wears the trousers magazine

words in edgeways with rickie lee jones
December 21, 2009, 9:53 am
Filed under: feature, words in edgeways | Tags: , , , ,

It’s been 30 years since Rickie Lee Jones burst onto the music scene with the release of her eponymous debut album, a diverse collection that incorporated elements of pop, jazz, R&B and showtunes. Over the course of these three decades, Jones has remained resolutely – and wonderfully – impossible to categorise, exploring a variety of styles and genres, from the expansive electronic influences in 1997’s Ghostyhead to the experimental, improvisational rock of 2007’s The Sermon On Exposition Boulevard, with customary aplomb.

Now back with the brilliant, soulful Balm In Gilead [review], where her inimitable voice weaves itself around warm and inviting melodies, Jones took time out from her well-received concert tour to answer questions for Wears The Trousers over email. Disarmingly honest, funny, and insightful, Jones reveals herself to be as open and expressive in interview as she does in her music.

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You’ve said that you were originally planning to do a covers record before deciding to revisit your older material instead for Balm In Gilead. What initially prompted this change of heart? How did you select which songs to revisit? Were these ones always in your memory?

Recording is a process, it’s not planned out exactly, and even if it is, it becomes subject to change. So the old stuff we recorded was good, but did not really seem to have…a heart, a centre. Then some of the tracks were not usable because the drummer sped up too much or blah blah. So there were a couple of new tunes, and I decided that it needed to go in one direction or the other, and the new stuff seemed better. As far as the recording goes…The songs were more or less always in the back of my mind, especially ‘Wild Girl’. I just needed to get to the heart of the matter. I had these great fragments, like an archeological dig, puzzle pieces, but what does the thing look like? So finally I gave it a name – it was the thing I wanted to tell one piece of good advice to. Be grateful, the story you write you live; that is, you are living the life you have designed from top to bottom. Design one in which you get to be happy, it is as simple as that. So many of the songs have been with me for many years.

What does it mean to you to finally have committed your father’s song ‘The Moon Is Made Of Gold’ to record after years of playing it live? What are your memories of the song from your childhood?

It’s not a big event, I have played it for many years. I am glad it is on a record, it feels like a good time for the reception of my dad’s song as a great song, not a novelty. The song was a big deal to me, my daddy wrote it and it was very magical, like one of my storybooks that we read at night. He played a game with me when I was little called ‘The Man In The Moon’, about a man who would visit me and talk to me…Anyway, the moon and my dad figure together in my mythology. In fact, ‘The Albatross’ [from 1993’s Traffic In Paradise] is written about my family. My daughter, my own family, it’s all there in that lyric. I see them that way, as islands, moons, sailors, ships…

What made you change the title of ‘Bonfires In Hell’ to simply ‘Bonfires’? Was it simply that it sounded too aggressive for such a beautiful song?

The title takes shape like everything else, I call a thing this or that and see how it fits. The song does not usually come with a name. You have to find a name that does not diminish the song, and invites people in, and somehow evokes the spirit of it. While bonfires in hell is exactly what the thing is about, ‘Bonfires’ is a better title. It is more evocative of the feeling, because we do escape from hell in the end, and ultimately the bonfire in hell becomes a fire of redemption. Yes?

The lyric “I am the last of my kind in this town” from ‘Eucalyptus Trail’ also appeared in ‘Face In The Crowd’ from The Evening Of My Best Day. Do you feel there are other parallels between the two songs?

Yes, they are basically the same song rewritten. Actually, ‘Eucalyptus Trail’ is the original. I recorded it back around the time of The Evening Of My Best Day, but it did not seem to fit. It was a larger, more colourful animal, slow moving and ponderous, not suited for the evening. So I guess I still needed to express the feeling of ‘last of my kind’, this kind of furious I WANT YOU TO PAY ATTENTION TO ME YOU FUCKER attitude. I toned it down and said, ”I know how to get you to love me. Just hold a mirror (facing you) in front of my face. You just love yourself so much you will come running…” I was feeling pissed off at the time, but I just said it in softer ways.

