Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones is interviewed about the songwriting process and her life in music. She also performs some of her classic songs, including “Chuck E.’s in Love.”
Though Rickie Lee Jones is best known for her 1979 folk-tinged Top 40 hit “Chuck E.’s in Love,” the singer-songwriter has amassed an eclectic career that’s spanned multiple genres. Her appearance on a 2017 episode of “The Great Songwriters” — a series that also profiles Public Enemy’s Chuck D, jazz and indie icon Norah Jones, and Bee Gees legend Barry Gibb — makes a strong case that she deserves a much higher profile.
While famous for her dalliances with soft rock and jazz-pop, often with lush orchestration or piercing piano accompaniment, the Chicago native has never locked herself into any one style. In a career that spans more than four decades, she’s incorporated inspirations from R&B, funk and electronic music into her original compositions. She’s also a keen musical interpreter, with a voice agile enough to dig into the emotional core of a wide variety of songs. Her 2012 cover of the blues standard “St. James Infirmary” is spare and solemn, while a 2019 cover of Bad Company’s “Bad Company” plays up the song’s ominous undertones.
In some ways, her nomadic career mirrors her childhood. “I always thought we were moving because there was a better house down the road,” Jones says. “But I wonder now — why did they move all the time? Was somebody after them? I don’t know.”
If this sounds like the start of an intriguing short story, that’s not far off. Her early life was marked by colorful characters (her grandparents were vaudeville performers) and familial and personal tumult. Jones internalized these experiences and became a sharply observant songwriter, crafting vivid characters (“Juke Box Fury”) and using real-life figures to illuminate greater truths (“Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking”).
She also honed her craft in a male-dominated music industry, and in an era when many women musicians were perceived as less-than. “It seems like except for Joni [Mitchell], they were guests of men,” Jones says.
Above all, her catalog speaks to the power of resilience.
This comment hints at one reason Jones feels deeply underrated today. Despite industry accolades (she won the 1979 Best New Artist Grammy Award) and the ways artists such as Aimee Mann and PJ Harvey take cues from Jones’ approach, her music isn’t always viewed in the same reverential light as that of male auteurs. Yet that lack of sharp definition also has liberated her from expectations. Above all, her catalog speaks to the power of resilience.
At the time of the interview, Jones’ most recent release was the reflective 2015 studio album, “The Other Side of Desire.” It’s a wisdom-filled collection about protecting your heart and inner spark while navigating grief, restlessness and heartbreak.
“I think something true is happening again,” she says of her songwriting process. “I’m not making up a life to draw from; I’m drawing from my own again.”
“Are we born musical?” interviewer Paul Toogood asks.
“I don’t know about we; I only know about me,” she responds, before lamenting how many kids today don’t get to experience “singing as joy, as an expression of joy.”
She recalls (and sings) the first tune she wrote at age seven, after catching a frog while playing “in the dry fields of Arizona”; describes feeding peaches and sour cream at her house to Sal Bernardi, the inspiration for “Weasel and the White Boys Cool”; and reveals she wrote “Chuck E.’s in Love” with Bette Midler in mind. On “Away from the Sky,” a song from her 1989 album, “Flying Cowboys,” she channels the Beatles.
It turns out that part of the song was inspired by a Dylan Thomas short story, another section by a dream involving the late John Lennon. In the dream, Lennon wears a stocking cap and starts singing while riding a bicycle. Jones says she snapped out of her slumber in time to capture the melody and lyrics for posterity.
She underlines the point with an intimate acoustic performance of “Away from the Sky.” By the end, Jones appears overcome with emotion, immersed in the power of a song with timeless themes and resonance.
Annie Zaleski is an award-winning journalist, editor and critic based in Cleveland, Ohio. Her profiles, interviews and criticism have appeared in publications such as Rolling Stone, NPR Music, Guardian, Salon, Billboard, Stereogum, The A.V. Club and more. Zaleski wrote the liner notes for the 2016 deluxe edition of R.E.M.’s “Out of Time” and contributed an essay to the 2020 Game Theory compilation “Across the Barrier of Sound: PostScript.” Her book on Duran Duran’s “Rio” for the 33 1/3 book series comes out in May 2021. She is currently working on the book “Why the B-52s Matter” for University of Texas Press.