Gina R. Binkley/Courtesy of the artist
If you turned on a radio in 1979, there was very good chance you’d hear the music of Rickie Lee Jones. At only 24, she leapt onto the world stage with her big single “Chuck E.’s in Love.” Rolling Stone called her “the dutchess of coolsville.”
While Jones has continued to perform and record over the years, new original material has been scarce lately — until now. She says it took a move to New Orleans to break the streak and start work on what would become her latest album, The Other Side of Desire.
“The first inspiration was to leave L.A., because I just couldn’t take it anymore: It was a lonely life, and most of it spent in a car. So I made the decision to try again,” she says. “The moment I got here, I felt — what’s the word — I felt naked. I felt reduced down to the lowest possible denominator, which is where you have to be to start again.”
Speaking from her adopted hometown, Jones joined NPR’s Arun Rath to discuss the new album and why aging out of fame can be a blessing. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read an edited version below.
Arun Rath: So you move to New Orleans, and before too long we have this great album of new music. That definitely seems more like cause and effect than coincidence, right?
Rickie Lee Jones: I wanted to honor this city. I was just happy here, and it was feeding me, and I liked what I was hearing, and I liked the people I was meeting. So I said, “Why not? Let it in.”
There’s something I wanted to ask you about your vocal technique. You’ve been doing these things with your voice for years where I’ve been thinking, man, that’s gotta hurt the vocal cords.
By “these things,” do you mean singing? [Laughs]
Well, yeah! The type of singing you do where you go from a whisper to a scream to doing things like some of the gospel vocalists do. How are you able to do that all the time and keep it up?
To be honest, I still have the range, but absolute control is slightly wavering. And the good part about that is it brings a kind of sorrow — because it’s not quite quavering from age, but it’s slightly torn at the end of it. I’m enjoying it. The timbre and sound of my voice isn’t ever going to change. This is how I sound when I sing. So far, it’s holding up.
You talked about how quickly this album came together when you moved to New Orleans, but it came after a a long break. I think your fans, we somehow feel like you should have a regular output — and we had to wait a little while for this record.
I agree. I wish I had a regular output — something we could count on, like the moon and the sun. The creative process is really elusive, right? We wouldn’t want to hold it down and describe it to you. Its beauty is that it’s elusive, and it’s also an ever-changing thing — what it serves, why it serves.
There were times when I said, “Let’s hang it up. This is too dang hard!” And then I go, what are you talking about? When you lose money, it always helps lead you down a new path. I think once people have their house and their money and their power, there’s nothing to lead you away from there, you know? Who would risk everything and try something new? It’s not in our nature to do that.
In your liner notes for this album, you say, “I am happy with the loss of prestige.” Have you really lost prestige? And why would that make you happy?
Loss of prestige is like this: I would never go to a concert, but if I did and said, “Oh, I would like to say hello, I’m Rickie Lee Jones” — they would say, “I don’t know who you are. Who are you?” That’s a powerful thing, to go from where I was when I started — not only me, but my whole generation — to people not knowing who you are.
It’s not that I don’t want money. I really would like some money! But if I start doing it for money, it always ends up going awry. That’s my journey. It’s not Beyoncé’s, it’s not somebody else’s, it’s mine. And I have to follow that. I have to know it, memorize it, sing it every day.