It seems there was no choice for Rickie Lee Jones but to be an artist. Born into a troubled, itinerant family, Rickie Lee was already a runaway by the time she was fifteen, with a vagabond lifestyle and a kid’s dream of liberation, illuminated by the twilight of the ’60s. In the mid-’70s, she was living in Venice Beach, working as a fake secretary for a gangster and writing lyrics on his IBM typewriter. She knew she was destined for something true and artistic. At a desolate bar, she figured out what her voice could do, performing jazz while the rest of the world turned its attention to antic disco. In 1978, Rickie Lee was the object of a major-label bidding war, and her uncanny, singular, stylish debut album vaulted her into the mainstream. There she arrived, fully formed, understood as what she was and still is: an iconoclast. Dubbed the Duchess of Coolsville, she wrote unconventional songs that bent and strayed out of pop convention and doubled back through jazz phrasing and American songbook; what came out of the speakers was always Rickie, wholly and truly. Her music was a dare to go further. A pop star who was undeniably her own girl, Rickie endowed a legacy that was later taken up by Fiona Apple, Tori Amos, Sheryl Crow, and others of the “to thy own self be true” kick. Her debut “Chuck E’s in Love” became part of the Top 40 canon and put her on the cover of Rolling Stone twice in two years. She was always in her trademark beret, a sensual wild girl, divining a pure musical fate.
Landmark albums followed, like 1981’s Pirates and 1989’s Flying Cowboys, as did a grip of Grammys, and the acclaim continued through the eclectic sprawl of Pop Pop, Ghostyhead, and The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard in the ’90s and ’00s. Her inimitable voice has stretched across five decades. Her songs are full of curious characters, molls and dolls, girls tossed by fate, truest lost loves, death wish abysses, humor, and heavenly connection—and all are luminous with desire and full of life. Her work is vast, gloriously unpredictable, ever-evolving, steadfast in its vision. Which is to say, Rickie Lee is a treasure; her life’s work is a master class in being a free woman. Her recent memoir, Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour, is now out in paperback.
I spoke with her over Zoom in the summer of 2022. She had just returned home to New Orleans, after having finished a long stretch of sessions in New York for what will be her first proper jazz album, to be released next year. Rickie Lee’s reputation as a truth teller has been earned. We talked about gatekeeping, the evolution of her voice, and going to a Black Flag gig with Tom Waits.
I. Coming Home to Jazz
THE BELIEVER: Hi! Nice to see you again.
RICKIE LEE JONES: Nice to see you. How’d your film [Women Who Rock premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival] go in New York?
BLVR: Oh, really well. Really well. People love it. You know you’ve made something good when all the girls say, “It just made me cry” and the boys quibble over genre.
RLJ: Boys need stuff like that. They’re so Gotta have A, B, C, D, and It has to go like that. They need that structure so badly. Women don’t thrive in it, I think, but men do. Some of them.
BLVR: No. No. We work on vibes rather than on instructions and rules. How are you now that you are home from recording?
RLJ: I’m good. Recording the album is not over yet—usually after a project ends, I get very depressed and confused. I’m still tying up loose ends, so I feel pretty good. And I’m gonna go on vacation, which is really good.
BLVR: Let’s talk about the record. You are making a proper jazz record. I re-read your book again, for the third time, and I came upon that spot where you’re talking about when you were younger and you were getting into jazz and, like, nobody was into jazz. What was your journey and your relationship with jazz from there to here? How has it evolved?
RLJ: Rich question. So I gotta write down my thoughts as you’re saying it, ’cause the first thought is with the music. But the second thought is with the genre, which is laden with men—
RLJ: —who decide who gets through the door. I’m gonna answer about genre first. So when I was growing up, my dad played the trumpet and sang jazz in the fashion of his father and also what was contemporary in his world, where Frank Sinatra was the main guy. But also, coming from vaudeville, my grandfather and uncle, who were expert musicians, they’re playing things like “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” The old stuff, then the new stuff, [the Miles Davis Quintet’s] “It Never Entered My Mind,” and Nina Simone, who my dad loved. He also had Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan records, and the pop stars—Andy Williams and, uh, Harry Belafonte. These were the albums I grew up hearing. This is the palette of my early education. Now the Beatles come and introduce me to pop, right? But it’s their version of pop, which has remnants of rhythm and blues from the ’50s and all the things that made them.
