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Rickie Lee Jones Embraces 'The Big Invisible'

Rickie Lee Jones' new album, <em>The Other Side of Desire</em>, will be out on June 23.
David McClister
Courtesy of the artist
Rickie Lee Jones' new album, The Other Side of Desire, will be out on June 23.

Rickie Lee Jones needs no introduction. Seriously. The singer-songwriter is so elementally articulate, so gifted at grasping both the rawest and the most complicatedly cooked emotions in her compositions, that critical framing best comes after the experience of listening to her. But for anyone who is unaware: Jones brought her exceptional blend of jazz, soul, rock and whatever else fits to the pop scene in 1979, when her self-titled debut album and its single, "Chuck E.'s in Love," made her a beacon of New Bohemia and landed her on the cover of Rolling Stone. Since then she's made some of the most poignant and adventurous music the radio's ever played, become an accomplished interpreter expanding the definition of the standard, and remained a dynamic live performer with a dazzling vocal approach.

What Jones hasn't done much in the past decade is release original material. Her new album, The Other Side of Desire — to be released June 23 — waters that dry spot in her career with new material that recalls the fervor and crafty accomplishment of her best early work. The album is inspired by Jones's new home of New Orleans, a city she'd previously occupied while writing her masterpiece of heartbreak, 1981's Pirates. Jones consciously honors the musical styles birthed within America's most sonically spectacular city in songs like "Valse de Mon Pere (Lover's Oath)," which features her friend Louis Michot of the Lost Bayou Ramblers; the holiday toast "Christmas in New Orleans" and the J&M Studios style R&B throwdown "J'ai Connais Pas," which we are premiering here.

Asked to discuss a few fine points of The Other Side of Desirevia email, Jones responded with the garrulous joy that also spills over into her music. What follows is a lightly edited version of the exchange, which goes deep on Jones's spiritual quest, her love of the Crescent City, the ups and downs of working with Desire producers John Porter and Mark Howard, and ... oh, just read it. Honestly, Rickie Lee Jones needs no introduction.

You're very intentional about honoring the spirit and music of New Orleans throughout The Other Side of Desire. The song we're premiering, "J'ai Connais Pas," is very Fats Domino, with a French Creole twist. How specific were your New Orleans sources for these songs? What is the city giving you, today, specifically as a musician?

I live in Bywater, which used to be called the Upper 9th Ward. Remember "Letters from the 9th Ward," a little instrumental I wrote at the beginning of my version of "Walk Away Renee," which of course was a play on the meaning, since I knew most folks would think of the nut house? Anyway, just a lot of background about the place in my songs.

I had lived in New Orleans when I started writing Pirates. The Lower 9th Ward was hit hardest by Katrina, and when I came back, one of the first things my ex-neighbor from the old days here, photographer and PirateBarry Kaiser, did was drive over there and show me the houses, the watermarks. They've built some nice new places there, with a lot of restrictions for occupancy. Anyway, Fats Domino's house is also there, where he lived and where I believe he still lives. So I started thinking, can I use him for the record? That sound, it's as much of an institution as the Liberty Bell. Sure it's made of sound, but it is part of how we define rock 'n' roll. And he is still alive? Damn.

Folks said, "No you can't work with him, he doesn't work anymore." So ... I hired [producer] John Porter, an Englishman who loves New Orleans and blues music (well, they all do, don't they?), and he hired a North England-Scotsman named John Cleary, who lives here and has made this music his home. We also had another keyboard player from Louisiana, and between them, they played this song. Also I learned, if you play that bass line with the piano instead of the bass you are playing one kind of music — Fats music — and if you play it with the bass you are playing another. Which do you want? I want the piano to play the bass.

I don't really know if you can hear it the way I wrote it, which really was pretty straight-ahead Fats, but I think we did a good job. Oh, they call that Swamp Pop. My friends from Lafayette were very excited, "Oh dat Swamp Pop, we do that wid our eyes closed, man." Well, that's not how they talk but someone in their family probably does.

