Rickie Lee Jones is an acclaimed singer-songwriter who released her first album in 1979 and won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1980. Her song “Chuck E.’s In Love” was a huge hit, as were her first two albums, both of which reached the Top 5 in the U.S. She went on to release a dozen more albums in various styles, and her 1989 duet with Dr. John, “Makin’ Whoopee!”, won her another Grammy Award.
This interview was conducted by email, with answers received on May 20, 2011.
Jeff Moehlis: It’s exciting to hear that you’ll be performing your first two albums at the Lobero Theatre. How did you decide that this was the right time to revisit these albums?
Rickie Lee Jones: A few things… I did get to see Van Morrison perform Astral Weeks on my birthday a couple years ago. That was something I always hoped he would do…. and it got me thinking, perhaps my audience would like to see me do just a record…. I like the focus of that work, and so it’s more like a play, I don’t have to think of what to do next, it’s already written on a paper.
My shows, I write down names of songs and then as I play decide if I want to do them. I don’t write a set list… I tried this at the pier last year and thousands of people came, six, seven thousand. Hmm. Free. And old stuff. So while I can’t do it for free, I can do those first two records, they were important in many peoples lives. I love that I’m a part of that.
JM: Can you tell me about the band that will be joining you for this performance?
RLJ: I’m bad with names. But I do have two of the original Pirates band, Jeff Pevar on guitar, and Reggie McBride on bass. My keyboard and drummer are brand new to me. Have sax, trumpet and trombone as well.
JM: Another one – “Coolsville”?
JM: What about “Weasel and the White Boys Cool”?
RLJ: That was one of the first songs I wrote…. I wrote it when I was 21 years old I think. I lived in a one room place in Venice. I had written the verses, when I met Alfred Johnson, who would become a co-writer, and Alfred worked on the bridge with me. It was the beginning of perhaps a signature of mine back then, breaking down the song, talking, or new time signature, new key. That bridge is Alfred and I wrestling. I like it very much.
RLJ: That was written in NYC as I crossed Broadway on 54th… near Studio 54, going to SIR. It was evening. I had just broken up with my sweetheart. That song feels like two artists inspired it, to me, John Lennon and maybe Patti Page. Yep.
JM: Going back a bit, could you describe your debut performance at The Troubadour?
RLJ: Debut in LA ? I think that was at the Variety Arts. Oh you mean the show that got me signed, or the one the various record companies were in attendance for… Well, I did five songs, maybe six. I was on a bill with two other people, I was not the headliner, that was Wendy Waldman. I invited friends to perform with me, people I sang on the street with, and a friend from work who played piano. She played “When You Wish Upon a Star” for me… that was the
Did an a cappella of “The Real Things Back in Town” a song that was never released. And I did “Chuck E” very upbeat, much faster than its eventual recording. “The Last Chance Texaco” and probably “The Moon is Made of Gold”. “Easy Money.” I think those were the songs I did. It was a real MGM night, fairy tale, halcyon days.
JM: Your performance on Saturday Night Live in 1979 made quite a splash, then you had a huge hit with “Chuck E.’s In Love”, and won the 1980 Grammy for Best New Artist. Were you ready for how your career took off?
RLJ: Oh yeah.
RLJ: Dr. John was sent to me through Tommy Li Puma, the producer, to check me out…. he was at A&M at the time… In fact Tommy would eventually produce Dr. John’s big hit “Makin’ Whoopee”. We met on the La Brea Avenue, walking toward each other, in full character regalia, him with his snake head cane and patchouli and mojo bags, – and beret – me in beret, gloves and so forth. We hit it off right away.
JM: I’m a big fan of Mike Watt, who you have also worked with. How did that come about?
RLJ: I heard Songs From The Boiler Room [actually, Contemplating The Engine Room] and knew I was hearing a kindred spirit. The theme, and the quickness of the movement, the natural humor in his voice, very masculine voice and theme, but the tenderness and sweetness of melodies, I really thought he was brilliant. Still do.
We get categorized, who imagines punk rockers to be brilliant opera or playwrights, or pop singers to be punk rock fans. It’s all music.
I admired him for having no reservations, at least not to me, about getting together with me, like, having to protect his punk status by not mixing with people outside his genre. He’s a really good person, I am glad to know him. Prolific artist, photographer, and very humane guy.
JM: When did you first start writing songs?
RLJ: I was six or seven.
JM: What is the songwriting process typically like for you, or is there a typical?
RLJ: There is only the consistency of absence and then obsession. The Need to write is what I wait on, wait for. It’s not that I can’t write, I can write all the time. But the fulfillment, or the hope to catch a big fish, one that comes from the deeper water, makes me hold off and listen. It can be a long time. And really that kind of hurts.
JM: How would you describe the evolution of your music over the years?
RLJ: I wouldn’t. One day I think I suck. Another day I think I am an unrecognized genius, some other day, too recognized, and then some other time just lucky I guess. That’s my career, and today I can’t separate the career from the music. Maybe tomorrow.
JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring songwriter / musician?
RLJ: Remember the Music. Concentrate on how you feel when you sing it. If there’s a place you don’t like, fix it. That’s the place that’s not true. Have fun always. Even sad songs, have fun. Go there to the place the song Is. And remember, it’s your job to make Them cry, not to cry yourself.
JM: What are your plans, musical or otherwise, for the near future?
RLJ: I hope to keep working. And get paid more. And play a lot. And do different things.
JM: Do you want to set the record straight on anything about your music, career, or life?
JM: Where are you responding from?
RLJ: My living room. In LA. Near Griffith Park. On a Friday. Thanks… bye.