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Rickie Lee Jones's Personal Best

03 May 2023, 12:00
Words by Alan Pedder
Original Photography by Astor Morgan

The incomparable Rickie Lee Jones takes Alan Pedder on an emotional journey through her back catalogue, digging into five songs from her 40+ year career that she’s most proud of.

Rickie Lee Jones has always beaten her own path through the ravenous wilderlands of the music industry.

Occasionally the zeitgeist has caught up with her, as on her star-making self-titled debut and its stylish, multifaceted follow-up, Pirates. But for most of her long career, Jones has simply made art that expresses who she was at the time, untroubled by anything other than serving the songwriting in the best way she could. Some of that art went largely unloved, or at least misunderstood, but Jones kept writing and recording, often embarking on covers album projects while working on her own material in the background.

Her new album Pieces of Treasure is another one of those projects, and, on paper, is notable for two main things. First, it’s the remarkable fact that Jones has never made a pure jazz record up until now, and second is that it reunites her with Rickie Lee Jones and Pirates producer Russ Titelman. Though it draws from the Great American Songbook of jazz standards that date back to Jones’s itinerant childhood and beyond, Pieces of Treasure is far from conventional. In her own chameleonic way, her approach to these timeworn songs has the same countercultural bravura as some of her best work.


The album cover shows Jones as she was in 1978: long hair, aviator shades, brassy expression, and a man’s hand sliding a $10 note down her top. It’s a glamour photo she says was shot by photographer Bonnie Schiffman, who also shot the image used on Jones’s poetic, heart-tearing 2021 memoir Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour. “Bonnie has no memory of taking that picture, but I’m sure it was her,” she says, laughing. “I put it on the cover of Pieces of Treasure because it seemed like iconic Rickie Lee Jones. It’s kind of brazen. And even though the music is anything but brazen, I felt somehow that they belonged together. I hope it’s received in the humour that it’s meant. But also, that’s who I was then, and I like it.”

Jones went through a phase in the 2000s of only doing interviews by email, sending back long and meditative answers that were aways interesting and often profound. But to sit with her over Zoom – me in London, she at home in New Orleans – is a very different experience. Witty and thoughtful, she often gets caught up in her reveries, swinging her arms in the air and bursting into song. After singing one line from her 1981 album track “Skeletons”, she chokes up. “This song still kills me,” she says, fighting back tears.

Blue jacket credit Astor Morgan

“Skeletons” is one of the five songs from her career that Jones has chosen as her ‘personal best’, though she’s quick to add one important caveat: “I think whenever a person is doing a thing like this, making a list of favourites, you have to accept that they are your favourite that day. It’s not like when you get to heaven god’s gonna go, ‘But you said these are your favourite songs!’”

“These are just the songs that have been going around my head recently. I think that they’re connected by a sweetness. Even ‘Skeletons’, which has a devastating story. It just has a sweetness about it.”

"The Last Chance Texaco" (1979)

BEST FIT: You wrote in your memoir that this is one of your greatest songs. Did you know that from the minute you finished it?

RICKIE LEE JONES: I think the answer is yes, except I didn’t have very many songs at the time! I’d written “Chuck E.’s in Love”, “On Saturday Afternoons in 1963” and “Weasel & the White Boy’s Cool” so, frankly, everything I’d written was pretty great up ‘til then! [laughs]

“The Last Chance Texaco” was a spooky story. I knew it was a very unusual progression of chords. I always feel that when you hit on something different, something you haven’t heard before, that even if it doesn’t resonate right then, it’s going to speak to people over time. People will find their way to something different over time. So I always like it when I do that.

This was the first song that has a kind of sound that I’ve gravitated too periodically. There’s one called “Scary Chinese Movie” [from 1997’s Ghostyhead] that could be a sister or a cousin to “The Last Chance Texaco”.

You’ve described “The Last Chance Texaco” as “country but not country”. Where do you feel its country roots lie?

Well, at the time I was very poor and only had a hot plate for cooking on, so I was writing songs in the hopes that other people would record them. When I wrote “The Last Chance Texaco”, I was thinking of one of those deep-voiced country singers like Merle Haggard. I didn’t know country stars very well, but I knew his voice from the song “Okie from Muskogee”. I think it was probably more likely for Waylon Jennings, whose music I didn’t know, but he’s also got that deep, low voice.

