A conversation with Rickie Lee Jones

With a new album out and a new tour coming, the cool chanteuse discusses Britney, Christina, Jack Nicholson and sex, hope, baseball, Madonna and good cooking.

Published October 16, 2000 5:16PM (EDT)

Rickie Lee Jones doesn't like the telephone. And she's not a big fan of interviews either. She finds the process "very unrealistic, superficial" and trying. "Doing interviews about ME-ME-ME," she says, "is not what I consider part of my job." So you can imagine how she feels about phone interviews.

Jones is, however, cool with e-mail. She likes its unobtrusive, literary quality. "I can get my thoughts across," she says, "with relative ease." And since she's also fond of communication and experimentation, she agrees to have a conversation with me via e-mail -- with one caveat: no clichid questions.

Jones has never run with the pack. In 1979, when her eponymous debut disc hit record stores with its jazzy, stripped-down folk, the airwaves were busy getting down to quite a different sound: "YMCA," "Ring My Bell," "We Are Family." Still, she scored a No. 4 hit with "Chuck E.'s in Love," her most well-known song to date. Critics hailed her as a pop heroine, and she snagged the best new artist Grammy that year, beating out the Knack, the Blues Brothers, Dire Straits and comedian Robin Williams.

Commercial expectations were high for the beret-wearing vocalist. Then, two years later, she turned out "Pirates," a disc filled with plenty of radio-unfriendly tunes, cementing her reputation as an idiosyncratic artist. She has since turned out eight more eclectic albums filled with vocal jewels that radio-station program managers don't know what to do with.

Despite -- or because of -- her reluctance to fit into any particular mold, Jones' fans cover a wide spectrum. For example, she's the only artist to make it onto the soundtrack albums of both "Party of Five" and "thirtysomething." And now the 45-year-old (she turns 46 on Nov. 8) is getting ready for her U.S. tour that kicks off in New York on Dec. 10. It's in support of her September release, "It's Like This," an album of curious covers, ranging from the Gershwin standard "Someone to Watch Over Me" to Steve Winwood's "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys."

The other day, while hanging out at her Tacoma, Wash., home, Jones took a few minutes to correspond with me, sending along her thoughts on Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, the silliness of poetry readings, potential sex with Jack Nicholson, Major League Baseball's mistakes, hope, transcendence and whether she makes a good piece of meat. Jones even had a few choice comments about Barry Manilow and Madonna.

So, Britney or Christina?

Popular music has always had its really horrendous stuff. I'll tell you, I would rather it was Britney than Barry Manilow. "Mandy," stuff like that, used to be all over the radio. It might be funny now, but when it's taken seriously and selling a lot of records ... So, be glad you have Britney and Christina. It could be a lot worse.

I must beg you, though, not to ask me to choose. They are both so fine, what is to be gained by putting them down? They are better singers than Madonna. They are better dancers as well. So before you rag on them, you better bring down their elders.

Dance music has always been boring to me, and what they call dance music is for people who can't dance. I like the Motown stuff or the sexy guitar-based bands, like "Mississippi Queen" or "Off the Wall," those kinds of beats. This crap called dance music -- that's just "go to a bar and get laid because people here will do anything to get out of this bar and away from this music" music. Isn't it?

What was your worst job?

My worst job was working in the laundry of a nursing home. I worked for a cruel and ugly woman who made me take the sheets out of the dryer while it was still actually turning, so I would burn my hands. I'd say, "But it is too hot, it burns," and she would say, "You have to take it out while it's hot. That's the way I want it." I tell you, I think I know how Cinderella felt. It was a great day when I quit there, because my nice friend I met there, Bernadette, she quit too, just because that woman had been so mean to me.

How about those Mariners?

I don't much care about the Mariners, though I am a big baseball fan. They play loud, stupid music and constantly have graphics. My first game was with my dad to see the Cubs. We sat in the bleachers. That's the top for me. Everything else is descending from that moment. I have had some fine times watching the Dodgers. Been to a couple of Mets games, but found the New Yorkers too crude on the ball field. I feel like they might really start punching each other.

