Home > Interviews > Rickie Lee Jones Interview

Rickie Lee Jones Interview

Lisa Ward


After a handful of intimate dates in the UK, finishing with a breathtaking show at Union Chapel, More Than The Music caught up with Rickie Lee Jones to get more insight into her career.

More Than The Music: Your career has spanned 3 decades, how do you ensure your writing stays fresh and innovative?

Rickie Lee Jones: That is subjective, of course, but I purposefully challenge myself to do things that I don’t know how to do, or have never done, to try things that I have wanted to do but simply didn’t for some reason. When you throw yourself into new situations – I mean, at auspicious times, you grow and expand, your confidence is greater, and really lately I think confidence is what it’s all about, that is what people sense, and that is what helps them cross the bridges they must cross in their own lives.  It’s contagious, and so is the lack of it. Then, I think I keep it light, and there are two things to think about when you wanna not take yourself too seriously. One is that this moment, whatever it is, is not the deciding moment of your life, whatever you do is the right thing, because it’s YOUR life, so you can’t really do it wrong.  And the other is to have fun, why else do it? Look up, give love, offer yourself. This is the thing that keeps the thing new, or exciting, for the people who do it every night, and I think is what might make a particular show more.. impactful than another show, because the singer is putting things on the line every night, and yet, in the end, really is not taking themselves too seriously. The song, yes.  Me, no.

MTTM: Whilst born and raised in America, you have Welsh and Irish ancestry. How does this influence your song writing?

RLJ: I would say, my father was very proud of his Irish heritage, and the Welsh, and he would remind me that we are story tellers and singers. We value this above all things, so there was a great contentment with who we were, are, and what we might be meant to do. I did not grow up hearing country music; I heard jazz, Molly Malone was sung next to St. James Infirmary, next to My Funny Valentine.  They were all one to me, all stories, and all sung from the point of view of a broken heart. Or, you know, a great emotive and emotional involvement.

MTTM: Your latest album, Balm in Gilead, sees you complete a collection of half finished songs dating back as far as 1986. How did the process of finishing old songs compare to penning songs entirely from scratch?

RLJ: Finishing the old songs was harder, not that it was hard to let them go.. but what were they about?  What should they be about?  I have these pieces of music, of ideas, but what is the purpose of the song? I had to dig very deep to deliver some of them. I mean, they had had original themes that I felt were not worthy. So I had to wait. The new songs, in general came out whole, I had something to say and said it.  But when the songs are fragmented, for whatever reason don’t get finished when they first appear, its’ much more difficult to stay with them. Imagine writing Chuck E’s In Love first two verses and then waiting a decade.  if you wrote that bridge that leaves the song behind, you would doubt yourself.  ‘Ive gone to far..’ But if you take that left turn while in the original thrust of inspiration, well, you feel like you have hit a vein.  So no matter what you do, after so much time, its hard to know if you have pulled the things altogether and kept the original … feeling…inspiration for the song in the first place.

MTTM: You’ve previously said that His Jewelled Floor was inspired by the Sufi poet Rumi, whilst the album title Girl At Her Volcano was inspired by Malcolm Lowry’s autobiography Under The Volcano. Would you say that literature often acts as inspiration for song writing?

RLJ: Yes very much.  After the Fair….  is a Dylan Thomas short story that is included in Away From The Sky, the song John Lennon sang to me in a dream.   I like books, I like the font, the feeling, textures,  and of course I love the story and being taken into the language of the author. Sometimes they find their way quite directly into my work, other times a line or two here or there inspires me, and so the work I create.  I think it’s a conversation all art has with itself, and we must not be afraid of using all that we have, that kind of fear is ego stuff, like someone will say I am not real or really authentic or whatever if I sing Rumi or whatever.  At some point you must trust Who you are, and that you are, and that your voice matters,  and just write what you write.  how you write.  Because man, if ‘they ‘could, there would just be one music, one audience, so much the better for the marketing guys. You have to keep coming with unexpected music.  carry on the conversation.

MTTM: After Ghostyhead’s release in 1997 you suffered a period of writers block. Was there anything specific that helped you overcome this?

RLJ: Yes I did. Well, writing.  having time to write.  A lot of family stuff took me out of the river of the work, and then I lost some confidence, and that spirals. I think Bush’s ‘election’ was so horrifying to me that I had to say something. So, I think it was the first time some social situation was the impetus for all the work.  I have written in the past about social ills, Skeletons, the cops killing the guy accidentally, or Living It Up,  the girl who gets beat up and then coked out, and so on. But a whole record about a particular event, or inspired by politics in particular, something I just always considered so base, so unworthy of art, so uninteresting to me in particular, it was a surprise that it took that gauntlet.

MTTM: Your debut album, Rickie Lee Jones, won the Grammy for Best New Artist. Do you think this created more pressure when working on its follow up, Pirates?

RLJ: Well yes of course it created pressure.  But I think my decision to make a less commercial music was a good one, in the case of Pirates. I knew I could not debut again, and could never match the success of Chuck E, that all I could do was show or find out what else I was capable of.  Investigate the seedier side of the characters I had introduced…

MTTM: In your younger days you hitchhiked around, much like beatnik writer Jack Kerouac. Do you think your beatnik tendencies to rebel have shaped your career?

RLJ: Well, I think when you are a beatnik you are not really reading about them.  I didn’t know Jack, or Miles, or any of it when I was a kid living that way.  My tendencies to rebel are my career!

MTTM: Traffic From Paradise was produced, mixed and recorded by an all female crew. Do you think that women approach music differently to men and if so, how?

RLJ: I don’t know about music, but I think women in general experience life differently than men. We are immediate, we are less about method and more about meaning, we love the feeling of a thing, while a guy can spend a lot of time on the …  drum sound. Our biological difference tells it all.  One of us is made to carry around another person inside of us. One of us is not. We are made to create life. One of us is not, they are passive in this event. So how that figures into the recording studio.  Well, I wish I could say working with men was less drama but it isn’t! Oh man! Women and men, maybe when it comes to music, have no sex.  We are lovers, all of us, in love with the song, or the moon, and it doesn’t matter what our name is. We are all boy-girls, all a little feminine and a little masculine.  Thos identities are not really relevant in the emotional landscape of music.