In my head I heard a man singing about being in a truck, and maybe it could have been a duet. I mean, very easily the second verse could have been a woman’s voice telling the story. But the song is not country, because I’m playing the F# into E. It’s like, what are you doing?!

You wrote this song quite quickly, in less than two hours at a coffee shop off Santa Monica Boulevard.

Yeah, and I wish I’d saved that notebook, because I do feel like, except for maybe one or two lines, I wrote the whole song as is. Of course, you adjust things later for rhyme scheme. If you notice, I abandoned trying to rhyme even every other line. There is a rhyme that takes place periodically, though, just to keep things going.

The challenge came when I got home and had to put a melody to the lyrics. I should imagine that looking at it was hard, because I saw that it was a great lyric. Even now I’m limited, like any songwriter, in the places I tend to go, but back then it was even more so because I was just a beginner. Though in this case being a beginner was a blessing, because I said to myself, ‘What would it be like if I played an F#?’ – I’d never even played an F# before – and the moment I played it the song just presented itself.

Often there’s this feeling of being part of a divine story when things happen that perfectly and quickly. It does feel as if it was just waiting there for me, and that it wouldn’t have been waiting in the key of E, because I was already quite familiar with the key of E. And I wouldn’t have gone down the neck in the key of B, which I did because the shape [makes a B chord with her hand] is easier when you’re barring. You know, it’s much harder to make a C chord when you’re barring.

I heard the chords in my head so I had to sound them out. And I heard that droning that goes all the way through the chords, and it still gives me goosebumps. I heard it, and I followed it up the neck and back down again. So it was really an extraordinary thing. But I think, you know, it was probably a struggle. I knew that the song could be great, and I hit it, but before it was like, ‘Not another failure!’

How did Russ Titelman and co-producer Lenny Waronker react when you brought this song to them?

I think this must have been one of the first of my songs that they heard. They’d seen me play and they liked what they saw enough for me to make a demo for them, and “The Last Chance Texaco” was on it. But frankly, the songs that resonate with people aren’t necessarily the ones that sparkle on a demo tape. As I said earlier, when you write something new it can be very hard for anybody to recognise. A&R guys in 1978? Well, they were good listeners, but I don’t think this odd song was number one on their list. I might be wrong, but that’s how I remember it.

When I wrote “The Last Chance Texaco”, it was a lot less stylised to my voice than when we produced it. They gave it a depth that I couldn’t really have given it myself.

This song was never released as an A-side single, as far as I'm aware. What was your reaction when it was nominated at the 1980 Grammys for Best Rock Vocal Performance anyway?

Well, no one expected that! That Grammy committee, or that body of people, went on their own to nominate that song, as far as I can tell. I don’t even remember that it was submitted. For me it was an honour, because it seemed like they went out of their way to say, ‘This is a song that is new and wonderful.’

The other great thing was getting nominated for [Best Pop Vocal Performance for “Chuck E.’s in Love”] at the same time. People already weren’t sure where to ‘put’ me, so I liked that they nominated me in different genres.

You've described the song as “ominous and beautiful, funny and deadly serious.” Do you think people sometimes overlook the humour in your songs?

Absolutely! I think they always miss that. All week I've been thinking about funny little lines that I put in and how they tend to pass people by.

I think sometimes because the musical setting is so serious that people just don't even hear that the lyrics are funny. Or if a lyric is funny, they laugh too much as if to say, ‘We get the joke.’ The line “A monk with a hard on in a lavender robe” [from 1993’s Traffic in Paradise cut “Altar Boy”] makes them giggle, but they don’t even really hear it. They just go, ‘What did she say?” [laughs]

There can be this constant wave of innuendo and implication in a song, but because of a touching melody people might not realise what they heard. So it’s like being a super-storyteller, because you get to tell one story with words and another story with melody.

You've been playing this song live for many, many years now. What do still enjoy about playing it?

It’s one of my songs that is a real challenge to sing, but I can still sing it and while I can still sing it I feel like I want to. Old fans have a connection with it, and I also like introducing it to people who might not have heard it. I think it’s one of those songs that can still make a new listener go, ‘Oh, that was different!’