I like an organ and a hot dog. I like the fat lady to sing. I like to watch the scoreboard for the numbers, not for the stupid graphics. Plus, the Mariners' field [Safeco Field, which opened midway through the '99 season] seems to have these silly pictures on the outside, like if you didn't know what it was, you could figure it out by the baseball photos blown up -- very tacky. And there are too many kinds of food in there. How 'bout we just come to watch the game?

Don't you think most Americans like the distractions and would be upset if they took away the graphics?

Actually, I think people maybe regard the live baseball game in the same manner as the TV version of things. They kind of tolerate, or even like, a commercial in between plays. But those aren't baseball fans. I am sure there are plenty of baseball fans who don't want to see spandex shorts and men with hairy armpits dancing on their seats. I want to see the game. I want a serious, interesting announcer. I don't want to see one ad up on the board and I don't want to hear any rock 'n' roll. So I don't go anymore.

What are your favorite kids books?

My favorite kids books are "Deegie and the Fairy Princess" (you can't find it), "Outside Over There" (by Maurice Sendak), "Laura Charlotte" and just about everything I ever read to my daughter [Charlotte, 11] because it has taken on a very sentimental value. Even "Naptime Little Big Bird" is important to me now.

Why do you think I won't find "Deegie"?

It is from the '30s and it is out of print. We looked for many years to find it and just got it last Christmas. I had it when I was little. It's about a little boy who has a happy home with many animals. Then a terrible wind comes and blows every single one away and blows him across the sea to a new home, where he is lonely. He then makes the animals out of clay and brings them back to life with the magic wand the fairy princess (who sang him over the water) left on the mantelpiece. Then he is happy again.

I would carefully study the drawings for any sign that they were not the real animals from the pages before. But, no, it was them, somehow here again, made alive in a new body. It was very moving, very beautiful. I hope you find it someday.

Have you ever thought about writing a children's book or a book of poetry?

I have not considered writing a children's book or a book of poems -- perhaps a book of collected prose and short stories.

Do you think poetry gets a bum rap?

I don't know about poetry getting a bum rap. There is good and bad poetry. Certainly, poetry reading is risky business. I think poetry is best read to oneself. I was always a little embarrassed by poetry readers, though I admired their, well, naiveti. I think if you are going to read something, it should be a bit provocative. But really it's best to know the thing, not to read it. I hate watching musicians read onstage. You ought to know it by the time you get up there. A poetry reading by someone not holding notes would be more interesting, more like a monologue. And if they read it like they meant it instead of like they were reading a poem.

Do you have any favorite poets?

I like Dylan Thomas and Carl Sandburg; I like Anne Sexton and Edgar Allan Poe. It's all good. I like words. Words are places, rooms, distant airs, thin and tropical. They make us feel and imagine we are more than our bodies.

But we are more than our bodies.

Yes, I have no doubt that we are. It's inexplicable. We have glimpses, moments of being swept up into some sweet understanding, a wordless nodding, and then they are left behind by the very manic physical world. But I see it above me, a grid, a network of time, and of things connected that transcend time, and I feel its precision and synchronicity quite often in my life. I have a lot of hope.

Do you believe in ghosts? Any evidence?

Plenty of ghostly evidence.

You told Rolling Stone once that you had a crush on Anthony Hopkins. Is that still true?

No, I don't exactly still have a crush on A. Hopkins, but if he called I wouldn't hang up either.

When's the last time you finger-painted?

I finger-painted with Charlotte, maybe 10 years ago. [Charlotte painted the back cover of Jones' 1993 "Traffic in Paradise" album, when she was only 4.]

Any rituals at performances?

I don't like to know who is in the audience, not famous or infamous. If you say, "My mom is in the audience tonight," I will spend the entire show trying to visualize your mother and what she is thinking. I don't like to hear one name.

I know at one gig or two in Los Angeles, someone told me Jack Nicholson was in the audience, which of course he was, and my show was so self-conscious because I kept thinking, "Jack's out there. I wonder if I'll get laid." Or, you know, something like that. "Will he like me?" That type of thing. Instead of "Let me turn down this corner on this street and see Johnny the King and feel the rain. There, see the shadows in the bushes."

Do you like performing live?

Well, going on the road is part of what I do; it's my job. I like to sing for people. Doing interviews about ME-ME-ME is not what I consider part of my job. So shows, you know, are whole spirits. They are rarely less than amazing. Sometimes less because of poor business dealings before I get up there. But for the most part, the songs take me away with them.