But, shoot, I didn't really respond to the question. The city is giving to me, or I am scooping from it, musically, culturally. In terms of the record, not only all the kinds of music that came from here, the '60s girl group sounds and the blues singers, the legends like Fats Domino — I mean "Blueberry Hill," come on, or the sitting-on-the-porch Cajun voices, so clear and piping, haunting, innocent of vibrato and twisting every last affectation out of the French, or the Killer and his driving manic white man sound, slapped together with the black clay of his childhood, all this, I am waxing eloquent this morning, but you ask about the city and I am enamored. I lived here before and was not so thrilled. The Dixieland did not invite me or incite me, and I found it to be a relic.

But today it is a living thing. The parades — and I mean kids suddenly start marching in a line, playing unlikely instruments past your window late at night — are made from the Dixieland vein. These new kids are weaving that music I grew up with — that my dad sang — the Mills Brothers kind of treatment of old standards and country (not western, but of the folks') tunes. I am hearing good music here also from the streets. I tell you, it's alive here right now. I embraced it, somehow.

In recent years you've frequently explored the spiritual and religious life in your work. This album feels more in the world, yet some of the songs remain very philosophical. How do you balance the earthiness of your street scenes with the more contemplative side of your songwriting? Is there even a separation for you, between the earthly and the spiritual?

I think the thematic nature of the last decade is simply how I saw things. I had lost a strength, and so in place of that came courage. Well, you only need courage if you are weak, cornered, yes? Otherwise you are strong and need not call a reserve. My career seemed to continue to fall away from the public no matter what I did, no matter what kind of show, what kind of singing, what kind of song. By "what kind," I mean, how deeply I dove, how much I gave, how naked I offered. I began to anticipate "them" even as I went to write, I could not dislodge "them" from the process. Loss overtook me. And that's what was going on.

I did seek a greater guidance, and the courage to show the journey of seeking is what made me keep going, I guess. People were turning away from Christianity and they had not even read Jesus' words. It's like only reading The Life of James Brown and never hearing "This is a Man's World." Why read about his life if you haven't loved his song?

In the course of doing this, I was profoundly moved, my smug logic (a multi-headed God?) began to transform. I figured every single story is some way the inarticulable trying to be told. It's all true in its glory, or its divine illogic. And in me, compassion began to grow. And what compassion does, in me, well it does not judge. It opens its arms. And in opening my arms I knew that anything is possible. It is just as likely that Guardians of the Galaxy is happening somewhere, or cells divide themselves into life. A magnetic electric light — but I think it has a connection or awareness that unites us. A spirit rested upon the water. A Spirit ... a Making ... and life began.

What does not seem likely is that every single event has no direction, attraction, connection, form and shape which connects it to invisible and physical, no inarticulable meaning. That there is attraction, say, magnetic, is to me an interaction. A thing to a thing. And that, to me, is proof that there is God. Otherwise, why would anything acknowledge, by accident or otherwise, the existence of another by pulling it to itself? It is an action like the scorpion and the leaf. All pulling to them. And this means awareness of the thing it pulls. And that is what I am talking about. I am in the magnet and the leaf, sure as I am here.

Logic leads nowhere. It is not the only fruit, it is not the only language. It will take you over mountains to a nice house and leave you there. If you want to keep traveling, you have to work with compassion, love, the single-minded intent to be a joyful or happy or hopeful spirit, and that will guide you to the Big Invisible that takes your hand and shows you, again and again, what cannot be translated into this physical plane. And you begin to know a faith, an understanding, a belief.

Our language is terribly inadequate, there are not words for what it leads you to, and there are not words for it. We could definitely use new words, for the few we have limit our willingness to understand anything outside of our words. Our words dictate our relative reality, but there is a lot more going on. The more you learn, the more you know you cannot know much. Those who protect what they learn with the agenda of proving what they believe can only corrupt the process of life, of learning. And yes, teachers can have a list of things they want to cover, but they must be willing to find out that list is not relevant this term. So ... I decided to write again, to be part of singing a song that we are all smiling at the end. Why not?

So yeah, I'd say everything I have done has led me to where I have gone. I have always been attracted to what I have not done before. But something in the cycle right now is at rest. I just want to make music music, songs songs. I think I may have hit a vein, Ann. I hope so.

