Joy and Defiance: A Conversation with Rickie Lee Jones

Rickie Lee Jones wasn’t expecting to break out in 1979, when “Chuck E.’s in Love,” the ebullient song that opens her self-titled debut, made her an instant star. “The radio at the time was only playing disco and some pretty hokey soul music,” Jones says from her home in New Orleans. “Chuck E.’s in Love” was neither, but it became a hit regardless, signaling the arrival of a fully formed voice: literate, funny, deeply sly, and undeniable.

Rickie Lee Jones and its 1981 follow-up, Pirates, saw re-release earlier this year via Jones’ DIY label Other Side of Desire. On June 7th, the label will release Kicks, a new album from Jones featuring covers of songs made famous by Bad Company, Benny Goodman, Skeeter Davis, Steve Miller Band, and more. The unusual mix—’70s rock neighboring jazz standards— somehow feels typical for Jones, whose ability to interpret songs is as strong as her ability to write them. And the material she chooses to cover? It’s what feels most vital in her present moment. “It’s not usually ‘I’ve always wanted to do this song and I’m finally doing it,'” Jones says. “It’s what resonates with me at the time.”

Jones joined Aquarium Drunkard for a long conversation about her history and the personal themes of joy and defiance that run like voltage through her discography.

Aquarium Drunkard: You recently reissued your self-titled debut and Pirates. What was it like for you to return to your earliest records?

Rickie Lee Jones: I think that the first album is incredible. It’s my favorite. I think every song is unique and powerful and no song is less. Pirates I guess is more of a movie about a moment in life. A lot of people relate to it, but personally, I like the first one best.

AD: You broke through with “Chuck E.’s In Love.” Its success found you performing on SNL and popping up in magazines. Did you have a feeling about that song before you even went into the studio, an inkling that it was going to be one that really worked for people?

Rickie Lee Jones: To be honest, no. It did seem like it was a great song. There was a feeling like, “If it hit, it would really hit.” But if I would’ve dared think that it would succeed, then I probably wouldn’t have been able to make it. I think the feeling I had making that record was that I’d probably gather a very cool group, a small cult following. But stopping and talking in the middle of the song, as catchy as it was, made it seem unlikely on the radio. So when the radio went “no, we like it too,” it was unexpected.

AD: It is an interesting case of an unlikely hit song.

Rickie Lee Jones: In a way, even more unlikely now. For whatever reason, that was the right time and place for it…the pop scene was so staid and uninspired. That song helped, I think, people think in different ways as far as what trickled into the culture. A song like that kind of opened it up a little bit.

AD: Early on, people called you “Duchess of Coolsville.”

Rickie Lee Jones: Well, that was a phrase Time called me. I don’t know if people did, but they did.

AD: On these first two records, you wrote vignettes and scenes. There are all these different characters. To what extent were you playing roles in these songs, approaching them like you were directing a film?

Rickie Lee Jones: All of the characters in all of the stories, though they’re fictional, are expressions of my emotions. They’re expressions there are no words for—they need to be put into a series of images. The feelings that they evoke, that’s a way of communicating. But what happened afterward was a kind of association of me with those characters and the situations that I had written about. I was never like the characters, but I wasn’t that far from that life [either].

AD: You’re saying there’s a separation between you and the characters, despite the emotional connection?

Rickie Lee Jones: It was very confusing for me. [There was a] kind of subtle but ever-present pressure from everyone I would meet to be one of the characters from the songs. It’s hard to escape that, especially as a young person who’s dealing with fame, which is a powerful drug. Not to mention having money.

I think that my relationship with the stories I make up is that they are ways I can express a myriad of feelings that don’t make sense unless you write them as a song. It’s like if I wanna make a song up about a mother, but also I wanna include Jeffrey Dahmer, and also I wanna include these feelings I had when I was playing with a toy train, I’m gonna put all those together like a painting, and [the song will] tell me something about myself. That’s the magic of writing a song. Some are more impressionistic: “We Belong Together” is just a series of visuals that evoke a longing and triumph, I think.

AD: That’s from Pirates. It seems like that record is the kind of statement you make only after you have the ability to do the thing you’re talking about, distill all these disparate feelings into songs. It sounds like the record you make when you can do that, and all the sudden, you’re thrust into this new situation of stardom, so you’re reacting in the songs and with these characters. Does it feel a little more autobiographical, even if it’s obliquely so?