So in 1974, ’75, when I was twenty or twenty-one and living in Venice [California], there was one club to go to—the Comeback Inn. They had a couple of acts every night. So you could hear jazz at seven and maybe a singer-songwriter at nine. I’d go there and order Burgundy wine and watch them. Somehow I got myself up onstage with one of the jazz trios and sang “My Funny Valentine.” [Singing] “You made me leave my happy home… [speaking] since I fell for you.” I was very emotional in my deliveries, and they took notice. And then they began inviting me up onstage. It was a big deal ’cause they were very snobby guys. And that was my introduction to how lucky I was to be invited onto this stage of people playing this kind of music.
All right, so then a couple years later, when I got my record contract, it stipulated that it all had to be composed by me. It couldn’t be any covers. So when I toured for that record, I did “My Funny Valentine,” and once in a while some other one. I think somebody had taught me, roughly, “Lush Life,” which is really hard, and a couple other ballads, which we began to work into the live shows. And I was a very big deal! So I assumed that the larger world would know—this is just ego stuff, but I’m telling it—that I was singing jazz on a rock-and-roll/pop stage—a forbidden thing to do! [Laughter] And I was doing it successfully! And for years, for many years, people would say, “You were the first time I heard jazz,” and I went, “Yeah [claps], I did it.”
But the old guard of jazz players are the descendants—people like Tom Scott. The LA horn players were like, Fuck her. I’m not sure why: maybe imprecision or too much emotion or whatever it is they don’t like about women, or don’t like about women singers, or don’t like about me personally. They would not let me in. Not to jazz radio, or anywhere people were gathering—it made me feel really bad—anywhere people were gathering to play jazz. I was excluded, I thought, and it hurt a lot at the time because I was thinking, I’m carrying the banner of jazz singing, exciting jazz—not, you know, like those old guys who sing it really straight.
But that’s important because that’s my experience with jazz. When I did a jazz record [Pop Pop (1991)] and Charlotte [her daughter] was like three or two or something, we did “Dat Dere” and we put her on in the beginning and we put an Argentinian instrument, a bandoneon, on. We—the producer, David Was, but especially me—tried to cover up or adorn the jazz to such an extent that maybe people would listen to it. So the LA Times reviewed my record with two different reviewers—a pop critic and a jazz critic on the page next to each other. Well, guys, I’m awfully important! And [jazz critic] Leonard Feather… destroyed me. And I remember going, “Why would you wanna hurt somebody like this?” You know? Ending with the glib remark, or somewhere in there, “[Natalie Cole, you have] nothing to worry about.” So this guy had been part of the club that hated Rickie Lee Jones singing jazz. All the pop singers came in with jazz albums after I made it possible. But nobody knew that, because I hadn’t done a record.
So as years went by, in my work of forging new places for us to go, I became perceived by younger people as a follower. OK, that affects my ego, but it also affects my ability to make a living, because people aren’t seeing me as who I am, because I didn’t promote it. I thought it was understood. Leonard Feather really puts me down and the record goes nowhere and I don’t do another jazz record. So it’s my fortieth birthday. And the great saxophonist Joe Henderson, who played on that record—he came to my party, and he’s sitting there real quietly. I went up and sat next to him and I said, “Thank you so much for coming.” He said, “You know, I really liked your record… and I was disappointed that you didn’t do another. I really thought you were onto something.”
BLVR: [Whispers] Wow.
RLJ: And he just… put me right back where I was supposed to be. Like, I was chasing the unkind things people had said. In that one sentence he said, We’re musicians and we follow our little dreams and try to make something real. For whatever reason, you know, I had stopped looking at that and went, Oh, shit, people are saying mean things about me. Guess I’m not gonna do jazz—I keep failing. I keep failing!
So all this stuff got attached to jazz and I didn’t do it anymore. A couple years ago, I think, when I started writing new work and thinking about my best experiences in this studio and the best records I had made, I went, You know, it’s time to call Russ Titelman again. The moment I called him [claps], we were one. I said, “I think I’m doing—I’m doing a jazz record.” And he said, “Good. Finally.” [Laughs] And here’s the one thing I want to say about this: that when I’m with a real producer, whose one job is to listen, and I have his full attention, I do better than I can do by myself. It’s inexplicable to me, because I really thought I could do everything by myself, but I am not my best by myself. The moment he started organizing [the process of making the album] and going, “We have to rehearse first.” I haven’t rehearsed in thirty-five years! What are you talking about? “We’re gonna rehearse. And then we’re gonna decide how to do it… just like we did when we made your first record.” I didn’t remember that we had rehearsed before we recorded. I didn’t remember any of that. What a novel idea: preparing! We can still be spontaneous [snaps], but we’ll know what we’re doing. Ha! Fantastic.