It started, the song, the first time so-and-so left ten years ago, left me with an apartment we had rented and his cars and all of it. I was devastated, and nearly sunk that time. He had a way of taking over everything, I mean, redecorating my car, choosing my clothes, everything, so when he left it took a piece out of everything. Anyway, I was in scientology land in Silverlake, LA, standing out in the yard thinking, “My God, I am going to just ascend, I cannot stand it here another moment.”  I was thinking then of devils and angels, good and evil, and the grey matter that is me, and thought, “My friends fall so hard from heaven they land right under the ground into hell; who am I, what are my kind? Whatever they are, I seem to be the last of them.”  It was a lonely time. The song got to steam in those sulphuric colours for many years, and the bitterness was eaten away. And finally, what was left was a very beautiful gem of peering onto reincarnation road, hoping for the best, always singing to the God, “I want to be the one you love.”  That’s just the human part. It’s nearly over for me, that part. Love me or not, I am going forward.

‘Remember Me’ is probably the most country sounding song you’ve ever recorded. Was it always a country song in your mind, or did it go through various stylistic evolutions?

It was always country. My ‘D-I-V-O-R-C-E’, you know?

Balm In Gilead finds you working with other established singers for the first time in what seems like ages. How did you come to include them on this record?

I wanted to work with some other people. I know Vic, and like Victoria, so I reached out to them. Alison is an acquaintances of [album producer] David Kalish, I wanted to work with her, And Ben Harper, what’s not to like? Jon Brion and I have played together off and on for many years. I would sit in on his set at the Largo, and he came to play with me in Canada. He is an amazing spirit, so much love and talent in that man. My Godhead.

Is it ever a challenge to keep songs fresh and interesting for you to play live? Are there any that are permanently off the setlists these days?

It is a challenge, that is why I always surprise myself, and the band, with the setlist, with the arrangement. It’s just maybe on this bar I am going to linger longer, heads up boys – so they have to keep an ear out. That being said, I wish they would have emotional reactions of their own that cause them to stay on the bar longer or just bust out in a solo. That was what I loved about the Ghostyhead tour: Rick Boston, so egotistical, so testosterone. Perfect for me, he would just turn away and start banging out his guitar; I just felt so thrilled, everyone doing their thing while I do mine. Problem is that this air of respect gets too much for me. Yes, okay, we are playing with Thelonius but I myself am Miles, so I do also want to play a little. You know, everyone should respect themselves and, after the initial learning curve, take risks. That is so masculine to me, and it really thrills me. Of course, I don’t know if the audience likes that, but I do.

Are there any styles or sounds you feel you still want to explore at this point in your career, or any instruments you want to learn to play?

Oh yes, I have a few unusual ideas. One, I would like to sing with machines. There is a washing machine at my last house with excellent rhythm and tone, I hear songs in it every time I do the wash. Vacuum cleaners, all kinds of music in instruments and machines. I would like to just record, for a week, my favourite sounds and make up tunes. I want to do a public domain record of songs from the 1800s, the pioneers’ music – so heartbreaking. I want to do more jazz. Lots of things. I really want to do a dance record, like Fatboy Slim, of my old material. We do a kind of dance version of ‘Living It Up’. I hear it so clear in my head. I hope I can collaborate with someone in that very unexpected direction.

Everyone’s obsessing over the state of the music industry. What are your views? Is there no Balm in Gilead that can ease its suffering?

Well the industry deal in luxury, excess money, money to buy a song means you have money to pay your rent, usually. yet people will buy that song before the dinner, people Need music, it seems, more than food. I see the state of all the world buckling. We keep our backs to the wall and keep giving all we have and it will come back. But I also think revolution, there are some Americans guilty of war crimes, they should be prosecuted, things should be made even so we can go on with a clear conscience if the US is to continue to flourish, spiritually. The money will kill us if we have no golden rule. The balm occurs person to person, as it always has.