Rickie Lee Jones: The second [song on the album, “Living It Up”] was about being overwhelmed with feelings. I think in that way, it would be autobiographical. “A Lucky Guy” and “Traces of the Western Slopes,” I guess they’re more carved out of me. But I wouldn’t use the word “autobiographical” because they’re kind of hazy songs. [Laughs]

AD: You aren’t recounting specific things, but you’re pulling from a whirlwind life.

Rickie Lee Jones: That’s the magic part of performing and creation…we’re able to transmit those feelings through this series of sounds and my voice and the music. I can transmit it to you when you listen. That’s incredible. It’s a very real job, and a very real experience, everybody has it. That’s why they buy the ticket: to come and feel it live. This thing with music, it’s like working with magic.

AD: Pirates was also very successful, but it sounds risky. It’s a departure from the tone of first record. Did you have a sense of that at the time? Were you aware of the difference in direction?

Rickie Lee Jones: I felt really defiant. I felt like defiance was the right way to go. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t trying to go the wrong way, but I felt like the only way to survive what had happened was to go in a completely different direction.

AD: The songs are much longer, it’s more complex and layered. And it’s more shadowy.

Rickie Lee Jones: I always felt like I might be misunderstood by “Chuck E.’s In Love” as being a happy-go-lucky person. What I didn’t understand at the time is that it doesn’t matter what people think of you, you’re just a songwriter, so let ’em think whatever they think. But at the time, it seemed very important to me that I was represented correctly. I love “Chuck E.’s In Love,” and there is a part of me that is a happy, big-smiling person, but I felt cheated that people thought that was all I was.

I think with the hardship of my breakup with Tom Waits, and then the things that followed afterward, were a chance for me to tell a deeper, darker story about myself to the public. I felt it was the right way to go to continue to have a career because I would not be able to sustain that success and that hit song that was so big. It seemed to me that my only chance was to guide the career in a less lucrative, less visible, but deeper water.

“This thing with music, it’s like working with magic.”

Rickie Lee Jones

AD: That’s a rare thing for an artist to be tangibly aware of. A lot of artists either do what you’re talking about purely unconsciously or they consciously try to keep chasing hits. It’s fascinating that you were sort of able to put all that together in your mind, in the midst of what must’ve been a dizzying experience.

Rickie Lee Jones: I think I always knew that I did not want to be a person who “had been in music ten years ago.” My idols were people like Frank Sinatra, people who had lifelong careers. I guess I kind of unconsciously mapped my life and my career to be able to always make a living this way.

AD: Let’s jump ahead to a few years later, and your album Flying Cowboys, which turns 30 years old this year. You lived in Arizona as a child, and that record found you reflecting on it. Obviously, the Orb sampled an interview of you discussing—

Rickie Lee Jones: Those fuckers.

AD: —I was going what you thought about “Little Fluffy Clouds,” but I think I get it. [Laughs] What inspired you to think about your youth in the desert at that time?

Rickie Lee Jones: I was living in Ojai, which is a similar climate, and I’d had a child. I [was continuing to] reflect my surroundings like I’d done with Pirates. I guess that must be the truth that’s consistent in my work. And that’s funny, because I thought that was the one thing I didn’t do, but I guess I reflect where I am in any particular place and then make up a story about it. I told the story of me in even more hazy terms, as this western thing. I think it was kind of a response to Pirates. I think in my mind I was going, “Well, I was out on the ocean, now I’m going to the desert.”

AD: You had worked with Donald Fagan on Pirates, but Flying Cowboys found you teaming up with Walker Becker. What did you like about Steely Dan?

Rickie Lee Jones: I had met a few potential producers and I guess it wasn’t working, so my A&R guy sent Walter over. Steely Dan was, and remains for me, one of the most important collectives in pop music. I wrote something when Walter died which reflects how I feel. Even though they were kind of misogynistic, they were also really funny. Humor, from Randy Newman to Steely Dan, is the thing I’m most attracted to in music. It takes a scathing intelligence to be emotional and funny, to make you think about what’s happened and maybe cry—though they weren’t too much about crying. I first heard them in high school, but then when I was in college, they were like the thing. I’ve been a fan for a long time.

AD: What was working with Walter like? From the outside, Steely Dan has this reputation of demanding studio perfection. While the record certainly sounds sterling—it’s a beautifully recorded album—it also feels like it retains a looseness and spontaneity as well.

