With a career that stretches back to her 1979 self-titled debut, Rickie Lee Jones has been creating music that transcends the every day while wholly embracing every ounce of its being. Her emergence from the same scene that birthed Tom Waits, Chuck E. Weiss and others helped make her an instant success, but her albums have consistently been an evolving work, going from her early master-work Pirates up through the Walter Becker produced Flying Cowboys and the majestic The Evening of My Best Day. The Other Side of Desire is her 12th studio album of original material and is out this week. AD caught up with Rickie via phone to discuss the new album, her move back to New Orleans, the benefit and drawbacks of ego and how it’s nice to feel like you’ve given something to the world.
Aquarium Drunkard: It’s been about six years since you last put out an album of original material [2009’s Balm in Gilead] and that’s one of the longest stretches of your entire career. But a few years ago you did a covers album [2012’s The Devil You Know]. You’ve talked in the promotional material for this album about waiting until you had the songs together you wanted to record. Was doing the covers album a way of sparking that creative process in some way?
Rickie Lee Jones: I don’t think so. I think, to be honest, it was just to make some money. [laughs] It was just to keep myself working. You know, I was getting into a place where I wasn’t working at all and was just touring. I had run out of money and had to just tour and tour. So to get myself into the studio – I had two songs that I knew I wanted to do. I wanted to do “The Weight.” I was waking up every day singing “The Weight” and singing “It Never Entered My Mind” by Frank Sinatra. And then I added on this Rolling Stones song [“Sympathy for the Devil”].
And people said, ‘you know, you do these 60s soul songs so well. You should do a record of those songs.’ I didn’t do a 60s soul record. But that’s kind of how I went in the direction of the 60s generally speaking. But then I didn’t have a group of songs from the 60s that moved me. So we ended up picking things like “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and things that had been suggested. I don’t know if I should share this, but I struggled with that record. So I suppose, in a way, it told me the way to go. It was like: ‘You have to leave here now. There’s nothing left in L.A. for you. If you want to be a writer, you have to go somewhere else.’ So I’m really glad I moved. It really helped.
You know, I know people don’t like to hear ‘I did it for the money,’ But money has really told us what direction to go. When people are poor, they often do some of their best work. They want to make some money, right?
AD: So you did end up moving back to New Orleans, a place you’d lived earlier in your life. The album name comes from a Tennessee Williams reference to where you lived there in the city and even the first song, “Jimmy Choos,” has a lyrical reference to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. So, I’m curious, was Williams’ work in particular an influence on this album or was his work more just a part of the general atmosphere of New Orleans that you wanted the record to embody?
RLJ: You know, I think it’s more general. I live right by the street here named Desire. So for me – I don’t know if it’s true for people from here – but I can’t help but notice: ‘Oh, there’s the streetcar.’ [laughs] So when I decided to start gathering the elements for the songs, those are the first things that started coming. You know, I actually saw this transvestite up on this roof in my mind [ed. note – the main character of “Jimmy Choos”], and she was me, obviously, and she was also the person I was creating in the song. And she was really, ‘Why am I a transvestite? Why can’t I see myself as a woman? Why do I only see myself as someone playing a woman?’ And all these things that come up in the course of creating the text. So I guess the answer is both – I didn’t think about it at all and I probably did think about it. I’m not sure what the answer is. [laughs]
AD: With the new album, you worked with John Porter as a producer. He has such a varied background – he’s a member of Roxy Music of course, but he’s also produced stuff by Ryan Adams and the Smiths, but also Taj Mahal and B.B. King. What was it that drew you to him as a producer?
RLJ: Uh, he lives here. [laughs] I talked with some interesting people, but ultimately they all wanted to go back to L.A. They didn’t know the lay of the land here. They were willing to try, but ultimately they were both wanting me to come back to their studios in L.A. So I guess holding my ground also dictated what kind of record it would be. But to find a local ground, who knows the best people – because there are a lot of great musicians, but that doesn’t mean they’re great in the studio. So to find people who can record quickly, can show up relatively on time – because people here are notoriously late – you have to find a local guy. John was incredibly perfect. He has a strong resumé. He’s been with a diverse group of people and he’s had lots and lots of hits. He was funny, because I’d come in and go: ‘Oh, I kind of want this to sound like this thing and it kind of reminds me of that,’ and he’d say ‘Oh, I did that.’ Or ‘Oh, it’s kind of like that 80s thing,’ ‘Oh, I did that.’ [laughs.] So it was kind of fun.