Back in 1979, did you have any idea how your career might play out?

I knew I did not want to be not working in five years. Pop used people up pretty quickly back then, all those disco hits. Imagine working at Target after having a hit, that would be very humbling. You would have to be strong. Or you could say, “Wow, I had a hit record.” Measure yourself in glory, not in disappointment. I hoped and planned to do this for my entire life. I thought I would always be rich, more or less, meaning I would have a bit of extra money in the bank, which I don’t, but other than that I am near what I envisioned. I work and am known, I have a place in the business, I make a living.

Well, I saw it a bit larger…I actually saw me more like Sinatra, that I would always sell 3000 seats, when I wanted, where I wanted. I still hope to get there, not have to work so very hard, be able to carry lights and everything again. I would like that, and I am working toward that. I love to do a show, but it costs money. I think we need sponsors now, patrons, like in the olden days. Anyway, I was in the drugstore the other day and the pharmacist said, “I know you, you wrote that song”…I would not give it up. She finally remembered, “Oh, ‘Chuck E’s In Love'”, and told me where she was and so on when it came out and said, “There are just songs you will always know. ‘Chuck E’s In Love’ is one of those songs, isn’t it?” I thought, “Yes, that’s well said. It is one of the songs you will always know.”

So I have a lot of what I thought, and what I lost I will always seek, like the lyric in ‘It Takes You There’ – sorry to be quoting my songs here, but I seem to write myself some truths now and then. Well, you always seek it because you have some issue with it. You lost it, you did something wrong; it’s not like it just disappeared naturally. We have regrets, the key is to let them go, be content, be grateful, not entertain our busy minds with so much sorrow. We make things so complicated, it’s like we are magnets and we just attract all kinds of thought and action, and we must be careful about what we let cling to us. Everything will cling to us if we let it, and we will be very busy arranging it all. Got to evolve.

Would you ever consider writing a memoir or autobiography about your life?

Yes I do consider it, and from time to time, start to write. I am really thinking about it right now. I need someone to write to. That determines the voice of the text, who I am talking to.

What kind of music do you enjoy listening to these days?

I listen to the same old stuff, but I bought an iPod. Wow. I have The Byrds, Dionne Warwick, Led Zeppelin, Steely Dan, Taj Mahal (not really but I am going to look for him) and Cat Stevens and me. Nina Simone and Laura Nyro, I think. I have Michael Jackson, and I was looking for that Fleetwood Mac song that goes, “Do you always trust your first initial feeling”, but I don’t know the title [turns out she means the Stevie Nicks-penned ‘Crystal’ from the band’s eponymous predecessor to Rumours]. That is such a pretty song. Oh, I also have ‘Wildfire’. I love that song. I cry and cry. “She ran calling Wiiiiiillldfire”. It’s about a girl who dies chasing after a horse that gets out during a storm, but really it’s about a person who is giving up. It’s cold outside and [the song’s narrator] sits in there wondering if this ghost is coming for him. Some girl. Did he know her or not? You can’t tell, but that she lost her life looking for her horse, calling his name…it evokes childhood, all the animals we went looking for: our innocence, our selflessness, our despair, and also our Midwestern no-nonsense ‘get out there and bring in the firewood’ attitude. That combined with notes of despair are just enough totally annihilate me – in a good way. I love crying to ‘Wildfire’. I would sing it live but I know I would never get through it.

One of your 30th anniversary shows is going to be a performance of Pirates in its entirety. It’s at time like these where one wishes they lived in New York! What made you decide to do Pirates rather than the self-titled?

This has floated around for a while, and it seemed like a good moment at Carnegie Hall to do that, but that show had to be postponed. I do have Steven Gadd, who is the drummer on Pirates, ready to work, and Reggie McBride. It’s a question of logistics, as if I do the record and sell the show that way I would actually like to have the players from the record, as much as possible. So maybe in LA and NYC we will do that still, in February, we’ll see.

