Gary Steel loves Rickie Lee Jones, who performs in Auckland this coming week. Below, he explains his love affair, and makes public for the first time an interview with the singer-songwriter conducted in 2003. See below for ticket giveaway!
Back in 1979, I rejected Rickie Lee Jones on the assumption that she was simply riding the coat-tails of her publicised relationship with Tom Waits, and that catchy single ‘Chuck E’s In Love’, while really quite brilliant, seemed like a one-off. She also had the whiff of pretence about her – some white girl from the suburbs who really wanted to be a figure from the bohemian late ‘50s and its smoky, drug-fuelled, out-of-it vibe.
All of that might be true, to some degree, but it’s irrelevant in the face of her astounding talent. For decades I ignored RLJ’s output, until in 2003, when for some reason her album The Evening Of My Best Day came to my attention. It knocked my socks off. The music had all the sophistication of her friends in Steely Dan, but the songs and the singing were the thing. It’s an album that has stayed on my regular playlist for ten years, and I never get sick of it.
Then in 2005 a massive three-disc set, The Duchess Of Coolsville: An Anthology, was released, and it blew my tiny mind. This is what I had been missing all those years? Having now gone back and purchased all the original albums, I still don’t know quite how to process Rickie Lee Jones or her work. She’s utterly distinctive. Her work, and especially her voice, invites the listener in to an intimate, sometimes searing universe of hurt, and yet she’s a world away from the “feel my sensitive heart-beat” school of singer-songwriters. Deeply schooled in jazz and blues, but also a product of the ‘70s, Rickie Lee Jones is both an astonishing interpretive singer, and a songwriter who always does her own thing.
Her records are, of course, known for their hi-fidelity values, so I’m assuming that many Witchdoctor readers will know what I’m talking about. I’d certainly rather hear RLJ at a hi-fi demo than those old warhorses Dire Straights.
Next week’s gig is a rare opportunity to see Rickie Lee Jones in an intimate setting, with the able support of Jeff Pevar (guitar, bass and keyboards) and Ed Willett (cello). It may be difficult for RLJ to get a decent-sized audience amongst the hubbub of the Auckland Arts Festival, but I’m hopeful that her fans will show themselves on the night.
BELOW IS AN excerpt from a rare interview with Rickie Lee Jones. Conducted in 2003 around the release of her then-new album, The Evening Of My Best Day, it’s a little bit revealing of her quirky and esoteric character.
Witchdoctor – The Evening Of My Best Day is an astonishing album. From the very first note it was like coming home to something rich I hadn’t tasted in popular music for far too long. Did you consciously search for ghost vapours of popular music history to enrich the sound of this album? How did you arrive at arrangements that seem to allude to many of the more esoteric ideas that simply don’t grace contemporary music’s often malnourished architecture?
Rickie Lee Jones – Well Gary, that’s the kind of question that makes it worth getting out of bed on New Years eve for. That is a question I will hope I remember from time to time. Thank you. Yes, I did consciously search for ghost vapours of popular music history. If I could have, I would have said it that way myself. Thank you. I looked through the old clothes up in the attack. I was up there and saw boxes of 1964, and ‘65, and the children we were and the fences and he way the grass smelt, and the different light in the cool shadows of the day. I found perfect arrangements in old jazz records I heard but didn’t know the names of, and I remembered what it was like to sit in somebody’s kitchen you didn’t know, cuz you were a stranger in town, and the way things were then. People took each other in, and they would be playing some jazz on their record player, I was only a young teenager, looking in on some bent part of an adult world I would never fully understand. I am always a guest using this old jazz, but I love it and know it well, and so bringing it down from the attic or the cellar or whatever that is (we had neither in Phoenix) I noticed also that the very spirit of some other time was contained in ‘Ugly Man’. You can hear that spirit of some of the very left wing community oriented radio still here in LA. KPFK, it’s still intact. I suppose that I am not just lifting a thing I see or hear. I know it very well, and perhaps my roots entangle these other times. Sometimes it seems to me that people are always slightly voyeuristic these days. They use things rather than are a part of them, if you know what I mean. They like the look of it, the sound of it, but they haven’t actually produced the series of events to create its meaning. It, though interesting, becomes shallow and ornamental, a trademark of a lot of what we hear nowadays.