You've always been adventurous in terms of song structure, and on this album, too, some songs are very cinematic, with complicated changes and multiple scenes in each lyric. Others are more straightforward, yet never simplistic. Can you talk about how different musical forms serve the stories you tell? You really like waltzes, for example — how do you decide that form suits a particular lyric?

You know I don't decide it, not consciously. I do find that a waltz is, right away, innocent, provides a structure that is ... understood, and so suits a certain sentiment, but I don't do that on purpose. I want to write about love, children, I might end up in a waltz. Children might be a sad waltz.

I am trying to write simple, and within that simplicity, I hope the hearer finds some contentment. I always go back to Beatles songs, the first crop, the ones that caught us. "There's A Place," "Things We Said Today." Even then, the bridges are complex, but they said what they had to say in three minutes, and they said a lot. I wanted to cut away extraneous pleasures for some time, and just say what I had to say. So I think I gravitate toward things instinctively.

The song "Feet on the Ground" is really inspired by '70s soul. My neighbor kept playing this amazing soul music and it went right through the walls. So I'd lie there at night or in the morning and instead of getting mad, just laid there listening to the production and the feeling. And for what was going on in my life, I thought, this is a great way to tell that story. Gladys Knight and the Pips singing about a girl lost in drugs. It found a home there, and the chorus would not stop singing to me.

The concise nature, the planned part, is maybe to stay within a given idea. I often stray; I start out one way and then go in another. Like on [her 1991 album] Pop Pop, putting in "Love Junkyard" among those standards, or [the Jefferson Airplane's] "Comin' Back to Me" with "My One and Only Love." I thought, well, this is authentic for me, because for me these songs do sit side by side, I do not catalogue them in my heart; they are all songs I love. I can sing these songs when I'm alone and they all roll off easy. The division, the separation comes from marketing.

The more they can separate us, the better they can market to us. You are the white people. White women. Over forty. Who make this much money. Who live in this place. Who buy this product. Et cetera. And these ideas probably also tend to reinforce us into staying that way. I don't like it. And I guess I instinctively don't like it, I know it brings order, but I grew up in chaos, and order is not my natural state. I must force myself to stay with an idea. Maybe I have PTS or ADDS or whatever it all is, I don't know. But that isme, that is my unique voice.

If I have suffered in my career because of these choices; I have also helped to expand the idea of what is possible. Nowadays a singer-songwriter can do a cover record. That was forbidden when I started doing it. AND they can do jazz standards with a bit of '60s soul. I did that too. I made the connection between Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan, you might say. Because I was young enough to be able to love them both, I was made of them, and so whatever I did was my vision, and that is the only reason I was able to pull it off. I am not sure I would do it the same now. I might try to stay within a ... concept, recognizing that my ADD leads me too quickly down another road. Or, I might still allow that the creation is still being created, and you need not limit yourself. That's why I need a producer. I really do need someone to help me stay on focus. I have lots of ideas.

The stories you tell in songs like your recent single "Jimmy Choos" are about women in trouble, in some way, but there's always this life force that moves through the verses — these characters on the edge are so vivid and attractive. How do you avoid merely romanticizing life's difficulties and get to the deeper stuff your songs always touch?

That song, specifically, I made the move to less-is-more. A series of images, a feeling of compassion. Come and let's just go take a ride. By the time you get to let's just go, you know, things are pretty stressful. I feel the pain of the person trying to help, and I feel the pain of the sad girl, trying to make her laugh with the "Jimmy Choo Choo..." Well, who doesn't do everything they can for a friend? I am not sure how, except that if I see it, it ends up on the canvas. It's quite magical to me.

I love all the French on this album. Francophone culture is a huge part of New Orleans. What does invoking that language give you as a songwriter and performer?

I have been wanting to use Spanish and French more and more. All these people to talk to, people who do not speak the English! The French thing, it sets me free in a way. It's also visceral, I find it kind of sensual, and I need that feeling.

