Rickie Lee Jones, the acclaimed singer and songwriter, is on a short tour that includes a Saturday stop at the Temple Performing Arts Center, formerly the Baptist Temple.
Jones' smashing debut album of 1979, Rickie Lee Jones, brought a jazz-infused, bohemian-poet ethos to both pop music and fashion, and her idiosyncratic approach to composition and singing has influenced artists from Tori Amos to Norah Jones.
Her most recent album, last year's Balm in Gilead, reflected on family, friends, maturity, and the search for the spiritual. For this tour, she's playing all of her exquisite first two albums, Rickie Lee Jones (whose highlights include "Weasel and the White Boys Cool" and "Chuck E's in Love") and Pirates of 1981 ("We Belong Together" and "Skeletons").
Below is the full version of Rickie Lee Jones' e-mail exchange with John Timpane:
Inquirer: Why these two albums, and why now?
Rickie Lee Jones: I am doing the first two records because these are the records people most often cite as the most important to their ... history. And critics as well, generally. And it does seem like it was on fire then. I like the idea of doing the record as recorded, in sequence. It's the way I would like to hear some of my favorite artists. Imagine [Van Morrison's] Astral Weeks as it was. . . . I saw Morrison do Astral Weeks a year ago. Not in sequence, I don't think. Don't remember, though. So I am into this giving folks what they need to feel so good, so good. Why not?
Q: Many original purchasers of your albums liked the (apparent?) personal references, to a circle of acquaintances and their lives, and this sense has persisted, that the people in your tunes are based on real people. So - you still in touch with those folks? Still get along with 'em?
A: The characters were, for the most part, amalgams, suggestions of real people. The skeleton may be real, the plaster of Paris and newspapers my own. The impetus, perhaps the drama, real, internal, and so perfect clay to add into songs. The songs perfect chances to exorcize the demons, the songs perfect to call angels and build heavens and hells. No, I don't see any of the people - well, maybe as they walk by - either skeleton or flesh.
Q: How did you come to absorb so much American music? What parents, friends, teachers, mentors, or other performers were important in turning you on to these musics?
A: My father sang jazz. He loved it. His father sang it in vaudeville: "Up the Lazy River," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "Bye Bye Blackbird"-type things. The Mills Brothers, Sinatra, Ella and Billie and Nina Simone, the Dorseys and the Benny Goodman thing. He had Duke Ellington and Andy Williams with "Moon River," Harry Belafonte with "Day-O [(The Banana Boat Song")]. That was the record collection until the Beatles.
It was very honorable, very revered in my family to be a good singer, or artist of any kind. We were the opposite of what I hear most folks grow up with. Father and mother loved that I sang and wanted to sing in front of an audience, wanted to sing to people. I just kept on cookin' in there, and teen years I worked on the guitar more and more, and then in my 20s started playing out.
Jazz, and all pop music, is innate, integral to my own identity. I grew up listening to so many kinds of music on the great American AM radio of the '60s. We heard Dylan, Andy Williams, Beatles and B.J. Thomas. We heard instrumentals and Blue Cheer. Our palate, 50 plus, is pretty sophisticated I think. Now [people] 10 years older, they have a much smaller palate of music, but it's very deep, it's the beginning of rock and roll. My age, we got all the cream. So for me, I am really a product of that good school.
Q: There was a moment, mid-1970s to late 1980s, when a lot of very popular music had a deep jazz savor. Rickie Lee Jones and Pirates were definitely part of that. How are you feeling these days about where popular music is, and the presence (or lack of it) of that jazz element?
A: I think that the culture, society in which we live ... and in which our children become adults is ... backwards. The music comes after the stylist, the publicist. It's a deal; it's not an impulse. It's a generation carved by technology instead of technology carved by a generation. And with that you see stylists telling musicians what to wear, instead of musicians setting the pace for styles. And that's because people got in the door on fewer credentials than the people before them. No judging, just telling you where it is ... even that redundant disco music, those guys were real players. For a long time it's been chic to be a [poor] player, undeveloped, representing, as it were, the everyman. So a world of everymen creating music instead of playing it, writing it. ... They are imitating, sampling, because at the end of the day, they, and everyone else, really want to hear a good song, good melody, something that makes these three or four minutes memorable. What would it be like to be a kid in these times? We listened to music made by our peers. They listen to music made by their grandparents. I mean, we dug Bix Beiderbecke as much as the next guy, but that was not the best thing going on, we were not having to sample him to figure out what to do. And then it's tricky because at the same time as the kids are not being led by their own generation, they are also not honoring or learning the old folks. It's all immediate, right now, and led by odd and random people and events. No, that's not true. It's all led by money: Whoever's got the dough has got the ability to tell people what to think. If I had Madonna's budget on Ray of Light, [my 1997 album] GHoSTYhead would have been hailed as the new direction of not only my career but everyone else's. I mean, you can rewrite history now. By elimination. By selectively choosing who you talk about. You see obsolete bands and writers no one ever heard of suddenly hailed as the person who started it all. It's like, "Huh? I mean, I know you like that band, but no one listened to them back then. maybe they are relevant now. Fantastic. but don't rewrite history." Shame.
