Rickie Lee Jones is hard to pin down. She made a huge splash in 1979 with her self-named debut album, scoring not just radio hits but lots of critical acclaim. Here was a fresh voice, a singer who embraced folk, rock and jazz.
Here was a thinking musician, a musician's musician who recorded with some of the best players around. Here was a hip poet with an expressive and flexible voice. And when her excellent second album "Pirates" hit the racks, she proved that she was a true force to be reckoned with.
In the years that followed, she tried many things, worked with many collaborators and gained many more fans. She will perform at 7:30 p.m. March 10 at the Gaillard Center, sharing the stage with another consummate musician, Madeleine Peyroux.
Peyroux also is unique, even if she shares with Jones a similar interest in folk, pop and jazz. She is less likely to don a chapeau, but very likely to mesmerize an audience with fluid vocals, fine guitar work and a penchant for fooling you with her simple approach. Peyroux, in fact, has big things to say.
This is Jones' and Peyroux's first collaboration, and it's a good one. The Post and Courier asked Jones about it, and about her distinctive, sometimes idiosyncratic career.
Q: Even at the beginning, when you seemed to cultivate a “coolsville” image, your music was so expressive and honest, never pretentious, never too slick. This musical honesty remains fundamental through your career. So tell me about your approach to songwriting. Do you write the lyrics first in an effort to express what you’re are thinking or feeling, then weave together the words and the music?
A: Well, you are speaking about two things: the writing, and the producing. The sound of "Coolsville" — not too slick. But the song (is) pretty well-conceived, compared to punk rock or most music. (So it's) "slick" if that means, you know, well-developed and considered.
My writing was thorough. I am good at it. Sometimes better than others. The production, that is where my stuff varies in quality or at least in accessibility. Like, a great cast, but who hired this director anyway? I have been disappointed in the work of the producers, or my choice of men too many times. They are always men, by the way. But then sometimes it is a beautiful song, a thing achieved, and that's worthwhile.
My approach to songwriting is totally inspired. I rarely write a lyric and then pursue a melody. These days the things happen simultaneously. I may refine it. I may finish it. But it comes as one piece. I think I’m just too much of a hedonist to not give myself the pleasure of creating a whole song all at once. It’s fantastic.
Thank you for your remark about honesty. I think this is a quality of mine that I finally have come to grips with and understand its place in ... my music; the showing of the heart, the willingness to feel it all, each time; no, the insistence on feeling it all. That's probably largely unique and is what you refer to.
Q: Some of the people you have worked with are the best of the best: Steve Gadd, Donald Fagen, Walter Becker, Ben Harper, Alison Krauss, Bill Frisell, Leo Kottke, Randy Brecker, Greg Phillinganes. The list goes on. What is it about your songs that appeals so strongly to both collaborators and fans?
A: I cannot describe what might appeal to others about me. Modesty aside, and I am sometimes very modest, I just don’t know, unless they tell me what they love. It’s not usually what I think they will love, let's just say that. Your insights are better. I get to learn something that way.
I would guess the reason these folks work with me are a) money; I can pay them what they ask, and b) for those who don’t want to be paid or show up and ask to be on the record, it feels like a kindness. I am sure it’s more than that but it feels so personal, like they want to help me do what I do. Their music, sure it's interesting, but to come to be a part of the manifestation of a song, that is more than money or ego or anything, it's a calling.
Greg Phillinganes, I mean that guy is angelic. And Kottke, well that was attraction. And Frisell, well I wanted his genius. And Ben Harper, Walter Becker, some kind of musical love affair.
Q: You are adept at creating original songs and at performing covers. Is there a new project on the horizon? Is there something you’ve not yet done musically that you’re eager to try?
A: Yes there is a project. Duets. Jazz covers, with a girl. I like that unique idea.
Q: You and Madeleine Peyroux covered “Rock On,” making it into an anthem and video about women’s rights and women’s strength. What is it like to work with Ms. Peyroux? Where do you find convergences in your musical philosophies and approaches, and where are you able to capitalize on your differences?
A: She is a very surprising artist so far. Every time I think “Oh, she's so shy” or “Oh, she didn’t quite get it” I find out she got it and it’s fabulous. Her unassuming honest thing is really very effective. I was humbled. I try, I work hard, but she just seems to do a good job. Her humility is a weapon of effective communication.