Two of your most loved early songs are ‘We Belong Together’ and ‘Living It Up’ – what do you remember of their writing and recording? Do you remember why ‘Hey Bub’ was left off Pirates and held until Girl At Her Volcano? I’ve always wondered, based on something written in the liner notes.

‘Hey Bub’ was written, I thought, around Girl At Her Volcano time, but maybe not. I remember Jackson Browne was in the studio and had been playing the piano just before I sat down to work on that. Pirates was, is, a book, a film, a story. but really, I don’t recall ‘Bub’ being there during Pirates. I wrote ‘We Belong Together’ at St Martins College in Olympia, Washington. It was autumn and the monks and brother were walking about in the mists. I was in the little womb of the music room, my girlfriend had an in with the head of the music department and got me the keys so I could work there, since my mom’s house was not only tiny but we had no piano. So I would go there, licking my wounds from my break up with Tom, and my heroin habit which I had quit. It was a hard month, and I rose like a phoenix, banging out each note, each phrase, hour by hour. I wrote this and part of Pirates that month in that room, amidst the music stands and folding chairs, watching the windows, still connected to my youth, so I could see the years in phoenix clearly moving among the pine, as well as the icy wind of some future room. Maybe alone, but still, still here. Like Ava Gardner maybe, in London. Still beautiful, and yes, we really did all those things. Why was she so insecure? She was a million bucks: class, beauty that resonates from a heart humming so loudly, and no disgrace or review can touch it. Ava. Frank always loved her.

Which of your albums do you feel most proud of, or do you think turned out closest to your vision?

They are all important children. The first is my flag; I stood up and rose my flag. It was a flag of great conquest, an amazing first move. The next is one of cunning and royal power: it said, “I will not pander, and yet I am still talking to you. I want to show you all the things I think and feel. And you, beauty that you are, you listened and set down your weapons.”

Then, well, I got confused. I said, “No, I did not expect this, and maybe I should tell them even more…like “Hey, I like to do this and this and this…jazz and pop and also I like to…” And you said OK, and I said, “The reason I am doing this is because we live in a world with no magna carta. Everyone must do what some arbitrary habit has prescribed, so we are all slaves to chance and chance has become a habit, instead of a chance. so me thinks if you really do dig me, I would like to expand the concept of my ‘title’ as singer-songwriter. I would like to be able to also do covers. I would also like to do covers and my own songs on the same record. And, oh yeah, I like to wear sexy clothes even though my music is very serious…What do you think? I am going to mix genres and concepts, so that you can expand your mind a little bit.”

I knew I might suffer somewhat for this, even at the time, but thought if I can open these doors, especially so critics do not have so much power that they actually feel they have the right to discuss what kind of song I have done…I mean as years went by of course people now do covers with no retribution, and mix their songs with others, and different genres, like in the old, old days. Women can wear bras and lace and have tangled dreads and also sing ‘My Funny Valentine’. It does not have to LOOK like this in order for you to hear it. It helps of course – the new wave thing and the skinny ties, those artists will always have an automatic audience. Joe Jackson and Chrissie Hynde, while they transcended the new wave thing, when push comes to shove they are associated with a movement, and this really helps the buyer, they have an image of what it is; it is marketed, it is youthful, whatever. For the singular singer-songwriter like me, it is different and it keeps changing.

For a while I was a hippie. In 1990 I read, “Get out your patchouli oil, Rickie Lee Jones is in town,” and thought, “Wow, when did that happen?” Then I read I was confessional, then I read I was American, then I read…you know, whatever. The idea that people need to know what clubs it is part of is fine with me. But I keep changing, and moving. My banner is my own, it is not the banner of another country that I carry, but my own banner and that is always changing everything but one thing, my name. My name. I am not idiosyncratic for not subscribing to pre-existing genres. Jack White, he is like the new Don Was. Associated with Hip. How does that happen? Who is in charge of that desk? Why are they always men? I am looking at the cover of Rolling Stone and I see Bono, Springsteen and…some other guy. Where is Joni Mitchell? Pardon me, but I believe Joni has had a lot more impact on how and what we sing than Bono. Bono is about as interesting as a limo driver with a CD he wants you to hear. I mean, what a pest.

