‘Performing is a religious experience for me’: Rickie Lee Jones talks about her music and memoir in advance of her return to Central New York on March 8
Rickie Lee Jones has carved out a diverse, rewarding career since emerging in the late 1970s with her distinctive blend of jazz, pop, folk, and beat poetry. While she’s best known for her 1979 hit “Chuck E’s in Love,” Jones has explored a variety of styles and showcased her incisive songwriting over the course of 17 albums.
Fresh off the publication of her acclaimed memoir, “Last Chance Texaco: The Chronicles of an American Troubadour” (Grove Press), Jones will return to Central New York at 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 8, to perform at the Center for the Arts in Homer, where she’ll be joined by Mike Dillon on percussion and Kai Welch on keyboards and guitar.
A two-time Grammy Award winner, Jones, 67, recently sat down for a Zoom interview from her home in New Orleans to talk about her book, her music, and her love of performing on stage.
Q: I’ve been spending the morning reading your book, and I'm really astonished by the writing. You have a real gift with words: there are some sentences that are little gems in their entirety, and many paragraphs in themselves are like a plot for a potential movie or another book.
Rickie Lee Jones: Thank you for saying so. I think it's great, intact writing. There's prose, but also, it's not driven by prose. I worked hard to give it a narrative and have it gallop forward. I'm glad you're enjoying it.
Q: Were you hesitant at all about revisiting your past? It was eerie to read about how you had a premonition that something bad would happen to your brother before he was severely injured in a motorcycle accident, for example.
RLJ: I'm always with my past, so there was very little visiting, because it's just always with me. The visiting part comes with the terrible things like my brother's accident, and that's always traumatic to remember and go through again.
But I think it was exhilarating, and ultimately liberating, to tell the whole story well, because I know they wanted me to tell their stories well, and so I feel like I've been liberated from all the ancestors. And that maybe, you know, it's a great memoir.
Sometimes I think people are a little prejudiced against musician's memoirs, as if musicians just aren't smart enough to write a good book. And that's partly from how we're portrayed in television and film. But all that is to preface is to say, maybe it will, you know, get legs later, maybe it'll plant seeds, and people go, “this is a great memoir.” It's not just a study in how great my life was, or the amazing people I met, which is a nice story.
This is a story of a lifetime, and our lifetime, from, say, 60 years ago to now, in what our lives were like, because they're long gone now washed away in the flood of all that came after. But it’s good to remember the greatest generation or the flappers or whatever it is, it's great to have a great story about who we are, and what we did.
Q: When you reach back to your family, especially your grandfather Frank "Peg Leg" Jones, it becomes almost like a history of America's 20th century, going back to the vaudeville days. I’m at the part where you just moved back to Chicago in your early teens, and I just can't wait to see what happens after that. But it also struck me that music is almost incidental in some ways, even though it's always there, to the overall story.
RLJ: Yeah, thank you. Because I tried to do that, and maybe leaned a little too far over there. But to tell a great American story, which was what I wanted to do with the family, is to tone down my story a bit. I'm glad you're digging all that. A spoiler alert: I don't die.
Q: Thank goodness for that! So, have you written much prose in the past? Even for yourself?
RLJ: Yes, a little bit. You know, I've written an article here and there for different magazines; I think, three in my life before the book. But I was always writing prose. And I was writing some of these stories for the last 30 years; the story of my mother, especially, I wrote quite a bit.
And in the last year, since it came out, I began to write very short stories about incidental things in my life that were remarkable, but not in the book. Because I think that's another way to continue to tell the story of life without it being a big linear thing. So, I hope to put another book out of writings, or a few books, maybe.
Q: How was recording the audiobook version?
RLJ: It was hard work! I stood there in my bedroom hour after hour reciting it. Initially, it seemed obvious I would read it. But as I went to read it, I thought in my voice is so unique –the way I talk and I'm slow – maybe it'd be better if we hired an actor. But the consensus was I should read the book. And by the end of it, I felt like I did. And then the very first chapters we had to redo (laughs). But once I got the hang of it, it was okay. But it’s harder work than you think it is.
Q: Let's talk about some of the music. The last album you put out, in 2019, was “Kicks,” which has pretty unique versions of other people’s songs that show a nice range of your influences.