Rickie Lee Jones: That was my fault and the sterling was Walter’s! [Laughs] That was a struggle between us. At the end, Walter said, “I’ve learned a lot” and he meant it, you know? On a personal basis, I thought Walter was gonna be frightening, he looked so stern and angry, but he was the gentlest of souls. He made so much room for me emotionally, he stayed there nine months working on that record. But he was a producer—they like to wash away all elements of human flaw. At that time, I was ten years into my career, and I did not like that “shiny” thing. There was a learning curve of me realizing that a lot of my sales came from people that liked the shiny, sterling thing. But I myself liked a much rawer thing. A lot of the struggle was me relinquishing what I wanted to do to what I needed to do, apparently, to work. The pentacle of our disagreement was “Satellites,” which was the single. I cringed when I heard it. It was not what I wanted to do with that song, and that soprano saxophone was such a point of disagreement! Like, “Oh, I hate that!”

AD: You hated the saxophone in that song?

Rickie Lee Jones: I hated it! But oddly enough, I’ll mention that “Satellites,” with the soprano saxophone and Buzz Feiten’s acoustic guitar, seemed to have a ripple effect. When I heard Dave Matthews, I thought, “Here’s a guy who’s totally derived from that song.” He had written his own “Satellite”— he seems to be made from that song, from that horn that he has to the syncopated guitar that he uses. So I thought, “Wow, once again, if I let go, something is happening beyond my control.” Even though I didn’t like that song, it had an impact. Me, I would’ve done “Satellites” more like David Bowie or Mott the Hoople. I had a totally different thing in mind. That’s actually an interesting conversation for some other time of how you see yourself and how your business operates. People like that shinier thing that producers do and I enjoy an electric guitar and a lot of noise. In the end, I accept that I write a more sophisticated song, and get a producer and not do it by myself.

AD: “Satellites” opens with the line, “We were born forever.” It’s one of my favorite lyrics. It’s so mystical. You’re talking about reading fortunes, casting runes, and speaking mysterious languages. Where was your head with those lyrics? Were you singing about the magic work of songs that you mentioned earlier?

Rickie Lee Jones: Yeah. My incentive to write the song was to write something joyful. I went, “Wow, everything I’m writing is sad and mid-tempo.” So, I had a practical thing that I wanted to write something joyful, and those were the lyrics that came out when I aimed at joy.

AD: I love that. A year or so back, I made a playlist of songs that I love from around that era and I included the song “Satellites,” as well as a song by Mary Margaret O’Hara.

Rickie Lee Jones: Oh, I love Mary Margaret O’Hara!

AD: I titled the playlist “Joy is the Aim,” which is a lyric she sings in “Year In Song.” When you said you were aiming for joy with those lyrics, it set off a bell in my mind. What synchronicity.

Rickie Lee Jones: That’s a thing that gets translated that you don’t plan and you don’t try. What I found is that the intention is what gets translated. It’s not what you said, it’s what you intended. I intend for this to be joyful, and that’s what people will feel. It’s pretty amazing.

AD: Does that mean you have to be aware of your intention at all times?

Rickie Lee Jones: Yes, I think.

AD: Over the years, you’ve recorded a lot of cover songs. We’ve talked a lot about what you do as a writer, but as an interpreter, what does it take for you to inhabit a song that you didn’t write yourself?

Rickie Lee Jones: There’s no different feeling for me, first. When I sing, it’s the same resonating against my skeleton and my muscles. My feeling for a song someone else wrote and one I wrote, it’s just exactly the same. If I sing “A Quarter to Two,” I weep the same as if I sing “We Belong Together.” I just recorded another record of other people’s songs called Kicks…it’s kind of rock from the ’70s and earlier jazz. That’s the combination of things that turned out.

AD: Have you been writing at all?

Rickie Lee Jones: No, uh-uh. I’m writing down a lot of ideas, but whatever that thing is that makes me push and do the creation, it hasn’t been here. It’s waiting for some reason to suffer and write.

AD: In 2007, you released a record called The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard, which was inspired by Lee Cantelon’s The Words, about the teachings of Christ. So it’s almost like a collaboration between the two of you, writing-wise. Did you grow up particularly religious?

Rickie Lee Jones: No. I mean, I grew up Catholic, but I was the Protestant in a Catholic family, ‘ya know? I don’t have any problem with religion and that’s because I’ve never really been indoctrinated. Catholics and Buddhists and all of it, it’s all really interesting to me. [Sermon on Exposition Boulevard] was meant to be…I don’t like to use the word “spiritual,” because I think it’s a go-to term instead of “religious,” but it was meant to be a kind of a religious, spiritual, joyful sound, using the Christ idea, freedom, and defiance.

AD: You’re drawn to defiance, freedom, and joy, and I think you can find those elements in the teachings of Christ.

RickieLee Jones: Defiance, freedom, and joy are probably how I move towards the expression of art. It’s really true. words/j woodbury

Further Reading: Rickie Lee Jones :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview (2015)

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