Rickie Lee Jones Grammy award winner – In conversation with the Montreal Times
It’s not often one gets to talk with a legendary artist whose career spans over four decades – a songwriter, vocalist, musician and producer who is at ease in many musical styles, including rock, R&B, blues, pop, soul and jazz. It’s not often one gets the opportunity with speak with an icon of the 1970’s Los Angeles music scene and an eclectic singer/songwriter of her generation.
I’m talking about Rickie Lee Jones, a ‘freebird’ who likes to spread her wings and occasionally hang her hat (or beret) where the wind takes her. When the North American leg of her tour with the talented Madeleine Peyroux was announced, with the first stop in Montreal on March 1st at Place des Arts, the chance to interview her came up – and I jumped on it.
Rickie broke out in the pop music scene in 1979 when her song ‘Chuck E.’s In Love’ soared to the top five of the Billboard charts, the song that will forever remain her signature song for most fans. The song won her a Grammy award for Best New Artist and nominations for Song of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance – and her well-known relationships with Chuck E. Weiss (the inspiration behind her hit) and singer/songwriter Tom Waits, by far do not fully define her or all of her accomplishments.
Her career of daring experimentation with her sound and style over 15 critically acclaimed albums has garnered her a total of two Grammy award wins and four nominations – and has put her on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine twice in two years and twice on Saturday Night Live, where she was given the chance to sing an unprecedented three songs. Rickie defies convention, and that is what makes her a legend in her own time and beloved by her fans all over the world.
In 2015 she released her first album of original material in more than ten years called ‘The Other Side of Desire’, which received excellent reviews. The album was recorded in the city of New Orleans, where she is now living and where she was when I spoke with her on the phone last Monday, February 13th from Montreal.
Rickie has always been an open book to her fans, she has never been afraid to speak about her life and her experiences. Instead of the typical questions one might ask her, I decided to try and find out a little bit more about her; what makes her tick, insight on her music and songwriting – and her spiritual beliefs.
Our conversation started off with Rickie saying hello and then asking me to ‘hold on a minute’ – because she needed to look outside to find out why the birds stopped singing. And well, the culprit was a cat… setting the tone for our discussion. The interview has been edited for space, but here are some the interesting things she shared with me:
We began with some questions about Madeleine Peyroux, how they connected and the show.
“I knew her from 10 years ago or so. I ran into her in France when she debuted… she was the thing and I think she’s really developed as a singer. She has a following there (Montreal). We are planning to do a couple of tunes together, just figuring out where to place them, because who wants to hang all night to do it at the very end of the show… it seems like the best place to do it would be like a little interlude after the first show (performance of either Rickie or Madeleine first). Maybe we’ll give that a try a couple of times and see if that works, we have a couple of tunes but want to make it beautiful in its placement. She’ll have her set… we’re trading who opens and who closes.”
Tell me about your new record label ‘The Other Side of Desire’, you decided to do it yourself, did that come about because of frustrations with the music industry?
“Ya’, I mean it’s a long time coming… when you find that the labels, they take quite a bit of the money, and unless they’re selling you know 5x more than your fan base, it’s not worth it economically. If I sell a third of what they sell, I’ll make the money that they make for me. If they’re doing a good job with publicity it could be worth it… and the other thing, it’s just a sense of satisfaction about what you’ve done. If you’re working with a group people that hope for something else no matter what you do, then you always feel bad about what you do, so eliminating that is wonderful.”
One of my favorite tracks on your last album of originals is the song ‘Infinity’.
“Right… that’s beautiful, yes.”
There was something about it that struck a chord inside of me as soon as I heard it. You explained in a video how it came about, but I noticed at the end of the video you became quite emotional and you said ‘That was the dream, and it was a good dream’.
“I did! It just… you know it’s just in there waiting and it overtakes me… but the feeling you know, of trying to convey to people, the hope the understanding that you’re part of something you can’t even conceive of, but know you are – and all you got to do is look up, it’s all there for you to see, you can’t deny it, you know the past travels to you in waves of light from stars that are long gone, nothing ever ends and it goes on and on and on… and that’s the truth that’s the physical truth. Who knows if the dust of bodies travel in light, who cares? Understand you’re part of the thing we cannot interpret into this dimension, but it is… so I get a little emotional when I talk of the sky!”
“When I first heard that (word) I was kind of sad… I said ‘No! I want to see it NOW!’ (she laughs). But as years have gone by I’ve thought, what a strange miracle that when we stand here in the dark all by ourselves, even then, it’s lit up for us… with so much information.”
When you’re writing your songs, I’m curious Rickie, maybe you don’t have a set thing with your song writing process, but is it the words first, is it the music or is it just always different for you?
“It’s mostly different, I don’t usually… well I sometimes write lyrics down, they rarely find their way to songs. I like the process of just singing it out loud, and then that’s the song. I feel for the most part I know what have to say, if I just wait until the right moment it will come out as it’s supposed to. It’s a question of the right moment… not singing, not trying too soon, not waiting too long. Sometimes I start, I have three quarters of a great song but I don’t return to it, and when I do return, its moment has passed. That’s the thing about youth, you’re so excited, you stay with it, you keep doing it. You got to force yourself when you get older to endure the painful beauty of creating.”
You talked about spirituality in an interview a few years ago, about being Catholic. You said ‘It’s ever changing… I am whatever I feel like being on any particular day and that’s the truth. I don’t really find that any prescribed thing could ever be a truth. It could be connected to something that could lead people to spirituality, but the awesome expanse of what we sense can’t be put into words.’ Do you still feel the same way?
“Oh ya’. But I do wonder about ritual, the meaning of ritual. Evil people use ritual to evoke evil spirits, religious people use ritual to, whatever. Well, I dismissed it. Here in New Orleans, they’re very into ritual, so is it just what you feel and the magic you bring or… if I like this and turn around and knock on the door three times, the devil will appear? What is the meaning of ritual? The only reason I go to the Catholic Church is to witness the ritual. You know, the drinking of the chalice and the lighting of the things and the people in their robes and the chanting… and I like that people have watched that ritual for 1500 years, there’s something in that. But ya’, everything you said I do agree with. Ritual has nothing to do with your larger connection to god, it is just a ritual… in and of itself and if you enjoy it, then do it. It isn’t a secret word to evoke god, I don’t think.”
(At that point we had to end our conversation. I would have liked to talk to her about so many more things, but perhaps I’ll get a chance to do that in March.)
I’m looking forward to your show and meeting you.
“I’d love it, I enjoyed talking to you, thank you so much.”
And so our call ended. I sat back in my chair for a while to absorb the wonderful conversation I just had with a strong, independent woman whose inspirational talent and style resonates in many of today’s artists.
For more information and tickets to Rickie and Madeleine’s show at Théâtre Maisonneuve, Place des Arts on March 1st 2017 go to: http://rickieleejones.com/tour.html
By: Bonnie Wurst – mtltimes.ca