When her first album was released in 1977, Rickie Lee Jones was immediately recognized as a new and outstanding American voice. Rickie Lee Jones won a GRAMMY and included songs that today considered classics like “On Saturday Afternoons in 1963," "Last Chance Texaco," and the hit single, "Chuck E’s in Love.” She remains an adventurous, witty, and inspired writer whose unique feel for jazz, blues, and the American groove have her dozen albums and tours cause for both celebration among her many fans (and fellow artists) and a re-evaluation of her impact on American songwriting. Her latest album, The Other Side of Desire, was recorded in New Orleans, a city with a mystique equal to Ms. Jones. She recently acquired an Epiphone Masterbilt Olympic and we caught up with her in between sets at the Jerusalem International Jazz Festival to get some background on her early days learning guitar and how she likes her new archtop. Thanks to Gina Binkley for the great photo. You can see more of Gina’s work here and read more about Rickie Lee Jones at her website.
What first guided you to playing an instrument?
I was a Beatle fan. I loved the Beatles and wanted to be
a Beatle. If I played guitar it was, in a way, like I had a Beatle closer to me. My dad played guitar, and so there was one around the house. Girls-- they weren't really guitar players back in the 60s. It was tolerated but not really encouraged. I snuck into my brother’s room to play his guitar, teaching myself lines like “Ticket to Ride,” or chords and figures like (the Buffalo Springfield’s) “For What It’s Worth” and Jefferson Airplane’s “Comin’ Back to Me.”
But the reason I loved all these things was because, first of all, I was a singer. I loved to sing was made to sing, and the guitar was a way to do that. I didn’t care much about what kind or how it was or how old it was. I actually started out with a Kay, whose fingerboard was about ½, 2/3 inch off the fretboard. Then I managed to scrounge the money for a 12-string a classmate was selling. I strung it up with six strings most of the time, or kept it tuned to the D if I put all 12 on. Sometimes it was a 10 string. We were poor--no, it’s true. No extra money for stuff like that.
Then when I was 19, I loaned a guy in our building some money. He could not pay me back so he gave me his guitar. It turned out to be a Gibson from 1920s--Only a Gibson is Good Enough.
I took it to a guitar store in the Valley and asked them to sand the thing, protect the iconic Gibson thing. I came back and they had CHOPPED the guitar off and taken the top of the neck and cut it off. I still get very upset talking about it. It rests with my ex-husband.
When I got an advance, my first advance, I bought myself a Martin. My sister snuck in through the window and stole it. So I guess I kind of decided I would not invest any love in guitars, and for a long time I did not. I still have two guitars, one Epiphone, a rare little girl from the 50s, I think, or 60s, a 'womens' guitar, 3/4 size, kind of small and full of blues. Very, very…Mississippi electric. And I have a guitar from Olympia, Washington, made of old Strat parts, called a ‘Nash.’ I like it because the Strat weighs too much on my shoulders.
My favorite is a recent acquisition, an 8-string guitar, ornate Stewart, strung up high. Then Leo Kottke gave me a Taylor--sent it to me in the mail, because he heard me say all I had was a white Takamine. I had that guitar for 20 years until here in New Orleans, someone stole it last year.
I decided to go back to the Gibsons for a while, their dark feminine tones. And this new Epiphone (Olympic) with the f
-hole is a very subtle creature. Great for jazz…I am not sure yet if it’s the appropriate instrument for me on stage. I don’t like to change guitars a lot, prefer to use one for the soul and for the pop. Well, we'll see. It is a lovely thing though.
Tell me about working with Mark Howard and John Porter. How did you chose them as producers and how did you go about putting together a plan for making a record?
I chose Mr. Porter because I thought he lived here in New Orleans. He had just moved back to England, but he knew and knows many of the players around the Big Easy, and he loves visiting here. I had other great producers, but they wanted to work in their towns, not mine.
Mark I have known for some years. He was coming back and forth here, and he also knew the local landscape pretty well. Who can say what, or why, when a thing happens? I chose them because I did.
Your website mentions that the songs for The Other Side of Desire are your first new published songs in a decade. When you got back to writing, did you also find new ways to approach your older material?
No, I didn’t take a break from writing. Life just took over. I was busy taking care of many problems and personal stuff. No time to be a writer, really. To find the cloud, one must dream upon in order to relax and self-reflect. My older material--yes-- it is taking on new angles but that is more from playing it than not playing it, wanting to find a new or better way to do something in front of people. Theory is one thing, practical use is another. Practical use of a song really helps carve it correctly. If you don’t get to play it, don’t have to play it, you might not get the education performance lends to old songs.
I really believe writing should be a process not an event, and we can make songs different, better, as years go by. Like “Pirates,” the New Verse, 1989. Something like that. I am rambling. I don’t really think time entered into my thinking about my writing, other than, ‘oh wow, it’s been too long.’