What was your first car?

My first car was an orange Vega. My mother helped me buy it and I drove it down to L.A. from Olympia, Wash. I got in a wreck the first month. That was discouraging. It was also the car I had when I got signed by Warner Bros. [Former Warner Bros. president] Lenny [Waronker] and [frequent Jones producer] Russ [Titelman] used to laugh at my car. They thought it was so funny.

You caught a lot of flack from critics and fans for your trip-hop excursion "Ghostyhead" in 1997. You still messing around with tape loops?

I don't have any machines to mess around with. I kind of don't mess around. I do it or not. So when I work again, I'll use whatever comes into my head at that time.

But isn't "messing around" part of the creative process? Don't you discover new things that way?

Messing around -- nope. Everything is the real thing for me.

Does it bother you that your fans are often called a cult following?

I don't care if people who like me are called a cult. I mean, that has a unifying kind of ring, anyway.

Do you cook?

I cook sometimes. There are periods in life when I cook and other months, or even years, where I can hardly bring myself to open a can of soup. This is one of those times. There is a package of Ramen soup that's been sitting on that stove for three days. I just don't have the energy to boil anything right now. Other times, I am a great chef. I create. Scallops in a cream-butter sauce over mashed potatoes. Pork with greens. Cakes and cookies.

I don't make casseroles. I don't make a good piece of meat. But I make nice intricate things that require careful stirring, and when I'm on, I can imagine things that work together that heretofore have not exactly been tried. Kind of like color combinations, except with taste: Well, brown sugar goes with peaches. And peaches work with maybe sole. So you could put some brown sugar in your butter with sole. I'd just deduce that. Things along that line.

Do you have pets?

I have an ever-changing array of pets, depending on what stray animal is housed here and what animal of my own is here or at my mom's. I own a small white dog and an English bulldog. Presently, there is an elderly black poodle staying with me. She was a stray. She seems to not want to leave. I'm thinking of taking her to the humane society. [That's where the poodle ended up.]

Do you ever take the dogs on the road?

I have only taken animals on the road a few times. Don't want to lose them.

In the bio your publicist provided, a similarity is drawn between you and your teenage hitchhiking days and Sissy Hankshaw, the lead character in Tom Robbins' "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues." Do you feel an affinity with her?

I don't actually feel an affinity with Sissy because I kind of "was" Sissy. I read that book, or part of it, when it came out, and thought, I wonder if this guy picked me up?

OK, so why don't you like phone interviews? You've had some bad ones, I'm guessing.

Yes, I have had some bad phone interviews. But that is not the only reason I prefer this method. This is less intrusive. This is more literary, and after all, what we are doing here is relaying information. So I can get my thoughts across, with relative ease, direct to paper. You, of course, can edit them, but at least they are not going through the dynamic of your bad day or my bad day and the sound of our voices and whatever else is going on while we hold the phone up to our ear. I don't like that phone thing in general. It is misleading. I like the old tradition of letters between people, and I think this is a much better way to get close to me without it hurting me at all. I don't want people I don't know calling my house. It's a privacy thing. Not the phone number part -- the part where a stranger's presence is in my home and I am dancing for him or her. It is disturbing, to say the least.

I wish interviews only happened because of a writer's incredible knowledge and interest in the subject (this is the case for most literary figures), instead of because there is some product to promote and someone has contacted him or her and so there is this superficial discussion. I like to talk about things, not me. I am always curious why, when I have not done a record in a while, no one has any questions. So that is why I find this process very unrealistic, superficial and one in which both parties have to try their best to find what is good about it.

I am the only one who might have something to lose. You hold all the cards. You decide the tone, you decide where to edit, you control the vertical, and I have to hope that all the energy I spend comes to some good fruit. This is me being a grown-up and exercising control and, thus, really participating. That's why it works for us better than phone interviews. It's serious to me, and I keep it fun.

I believe the more unusual questions that might result from your dipping into a method you have not tried before, and my answers in turn, make for a more interesting interaction for us.

We only live once, at least this time around. Let's be brave.

By Mark Miller

Mark Miller is a writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. He has written for ESPN magazine, MTV.com and the Washington Post.

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