Freelancer Ethan de Seife interviewed Rickie Lee Jones via email and contributed this report to Seven Days.
Rickie Lee Jones has been surprising and charming listenerssince the late 1970s with her distinctive voice, unique phrasing anddeft musicianship. She has steadfastly refused to be pinned down by any singlegenre, ranging instead across jazz, folk, rock, popular standards and numerousother forms. Her fans are devout.
Jones' most recent album, The Devil You Know, is her firstsince 2009’s Balm in Gilead. On it she has elected not toshowcase her own fine songwriting skills but those of others: Every one of thealbum’s 12 songs is a cover, including material by the Band, Tim Hardin, Neil Young and the Rolling Stones. Against the backdropof producer Ben Harper’s stark, mysterious arrangements, Jones uses herremarkable voice to reinvent every single song, rendering them both welcomingand unfamiliar at the same time.
In an email interview, Jones discusses herchanging voice, the costs and benefits of recent sea changes in the musicindustry, and her relationship with live audiences.
SEVEN DAYS: How did you choose the songs for The Devil YouKnow? 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 sunga different way.
SD: Which of the songs do youfeel 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 tosing to me. But I did it differently for Ben Harper’s production.
SD: You're known as one of the great interpreters of popularsong. Do you have a "theory" of musical interpretation? That is, whatmakes for a good or successful interpretation of an existing song?
RLJ: If you hear it inside your head a certain way, then you aremeant to sing it. But why bother singing it the way somebody already didit perfectly? Remember, it’s all about singing, being happy that you getto sing a song. It’s not so serious, after all. Just sing it how you feelit.
Then again, I did not really like the Neil Young song Idid [“Only Love Can Break Your Heart”]. I have Young songs I love, but this wasnot one of them, and I had no real line on it. Ben liked it very much, butthis was a case of me going with his feelings. I still have mixed feelingsabout it.
SD: Some of the arrangements on the album are pretty stark, eveneerie. Why use that kind of "filter" to essay these songs?
RLJ: I guess at this point I am such a control freak that Icannot relinquish the control, and so the very heart, to a drummer andbass player. I hope this phase will end soon.
SD: How has your previous musical work led you to the particularartistic statement you make with The Devil You Know? Does this albumspecifically build on or refer to your musical past?
RLJ: It’s all part of a whole. Each leads to the next. It’s all aresponse. It’s all expression of a time in my life.
SD: As your voice has changed, do you find yourself, as asinger, drawn to different kinds of songs? And how have you kept your voice insuch good shape?
RLJ: Yes, I think so. High end is gone now; low has taken itsplace. Must be careful not to relinquish femininity for all thesewonderful low tones. With menopause and feelings of doubt, I can find myselfhanging out in the low register. I have the youth still in my voice, in myheart, and the low tones can bring a kind of emotion, as the high notes do foryouth ... to the song.
Women with low tones and voices evoke a certain courage andcontentment, I think. So it’s not an elixir but a highly concentrated, magicalthing that must be used sparingly, as much as it’s so fun to see how low youcan go. Anyway, sounds good.
SD: I'm sure everyone asks you this, so please forgive thislongtime 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, Ispeak slowly, and I like how it feels to be there. ... Being right on thebeat seems so ... impersonal.
SD: How have the changes in the recording industry changed your approach tomaking 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 andnot giving much to the artist. Trickle-down record checks. Now the moneywill come, can come, directly to me, not half or more to the recordcompany, who you then have to audit, if you can make enough money to doso.
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 amdelighted to hear and understand new music, its place in the lives of youngpeople today; why they like mechanical voices. Why they like beat and norelief. What does it mean? It’s not my language, and I listen to it withgreat interest. Then I go home and put on my old records.
SD: I've seen you perform only once — at First Avenue inMinneapolis, circa 1997. A great show, but I remember some audience membersbeing a little rude, since they were used to music a little more raucous thanyours. I imagine that your upcoming show in Vermont will attract a differentkind of crowd. How do you "feed off of" your audience, for better orworse, when you're performing?
RLJ: I cannot pretend that I don’t hear them and feel them. Northey with me. If I am in the right venue, we have a holy night. If not, I haveto stop and listen until they remember where they are and stop talking. Butthat doesn’t happen often. Even in joints, I find they are very respectful andinterested 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 ofyour 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 themany younger singers who have cited you as an influence?
RLJ: FEELS GOOD. I would sure like to read that, because I stillhave 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 inLyndonville. $39/49. catamountarts.org/shows/an-evening-with-rickie-lee-jones/
Photo of Rickie Lee Jones courtesy of Astor Morgan.