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Pic: David McClister
Pic: David McClister

American singer, songwriter and producer Rickie Lee Jones is coming to Australia in April, performing at Bluesfest for the first time as well as playing side shows in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane. The highly regarded artist emerged onto the international music scene in 1979 with a debut self-titled album which garnered her a Grammy Award for best new artist. To fully appreciate Rickie Lee’s arrival, it’s important to place her debut album and award win into historical context. In 1979, the disco era was still in full flight. Hit singles during that year included; Chic’s ‘Le Freak’, Bee Gees’ ‘Tragedy’, Rod Stewart’s ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy’, Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’, and Donna Summer’s ‘Hot Stuff’. Rising to the top, amid the glitter, glam, and incessant bass ‘n’ drum disco beats was this fascinating soundscape featuring dark, moody, absorbing and timeless tunes like  ‘Last Chance Texaco’ and ‘Coolsville’.  It also showcased the other side of Rickie Lee, with the fun, cheeky, swinging grooves of ‘Danny’s All Star Joint’ and ‘Chuck E’s in Love’.  It was the counter punch to disco that discerning music fans were hankering for. Rickie Lee Jones has proved time and time again that she was no one trick pony, releasing many highly acclaimed albums in a career spanning four decades. Her latest release, The Other Side of Desire, is an ode to New Orleans, honouring the history and colours of the joyous southern city. Ahead of her Australian tour, Rickie Lee Jones was kind enough to answer some questions for us.

Your current album ‘The Other Side of Desire’ is very much influenced by New Orleans. You have lived in many cities. Do you find that the cities that you live in generally seep into your songwriting?
Yes they do.  I always felt that my interior world was impervious to the exterior environ, but more and more I welcome the outside to colour and excite my imagination.  That and the fact that the musical traditions of New Orleans deserve my respect and … they are pretty dang cool.   I avoid using things that I think might be cliche …  like uh,  reggae or country… or…  I try to keep things interpreted through my own .. you know… language.  But in the case of New Orleans,  it’s so authentic,  it’s nice to splash around in that swamp, pop boogie.

Paris … in The Magazine (1984 album) …  the Weird Beast,  all that strange music because I was in a strange place for sure but also a stranger in a strange land.  The dark colours,  the loneliness.  That was me in Paris.

The bio on your website says that after the Ghostyhead album (1997), you largely retired from public view and admitted to writers block. How did you get that creative spark back again and is there anything you’ve learned to prevent it from happening again?
Admitted …  I think I mentioned that the word bothers me … it’s nothing to ‘admit’. I waited it out,  moved to a new city,  pounded the ground inside of my head for some light and made myself love music … again.

RICKIE LEE JONES @ DE ROMA AntwerpenDoes writing on piano give you a different kind song than those written on guitar?
Yes.  Rhythm eludes me on piano. So many lush tones.

This will be your first Bluesfest appearance. What do you know about the festival and is there anyone else on the bill you are hoping to catch up with?
I don’t know anything about it!   Should I look it up?  I just go to the job and do the music, wherever it is.   Don’t want circumstance to effect my …  savoir faire!   You know what I mean? Also to be clear, people who are playing rarely socialise with each other.  That was what I loved about the Melbourne Festival (2010),  I actually talked with many other artists.  Gurrumul Yunupingu   –  there is an artist whose work and life I would never have heard about had I not …  spoken to him on the stage.   Artists are very shy … insecure,  or stuck up or both, they rarely approach one another.   But … I was feeling rather friendly and so managed to meet Sinead,  the women of the Black Arm Band.  I hope I am getting that right … and one in particular… Emma (Donovan).

I was enjoying reading some of your blog posts on the website, especially the one about the crosswalk (Feb 9, 2016) and how you ended it, talking about the loss of Dan Hicks, Dave Bowie and Allen Toussaint. It was a wonderful glimpse into your mind and it was almost like that whole post could have ended up somehow in a song. It made me wonder how much music consumes your mind  and if  every strong thought you have is considered as a song topic or line for  song? Or do you need to be in some kind of songwriting mode to begin writing a song?
Ah…   I actually record ideas all the time on my phone  but the making of the song,  getting out the tools, blocking out the time, making sure I have a concept to aim towards ( or I will wander aimlessly along the beautiful flowering paths of creation for creations sake alone), that is another thing all together. I guess I love the construction so much that I take a long, long time but it’s like a tide.  You build the boat and then you have only a small window in which to make it sail.  Everything is like that…  wait and wait and then … oops … the moment has passed.

Which song are you most proud of from a construction perspective, as opposed to an emotional, lyrical or success outlook?
I did feel rather pithy … rather…  walking upright about the Alter Boy. I love when all the seeds bear fruit …  this idea becomes that and it all fits into place. The subject of austere emotion, denial,  resolve to one’s lot …   sophisticated I think … and said in few words,  and the humour of the monks appearance, that too can make the listener smile though the terrible scenery of his life.  I like when I operate on many levels,  and you must chose the point of view, I do not choose it for you.  Is he a paedophile or just a lonely old queen?  Do you love him as I do? Am I God?  Do I forgive all in my songs?

The Last Chance Texaco is probably the greatest lyric … metaphorical but .. transcendent, not stuck in the silliness of metaphor.  As I said, it transcends. Funny and beautiful.  Like Alter Boy,  it uses humour to distract you from what is really going on.  I don’t do it on purpose, it just seems that humour is how I introduce myself before showing you the deep water of my heart.

All these landscapes …  how wonderful the gift God has given me, for life is lonely and I have a box of paints.

Finally…  I did love the lyric of Vessel of Light.  it does not deliver you anywhere,  it is one dimensional but it is so full of love and a squishy heart… a lonely voice in the dark,  redeemed. It’s a love song, a sexual love song, that unites my feeling of the invisible world to the physical … reminding me that this feeling is spirit, not body.

“Once I mistake you,  mistook you for some one, mistook you for some thing … mistake you for…  a distant light finds me … binds me when I’m with you, sweet vessel of light.“

But that was my … shall I say… impressionistic period, harder for people to relate to I guess.

If you met the Rickie Lee Jones who was just about to release her debut album, what advice would you give her?
Don’t lose that box of paints.

Bluesfest 13-17 April, 2017

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