AD: Going back to the structure of the writing on the record, there’s a line in the promotional material where you said, talking about your history: “There were bitter moments seeing my legend re-written in the image of others or hearing my style lifted – watching my name all but erased.” And I was thinking of that when I listened to the very last song on the record, “Finale: (A Spider in the Circus of the Falling Star)” And it seems like you giving advice about the life of being an artist to someone who is just getting started. And there’s even that line at the end where you say “eat of me and live, child”…
RLJ: Ah, fantastic! I wouldn’t have made that connection.
AD: Well, I was thinking, on the one hand you seem to be talking about people who lifted your style, but in the song you seem almost to be encouraging people to take these things and see what they can do with them.
RLJ: Well, the only difference for me – because remember, that piece I wrote was talking about the past – and there were times where I felt lifted. That people knew that they were doing me and wouldn’t say my name. And this is making me feel like a kid on the playground, you know, my own inferiority complex. And there was a time where I finally got to a point where I felt like there’s a grace in knowing that what you’ve done is a part of what people do.
And your desire to have your name known is ego based. And everything about the ego is going to lead to sorrow. It fuels us. We sign our name and we make great art and we make great things, but you have to walk away from the signature part. It’s the ego that makes the great work, and once it’s made, our ego wants to stand there and say ‘love me, love me.’ And that’s where the trouble starts. So, finally, I accept my ego, and now, when I make the work, I step back – it’s okay to get some glory. It’s just the attachment to ‘I didn’t get enough glory. What about her? You said that about her. What about that?’ It’s the ‘I, I, I,’ that makes us feel like we can never be happy. I’m pretty sure I’ve learned that lesson even though I’m not articulating it very well.
AD: So a follow-up question to that, in a sense. You have a very devoted sort of cult audience, but in terms of the pop charts, it’s not the same as it was in the past. But is there almost a sense of relief in not being watched as closely? Is there a sense of being truer to an artistic vision without as much of an audience?
RLJ: Those are two questions, so the first part – is there a relief? Most definitely. I’m a private and shy person. And even now with a little more attention because of the new record coming, I’m aware of a few more people looking. I’m okay. I’m older now and can handle it a lot better, so there is relief.
The truer part comes or goes regardless of who’s looking. You can’t pretend that you’re not reacting. Life is a catalyst – it’s full of things that make things react. So it’s impossible for me not to know that people are going to write about my work and that they’re going to compare it to things I think are erroneous. But the acceptance in finally knowing every writer, every artist uses their own palette. Every writer who is writing, your work has gone through their history, it’s going to go through their feelings. You can’t control what a writer writes. You know what I mean? I’m not talking about whether they give you 4 or 5 stars. I’m talking about their basic perception. It’s a kind of acceptance of that I have no control. All I can do is send out a joyful noise and my intention to have some fun, make money, do some good stuff – let’s not die in a nursing home. I have a goal [laughs] and it’s a practical goal. And the practical goal helps me keep my feet on the ground. And that goal helps me write a 3-minute song instead of an 8 minute one. Not that there isn’t a 7 minute song on the record. But it helps me focus. I really need that, because I’m so creative and driven, that I can’t shut my mind off. So it’s these superficial or material, practical goals that help me. So I think the answer is that that’s not the thing that helps me focus and set other things aside.
AD: You did a fundraiser through PledgeMusic for this album. Was that a hard decision to make? You come from a time period when record labels had money to make records happen and you’re doing this in a very different way. Speaking of ego, was it difficult to reach out to fans and ask for that kind of help?
RLJ: I like that question. I’ve been trying to do this for a long time. I tried to do it back in 2009 or 2010. And [manager] Danny Goldberg said ‘Absolutely not. The perception for you would be really bad. You’re not the kind of artist who can do a fundraiser.’ And I listened. and that’s what I’m talking about in this interview – the perception of things, that we live in fear of stuff. And in pop music it is perception, but at some point you have to go: ‘Look, you guys are going to have to see me as authentically as I am.’ If this would be bad for Steve Nicks, for her to be seen as poor, maybe it would be bad for me, maybe I’m a different person.
