Rickie Lee Jones: Of Intimacy and American Standards


“We actually had days where we did three songs in one day. It was just pow, pow, pow,” Jones said of the five-day recording session.

(Photo: Astor Morgan)

Rickie Lee Jones has a credo that she’s lived by all her life: shouting her name out while zigzagging through musical genres and penning a series of idiosyncratic albums that defy categorization.

“Everything you do is an extension of every moment you’ve lived up to then,” she says. “So, own it. You’re only here for a little while, so shout your name out everywhere you go.”

The self-titled Rickie Lee Jones (Warner), her 1979 debut, launched the Time magazine-proclaimed “Duchess of Coolsville” from complete obscurity to raspberry beret ubiquity with her hit single “Chuck E.’s In Love.” She was awarded the Grammy Award for Best New Artist and scaled the pop-culture pinnacles of Rolling Stone and SNL in less than a year. Pirates (Warner), her 1981 follow-up, was also a critical and commercial success. Both were produced by Russ Titelman (who has also produced the likes of Randy Newman, George Harrison, Eric Clapton and more), who has now circled back four decades later to produce Pieces Of Treasure (BMG Modern), a collection of American songbook standards that’s one of Jones’ most personal, intimate albums to date.

Meeting to discuss Pieces Of Treasure, Jones continued a conversation that’s been going on for several years — ever since she became a fellow New Orleanian. On the last deep dive, Jones had just released her compulsively readable memoir Last Chance Texaco (Grove Press UK, 2021).

But Pieces Of Treasure isn’t about her. It’s about a series of characters she created to get inside the skin of every song, and the musical framework Titelman gave her to manifest those characters — a framework that includes pianist Rob Mounsey, guitarist Russell Malone, bassist David Wong and drummer Mark McClean.

Titelman, for his part, used the album to showcase “Rickie’s artistry in full bloom. Her voice has always sounded a bit younger than it ought to, but on this recording the aging voice sounds even better to me than the youthful one. There’s a resonance and warmth in her lower register that wasn’t there before. I adore the young Rickie Lee, but I love even more the Old Dame.”

The Old Dame arrived at the interview for this article wearing a North Sea Jazz Festival T-shirt, looking very vibrant and youthful, her skin glowing and her face framed by soft waves of blonde hair. At 68, she makes growing old look good.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Cree McCree: When I first arrived, you told me you’d just listened to the album this morning. What was your reaction to hearing it again?

Jones: Usually there’s a point where there’s a weaker song and you hate it even more as time goes by. But that hasn’t happened. The woman who’s singing these songs, I don’t know where she came from. I mean, she’s obviously a development of me, but she feels almost like somebody else. So I can listen to her and enjoy the music. Usually, I’m listening to myself and criticizing it.

McCree: Did you realize when you started this project that you were going to be creating a whole other persona who would be actually singing the songs?

Jones: No, but I knew I was gonna have to address the issue of age in my voice. Because it’s almost like glaucoma, and in the midrange it wanted to waiver. I could still punch the big notes, and I could go deep, but right here where I like to sing, I was having a little trouble. And that’s where so many of these songs are. That’s why so much of what happens in this album feels like destiny. Because what I couldn’t do the week before, the moment I walked into the studio, I could do it. And some of that power came from the respect of the musicians.

I’m so vulnerable to what people say. And in past studio situations, I can feel defeated before I even start. But these guys came up and said, it’s an honor to play with you. That’s a word reserved for older people. And I feel like I’m right where I’m supposed to be.

McCree: And you completed the whole thing in five days, right?

Jones: We did. We actually had days where we did three songs in one day. It was just pow, pow, pow. I knew that I wanted to tell the story, but I didn’t care about articulating the words. [starts to sing] “When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame.” … There’s a lot of sound in the word “flame.”

McCree: You can actually hear it flickering.

Jones: It’s exciting singing every sound, so I did things very differently than I have. And when I’m singing with men who’ve said this is an honor, we’ll receive what you do, I have more courage to be creative. Because when you have men in there looking at their watch, you wouldn’t dare throw your beautiful pearls to them.

McCree: Let’s rewind to the genesis of the project. What brought you and Russ back together again after all these years?

Jones: I was coming to New York to do some kind of promotional thing, and we met for lunch. And being with him is like being with the city of New York. He’s so engaged and wears a hat and scarf and is always smiling and you’re just caught up in all the things that could be when you’re talking to Russ Titelman. So I was trying to sound him out to see if he wanted to get involved with the new stuff I was writing, but when I sent him a song, he referred to it as “that funny little song” because he’s a traditional guy.

