When Rickie Lee Jones first hit the scene in 1979, the blonde beatnik in the beret was touted as the next big thing–the next Joni Mitchell, the next singer-songwriter that would set the world on fire. Of course, as her hit single “Chuck E.’s in Love” illustrated, she wasn’t another Mitchell. Her muse was its own beast. But like Mitchell, Jones would follow wherever it led. Convention be damned.
Sometimes, that works in an artist’s favor, like the aforementioned Mitchell, or Jones’ late-70s beau, Tom Waits. Sometimes, it doesn’t and the muse leads its subject down darker alleys, only to be seen again lying in a gutter with what’s left of the moonlight fading from their eyes. Jones is somewhere in-between. Her adventurous body of work has held up over time. But one wonders if more industry kudos or even a little more cash might have staved off some of the bitterness that has crept in.
Q: What songs of yours are you most proud of and why?
A: I like “Altar Boy.” I think it’s a jewel, “Saturday Afternoons,” I guess I like the short and eloquent. “Last Chance Texaco” though seems to have been like a sea. It does not subside in its power, and it does not ever let you forget how deep it is. It’s very…visceral for me, I feel the desert, the light in the distance, the night heat, the man, the woman, inside me.
Q: Can you tell me about your earliest memories of music and describe how they made you feel?
A: I remember being in the back seat and hearing “Honeycomb” while my mom, laughing, tried to get unstuck from the mud in a forest. I was afraid and crying, and my brother and sister were laughing. There was a…drop….and the sun coming through, and Jimmy Rodgers singing “Honeycomb.” I remember father singing “The Moon Is Made Of Gold,” listening to the record he had made. I remember hearing the crocodile song in “Peter Pan,” the ticking of the clock, as the croc came closer to Captain Hook. That was so frightening I had trouble listening, but the thrill was incredible. It was always real for me, music.
Q: In an interview you said that Sinatra was “the greatest of singers — simple but with authority…” What do you think are the strengths of your own singing?
A: That would be a strength of mine as well. You have to have authority and confidence to not adorn yourself. Not that you aren’t attractive, but you say, “This is me as I am, and that is very, very sexy.” Not to a 12 year old, or a 25 year old, typically, but to a 12 or 25 year old who is like yourself, you are a beacon. A song stylist whose voice makes us understand a text, or be able to live through a hard hour, this is a great singer. The tendency nowadays for a singer to burden every bar with so many notes makes the poor melody so full of holes that its impossible to enjoy the song. What made Aretha or Chaka great at that kind of thing was what they did, when they did it. I am not attracted to Beyonce. She feels to me like a thinner, copy version, and when she is doing it, I don’t know why. Is it to be sexy? To be strong? Because everything you sing, every note and inflection, has a reason. The heave of emotion that accompanies that kind of gospel oriented adornment is lost if you do it every single line every single song. What an ego! Gimme a break.
Q: Did you ever worry that because your voice was different than more conventional singers (like Sinatra) you wouldn’t make it as a singer?
A: Yes, I did worry as a kid that my voice was too different. When I first heard my voice, as a 16 year old, remember it was all tough mamma blues singers back then, I was very discouraged. I heard a Michael Jackson voice. Too young sounding, and thin, top heavy, no bottom. Of course, this went on to become part of the signature that is me, it remains the sound of my voice. I have heard my impact on generations that have come after me… That my business team dismantled, that no one is here to sell this to a new generation, is sometimes — and only sometimes — discouraging to me. Lesser artists are sold on TV. Their publicists have more money or more support…I figure, Catholic that I am, you were offered fame or longevity. I chose to be here 30 years later, and worked hard to pull back out of the spotlight and into a place that I could control, keep working. Honestly though, I thought and hoped it would always be 2,000, 3,000 seaters. This has been hard, humbling, to play to smaller places. I take it all as lessons, I was so big so fast.
Q: What’s the best concert you’ve seen?
A: I guess I loved that concert I saw with Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan back in 80 or 81 at the Universal Amphitheater in L.A. That was memorable to me. But I try to take something away from everything I see. I’ve seen Radiohead and been inspired by their use of the stage, a lot of work I think. I would rather see them just singing. Yet I enjoy all the work, the show, the upright. It’s all so busy, like the circus. Fun.