Monday, July 6, 2015

Rickie Lee credits New Orleans for her renewal

By Alex Rawls
New Orleans Advocate

When Bruce Springsteen brought singer Rickie Lee Jones onstage during his Jazz Fest appearance in 2014, it was the answer to a “whatever happened to” question.
In 1979, Jones’ self-titled debut album produced two hits, “Chuck E.’s in Love” and “Coolsville.” She was on the cover of Rolling Stone. She won a Grammy for best new artist and was enough of a celebrity to have a signature style item — her beret.
She pursued her love of jazz-inflected pop and soul through the ’80s and into the ’90s, but her audience dwindled along the way.
Her music stayed good and her voice became an even more distinctive, better controlled instrument, but Jones was out of step with the moment.
It was such a musically dynamic time that she had a hard time being heard
“To have been the foremost female pop singer and have no one know you is humbling,” Jones said.
Her generation still remembers her impact, but another has grown up without an awareness of her.
“The gift of something like that is that you have to harness an inner strength and an inner confidence,” she said.
Rickie Lee Jones is back with a new album, “The Other Side of Desire,” which was released Tuesday.
She has been a New Orleans resident since October 2013, and she credits the move for helping her reconnect to the joy of making music.
Before the move, Jones lived in Los Angeles, but it had become a dead end. She’d become discontented and hyperconscious of her work, second-guessing her musical choices. Even her friends became hard to see.
“I was so lonely there,” she said. “The thing that happened for me here was that wherever I went — and this must have something to do with what I was seeking and maybe changed myself — people looked me in the eye and said, ‘Good morning.’ They’re not doing that in L.A.”
Dr. John first introduced Jones to New Orleans in 1989 when the two recorded a version of “Makin’ Whoopie” together.
He sent her out to meet James Booker and the Neville Brothers, among others. That visit made enough of an impression that she was startled by the number of tourists she saw when she moved here.
“When I go to the Quarter, which is still really enchanting to me, every block has tourists,” she said. “I don’t feel the indigenous population like I did back then. I’m sure they’re still there, but I don’t feel them.”
Creatively, Jones had been in a bad place, but things started to turn around here.
She struck up a friendship with the Lost Bayou Ramblers’ Louis Michot, and that helped her think of songwriting not as a business or a sellable product but as simple creativity.
She came to think of writing songs as part of how people connect and communicate, and the process became easier.
Their friendship inspired her to write “Waltz de Mon Pere,” her first song for “The Other Side of Desire.”
She said her writing process has always been a slow one in which ideas come to her, get written down, and over time some lines get built on while others are removed and replaced. Because it’s laborious, she has traditionally written only when she needed to for an upcoming album, but that changed in New Orleans.
“I’m still writing,” she said. “Almost every day, I’m still hearing music. I’m trying to tell myself that it’s safe to leave the levers open and keep writing and listening.”
Despite its title, “Waltz de Mon Pere” and most of the songs on the album sound like they could only have come from Jones.
Since her debut album, Jones has populated her songs with the people life overlooks, people who look for and offer gestures of human warmth — frequently boozy ones — because that’s all they have to give.
The core band on the album is made up of longtime New Orleanians — Jon Cleary, James Singleton, Shane Theriot and Doug Belote — but they only exert mild gravitational pull on “The Other Side of Desire.”
Jones’ fans will very clearly recognize it as a Rickie Lee Jones album.
For the first time, Jones involved fans in the recording process. She funded the sessions with a Pledge Music campaign and kept contributors abreast of the album’s progress through a series of blog posts.
Some big donors got a chance to visit the studio, which took some adjustment for Jones.
“If it would have happened at some other time (in my career) it would have been intolerable,” Jones said. She thought of this album as a “family project,” and that helped her get her mind around the visitors.
“My family had just gotten bigger. As it turned out, every one of them was a really neat person. They were all OK.”
When Jones joined Springsteen onstage at Jazz Fest, it was as much of a surprise for her as it was for the crowd.
Springsteen guitarist Nils Lofgren and his wife are fans of Jones, and when Jones saw that Springsteen was playing Jazz Fest, she reached out to Lofgren’s wife to say hello. They invited her to visit them backstage, and when Springsteen saw her, he got a bunch of lyrics and went over some songs for her to sing.
“When I was up there singing, he came over and said, ‘Don’t leave the stage,’ ” she remembered. As the set continued, the band went into songs she didn’t know, but she stood with his wife and backing vocalist Patti Scialfa and did what she could. “I don’t think my mic was on,” Jones said, laughing.
“He said, ‘We love you, and we’re so glad you’re back,’ and I wasn’t back yet. It was, ‘All of us are waiting for you,’ and to walk up and say that to me was — oh, my heart.”

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