And, he in turn was saying, “I wanna do a jazz record. It’s time to do a jazz record.” So I said all right, then, that’s what we’ll do. With players who listen to the singer and can work with a woman.

McCree: And he found them. There are so many lovely instrumental solos that you play off. The vibes on “Just In Time” set the tone for the whole album, and that loping bass sucks you right in to start scatting at the end of “One For My Baby.”

Jones: Frank Sinatra owned that song. And I was looking for a way in, because the one thing I don’t want to do is imitate somebody else’s spirit. How would I get in? So I went looking and found Ida Lupino, who sang that song in this 1947 film noir [Road House]. And it’s so contemporary, how she did it. This character in this song has been through it and is kind of rough. So there’s my way in.

McCree: In your song-by-song analysis, you also said Frank always gives you the strength to go on.

Jones: I have this little group of people who, if I don’t know what to do, I just become them. What would Miles do here? What would Frank do here? They can’t do anything wrong because they own Frank. They own Miles. Everything Miles does by definition is correct because it’s an extension of himself. So just be Frank for a minute until you can do me again.

McCree: These songs were nowhere near contemporary with you, but you make them sound like you grew up with them.

Jones: I got them from my dad and Sinatra and “Moon River,” and I have a super ability to remember songs. All I have to do is hear ’em a few times, and they become part of my palette of color. You can teach yourself how to paint with your own language and your own voice.

McCree: God, you’re so poetic. Just naturally. It blows me away how you come up with these metaphors.

Jones: When I read what I’ve said in a magazine, I go, “Wow, that’s pretty smart,” but I have no idea I’m saying it at the time. I’m confident enough not to plan — to see what will happen.

McCree: So you didn’t have the record mapped out in your mind before you started.

Jones: No. It revealed it itself. I had a feeling about the character, and in doing that, I heard the sound of my voice. I was like, “Wow, I can finally hear what I sound like.” On so many other records, maybe because I’m competing with other instruments, I can never hear the air and sound of my voice. This is a triumph for that reason that I can hear me. It was made with discipline, and that’s what Russ brought.

McCree: Toward the end of the album, you get into the songs that are more specifically about aging, like “September Song.”

Jones: May to December, and automatically you think younger girl, older man. I envisioned an older man in a derby and a long wool coat sitting on a park bench, holding a cane with the winter trees all around him, loving some distant thing that was too beautiful to even touch.

McCree: That’s very specific.

Jones: Yeah. And when I decided to sing it, I wanted to make the person on the bench a woman and give her more reality than the little derby and the cane. The thing I’m singing to is my own youth and the past and how much I love it.

McCree: This is an album about aging, but sitting across from me now you look very youthful and vibrant.

Jones: I feel at the beginning of something, not at the end of something. I’m excited to be able to keep talking to the world when I’m past my childbearing years.

McCree: Every song you sing is so personal. And intimate. There are some very sensual parts.

Jones: I just hope it’s refreshing and uplifting. Like in the song at the end, “All In The Game.” It’s not that it’s sad, it’s just so much delicious feeling that there are no more words and the feeling just takes over.

McCree: You literally cry at the end of “All In The Game,” which to me is more of a statement that that’s just the way it is. What about that song is so devastating to you?

Jones: Well, because you don’t know. The writer is saying things are hard right now, and the future’s looking dim. But you can hang on. You can rise above it. Hold on to yourself. That’s hard to do in love. I’m not the only girl who banged on the door late at night. When your future depends on one human being, everything’s at risk if they don’t call. When I hear my voice that way, I know we’re just hanging on.

It’s like when my mother saw me on Saturday Night Live singing “Chuckie E.’s In Love” and she said, “Oh, my gosh, when you first started the song, I thought you were gonna faint.” Only she knew how terrified I was. But I left the sob on at the end because I accepted that there was something happening that was so joyful. There are no words, that’s why you get to sob it.

McCree: Were there any songs you left out that you wished you had done?

Jones: No, I think it’s perfect. One of the songs we were gonna do was “It Never Entered My Mind,” which I’ve been doing for about seven years, but in the weird Rickie way. My own weird chords. And so we ended up doing three versions. One a Rickie, one a band one, and then a mix of both that we cut together. And we almost put on the one with the band because the sound of it was most like the rest. But the fact that it’s so dark and sad and a little off would’ve changed the feeling of the whole record, which I wanted to be uplifting. So there are other great songs, but they don’t fit in the record. The Rickie ideas are what led me here. I’m 68 and can do a record of old jazz and feel very proud of it. DB

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