RLJ: From the beginning, I was so celebrated as a singer-songwriter. And I kind of took for granted that that would always be, so I really tried to emphasize the part that’s just a singer – people who just sing – and what an important gift that is. You don't have to be a singer-songwriter. You don't have to come from folk music and be a singer-songwriter, you can be a singer.
And I liked reinterpreting songs, especially songs that people only hear one way, and then they come in and go, ‘Oh!’ You’re addicted to the performance of it, but let's check out this song and see if the song is any good. And so, I've done that with (David Bowie’s) “Rebel Rebel” (on 1993’s “Traffic From Paradise”) acoustically, because it was so dependent on that guitar riff, and you wouldn't think there's much of a song in there outside that, as well as “Sympathy for the Devil” (from 2012’s “The Devil You Know.”)
So, when we take away all that and listen to what the writer’s writing, it’s a much sexier song. And that's a pretty sexy song to begin with, but it's much sexier song when it's intimate. So that’s what I like doing: bringing intimacy and emotion to places that people might have passed over.
Q: Have you been writing much during the pandemic?
RLJ: On a personal basis, the pandemic didn't affect me much because I don't go to work; I'm always home anyway, so it wasn't a big change in my routine. But I have been writing. And I realized I could write a lot more than I do. I'm always writing but I've only got a phone, I don't even have any kind of tape recorder, so I’m really limited. But if I had a little setup, I'd probably be like Elvis Costello, who’s writing songs constantly. So maybe that's where we'll go. But I do have four or five really strong songs that are waiting to be finished.
Q: At this point, you’ve been making music for more than 40 years. Is it fun to revisit your old stuff or put new takes on some of your older material?
RLJ: That's a good question. I think in pop music, the songs almost become corporeal things, in that people's attachment to them is so powerful that they're upset if you change them. They want to hear it the way that it is, and it's so it's kind of like a piece of classical music: it is written and that is how you do it. And I don't mind that because when I wrote it, that's how I wrote it, and that's how I did it.
It's much harder for a songwriter to reinterpret their own music because when it comes to us, that's how it comes, right? So, I have to hear other people reinterpret my songs, and then I can be inspired to do it. Like I heard a girl do “We Belong Together” (from her 1981 album, “Pirates”) with just a guitar: that's kind of liberating. But for the most part, my eye is aimed on new music, rather than reinterpreting old music.
Q: You haven’t been able to get on the stage much in the past couple of years. But one of your quotes that jumped out at me very early in your book was when you wrote, “Performing is a religious experience for me.” That's a pretty powerful statement.
RLJ: Well, it is a powerful magic that can take place on the stage. And just speaking for myself, I don't know why, but there are times on stage where I'm reliving emotional things, or weaving things that are so deeply emotional. It's not like I see on TV, when I see people playing music, and let's run over here and singing something together .. you know, that's fun. But that's really keeping things on the surface. I can't stay there. I just go, and I sink in deep emotional water. And I think people come to see me or hear me, they come for that, or are surprised to find what happens.
That remark about religion or church was made a long time ago, but I'd still think it applies. It's a deeper experience for me then, and so for the audience, and I like that, you know, they come for that they can always get, it's not like I do it; I am it.
Q: Another quote that jumped out came almost immediately before that, in which you wrote, “We do not ever recover from the music.” That almost summarizes you in a nutshell.
RLJ: When I wrote it, I was thinking when I was 12, or 13, or whatever, that was when I first heard the Beatles for Jefferson Airplane, or that music that called me out into my life. And, is always inside of me. And so, you know, it's a good thing that we don't recover from it, those of us who are taken up by it.
Again, I returned to the religious line, because I love that line. But religion, when you write that word, people go “oh, oh.” But I think it'd be good to reclaim that word, you know? What is a religion? A thing you're devoted to? Yes, yes, but you can't say what it is – that's to always be an expanding and moving thing. So yeah, I guess I'll stand by that one.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
RLJ: Well, to be honest, for some years now, I've been kind of waiting in place, waiting for new work to come, and new life. And it's been hard. It's here now. There's a new energy. I don't know if it's the end of the pandemic or me personally, but it's quite fantastic to be playing music again. So, I think if you're going to see me before I die, as opposed to after (laughs), this might be a good time.
If You Go
Who: Rickie Lee Jones
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Center for the Arts, Homer
Cost: $22-$45, available online here:
Find out more about Rickie Lee Jones here.