And who can judge? Perhaps what is needed now is more ornamental, maybe there is a lot underground that needs to grow, and kids today are not able to plant, to take the time to dig and plant under there, but have to address the immediacy of things. Jazz, you know, requires a lot of under the ground skill to pull of the immediacy of it. That could be why I think it’s a good time to reintroduce jazz to people. But again, could be why people respond to the notion of it rather than the real thing. I’m thinking of the cut and paste acid jazz sounds people go for. Just sample a horn line and create pictures. That’s the voyeuristic aspect of it. No making of the thing, really, just using already existing performance. This is an important aspect of what’s going on in the world now. Recycling. Instinctive recycling.
So yes, it was conscious. I like some aspects of that other time, and felt and feel we can bring them here, they are intact, the revolution, the jazz, the soul, the hope.
Witchdoctor – Was the process of creating this album very different to previous projects? I guess what I’m alluding to here is the Pro-tools approach, which seems to have allowed you to make an album that’s both highly sophisticated and right from the gut. So was it both the technology and your collaborators who helped to get more of ‘you’ in here, or was the result more to do with your state of mind when you came to the project?
RLJ – A common idea is that somehow the collaborators, who are usually men, are somehow responsible for the quality or the character of the work. That is not the case here. I use whomever or whatever to go where I am going. So if they are responsible, it is because I decide to use them to be so. I have used Protools before, but perhaps not with the expertise I have now. Protools has come a long way since Pop Pop. We first used it then to do some fixes. That was over 10 years ago. It was expensive and tedious and there were only a few guys doing it. Now every second engineer is an expert. It’s really quite amazing. More was gotten out of me because I came with more. We record on Protools because it is cheaper, and it is easier to put a lot of ideas on, and that is what I always have, a lot of ideas. My co-producer spent the nine months in the lounge, where he would say “how’s it going in there?” when I came out for a drink. The engineer was the only person I spoke to about what I did. When I was done, I would call in [David] Kalish and say, perhaps we need this, or he would say, I know a violin player, etc, and call that person up. My decision to work with who I work with has to do with their spiritual journey. Can I help them? Can they help me? I have not met anyone who brings as much artistically to the table as me, to be frank. But nevertheless I need people, their hopes, their fears, and that is what manifests in a piece of art. Not their opinions. So yes, my state of mind evolves, my karma, if you will, manifests.
It has to do with me, entirely, and what I decide I will take in of the people around me.
Witchdoctor – Going back a little to the genesis of the idea: Did a bunch of fully formed songs come to you, and did they all fly in a rush, or did it happen at a stately pace?
RLJ – I had a few finished songs, like ‘Second Chance’, ‘Lap Dog’, ‘Ugly Man’. But during any process those songs also can be changed. Then I wrote a few during the thing, and also the basic ideas of some songs I had, but not the chorus, or not the end. For me, I must continue to create during the recording. I don’t like to write a draft, I like the writing to be the play as well as the play to be the play. If you know what I mean.
Witchdoctor – You have talked about not having felt inspired to write for some time before this. What do you attribute to the sea change?
RLJ – Well I needed to write. I needed to, and so, spiritually, I kept folding and forming until I was at a place where I could do that again. That’s a hard discussion. Maybe someone is holding a stick.
Maybe you have built this temple to God, but you need a stick to put in the alter. Without the stick the Lord will not rise. You know you need that stick as much as any other thing you have put in this building. So you say, come and help me build.