The Lafayette connection, where people are speaking and writing in French and yet living very American lives, that's a pretty interesting place to live. I love their pride and their down-home thing. Singing the "Valtz de Mon Pere" with Louis Michot, well, the song was inspired by thoughts of his father and his family. He and I hit it off so deeply, it almost felt like it was other-life stuff. He told me right away that those streets — Pauline, Desire — were named after great aunts of his, for his family had owned this Bywater after it was sold by Marigny long ago. And that I had incorporated those names right away, and seen him play and called him, made him feel like maybe I'm someone he knows.

I don't really believe in reincarnation, but I do believe time is not happening linearly, so who knows what we are writing into the past from where we stand. I like French, and the Cajun French is friendly for me, since I will never speak French in the proper way. Accidental French! But the connection to France through my daughter Charlotte's lineage, that's always with me. [Charlotte's father, Jones's ex-husband, is the musician Pascal Nabet-Meyer.] So what it invokes is being formed as we speak. I like that it's part of this town, and wanted to draw that color into the record for sure.

Tell me about the process of working with your two producers, Mark Howard and John Porter. Both seem to match you well in terms of experience and wisdom.

It was hard with John Porter. He did a great job, and then left before we were done. Mark came to the rescue, and helped me finish some songs that John and I had not been able to catch. I think they are both wonderful. The difference? Mark said, "go out there and play the organ." "I don't know how," I said. "You are genius," he said. "Just go play it." That's the organ on "Blinded by the Hunt."

John said, "I don't think you should play anything, just go sing." I played most of the stuff on "Haunted." I should have been on "Infinity," but I think he took me off everything.

Also, I asked John to send me another version of "Christmas in New Orleans," I said in context of the record this track vocal is bit low. He said, "Well. I sent you the mix. I listened and I sent what I like. I do not make vocal up and vocal down. That's it."

I did not really understand the attitude, because he was also a very hard worker, very devoted. Really good at producing. I did not mind being wrangled. But I seemed to be extraneous to his ... process. I actually got sick.

You need not write this, for it's a good record and maybe we don't need to come out of the gate telling how hard it was. But that's the truth, a couple of weeks were hard.

The refinement of John's songs verses the funkiness of [Mark] Howard's songs is evident. "Blinded by the Hunt" was a hard song to get. To record it three or four times with John, it's a smoking-dope-in-Malibu song. More a song a guy might sing in a rock band. Anyway, that's how I saw it. Mark helped me deliver that song. The harder songs, John had not the patience to bring in. I'd work with them both again. Mark is a gem.

Your voice still sounds amazing — you can really still hit those high notes and sing so fluidly! I am curious about who your vocal inspirations are at this point in your life.

I refer to Al Green maybe, or strive for sly Sylvester Stone ease. Al Green, as I age, becomes so monstrously profound, as does Mr. James Brown. I heard a track of James singing a straight-ahead gospel song, very quietly, and it was as masterful as Al Green or Sly Stone. I feel kind of special just being one of the people who lived in these guys' time. But mostly, I guess I just try to sing the song in tune.

Just as Tennessee Williams played with the double meaning of "Desire" in his famous play, you do so with your latest album title. You don't sound much like you're on the other side of desire throughout this album. But perhaps being sixty gives you a different perspective on desire?

Well, we tend to think of sexual intonations when we say "desire." But I am not playing it that way, specifically. I just like the provocation it would bring in the listener. That being said, what are the things we desire? How far do we chase them? Where do we end up? When do we stop, do we ever? And if we do, what is there in the place? What we need? Did we win? Who dat over dere? Want some pie?

But the sexual aspect is there. The question, do you assume that age has anything to do with people f****** or not f******? Loving? Wanting to be loved? I suspect it does, but rather I suspect it happens long before 60. Whatever the answer. The loss.

And if you are going to keep having sex with people till you die, I suspect that Desire will lead you into some brightly colored swamps before you rest. This record is titled The Other Side of Desire. You place the meaning there. For me, it's a place that is populated by all kind of spirit, enduring. "Our grandchildren will know us cuz they are made of our hearts."

Yeah, it's just a street and I live on the other side of it, if you are coming from the Quarter. Stop in some time and say hello.

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.
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