The Singer and The Song A conversation with Rickie Lee Jones

Text: Gyan

Hey Rickie –

NEIGHBOURHOOD’s editor thought it a good idea to engage a singer/songwriter to do the asking for this interview. He said he considered I was “on some similar journey artistically in terms of sympathies and passions”. When I heard it was with you I jumped at the chance. It’s my first time doing this kind of thing. I had an Australian hit in the early 90’s and have had a reasonably diverse musical career since, in the UK, USA and back to Australia. I’ve been a fan since your debut – and have really enjoyed the excuse to go deeper into ‘Rickie world’, soaking in and researching the classics that are part of my fabric as well as unearthing some overlooked surprises. I hope these questions are easy to respond to.

– Gyan

RLJ: Well, first thank you for introducing yourself. I am happy to speak with a fellow musician.

GYAN: I’m loving the new album, The Other Side of Desire. Was it easier to pen these stories with your recent move from LA to New Orleans? I sense the change of address may have given you some new haunts and colorful characters to write about in your authentic autobiographical style. How important is community for you?

RLJ: Yes, to that. The new address gave me… the proverbial new lease. Aside from the amazing array of humanity, and all the music all the time, the quality of life here both for the dark and light is sustaining, it is Mother New Orleans, and for me she brings comfort and enthusiasm that I love. Courtesy, youth, alternative, traditional…  it’s here, and it does not cost too much.

Photography by Myriam Santos

GYAN: I’ve noticed writing an album can be quite prophetic, channeling the future before it arrives. Are there any personal revelations you can share since releasing The Other Side of Desire?

RLJ: I have also noticed that the prophetic often lands in my writing.  But even if I could think of something right now, probably I would not share it. I wonder if I am writing it or if it’s whispering in my ear. The future I mean.

GYAN: It’s such a bonus to have a documentary encompassing the making of this album. You seemed really relaxed and candid with filmmaker Gail Harvey in such close proximity. Did you find having not only a witness, but another female in the studio a godsend?

RLJ: Yes, I did. She was terrific, and I wanted a friend, and I needed a professional person to take a professional interest in my work so it was the magic combination to open me up. I suspect more and more, however, there is such a layer of misogyny in all cultures, a dismissive subcutaneous layer that immediately does not measure women in the same room as men. So, I fight a kind ‘why bother’ at the same time I feel excitement and honor at being the subject of anything like a documentary.

Yes, a witness. She just watched what was going on. I could not believe how… you know, I used to be the queen of the block. It was hard to be treated so rudely by people I had hired and to have to suck it up.

GYAN: In the doco, I was disturbed by producer John Porter’s approach and relieved when you picked up the phone to your friend and producer, Mark Howard to help bring the album home. You seemed empowered and full of joy with the encouragement of someone who sees your musical genius. What denotes a good/great producer for you?

RLJ: Yes, a good friend sees your genius. a good producer can put it on the record. I think a producer has to be friendly or a friend who can give you his or her complete attention, be ready and devoted to do what is necessary – whether that is ‘hey get in here and finish this’ or ‘take as much time as you need’.

Maybe John Porter didn’t really like me and came, as he said, just to see his friends. The question is, what have I done?  How do i allow myself to be treated thus? And how can I get people around me who will protect me and who are creative enough to forge ideas that I would not and cannot do myself. I mean why was he there? Why did, why do, why would I pick the one guy who is going to be a dick?  That’s the question. And see, if you talk to him, he’s so innocent and friendly, like ‘Who me?  I said that?’

GYAN: I also had an alcoholic and war-torn father with some redeeming qualities. I loved hearing that old recording of your dad’s voice in the doco; he had great chops as well as some demons. Did he recognize your talent early on and how important was his influence?

RLJ: I like your description. Yes, he did recognize my talent early on. He heard me sing harmony at the age of 8 or so and was very excited. He took me on auditions. It was the way he related to me, and I always felt like it was a blessing and a curse. I had this thing he liked. So I had to be that. And then if I didn’t be that would he …  ever pay attention to me? Who knows.

