Rickie Lee Jones is an original. Always has been. She’s pop and jazz and folk and synthesizers, standards and spirituality, politics and romance. Jones won’t sit still. At 56, she’s just released a career-spanning concert DVD, “Live in Stockholm.” I interviewed her via email about the pleasures and perils of getting older.
Q: You’ve remained creatively restless over the decades. Does it get harder to stay open to risk and change and new ideas?
A: It has not gotten harder to stay open. In fact, in many ways it comes more naturally. As I have gotten older I am not so concerned with the factors that figured in to my career or my fantasies about my career ten or twenty years ago. Sometimes it’s like you are always having a conversation with someone out there, no matter your age. You are always talking to the playground bully, or the journalist who wrote that mean thing about your dress, or the group of people in the cafe who never quite give it up to you. One day you find out you were someone they thought was fabulous even if they didn’t talk about you publicly. Or you find out they actually like really crappy things, whatever, but you come to peace with the invisible made-up group of disapproving ghosts whose smiles you long to win. Even if you are defiant, you are still talking to them, you know? So when you quit talking to them, and look at your life or your work from a bird’s eye view, you can have a bit more fun doing whatever you want to do. We do have to talk to people, in a way, to have a voice. Talk to an angel, or your mom, but someone who gives shape to your voice. I have a different shape for different people. If I am talking to my daughter in a song, it will be different than if I am talking to an anonymous group. If it’s about some street corner and the guy sleeping there, what I want to say will be different. If I am confessing that I am drowning, that’s more of a flag, a white flag, anyone out there? So I think I understand writing. It may be that I am less motivated in general, at times, but not less open.
Q: Is the way you approach songwriting significantly different now?
A: Yes, it is. The urgency of staying part of pop music is toned down. The practice of writing lyrics, this I don’t do much anymore. I am more immediate in all things. I do want to be part of music, but I know that I AM part of music, and so it’s not like I think anything is at stake other than the quality and meaning of the song. I used to feel that something was at stake, like greater success, recognition, and when one attaches something to a song or performance other than the song or performance, this corruption makes it very hard to have a good time, to be true and authentic. The thing about money is it makes people crazy. If they don’t make as much money on this song as they did on that song, they are somehow less important, less relevant, and that means their old work is being undone, they are in danger of never having been. And you’ve got to finally know that your place in this world is your place. No one can take it, and no one can give it to you. It’s Your stage. It’s Your song. Only you can sing it. It serves no other purpose but the purpose god has given it. It’s not up to you, so relax. And when I say god I don’t mean an old stinky dude with a long beard. I mean the network of life and the glistening of light that leads us in and out of each other’s lives.
Q: Some artists do their most important, vital work when they’re young and others become masters over time. How do you assess your own trajectory as an artist?
A: I seem to have done my most influential work early. Important, well, to whom? To me? What I do now, in this moment, is always what is most important to me. My work is an expression of my path, my well being. My expression is my essence. So important is a constant.
Q: You’ve been playing music from your first two albums on tour this year. Is it tricky steering a path between a celebration of older music, which fans tend to embrace, and forging ahead creatively?
A: Well, creativity is kind of always accidental. You can’t plan it. You can do improvisational work, but how inspirational that will be, who can say? So while I do not have much room for “creativity” doing old songs…I learn about the interaction between me and who is listening to my song. And this shapes what will come. So I think it can always be creative, just in different ways, and the main thing is to get to the part you didn’t plan.
Q: What have you gained and what have you lost over time, and how do you integrate the changes in your work?
A: I believe I have lost discipline. I have a kind of PTSD, I know, and I don’t have family here, and it’s important not to feel lonely. That depression, it’s too much, so I have a way of being kind to myself now. I miss that discipline, but I don’t miss all the agony of drumming up the feelings. Now I guess when its time to write, I write. I think what I have gained is peace with what I do. Peace with how I do.
But the wheel, she’s always moving. How I have been, I may not be in the near future. I do need to change, and I like to change. That’s my nature.
Q: Family life and the life of an artist seem at odds in many ways. How have you navigated that divide?
A: I have devoted myself to my daughter first and foremost. To me that is sacred. I am in awe of this thing, carrying a person around inside of you and then spilling it out into the world. What a remarkable concept. Who thought of that? And then you pass on your way. I figure my way is probably not that different than the way of a woman 1000 years ago …or a man. How like our parents we end up. Now that my daughter is older I have the emotional energy and time to devote to my work. Well, to me, to myself, without guilt, and with joy. And it serves her to see me devoted to me, not just to her. A relief, in ways, to not be the only apple of my eye. Scorpio energy. Too much, too bright!