Rickie Lee Jones self titled

"Skeletons" (1981)

BEST FIT: This song gets me every time. It's so sad and tender, with that sweetness you mentioned. And of course, it’s still so relevant in that it deals with police violence against Black people in the US. How would you say your relationship with this song has changed over the years?

RICKIE LEE JONES: I haven't played it live very much, even back then. It's hard to sing emotionally, and now it's also hard to sing technically, at my age. I can still sing it in the original key, but it is really hard.

For Pirates I had this imaginary world of characters and one of them is called Bird. I talk to him for a minute in [album opener] “We Belong Together” and then later in the record, on “Skeletons”, I killed his character off. He’s just going somewhere and he’s killed. It was inspired by so many 'accidental' murders of Black men and women in LA at the end of the ‘70s. The police were just crazy, crazy cowboys.

I feel like I heard a story about a man who got pulled over by the police on the highway, and when he reached for his ID to show them, which he was asked to do, they shot him dead. I was like, ‘Come on!’ I remember they also killed a white guy who was naked in his own backyard. They just shot him. But of course, they killed a lot more Black people than white people.

When I was writing this album, I was so full of unresolved sorrow from the end of the Tom Waits and Rickie Lee Jones love affair, so many unresolved teardrops, and I think that found its way into the story here as well. I don’t remember if in the story I heard they were on their way to the hospital to have a baby, but I remember thinking about what’s left in the aftermath of tragedy. You can be on your way to a happy ever after place and then suddenly everything is swept away.

I think besides the sad story that inspired it, the music itself has so much emotion that it can overpower me. And then, you know, the audience is watching me instead of experiencing the music. So that's why I don't play it very often.

There’s another reason, too, and that’s because there is so much murder of Black people I wouldn't ever want to use that horror, or be mistaken for using that horror, in the course of my music making. There’s always someone who is going to say something like that, and that would be okay if the song brought healing in. But I just don’t want to be behind that 8-ball of having to explain myself.

When you made Pirates, you and Russ spent a lot longer in the studio to finish the album than you did for the self-titled record. Was this song one that took several tries to get right?

Well, we did it live with an orchestra, which was very thrilling. But it wasn’t one of the hard ones. “We Belong Together” was really hard. “Traces of the Western Slopes” was another difficult one.

You’re a fan of Laura Nyro. Do you think her spirit is there in “Skeletons”?

Laura Nyro was so outspoken in her righteous political beliefs, whether for human rights or for animals. She was wonderful. But the honest answer is no, I’ve never thought of her in this song. But I will think about it in future!

I guess if I was drawing from anyone it might be, as always, a little bit from Randy Newman. But this song seemed to be mine.

Was Pirates really the last time you worked with Russ in the studio?

I think so, yes. He’s said we did some stuff since though. In 1996, there was a director who made a not-very-good film called Naked Songs: The Life & Times of Rickie Lee Jones, and before that I had done a bunch of songs by myself for the first time [as heard on the 1995 live acoustic album, Naked Songs]. Russ helped pick those songs and make that happen, but I don’t have any good memory of that. So I guess we would have been in the studio together then, but I’m not sure.

Rickie Lee Jones Pirates

"Just My Baby" (1989)

RICKIE LEE JONES: This is one of those songs that nobody really notices, but I think it’s so beautiful. That little guitar part… he moves one note and I’ve hardly ever met a guitar player who could do it. I love the vocal ensemble, too. It’s got a little bit of a 1962 girl group thing about it.

I think as a song it has such a sweetness, melodically, and I like that I did a good job with the lyric. I was having a lot of criticism about my husband at the time [Pascal Nabet Meyer, who co-wrote four songs on Flying Cowboys, including “Just My Baby”]. For this record I brought my family into the songs, writing about my little sister, my big sister, my brother and my husband. I guess I don’t have a lot to say about it. I like that it’s written from the perspective of a young girl talking about everybody putting her down.

I love the way it begins with the harmonica introduction. And those chords when I sing “Oh can't you feel it coming in the air?” are so beautiful. Like, if I hear Laura Nyro anywhere, then this would be the song. She’s there with me when I’m singing this song. You can hear that, I think.