GYAN: Crowdfunding seems to be our new ‘record label’, with no superannuation and diminishing royalties. You appeared the true Pirate gathering your devoted crew to help hoist the flag on the good ship Rickie Lee. How did it feel doing the PledgeMusic campaign to make The Other Side of Desire? Did you ever envisage selling off your favorite dress and shoes?

RLJ: It was good for me. Humbling. Not who I wanted to be. I wanted to be private. But this new world of kids, they don’t know the word. If you want to reach them, you have to reach out to them. They do not reach ‘In’.

It’s also a bad thing, for the idea of iconistic flattery is… poor mental health. Selling your shoes. I can charge more for my shoes because it’s me. This is the kind of thing I avoided all my life. Shoot, I didn’t even like to use my name to go to concerts. I think sustaining that was also ego-based: I am too proud to be proud. So… I got whatever good I could out of it. Including the money to make the record. And pay my rent for the two months I wrote. And that is the hardest part. I did not have the money to pay rent.

GYAN: Although I missed out on having kids, would I be right in thinking these opening lines from your beautiful lilting song, ‘Feet On The Ground’ are a reflection on motherhood – She was a happy child/funny and bright and wild/all the grown-ups agreed /she was ‘most likely to succeed in ruling the world’? Would you encourage your daughter to go into the Arts?

RLJ: Oh yes. She has found her way there on her own, written a great song… and is writing more. She has the thing I don’t have any more – the hook. She goes right to it. A motif.  An idea, the reason for the song. I hope we can get her together with a producer she can relate to.  She is a 28-year-old. She likes pop music. So there you go. I love a good pop song. Hard to hear them anymore.

GYAN: Your 2007 album The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard was seeded as a musical project before you got on board. The ideas was to interpret selections from Lee Cantelon’s book The Words (a contemporary rendering of the Gospels), but the project drifted for ages and only made it to the end when producer Rob Schnapf (who has worked with people like Beck, Elliott Smith and the Vines) took over. It seemed like this project was just waiting for you to bring it to fruition in this spontaneous and uplifting collaborative vehicle where you could let go of the wheel, exploring the tracks already laid out before you. It appears to be a real community effort, a mobile recording set amongst the smell of oil paints in a visual artist’s studio. Did this unique situation give you more freedom to fly, unlocking stream of consciousness in the writing? How rare is it to stumble on this kind of project – and do you long for more collaborations like this?

RLJ: Yes. It is rare to find any project… ‘stumble’ is the word. Motivated by emotional chaos with Lee,  I endeavoured to penetrate the invisible world and rearrange destiny.  And while i was there Jesus made little tapping sounds on the ground from long, long ago. I stood in his coat there in Culver City. He looked out of my green eyes.

Rickie Lee Jones – The Sermon on Exhibition Boulevard

GYAN: “A monk with a hard on in a lavender robe/that scratches his thighs for the height that he strode/as he follows a path filled with harried desire/and mimics his footsteps and sets his prayers on fire…” this is from one of my all-time favorite songs, ‘Altar Boy’ from the 1993 Traffic in Paradise album. I love your healthy piss-take on the dark side of the church and the stark use of strings. Were you raised in a religious house and what’s your philosophy for life now?

RLJ: Correction… “filled with ARID desire”. I was raised in a house that was ever-changing – we were not religious, but for a few years we went to mass every Sunday, especially when I was very small when we first moved to the desert. The Catholic desert.

Yes, sometimes I like to stand in the dangerous shore of non-judgement. Here is a picture. Here is a picture of Jeffrey Dahmer. Do you see him, he is a little boy in baby clothes. the light in the hallway is too dark. Here is a picture of a homosexual priest who constantly longs for… another. Priests are celibate, period. The title ‘Altar Boy’ brings to mind the paedophiles, and the constant humming of sexual desire that seems to permeate so many of the arcane rituals. And it also brings to mind isolation.

