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October 16, 2013

Rickie Lee Jones Talks About Her New Album, the Music Biz, and Hitting the Low Notes

Freelancer Ethan de Seife interviewed Rickie Lee Jones via email and contributed this report to Seven Days.

Credit astor morgan 2013Rickie Lee Jones has been surprising and charming listeners since the late 1970s with her distinctive voice, unique phrasing and deft musicianship. She has steadfastly refused to be pinned down by any single genre, ranging instead across jazz, folk, rock, popular standards and numerous other forms. Her fans are devout.

Jones' most recent album, The Devil You Know, is her first since 2009’s Balm in Gilead. On it she has elected not to showcase her own fine songwriting skills but those of others: Every one of the album’s 12 songs is a cover, including material by the Band, Tim Hardin, Neil Young and the Rolling Stones. Against the backdrop of producer Ben Harper’s stark, mysterious arrangements, Jones uses her remarkable voice to reinvent every single song, rendering them both welcoming and unfamiliar at the same time.

In an email interview, Jones discusses her changing voice, the costs and benefits of recent sea changes in the music industry, and her relationship with live audiences.

SEVEN DAYS: How did you choose the songs for The Devil You Know? Are there any links between them, besides your admiration for them and that you plainly enjoy singing them?

RICKIE LEE JONES: I don’t love all these songs, but [The Band’s] “The Weight” and [The Rolling Stones’] “Sympathy for the Devil” were and are pretty strong, and unique, live and so I decided to record them so folks could hear them sung a different way. 

SD: Which of the songs do you feel the closest connection with and why?

RLJ: The two mentioned. And I like the Van Morrison song [“Comfort You”]. Of course, “St. James Infirmary” is a song my daddy used to sing to me. But I did it differently for Ben Harper’s production.  

SD: You're known as one of the great interpreters of popular song. Do you have a "theory" of musical interpretation? That is, what makes for a good or successful interpretation of an existing song?

RLJ: If you hear it inside your head a certain way, then you are meant to sing it. But why bother singing it the way somebody already did it perfectly? Remember, it’s all about singing, being happy that you get to sing a song. It’s not so serious, after all. Just sing it how you feel it. 

Then again, I did not really like the Neil Young song I did [“Only Love Can Break Your Heart”]. I have Young songs I love, but this was not one of them, and I had no real line on it. Ben liked it very much, but this was a case of me going with his feelings. I still have mixed feelings about it. 

SD: Some of the arrangements on the album are pretty stark, even eerie. Why use that kind of "filter" to essay these songs?

RLJ: I guess at this point I am such a control freak that I cannot relinquish the control, and so the very heart, to a drummer and bass player. I hope this phase will end soon. 

SD: How has your previous musical work led you to the particular artistic statement you make with The Devil You Know? Does this album specifically build on or refer to your musical past?

RLJ: It’s all part of a whole. Each leads to the next. It’s all a response. It’s all expression of a time in my life. 

SD: As your voice has changed, do you find yourself, as a singer, drawn to different kinds of songs? And how have you kept your voice in such good shape?

RLJ: Yes, I think so. High end is gone now; low has taken its place. Must be careful not to relinquish femininity for all these wonderful low tones. With menopause and feelings of doubt, I can find myself hanging out in the low register. I have the youth still in my voice, in my heart, and the low tones can bring a kind of emotion, as the high notes do for youth ... to the song.

Women with low tones and voices evoke a certain courage and contentment, I think. So it’s not an elixir but a highly concentrated, magical thing that must be used sparingly, as much as it’s so fun to see how low you can go. Anyway, sounds good. 

SD: I'm sure everyone asks you this, so please forgive this longtime fan: Your phrasing is so unusual and distinctive. How did it evolve? Which singers, if any, shaped your phrasing? 

RLJ: I think I sit behind the beat so far because, in fact, I speak slowly, and I like how it feels to be there. ... Being right on the beat seems so ... impersonal. 

SD: How have the changes in the recording industry changed your approach to making music, and to being a professional musician?

RLJ: Well, I guess we can get the money directly from fans now. That would be good. Lotta people in the middle been making a lot of money and not giving much to the artist. Trickle-down record checks. Now the money will come, can come, directly to me, not half or more to the record company, who you then have to audit, if you can make enough money to do so. 

SD: What are you listening to these days? Do you listen to music in different ways now?

RLJ: I really listen mostly to the same old stuff, though I am delighted to hear and understand new music, its place in the lives of young people today; why they like mechanical voices. Why they like beat and no relief. What does it mean? It’s not my language, and I listen to it with great interest. Then I go home and put on my old records. 

SD: I've seen you perform only once — at First Avenue in Minneapolis, circa 1997. A great show, but I remember some audience members being a little rude, since they were used to music a little more raucous than yours. I imagine that your upcoming show in Vermont will attract a different kind of crowd. How do you "feed off of" your audience, for better or worse, when you're performing?

RLJ: I cannot pretend that I don’t hear them and feel them. Nor they with me. If I am in the right venue, we have a holy night. If not, I have to stop and listen until they remember where they are and stop talking. But that doesn’t happen often. Even in joints, I find they are very respectful and interested and captivated. It’s kind of awesome, and I do not take it for granted. Love my job. 

SD: You are allowed to listen to only one album for the rest of your days. Which album is it, and why?

RLJ: I think “On the Road” by Canned Heat. Just that song.  

SD: How does it feel to be regarded as an inspiration to the many younger singers who have cited you as an influence?

RLJ: FEELS GOOD. I would sure like to read that, because I still have not actually read any who cite me, though of course I figure they might. Well, I don’t read many articles about folks, I guess. 

Rickie Lee Jones performs on Friday, October 18, 7:30 p.m., in the Alexander Twilight Theater at Lyndon State College in Lyndonville. $39/49. 

 Photo of Rickie Lee Jones courtesy of Astor Morgan.


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