telling the story can build feelings. But it’s not so much, “I feel like this,” and, “You did that.” In the past it hasn’t been the best way I’ve told a story. This record is kind of different. I think there’s a lot of “I”: “How can I tell you how I feel?” [“Valz de Mon Pere (Lover’s Oath)”]; “O Cheri, come and take a ride with me” [“Jimmy Choos”]. I mean, as I’m talking now, [I realize] I figure heavily into this record. I didn’t really think of that before. That’s kind of good. It’s healthy.

One reason I believe people are so affected by your music is the honesty in your voice, and of course that element resonates even when you’re interpreting works by other songwriters. When you take on someone else’s song, what do you generally latch onto first? Is it a lyric or narrative? Is it the melody?

I think it’s usually both. There are only a few songs in my career — I’m thinking of “My One and Only Love” [on 1991’s Pop Pop] — where I was attracted to a melody, but didn’t relate so much to a lyric. Like, “Sympathy for the Devil,” I did [on 2012’s The Devil You Know] because I did this Rolling Stones tribute so I had to pick a song and I picked that song because it relies so much on the band and so much on the “woo-woo” [witches chorus]. I thought, This is a powerful and frightening story, and I don’t know if anybody ever hears it because they’re busy dancing around.

If you break it down and tell it like you would tell it if you were just making up a song with a guitar, “Allow me to introduce myself, I am the scariest motherfucker that you’ve ever met. I’ve killed people for 2,000 years, and by the way I have my eye on you as well.” In the course of doing it — because, you know, it’s how I am — I tend to become the demon. It’s fun, but it’s scary.

I like playing it live because I like the series of things the audience goes through. They laugh at first, nervous laughter. Then it’s the laughter of recognition — and I don’t try to hurt them with it; I don’t go too far — but then either they keep giggling and looking away or they slowly listen to the text of the song. By the last verse, they’ve converted now. They did it. I really love that because it’s like I showed them the song instead of the Rolling Stones performance.

If I can do that with somebody else’s song — if I can show them the song again — I feel like that’s a worthwhile goal, because usually I don’t have a goal. I just want to sing a song because of the way it makes me feel, but some of these songs are used up and it’s kind of exciting to me if I can sprinkle something new about them.

In a far different lyrical context, of course, but that’s also what you achieved so convincingly with your rendition of The Beatles’ “For No One” [on 2000’s It’s Like This], which is, for me, one of your all-time greatest performances. 

“For No One” I heard when I was little, 11 or 12. I liked the story, but what is the word for it? “There’ll be times when all the things she said will fill your head. You won’t forget her.” Even at 11 or 12, I knew how that felt, that melancholy of loss, that all your life you would have this little scratch inside and you would always have to live with that sorrow. That’s the part that attracts me about that song, in particular.

Going back to something you said earlier, that you have nothing to prove now… What, then, drives you to still be creative? Considering that this is the first album you’ve written for since The Evening of My Best Day [in 2003], what made you want to return to writing?

Without something to prove is what makes me able to take the lid off and play music again, because no matter what I did there was always … this sense of loss that permeated everything I did. I’m not sure how — it feels a little miraculous — but it was probably just having to work so hard so long, but I was able to go, “There’s no relationship to the past. I am making a record here in this year right now and I have a name so I have an audience out there, but for the most part people under 30 don’t know who I am. This is a strange blessing because I can speak to them for the first time, but I have no hope or expectation of a resurrection or anything. All I can do is do the best work I can and hope that it does something good for somebody somewhere.”

Finally, you learn whether people notice you or not — I don’t know why — you still have to go up on the stage and play the song. … It was a relinquishing of my own thing: Am I ever gonna get my crown back? Finally it was, No, you aren’t. And I [thought], Thank God.

I’m just a musician. I’m just a singer. I got a band. I’m playing in your local town. I know what I’m worth. The things you said to me are so wonderful to hear because they’re how I see myself, that what I’ve contributed is a kind of an emotional honesty that hopefully rings through. But in the end when you die, you die. Sometimes it seems like we feel like if we’re really famous and if we’re really successful, we won’t really die. It seems like we’re running real fast so we won’t die. So, that’s been the expectation of hope that has permeated this work, a hope of a joyful time. That’s really all I wanted was to have some fun, and I feel like that’s kind of happening. It’s pretty cool.

For more information, please visit Rickie Lee Jones online.