So Russ brings the discipline that I don’t have. And the love of what’s possible from me. Both of us, but especially me—I have a really short attention span—I go, Oh, let’s put some of that in over there, and before you know it, it’s not a jazz record. It’s like Girl at Her Volcano. It’s some jazz and some rock and some pop, which, at the time, was a novel idea. People only did one discipline. I thought, Well, I’m forging ground. Because I always felt like the critics were telling us what we could do. How ironic that I ended up so squashed by those very same critics. But anyway, so that’s my genre relationship with jazz.
My musical relationship has been probably just this one simple thing—that it’s the best thing I sing. It’s my natural rhythm. I’m so far behind the beat, and that’s hard in pop music, because pop music and folk music and every other thing really would like you to sing pretty much in the first couple of beats. But I love coming in late and singing whatever I feel like singing when I get there! Jazz is the perfect place for me to do that. The thing about this year is that my voice has really aged. I discovered as I sang these songs that, yes, there’s some stuff I can’t do. But in place of it, or because of that, I try harder, and another sound is happening, this… it’s almost like color, but it’s the—not to be cute—but it’s a deep patina of age that is in the voice now that’s really beautiful and flawed or fragile. Little Judy Garland: Remember when her voice vibratos so much and starts to skip? It’s the symptoms and sounds of a woman giving all she has, which might not happen when you’re younger, because you have it all. So, yes, a lot of emotions. But this other thing that happens as this star is bursting and dying is there are these other colors that are in this record that I am so proud of. It’s like I’d been away on a long voyage and [laughs] came home.
BLVR: When you were talking, I was thinking about this Joni Mitchell quote from the ’80s, where she talked about how, you know, part of the reason she turned toward jazz was because she felt like she couldn’t age in rock. That there wasn’t a space where you could be a woman and age and be allowed to be a genius. Joni believed women could be geniuses in jazz. But that wasn’t how it was in rock in 1977.
RLJ: She was forging the way in whatever genre she chose. She’s the first bright star across the sky. And she forges the way for women to age in rock or pop or anything. Because she didn’t die [laughs], and she kept recording.
BLVR: And then she was just performing again this week, and, with people being reverent about how her voice has aged, that sort of reverence about an aging voice felt new. Do you feel like your voice, in this space where you’re talking about working with the way your voice has changed—has your relationship to it changed?
RLJ: No, it hasn’t. No, it’s still—my voice is still intact. I was just always a natural singer. And to my surprise, I got better, you know, than I was when I started. When I first started, I strained, I was still really a beginner. But as time went by, I became a better singer. My relationship with my voice is very private. Like all of us, I just like hearing the sound of my voice, like a little kid. [Laughs] So it hasn’t changed at all. I am just in awe of how the texture of the voice tells us so much about the feelings of the person who’s making the sound, whether or not it’s shaky.
I mean, let’s face it, if it’s too aged, we’re not gonna enjoy hearing it. And it’s about our enjoyment. And even if it’s a torn-up old voice, if it can relate the song, then we’ll come and listen to it. So you still gotta be able to relate to the other person as a singer. I think that last album by Johnny Cash… they shouldn’t have put that out. That guy was dying and he could hardly croak anything. So that’s using his fame and his name to sell a record. And yeah, sure, we’ll go into the studio as we’re dying [laughs] if we can. I mean, I’m still on the fence about it. I just—I think that we are always striving to be the best we can be in art. And maybe a friend will say, Well, you think the best is refining, but it’s not. It’s actually when you’re flawed that you’re at your best. But if you can’t even hold a note anymore, should you still sing? I don’t think so. I think you should let it go now… and don’t let Rick Rubin make another record out of your flaws. [Laughter] But the good part about making a record of flaws is that it reminds people that we’re, you know—in lieu of all the technical stuff, where everything is a machine and perfect—it’s a response to that. And as that, I accept it. But I do think we should keep trying to be a beautiful sound. Yes, I do. Yes, I do.
