Rickie Lee Jones

by Carl Wiser

The sensuous, mysterious Rickie Lee Jones has been the subject of a stream of think pieces ever since her stunning debut, a 1979 self-titled album that earned her the Grammy for Best New Artist and the cover of Rolling Stone. The fascination has to do with her look (signature accessory in those days: a Joni Mitchell-like beret) and her backstory (a runaway who sought fame and fortune in LA and found it), but also her songs. Honed on beat poetry, she has a way with words that draws you into her stories:

A long stretch of headlights
Bends into I-9
Tiptoe into truck stops
And sleepy diesel eyes

~"The Last Chance Texaco"

Shall we weigh along these streets
Young lions on the lam?

~"We Belong Together"

It's easy to get hooked, and to wonder about the woman behind these tales. The truth is, she's shy. The brazen image she projects isn't a facade, but an expression of that part of her personality. So she explains in the 2015 documentary that chronicles her latest album, The Other Side of Desire.

Time magazine crowned her "The Duchess of Coolville" in their think piece, a tag that stuck (apparently Coolville is a monarchy). At 62, Jones is still undeniably cool. Now living in New Orleans, she hits the road with Madeleine Peyroux in March for a tour through North America. In this email interview, she shares her thoughts on social media, President Trump, and some of her beloved songs.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): You've said that you "come out a little different" after completing an album. How did you emerge from The Other Side of Desire?

Rickie Lee Jones: Ah, the apprehension of each new change. The dial turning, is over.

Songfacts: What is the track "Haunted" about?

Jones: "Haunted" is more of a feeling. A girl group kind of thing, warning about love.

I mean it's pretty straight ahead. Watch out or love will steal your soul. Be careful. You won't be able to see the moon anymore, because you'll be looking in the wrong direction. Ask yourself. The answer is there. Why did I say all the stars will stop shining, then answer it?

Songfacts: Your songs are about translating feelings. Based on reaction from your fans, which of your songs have done this the best?

Jones: Oh, that mostly depends on where we are playing and how familiar the people are with my catalogue. "Last Chance Texaco" is always right on. But "Nobody Knows My Name," I have seen people weep. So... who knows.

Songfacts: You've talked about how your songs come from your subconscious. Is there one that revealed its meaning to you after you wrote it?

Jones: Yes, sure. A few really. I mean in a way they all do. I don't know where they are going to go and then when they get there I am amazed at how everything I have written led to a coherent and logical conclusion that I did not plan.

It seems like they write themselves. It gives one the belief that one is using a "higher" intelligence, more than ego or logic.

Songfacts: Has your songwriting changed over the years?

Jones: Most definitely, at least the process, if that's what you are talking about. I am less inclined to sit with a notebook of lyrics and work out melodies. I like to kind of make it up on the spot.

Jones and Madeleine Peyroux teamed up to record two songs: the Casablanca classic "As Time Goes By," and a cover of the 1973 David Essex hit "Rock On." For that one, they made a provocative video in support of women's rights.
Songfacts: What songs do you have in mind for your upcoming tour with Madeleine Peyroux?

Jones: Mostly I do a cross section of music. I will add a ballad. And I am bringing a guitar player. But what I do depends on the audience and the venue.

So I have to get out there and see what they are. I have to gauge it... who we are, who they are, what is going to be most fun. We rehearse a wide range of stuff so that I can make that call at the time.

Songfacts: What inspired the song "Young Blood"?

Jones: Burrito King! Back when I was hitchhiking up and down California someone bought me a burrito there. When I was 22, six years later, I was wondering what the people who lived near Burrito King were up to. Mostly Hispanic, an exciting part of town. So I made up these people and had them go out and have some fun.

We had to ask...

"Rikki Don't Lose That Number" is a song that's been widely discussed on Songfacts, with some speculating that Ms. Jones in the Rikki in question. In 2006, Donald Fagen made a rare reveal, explaining that the song is about Rikki Ducornet, who he met when they were both students at Bard College. Fagen's Steely Dan bandmate Walter Becker produced the 1989 Rickie Lee Jones album Flying Cowboys.
Songfacts: You are often incorrectly identified as the inspiration for "Rikki Don't Lose That Number." How has that affected you?

Jones: Ha! I hadn't heard that. I don't think it has effected me.

Songfacts: Which of your songs is the most commonly misinterpreted?

Jones: Hmm. I can't say because I am not on the other side of the mic. But many of my later songs have an ambiguous POV and it might be that in those lyrics people get confused about my intention or my view. Sometimes my view is complex... or missing!

Songfacts: How do you feel about social media?

Jones: Well I hate it. It's addicting, and its anonymity provides an opportunity for the worst.

Also it's not everybody business...

And also, doing this kind of thing from a young age might make you primed for a 1984 kind of existence. I think it's bad. But the good part is, you can say, "My cat died" and people say, "Oh, thats too bad." If you don't have many friends, at least you have a little network of people who seem to pay attention to the fact that you are alive. That's my impression. It's the new world. I guess.

Songfacts: What are the "Winston lips of September" in "Coolsville"?

Jones: Well that seems self explanatory? A person smoking Winstons in September?

Songfacts: What aspect of songwriting do you find most challenging?

Jones: Getting started. And finishing.

Songfacts: "Satellites" is a beautiful song with an intriguing video. Please tell us about writing the song and how the video relates to it.

Jones: The video... the guy who made my first video made it, so it was complicated already, because the first video was the first video! The first successful video, launched a career, and inspired the creation of MTV. Record stores playing that video 12 hours a day. So when we reunited, it was weird. [Pretty sure this is the director/photographer Ethan Russell, who made a 12-minute short film with Jones long before MTV went on the air. Among his famous photos is this shot of Keith Richards.]

My impressions of the text were: a little girl, a magic rune, I forget really. But the look of the video made it hard to really see what was going on. And the director just gave it to someone to edit and didn't even sit there and say, "I like this, I don't like that." So I was... slightly disappointed. But I learned that directors make their film, and you, the artist, are a guest. The idea that an artist makes a video is ridiculous, unless they direct it themselves. So that was a good lesson.

I'm glad you like it. I liked the coat and the fake snow.

Songfacts: You took on George W. Bush in your album The Evening Of My Best Day. What do you have in mind for the current administration?

Jones: I'm ignoring him. There is nothing I can do. It would torture me too much otherwise.

But, that being said, I am making videos, posting stuff about animals or the environment, stuff like that.

February 27, 2017.
Tour dates and more info at rickieleejones.com.

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