Rickie Lee Jones Performs an Intimate Concert at Clifton's Ludlow Garage (Oct. 20)

The "Chuck E.'s in Love" and “The Last Chance Texaco” singer/songwriter talks about her restless creativity and “odd bird” image in advance of her Cincy show

Oct 16, 2018 at 1:45 pm
click to enlarge Rickie Lee Jones - Photo: David McClister
Photo: David McClister
Rickie Lee Jones

If renowned singer/songwriter Rickie Lee Jones had her way, she’d never sing a song that had been written before she and her musical collaborators walk out on stage. 

“To be honest, my best songs are probably improvised on the spot,” she says. “While I can do that, taking the other (musicians) along is a challenge. If I stand up there and make up a song, when I’m done it will be a whole song, not a series of images. It’s a big deal to make up lyrics and a melody in front of people. It’s a risk emotionally. You’re not going to get stoned or shot. But you can fail.”

For that kind of performance to occur, Jones says, she’d have to find the right people to play with.

“My goal in life is to have an ensemble of people so intimate we can go out and improvise music,” she says. “I’m not talking about Jazz guys improvising over the same old chords, but new songs, new music. I know I can do it.”

To become a reality, such performances would also have to be properly billed and capable of turning a profit. From experience, Jones knows “Rickie Lee Jones Improv Night” wouldn’t be a big money maker without really smart promotion.

“It’s another thing with the business. You’d have to market it as, ‘You won’t hear any of those (old) songs,’ ” she says. “When I’ve attempted to do that in the past, it’s been difficult and I’ve lost money. I don’t have the money to lose now.”

The improbability doesn’t make her love the concept any less, though.

“I enjoy the feeling of it as a dream,” she says.

Jones says maybe she’d try out the make-up-songs-on-stage concept in a residency at a club somewhere in New Orleans, where she’s lived for the last few years. But for now, she has been touring a more traditional show, combing through her catalog for material. Still, it almost certainly won’t sound exactly like the record when it’s performed.

“It’s probably because I’m super creative and I don’t say that as a compliment,” Jones says of her need to change the songs. “My mind won’t stop making up new ways to do things. If I’m with super creative people, that can be great. If they’re not so creative, it can be difficult. I can’t stop making something new out of things, except maybe ‘The Last Chance Texaco.’ I think I do that the same way.”

“The Last Chance Texaco” comes from Rickie Lee Jones, her 1979 debut album. But the imagery comes from Arizona, one of the places Jones lived while growing up. After moving to Los Angeles, Jones fell in with hipsters (which meant something far different in the ’70s) Chuck E. Weiss and Tom Waits, with whom she was later romantically involved.

Powered by the Jazz-inflected single “Chuck E’s in Love,” based on a rumored romance of Weiss’, Rickie Lee Jones became a smash album, hitting No. 3 on the Billboard albums charts and eventually selling more than two million copies. The album led to four Grammy nominations, with Jones taking home the Best New Artist award.

Jones won her first Grammy in 1980, a time when Punk and New Wave were fashionable and on the rise. But Jones’ experimental mix of Pop, Jazz and Rock didn’t endear her to Punk fans any more than it did the mainstream.

“I’ve been a little too wild for the middle of the road and I’m a little too conservative for the Punk Rock edge,” she says. “I feel like I’m an odd bird.”

Dubbed the “Duchess of Coolsville” (also the title of a 2005 anthology release through Rhino Records), Jones had another Top 5 album with 1981’s Pirates and has continued to regularly release albums and EPs over nearly 40 years. She won another Grammy in 1990 for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Duo or Group for her 1989 version of “Makin’ Whoopee,” and crafted a masterpiece with the critically acclaimed 1997 experimental electronic album Ghostyhead.

In 2015, Jones crowdfunded her 16th recording, The Other Side of Desire, and released it on her own. Unlike many artists who emphasize their most recent work in concert, Jones says she’ll likely only do one song from the record at her forthcoming shows.

“That was a good record, but it takes me a long time to become a fan of my records. That record hasn’t fallen in yet,” she says. “What’s exciting to me is the ensemble I work with, the directions they go with the music.”

Regardless of the directions they go, the music still retains the intimacy that has connected Jones with her listeners since 1979.

“I don’t think I do that on purpose,” she says. “I think I’m intimate. I draw you in as a human being. That’s the way I am with my improvisations. When I make things up, it’s very real to me. It’s work of emotion. ‘Those buildings over there are made of sorrow,’ like that. When you traverse that emotional landscape, it’s a complex experience.”

Finding the right emotional tenor is one of the reasons that Jones continues to rework her songs, giving them new life for her — as well as the audience — each time she hits the stage.

“The first time I played it, the song was now alive,” she says of her ongoing creative process. “I need to experience it that way. It has to be in front of me, a song I discover. As the decades go by, the challenge is to keep discovering them. The songs are like a house. The living room is there, the bedroom is there. They’re always in the same place… When I sing, all of my emotions are engaged. That’s kind of cool.”

Rickie Lee Jones performs at 8:30 p.m. Oct. 20 at Ludlow Garage. Tickets/more info: ludlowgaragecincinnati.com.