It’s no secret that Rickie Lee Jones is a musical legend.
She’s been in the business for five decades, forging an illustrious career as a singer-songwriter and working with the likes of Randy Newman, Donald Fagen, Michael McDonald and Dr John. Earlier this year, she released her latest album, Kicks, to widespread critical acclaim.
Ahead of her appearance at Bluesfest later this month, I spoke to Rickie about the festival, her new record, songwriting and her friendship with Dr John.
What can people expect from your show at Bluesfest?
Well I have a four piece band and it’s a percussionist, vibraphone player, couple of guitar players and myself. So we’re a little unorthodox. We don’t have a drummer, so the percussionist does a little drumming. And it’s a wide variety of music from my career. Probably half of the music is the first couple of years and the other half is the years after.
Are there any particular tracks you’re looking forward to playing live as part of this tour?
Oh yeah! [laughs] I’ll just come and see what happens. You know, every show is different. There’s not a setlist and I just feel what’s going on with the audience and me and that’s what we do. We have a lot of different work so it’s always different.
Your latest album Kicks is a covers record – how did you choose the songs to put on the album?
It’s pretty much done spur of the moment. When I go in and make the record I see how I’m feeling and what it is I wanna say. That was a really interesting time because I met a guy during the recording of that, and I hadn’t been with a guy or in a relationship for over a decade. So when the record began I did that song, This Is For All The Lonely People, really feeling [laughs] as part of that song, y’know? And by the end of the week I was no longer one of the lonely people.
But the main thing I say about the cross-section of music that I do is that it’s all the music I heard on the radio growing up. Back then they played everything on the same station. They don’t any more. And my musical education was pretty great! Just listening to the radio.
One thing that struck me about the album was the mix of sounds and styles on there. Is that something that’s important to you – both with the covers and with your own music?
Yes. Exactly. One of the initial, I guess raison d’etre, was to defy genres, and I was powerful enough when I first came out that I could do that. And hope to impact the marketplace, so that a folk-rock singer could do a record of covers without being suspect. Which of course they all do now. So that a rock singer could sing jazz and not be suspect, which they all do now. And I like to think that I helped that happen.
But it’s important to me because I guess I love all different kinds of music, and I wish to be thought of that way, so that when I turn left or right I don’t lose my career, y’know? [laughs] So if people know that I do a diverse cross-section of music then maybe they’ll go along with me on the journey.
Do you think that’s been a key part of why you’ve been able to stay active and involved in the music industry for so long?
It’s hard to say, y’know? If I was only devoted to jazz I would probably still be interested in jazz. So it’s hard to say that would be the reason. But in my case, maybe so, yeah.
How do you feel things have changed in the music world – both generally and for young female artists starting out – since you started?
Well one way I think it’s changed, and I can say that for sure, is there’s a lot more young women singing their own compositions than there were before. When I started out there were probably five of us, and now there are quite a few of them. And that’s good, that’s hopeful. And I think also there seems to be a great trend towards women who aren’t traditionally pretty, the way that we thought of ’em in the 80s – they’re not skinny and they’re not this. They’re all kinds of shaped women, and they’re walking up so proudly, so fantastically, that I think… and they’re young too. I think those women can change the world, not just music. It’s exciting.
I also wanted to ask about your writing process – is it something that’s fairly set or does it change?
It changes, yeah. When I was young I would have a notebook and write ideas down in the notebook and work on those lyric ideas. Now it tends to come all as one figuring, and the bulk of the song will arrive and then I’ll work on the details, maybe for six months. But it’s always different depending on the patience that I have and what else is happening in my personal life, how much time I can devote to sitting around and writing a song. Right now it’s a really good time. I have a lot of time to sit and ruminate. But it just depends. When I had a young child I didn’t have a lot of time to write songs.
Do you find you go into ‘writing mode’ and ‘touring mode’? Or are you able to switch easily between the two?
No, I’m a really one thing at a time person. So when I’m touring I do not tour. When I’m writing I really can’t tour or I’ll stop writing, so… [laughs]
What have you learnt over the years from being on the road?
You know, what I’ve learned is I have a great respect of myself for hanging in there, and I think sitting in front of an audience playing music feeds my courage and my self-respect. So that’s what it’s done for me. It’s kind of made me a stronger and easier person for myself to live with [laughs].
What’s the one song you wish you’d written?
Oh! [laughs] Sometimes I think those things. Let me just think for one second. What would it be? You know, I’m gonna say… I like that Stevie Nicks song about the sea, I don’t know what it’s called, but [sings] ‘do you always love your first initial feeling, special knowledge, best believing, I’ve turned around’. I think that’s a really beautiful song that never gets old. So today, I guess, I might not have the same answer tomorrow, but today that’s the song that comes into my mind.
Would you ever put a version of that song on one of your records?
You know, I never thought of doing it. Probably because for the wrong reason, but because it’s by a singer-songwriter like myself and I’d probably try to reach somewhere else. But I’ll think about that. I really love that song.
What do the next few months look like for you?
I’m so busy. I’m finishing this book and I’m also in a totally new area for me to be creative in. And when the book comes out hopefully people will write enough about me that I’ll be able to sell more tickets and keep working [laughs]. So we’ll see.
Can you tell us a bit more about the book?
Yeah, it’s a memoir and I’ve been working on it some years. It talks about my parents and grandparents. My grandparents were vaudevillians. And both my parents had very unusual backgrounds being orphans. And the life that we lived, making our way to Arizona, we were pretty itinerant people. And then it’ll talk about Los Angeles, Tom Waites, first tours and yeah, that’s pretty much it.
It’s a beautiful story. I wanted to tell a story so that in a hundred years or two hundred years somebody read that story about one person’s life and these times. Because I know people would write it because I’m a famous singer, but I hope they’d read it because it was a great book.
You worked very closely with Dr John – can you tell us a bit more about that?
Sure. I met Dr John just when I was about to be signed, and there was some labels interested in me. One of them, Mac was also a producer, so they sent him over to check me out, and that was when we met. And then some 10 years later he was making a jazz record and his producer asked me to sing on it, and he had or we had a pretty big hit with that record. And then when I moved here [New Orleans] about five years ago I only got to see him a few times. I saw him at a birthday party. He was failing for a long time so he didn’t come out very much. But I knew him and he introduced me to very important people in New Orleans like Professor Longhair and James Booker. He was a friend of mine. Good fella.
I know you’re really busy with the book and the tour so I’m not sure where you’ll fit this in, but do you have any plans for new music any time soon?
Yeah, I think so. I’ve written most of five or six songs, so I’m hoping in January that I start recording a new record. That’s my hope.
Can you give us any clues of what it might sound like?
Always different [laughs]. It’ll be painted, so it’ll have a lot of instrumentation on it, I think. That’s as much as I’m guessing but we haven’t done it yet. If I say something like that the contrarian in me will make it the total opposite of what I say, so I have to be careful about saying anything. We’ll find out when it gets here.
Rickie Lee Jones plays at Bluesfest 2019, which runs from 25th-27th October at The O2. For tickets, head to http://bluesfest.co.uk.