BEST FIT: That makes sense, I can absolutely hear her too. For Flying Cowboys you had Walter Becker of Steely Dan handle the production. From what I’ve read, it sounds like that partnership was something you sort of manifested in an interview once. Is that the real story?

Well, I am not sure. You know, I was afraid of Walter from the photographs I'd seen of him. He looked like he was really a mean guy. See, this is what we do as people, we make assumptions based on tiny little things – like that Talking Heads song [“Seen and Not Seen”] about the guy who changed his face and then halfway through changed his mind.

Anyway, I had no interest in meeting Walter at all. But [Geffen Records A&R exec] Gary Gersh suggested him, and the moment he did that I was like, ‘Really? One of Steely Dan? That would be incredible… and I’m really scared.” But the first time that I met Walter, it was the opposite experience of what I thought it was going to be. He was so quiet and smart and generous in his thinking. And totally unaffected by being one of the great songwriters in rock music, or whatever you want to call it. So I don’t think it was a manifestation of any plan that I had. It just happened.

How closely did the album version stick to the demo that you made?

Oh, gosh. You know, the singing is exactly the same. For all I know, the album version is the demo. Probably, because often the first time I sing something it’s the best it's going to be and the rest of the times will just be imitations. With a demo, if you listen to it five times or so, your mind starts to go, ‘That’s it! That’s the song,’ and it’s very hard to break away from it. That’s one reason I don’t do demos at all anymore. Or if I do then they are very sketchy, because I don’t want to get too attached to it and then everything else is an imitation.

You’ve said you felt that the Flying Cowboys album was a bit ahead of its time. Do you think that its time is still to come?

I did think the record was ahead of its time and that it would be heard some years later and people would be like, ‘Oh, yeah, so-and-so’s doing that,’ and I’d get some credit, right? But I think my work is outside of its time. It’s in its own place. No matter when you listen to it, it seems like it’s just outside the stream of what other people are doing. Because that’s who I am and that’s the kind of music I’m always going to make. Even if I make a really simple, friendly song like “Just My Baby”, it’s gonna lean over there.

I don’t know. Maybe when I’m dead people will make sense of my work, my catalogue, my life, and they’ll go, ‘Oh, I understand. Now let’s listen.’ But it sometimes seems that while people are still alive, the audience can’t penetrate their work through some kind of spirit around it. We’ve seen that with people like Nina Simone, who was beloved to a small group in her lifetime. Then the moment she died she was everywhere. She’s on a stamp now or something. It seems inexplicable how she just keeps growing, as if people understand her voice now that she’s not here to bother anybody about anything.

Rickie Lee Jones Flying Cowboys

"I Wasn't Here" (2015)

RICKIE LEE JONES: This song has another one of those sweet melodies, like “Just My Baby”. You know, during the recording of it I was still suffering from allergies – I'm just gonna be straight up about that – so it’s in a lower key than it might have been. I mean, that’s where I wrote it, and at home, singing it down there is really nice. But in the recording of it, it could have been a lot more dynamic in a higher key.

That being said, I think this song is so beautiful. It's like a child's dream. It’s like a balloon floating in the air. The lyrics are full of contradictions, because that’s how children see grown-ups. In 2014 or 2015, when I wrote it, it really was a chance for me to step out of what my life had been and go to another place. I wasn’t with anybody at the time. I was just imagining what it would be like if I had a girlfriend or boyfriend, and we went flying away on a blimp together.

I think this song has a great potential to be covered. It’s a beautiful song, and I hope somebody else records it besides me.

BEST FIT: You’ve long maintained that singing is acting. On this song, you step into a childlike persona. I imagine it's quite an interesting challenge as a songwriter, to take on the viewpoint of a child.

I think, in the last few years, I’ve realised that I can be anyone I want to be. When I sing, I can see everything about the character in a song. Now, the character’s made of my emotions, but they become bigger than me and different from me.

Like, when I sing “Something Cool” [a song made famous in the ‘50s by jazz singer June Christy], I am that woman at the bar. When I sang that song at 25, she was much older than me and now she’s younger. In reality, I’ve grown past who the character is in the song, but I can always be her when I sing it.