This is ego wrestling. You know that you may have done it all, but it all will not matter without this one stick. That’s what it is like working with people. At some point you know that everybody’s part is just as important, even though it may seem less so. So my humility must be tempered. I must learn to be humble while never underestimating the power and meaning of my work. It’s a hard and long process, a lifetime, and I do tend to lean one way or the other depending on how good I feel about everything. But ultimately this is about learning to take in, to give up, to let go. Uhhh, not rhetoric, this. This is what the job is.
Witchdoctor – The press release mentions your concern about the direction the American government is taking at the moment. I have a little trouble deciphering enough lyrics to know whether those concerns are addressed overtly in the work. (Are the lyrics available for perusal?)
RLJ – You can find my lyrics on my web site. Go to www.furnitureforthepeople.com. That is the political arm of what I do. [Note: This site is actually a furniture store now. Go to www.rickieleejones.com].
Witchdoctor – The singing on your new record is spine-tingling; the more elegiac numbers are achingly beautiful. How did you find a way to renew your commitment to that level of personal communication through music, when so many of your generation now make music which is fatally distanced?
RLJ – Again, a really lovely and insightful question for me. Well, I cannot tell what songwriters you are referring to when you say they are addicted to fame. Fame is one job, writing songs is another. It is definitely a drag to be famous and then not be. That is too humbling for sure. Maybe better than never being famous, but I am not sure. The fame thing, what a weight. What does it mean. Immortality? Adoration? Parental love? I don’t know. I always feel like I am standing outside my body when I am doing the fan fame thing. It’s like they are talking to the fame, and I have to stand there and hold it up for them, otherwise they will feel very let down. I don’t mind, and I guess, when I have that hat on, I like to do it. But I don’t wear that hat naturally, and I can’t imagine working only for fame, though I do understand its allure.
My answer to your question already in part was given in our discussion about not being able to write, about finding your way along your journey. How one does the amazing, I mean the personally amazing, like, how did you get you today when you felt like staying in bed, well, that’s amazing, really, for some of us, just to get up. So how did I renew my commitment to that level of personal communication, which is exactly what I did, but there you are telling it to me so well. How did I do that? Well, I searched it out. I kept my nose down and looked for it everywhere. I wanted to speak to the world, I wanted to reach out, to be a part. That, I think, is where we get lost as we get older. Youth has this automatic wanting to be a part. They are just starting their journey, they want to define themselves in terms of the world, how it sees them, what it will say about them, and as we get older we kind of give up on that.
I recognise some things about what it means to be a beginner, what’s hard, sacrificial, and what is divine, and can be recreated. That is, to be a beginner was my only hope. In a way, that is what I did. I gave up my hold on…on… whatever I had established and decided to start again. I did this quietly, inside. Also I am at this strange place in my life where all there is the sea. I am floating, and all there is is the water. Sometimes something drifts past, but for the most part, there is not much past, not much future. There is only now. It is very weird. Maybe that is the beginning of things. I don’t know. The end the beginning. What does it matter? I aimed at a piece of hope and caught it. That’s hard to do at any age, I suppose.
- Rickie Lee Jones performs at the Bruce Mason Centre, Friday March 15. Go to www.livenation.co.nz or www.rickieleejones.com for ticket information.
- Witchdoctor has four double passes to give away to the Rickie Lee Jones show this coming Friday. To enter, send us one sentence telling us why you would like to go to the show and email to firstname.lastname@example.org
THIS COMPETITION HAS NOW CLOSED OFF. The following four lucky people are the winners of double tickets to the Rickie Lee Jones concert at the Bruce Mason Centre this Friday:
“As a long time fan, going to the Rickie Lee Jones with my lady of 25 years would roll back time to sitting on the deck of a condemned flat, with a dog at our feet and freedom of life before us (prior to careers, mortgages and families and all the rest of the stuff that makes life so complicated and busy)”.
“Because her music is VERY evocative of my childhood and what my family were listening to around that time – I’d love to take my Mum along”.
“I would love to go see Rickie Lee Jones as she is timeless musical perfection”.
“I would like to go to the concert as this lady touches my heart like no other”.