But I let him call the shots and we did another record. And by the time I did the covers album and I moved here, I decided I wasn’t going to sign another contract with a label. Because they give me this amount of money and all of it goes into making the record and then I have to work and work and work just to raise the money to live. And I don’t want to live that way anymore. And no matter what I seem to give them, they seem to be disappointed. So I wanted to make a record and I want to decide how it’s promoted. So that’s what we did.
The only humbling part – and it’s not humbling while it’s happening – but I looked at the PledgeMusic thing the other day and realized I’d sold a pair of my shoes. I’d sold a pair of my shoes to make a record. And that’s pretty humbling. But I needed to raise money and those are things I had. And it’s a thing I wrote in “Danny’s All-Star Joint,” the more money you have, the more money people will give you. When you need that money, they won’t give you money. So I think in the public view, it’s a hip thing to do. So whatever backlash might have happened or might happen, I just don’t think it’s bad. I think it’s kind of sincere and I don’t think it’s so sad, do you?
AD: No, I don’t think it’s so bad. You know, I interviewed a different band who was doing a similar thing and they had been big back sometime in the 90s. But they said ‘You know, all this does is it gives the fans something for what they contribute and it allows us to start out at zero rather than starting in the hole.’
RLJ: It makes all the difference. It’s a horrible feeling to be involved in the debt process, that no matter what you do, you’re still in debt. It’s a great chance to start at zero as you said.
AD: You’re getting ready to head out on a tour in July and August to support the album. I feel like live the whole breadth of your canon comes together in a way that you don’t get to hear on the records. When I first saw you, I was really only familiar with your early records and you opened that night with “It Takes You There” from The Evening of My Best Day and I thought ‘wow, what a great song. I’ve never heard this before.’ Is it a conscious effort to connect that lifetime of work together? Because that’s how it felt to me – a whole cohesive work live that you wouldn’t perceive on the records.
RLJ: I don’t think it’s a conscious effort. I know they’re connected because I know they’re from me. In the course of making a record and how they’re marketed depending on what year they were made, people see them all sometimes very differently from one another. But I don’t. I can sing “It Takes You There” and then sing “On Saturday Afternoons in 1963” and then sing “Nobody Knows My Name” and it’s all the play. And what you said is really astute. It’s all like a play each night. It’s a musical journey and it’s an emotional journey and we go places we don’t really have words to describe what we and the audience experience. And hopefully doing the songs differently – like doing “It Takes You There” by myself – helps people hear them in a different way. I think breaking them down like that – like “Sympathy for the Devil” – helps the people hear the songs as they truly are.
AD: There’s a documentary coming this fall about the making of this new album, right?
RLJ: It’s about making the record, but I think it’s kind of about me. [laughs] It’s about the making of the record superficially. But she [director Gail Harvey]wanted to make the film because she asked her daughter if she wanted to come see me play and her daughter didn’t know who I was. And she said ‘that just can’t be.’ So she brought her 26 year old daughter and her daughter, rightfully so [laughs], thought it was a delightful show. So she set out to tell a story. I think it’ll be a really good film. I hope so.
AD: What made you willing to do that? Were you hesitant at all to let someone come in and film that?
RLJ: I just really hit it off with her. The only thing with making a piece of art, and it’s going to go through the eyeglasses of others, it’s going to go through their emotions and palates. Well, I liked her right away. She’s a woman about my age, shares my humor and she got me. She was so enthusiastic and friendly and I just liked her. The way I am with her is good for film. I’m not sad when I’m in front of her, so that’s why I decided to let her film it. And I’m so open – and I can’t not be. So when somebody comes in, they’re going to see almost everything. And it’s a serious thing of trust. And I just trust her. She’s not here to make a serious expose. She wants to make a good film. I think it’s going to be a good film.
AD: I wanted to pass along – one of my co-workers wanted me to say that Pirates is the record that got him through his graphic design degree. He would listen to it over and over for inspiration while he was doing work.
RLJ: Well, I’m glad I could help. Isn’t it good to get messages like that?
AD: I’m sure it’s probably different. I’m sure you probably get people telling you lots of stories, but every now and then they have to be pretty different than ‘Oh, I love your music.’ Which is just as genuine, but when you hear really specific personal stories, it’s different.
RLJ: It’s good. You know you’re part of the world and you know you’ve done some good in it. words / j neas