Singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones talks to Andy Hazel about living in New Orleans, her 35-year career and staying on top.
She may be imminently releasing her first album in a decade, she may have a legion of diehard fans ecstatic at any message she chooses to share online, but right now Rickie Lee Jones is interested in one thing, her garden gate.
“I’m just trying…to close this thing,” she says in laughing frustration. “Do you hear that noise in the background?” She pauses to let a distant clacking sound ring. “Well I live between the train and the riverboat so I always have this sound. I love it…and there’s the train a few blocks away making itself known, it’s wonderful.” Since moving here in 2013 Jones has been sparked into creative resurgence, thrilled that the city reminds her so much of her childhood. That New Orleanians hang their washing to dry instead of using a clothes drier is, she insists, a very way to measure a city’s suitability.
“Things are pretty great here,” she says in a warm Southern brogue. “The town is really…what’s the word…it pulls people out into it, kind of like the opposite of LA where everybody stays in. Here everybody goes out. Wait…I got it!” A latch slips into place and her measured tones break open into a loud laugh. “Now, where were we? Andy, I’ve got to tell you, you’re the very first interview I’ve done for this record,” she says laughing loudly before screaming in mock terror.
Breaking through in 1979 with the song Chuck E.’s in Love Jones had two million selling albums, won a Grammy and was in an intense relationship with fellow singer-songwriter Tom Waits for several years. Unlike most pop stars of the early 80s, Jones wrote and arranged her intricate jazz-influenced pop songs, was backed by the best musicians available and exerted control over the whole creative process. Interviews show just how uneasy promoting and talking about her music, but also how readily she is to talk about her life. Famously, one interview became the basis for The Orb’s seminal ambient house track Little Fluffy Clouds.
“Whenever everybody’s putting out something new they’re usually just thinking about the new thing they did. I know people always like to ask me about old stuff, that time is the past but that music isn’t the past. All my art is timeless to me. 1979 is the past, but not [song from her first album] Last Chance Texaco.”
Any chance for juicy gossip about Tom Waits is neutered firstly by a polite segue into discussion of her music inspired by him, and secondly by fact “I haven’t spoken to him since…1979,” she says searching for the date before executing a rich, long pause.
“The places that my songs live, the times that they were created from; 1963, 1947 or 1922, not necessarily the week I wrote the song, that’s what they represent to me. They’re not cemented in another time. So, there might be a tune or two that is, or was, a real…healing tool, and that could invoke some feelings. But I’m not doing that right now.”
Right now is what Jones is excited about. She’s written a blog about the making of her new album The Other Side of Desire, and she’s excited to know what impression the cover art has made and what ‘journey’ the songs suggest.
The opening song Jimmy Choos is, as the title suggests, about luxury shoes. Ostensibly about helping a friend through a breakup, Jones repeats the phrase “Choos’ shoes” dozens of times, slurring the sounds and rendering the words ridiculous. “Wouldn’t it be great to hear that on the radio!?” She laughs. While it may be better suited to being on the soundtrack of a John Waters-directed episode of Sex and the City, it is a bold and confident song that is wholly her and instantly reminds anyone who only knows her from her 80s hit that her voice is a utterly unique creation. The Pogues-esque Christmas in New Orleans, and the long, languid, atmospheric tracks Infinity and Haunted echo her most acclaimed work and foreground her expressive voice to powerful effect.
“The first time I told the title to people I saw the look in their eyes and I could see they were thinking of sex. I thought ‘I guess that’s how that word is used’, but to me, we’re talking about the things you desire, not the things you need. We’re talking about this thing that leads you down all these roads that you’re better off not going down.”
Shedding the major record labels to make this, crowd-founded, album, Jones’ doesn’t find control comes from fame and influence, rather, money.
“While I have my finger on the button, how far I can push the button is totally decided by how much money I have to promote it,” she says with another warm, open laugh, “and actually that’s really exciting. Because when you have to work with all those guys – and they’re always guys, they used to wear suits now they wear flannel shirts – you feel like they are making choices and you have no control. So to be the person who goes ‘this is how we’ll spend the money and when we make money we’ll continue to use it to promote the record, and we don’t have to stop promoting the record because it’s the only record we have to promote’, that’s a great feeling. I feel like I will have more control, but time will tell.”
Suggestions of attention being the new online currency are brushed aside. While younger fans are discovering her older work (The Word recently named her second album, 1981’s Pirates as one of the 25 most overlooked albums of all time), Jones is more interested in that one thing that younger fans value most, authenticity.
“I’m not trying to reach for the attention of kids. Forgive me for what I’m about to say, but I see 60 year-old women trying to look like they’re 25, or making product to try to get a 20 year-old to buy their product I feel embarrassed for them and for me,” she says, tellingly. “I like the way I look. I like my age. I like my generation. I like who I am and I’m going to make a record that hopefully speaks to everybody. I’m not gonna try to pretend like I’m not who I am. That being said, I want to look great!”
Jones laments the shorter attention spans she feels typify the younger audience and is unwilling to cater to it. “The thing about staying in business in my age is to be happy about who you are, and then the record I make - I love my record – but before I love my record I feel OK about who I am, and the life I live. I think that’s going to be what makes it an interesting journey, at least I hope so.”
Rickie Lee Jones’ album The Other Side of Desire is out June 19 on Cooking Vinyl.