That was why I wasn’t a punk rocker, because punk rock didn’t care if you could sing. It was about our collective force onstage. This, collectively, is the sound we’re making. And I just couldn’t go there. I just couldn’t. And I know now that it’s far more popular than Christopher Cross or—I just heard this term yesterday—yacht rock. What an offensive thing to say.
RLJ: But the music that people tried to make—that was their best, refined.
III. “A room full of men”
BLVR: I was just messaging with a photographer who chronicled LA punks who hung out at the Tropicana a lot. And she was saying,“We just thought Rickie was the coolest. Punks in LA loved Rickie.” They could see the ways that you were outside the mainstream, your own creation. Did you go to punk shows?
RLJ: They were at the Troubadour, where I hung out. So I could slip in and see what was going on. And there was just too much spit. You might get hit with that. The behavior was hard to endure in order to hear what was happening. But I remember that Black Flag show I went in to see. And, um, who’s that guy?
BLVR: Henry Rollins.
RLJ: Yes. I remember. He’s hard to forget. Right. What a thoughtful and amazing guy. I quite like him. But I remember seeing these men onstage and the violence that they seemed to be perpetrating. That seemed to be the music more than any music. I just felt so much masculine [mimicking voice] “Uhr-r-r-r,” and that was hard, you know. We can set that aside now and go, But the music and the humanity. But if you were there at the time, you would’ve gone, Let’s get the fuck outta here. These guys are gonna kill us. That’s real. You know, when we saw kids coming to do punk rock shows, wearing brown shirts and those combat boots, there was no missing the Nazi thing that was floating around there. I have my own issues with the police, you know? I mean, it was like, What’s happening here? This is so Aryan and… what are they doing?! Tom [Waits] and Chuck [E. Weiss] were my ambassadors to a larger kind of music I would never have even listened to, to be honest. Punk was just too… frightening to me, or the experiences I’ve had, to be in a room full of men, all going, “Ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh.” I just didn’t wanna be there.
BLVR: Mm-hmm. I feel you.
RLJ: I’m really glad to hear what you say. I felt that at the time, for the first year or so of my career, that I was a floater. I wasn’t this or that or that… but that makes me feel really good—really good—to hear somebody say that about how I was thought of. Thank you.
IV. “It also has to be true”
BLVR: There are so many things that you can’t control about who and how people see you, you know, and at that time you were on a bigger and bigger and bigger stage. How was that for you? When I interviewed you for the documentary [Women Who Rock], you said, “I had the exact vision of who I was as an artist.” And so many people didn’t have that. So many people and bands that were “evolving” with the times, like Jefferson Airplane becoming Jefferson Starship, like, We’re gonna be here and we’re gonna embody the ’80s. We’re not gonna embody the past. And while you were very much a pop star at that time, you were also out of time. You were separate from time. As you said, you were your own thing, and you knew exactly what that was. How did you have that awareness? This total knowledge of who you were and what you wanted to be as an artist—where did that come from?
RLJ: The awareness: I would say it was always there. It formed pretty quickly, from the age of twenty-two, twenty-three. It started with getting to play a couple jazz songs and seeing how people reacted and going, Oh, that’s—that’s some of me. I’ll put that right there. And then a folky kind of thing by Joni Mitchell and everybody walking by and going, Oh, that didn’t work. When I made me, I knew that it had to be made of things that were not contemporary, because, you know, there’s too many people chasing that brass ring. So you have to construct yourself out of things that aren’t going to be used up and thrown away in a few years. It just has to be bigger, longer, older. And it also has to be true. So it’s not gonna work for everybody. You’re thinking about how to create a self that can withstand the storm that you’re going to enter. Once you make yourself a public person.
I don’t know how, but I just saw it. It’s like a dot in the distance. I went, This is where I’m going. It’s more than actually saying there were words and ideas that came. It’s more like: I’m going there and I’ll just keep walking till I get there. And I know what I’m made of. I’m made of my dad’s jazz and I’m made of a little bit of Laura Nyro, and I’m made of something I don’t know yet. There was a spot in the future. And I just knew who I was from a young age, going, I know I’m going somewhere. And, you know, even though my mom and dad… My dad’s drunk and he is loading up the gun and my sister’s pregnant and all these horrible things—horrible things that did not end up in the book. I know I’m going somewhere. There’s some part of me, in spite of how troubled life had been, there was some part of me that was unshakable. She’s still with us today.