Personally, I like the rituals. But find some of them very disturbing even in the healthiest of minds. Confession?  Please! But it’s all done with a certain… as you say…  sense of humour. One is not sure of my POV [point of view] in this song.  The resolution that all life outside of the mass does not matter, the meaning of life after my great performance does not matter.  I am here only for the song, you see. Even though there does seem to be an awful lot of territory outside of the song… church… home… I shall resolve to live here and celebrate this one thing only. Like that.

GYAN: You moved to France and made one of my favorite albums, 2003’s The Evening of My Best Day when Bush was in power. Can we expect an equally amazing body of work considering the foreboding political climate – and will you be booking your passage out sooner than later when Drumpf takes the throne?

RLJ: No, I would not honor these times with my music. I think everything I wrote then is applicable now.

GYAN: Tracks like ‘Rorschachs (Theme for the Pope)’  and ‘Prelude to Gravity’ from your 1984 The Magazine album are so filmic. Can we hope for a RLJ film score sometime?

RLJ: Boy, I wish. No one Ever asks.

GYAN: Growing up in the public eye from such a young age would have been surreal. How would you prepare a young artist to scale those heights?

RLJ:  Yes, how could you prepare someone? They have their own terrain, they want to climb that, it’s theirs, they made it. You can say don’t walk over there. But it’s Their map.  All you can do is pray when you need to, for them or yourself.  And… remind them that what matters is the day, the sunrise, the sunset, everything else is just production. My advice would be ENJOY yourself. But… no matter who, how rich, where, we seem to spend the same percentage of our time in worry, in yelling, in sorrow no matter who we are. Rich people never look happier once they come home from shopping. It’s all there in the mirror and it ain’t going nowhere.

GYAN: My inner critic used to be cruel, especially on stage and was not my friend. I’ve noticed over the years it has become gentler on me. Do you find you are now kinder to yourself as well as more understanding of your artistic self?

RLJ: Yes, I do. For the most part. I mean the critical voice is probably still yelling. I just can’t hear him as well.

Juliette, Ben and Rickie in 2012 while recording The Devil You Know. Photography by Myriam Santos

GYAN: What are you listening to this week? Do you still play vinyl?

RLJ: Not the critic! I have a record player. I try to play my records. Lots of records.

GYAN: Who are you taking on the road with you? My friend the Canadian singer Jane Siberry takes her dog everywhere. Will your dog Juliette come too?

My dog Juliette died December 1. I think.  It was a rough month afterwards. But I am recovered now, or at least comfortably numb, and thinking about puppies. She was my companion for 14 years, give or take a few lapses. She was really knitted to me – and I also had knitted to her distractions. She was loved and is missed, but not too much missed, for I don’t have the strength for sorrow.

GYAN: I recently recorded my first covers album, This Girl’s In Love – and realized it’s quite an art form choosing and interpreting material. I felt like an actor. What is your process around a covers album?

RLJ: Well for me, it’s just songs I find myself moving toward. I sing them, I can tell my version is new. So, if I can bring something new, if the song moves me and resonates at that time that’s how I choose it. I like obscure, I like unexpected. Like… ‘Sympathy for the Devil’.  And my version is very good. ‘Rebel, Rebel’ acoustic. An important interpretation since the recording depended so much on the electric guitar. ‘Here is a song,’ I think, it’s not just a production.

Yet I find that…  say ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’.  A suggestion by Ben Harper, which at the time I thought, ‘I really suck on this.’ I find that songs that are just… ordinary… turn out to be quite good. Because… because it’s not the uniqueness of the song, but the singer – that’s who makes it come alive.

My… heart… is always visible when I sing. So… I hear that even in ‘Only Love’. I hear that it’s not bad. Not bad at all.

I must stop now because I am very dyslexic and it’s getting hard for me to write.

Thank you!


Gyan. Photo credit: Si Greaves


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