With “I Wasn’t Here”, I am the child but also not really. I’ve just never let go of the child that’s part of my real face, so she’s always here reckoning with things with me. I’m a better adult than I used to be, but I haven’t sacrificed her in order to become that adult. That’s how I can write from the point of view of a child and become a little small, but not totally, in order to do it.

I had this revelation that I’m an acting singer. I haven’t thought of a cool way to say that yet, but that’s what I do when I sing. I become the characters in the songs and portray all the parts of their stories, which I’ve written. It’s kind of a monologue. I’m sure that that’s what I do because I experience the songs so utterly. I watch other people and most of them are singing songs. I am not.

Rickie Lee Jones The Other Side Of Desire

"Just in Time" (2023)

RICKIE LEE JONES: I think Pieces of Treasure hit on a whole identity of its own, which can be a hard thing to find. I think Flying Cowboys is a great album, but it doesn’t have a singular identity. It’s just a collection of great tunes, in my opinion. But Pieces of Treasure has a stable atmosphere throughout, which I think is a great thing to achieve with these old songs which have been done so many times.

You could say that the production is elegant and I do a sensual thing, but you could also switch it around and say I’m elegant and the production is sensual. But there’s something consistent about it. This first song, “Just in Time”, is kind of a masterpiece, to me. I think it’s going to last a long, long time and people will dig hearing this version in the same way that they like to hear Ray Charles singing country music or whatever. I think it’ll find its way to some appreciative environment year after year.

The skinny on this recording is that when we were trying to find a groove for the song, something not that fast, not that slow, the guys were playing and I just started singing “just in tiiime”, trying to get them to stay right there in that groove and be as provocative as I could be. So then we had it and we loved it. Then we had to build an introduction, so we sent it to Mike Mainieri, the vibraphonist, and because of him the song went on this whole other level.

To me, it’s genius that he was able to study what I did and listen so carefully to the way I sang that he made every line of the song be two people doing the same thing at the same time. With every bar. Like, if I’m gonna be syncopated in my singing, he does it with me, or he warns you that we’re going there. And I think his playing is like my singing in that it can be funny and a little sexy. That’s why I choose this song. I think it’s really a remarkable recording.

BEST FIT: Going back to what you were saying earlier about being an acting singer, you've said elsewhere that a new side of you came out when you were performing "Just in Time". Can you tell me more about her?

Now that I'm older, I think a lot about my age. First of all, I think about how I can still do everything I used to. How is that possible? My memory of other people being 68 was that they were really old. But I’m still doing what I’m doing, going into the studio. I’m at peace with my age, which makes me very happy. I feel more confident because I don’t have anything to lose. Which isn’t really true, but in a way it is.

I feel like when you have your whole life before you, you’re always thinking, ‘What will I accomplish? What will they think of me? What will I be? Will I have children? What will I do?’ And now I am over that whole thing it’s more like, ‘Oh, look what I did.’ There’s a kind of ease. And in my case, you can begin to look out at other people’s lives and other people’s needs. Without any kind of self-sacrifice, you can care about other people more than yourself.

Anyway, I got into the studio and I was thinking, ‘Wow, what if I can’t sing this stuff anymore?’ It’s really a challenge, making it move smoothly. I don’t like to sing with the drama that I did when I was 25 or 30. As I was singing this song, this other character was suddenly right there. I hadn’t heard her voice in anybody else – maybe she’s made of more than one other person – but I liked it. I liked how she tells a story. And she came time and time again.

It was really emotional recording this album. Even though you don’t hear it, with a lot of the songs I ended up in tears. The feeling of singing these songs is overwhelming, not just in the words but in the communion of playing with everybody. That’s when you know you really did something, when you just let yourself feel the music.

When you’re younger you go, ‘Yeah, that was good,’ but now I’m like, ‘Oh my god!’ and start crying. Not out of sorrow or even necessarily out of joy, but just because I tap into a deep well of emotion and let everything out while keeping the voice contained. I feel like I found another way to do that on this record. Now we’ll see if that can happen live. It might have to be, you know, a little bigger.

Rickie Lee Jones Pieces Of Treasure

Pieces of Treasure is out now on BMG Modern Recordings.

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