Here is the problem. You use your celebrity to boost awareness of an event which you USE to boost awareness of your celebrity. You do not hesitate to allow the fallout to build more scope toward you, not toward God, not toward anything but you. I mean, this guy had the audacity at the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall Of Fame to say, okay, we’ll do it Irish style. Like they are Irish style? Imagine if any other person said now we do it ITALIAN style, or now we do it GERMAN style. I just get tired of it. Christian, humble yourself and stop making us watch you pose. These people rehearse so much the song has died and been stuffed by the time it reaches the stage. This is taxidermy! Which is fine, fine, nice sounding music, but have a little humility. Because this kind of thing – I am because I say I am – that began to really take root in the ’80s, Madonna and U2 reaping huge amounts of money on nominal talent and declaring themselves as kings and queens (hard to know which crown goes where), is only bothersome because many people have no money at all. Many people are also talented and powerful but you dominate the marketplace with mediocrity. Well, it’s better than Billy Joel and John Cougar, but not much.

I do want to be supportive of everyone. I know I have a reputation for being…what did I read, “prickly”, but, see, it’s a self-fulfilling thing. If you are looking to see that, you will see it. I smile at people, they turn away. I ask if the flight is full, they threaten to remove me. They think I am looking for a fight, so that is what they hear. When people come to me with an open mind, they usually say, “You are so nice, I don’t understand what all the fuss is about.”  And I am very nice. But I have a point of frustration and I get there early. I have a powerful spirit, and a dark cloud from me feels, evidently, like a storm. So I am more careful now than I used to be. I also know that what goes around comes around, and I don’t want to hurt anyone. The people I talk about I think could do better or I would not say anything about them. I root for the underdog, but that does not mean I want to topple the people in charge. It depends on what they are in charge of…doesn’t it?

Okay, too many tangents. Time to catch my plane for Boston. I have really enjoyed myself I must say. Good questions, good mood. The sun rose as I wrote. My daughter is safe in bed, and all is well in the world. I hope Santa comes this year. I miss him.

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Matt Barton and Alan Pedder


7 Comments so far
Leave a comment

What an amazing interview. She’s a beautiful poet and a true legend. Well done guys.

Comment by Sacha

[…] words in edgeways with rickie lee jones […]

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It’s just not nice to bad mouth other artists, no matter how accurate your assessment may be. It makes even a genius like Rickie Lee look petty. Nevertheless, a great interview.

Comment by Tom Altizer

‘It’s just not nice to bad mouth other artists’ – eh? Why not? How can a culture push forward without criticism, without edge? On a personal level, are we so delicate a few words against our particular sound heroes damage our psyche? On a journalistic level, I’m interested in honesty and depth, and that’s about finding out who the subject is, as much as the nuts and bolts of ‘how their new album was made’ – we get that from the moronic PR machine.
Also, it was really funny.

Comment by Alex Macdonald

Thank you for this. Rickie has meant so much to me over the years. Would love to see her perform live at least once in my life. Her music has been a gift for many years. Love you Rickie.

Comment by kevin

Truth, Honesty, wisdom, talent
You got it all girl!
Go Rickie and come and see us in Manchester UK soon

Love n’ Hugs


Comment by Angie

I’ll always love you, Rickie. You & Emmylou & Joni & Dusty Springfield & Peggy Lee. You’re truly the greatest of the very greatest. And meeting you in the streets of New York in 1999 was just pure magic. I felt touched by the hand of God. Your music reaches in that very same way. Thanks for sharing.. & to ‘trousers’ for interviewing.

Comment by X' Ho

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