There is a nice movement, bolder than before, of kids, I mean 16 to 26, who want to play music, and want to represent playing. And while some are better, some are more or less innovative, their hearts can lead their people, their age group, and this is what pop music is. It's kids' music by and for kids. Now, record companies and people with so much dough at stake have interfered with the process, and the process is the thing. Stop second-guessing what the next hit will be, and take the journey. Let us evolve. Steal your music back!
Q: Was there a time you did not sing against the grain?
A: I have always sung like I sing. It's the tone of my voice: It was always unique, and much to my consternation when I was a teenager. I wanted to sound like . . . Janis, or ... Grace. Man, I did not sound like anyone over 12. But that's my voice. I know many women around the world have this young voice. It's a kind of natural woman voice ... so while it was not what was happening in pop when I was young, it was ... evidently ... interesting ...
Q: The guitarist Michael Hedges once asked Bobby McFerrin, regarding his singing: "What are you thinking about?" Are you thinking as you sing? Or just doing?
A: Images pass by: a line I stood in, a face in a crowd, clouds, the coming note, the drum, the feeling of my mother, the light on the highway. In ... pictures that are hard to describe to you. And they pull me and lift me and guide me. Or warn me. It's like being in a boat.
Q: The lyrics seem to cascade with the singing. (I always loved "Weasel and the White Boys Cool.") When composing a song, do you start singing something, and "it just comes out that way," or do your words have to run to catch up with the crazy flow?
A: Really both, in the same song, or in different songs. It is a completely visceral experience, how I feel at that time. There is no technique - or it's so ingrained I don't recognize it. I like the rhythm and double entendre, and for some years have delivered more impressionistic lyrics than "Here is the moral, the purpose." I guess that's how I view my life. There was no delivery, no happy ever after, no single thing that made it worthwhile. So hard to write that way. You learn that everything has good and bad, and what is true this year is not true later and is true again even later. So it's hard to write an AB bridge, a type thing, and believe it. Unless you come back to that place. or that craft. Need that structure and simplicity.
Q: If you were required to sing a single song in all American-music history to get into Heaven (and let's assume you wanted to get in), what song would it be?
A: How 'bout ... "Where are you going my little one, little one, / Where are you going, my baby my own? ... turn around, and you're tiny, ? Turn around, and you're grown, / Turn around, you're a young wife / With babes of your own"? [From "Turnaround," by Harry Belafonte, Alan Greene, and Malvina Reynolds.]
[The next day, we get this response:] "Lullaby" [by Walter Schumann] that Kitty White sings in the  movie Night of the Hunter.
Q: Billie Holiday often sang as if she were one of the band, one of the instrumentalists, not out in front, but part of the ensemble. Do you see yourself that way?
A: For many years I tried to be part of the band. But the thing is, I am not part of the band, I am the leader, the one that is selling tickets, the one who wrote the songs. I do not under-esteem the community and the dynamic of the stage; we are making magic up there. But I take responsibility for being the singer, and for being the front person. I am not singing jazz with jazz instrumentalists.
And when you listen to Billie, you do not hear anything but her. So while she may have said that, and the players felt that, because she did not treat them like their work did not matter, the fact is that Billie is all that matters when you listen to a song she is singing. That's just how it is with a great singer. And that's the fundamental divide in singers today.
They are none of them great. They have learned Chaka [Khan] and the soul singers' licks, and they got 'em all down, and they can put more notes in one bar than Mozart. But at the end of the song, you are exhausted, and you are rarely truly moved. It's the depth of your emotion, not your technical prowess, that first must be perfectly communicated.
There are many great singers around, but they are a little ... cold. You know? They do not seem like they could be caught off guard, or tell a dirty joke to a stagehand, or be human. The humanity is what makes this stuff live on and on. I mean ... I think so. I know money and publicists have interfered with that process. But I think it's still the thing that all audience and people love. That's why we can be moved to tears listening to something in a language we don't understand. Because we feel the emotion of the singer, not because he or she, speaking to their peers, impress the social structure around them, L.A. talking to L.A. critics, like Fijians talking to Fijian critics. Your audience is someone far away, someone you have made up, someone you know exists and shadows you, needs to hear you, will be lifted by you. It's just one person: That's who you are singing to. You never know who it is, but they are always there at your show, or waiting somewhere to hear what you said, the thing you worked so hard on saying just so, singing just so, and they would know, when they heard it, that something larger was at work than the singer or them. Higher spirit always talking, always seeking to heal, and you may be a part of that. That is a lot more important than [longtime record-company exec] Seymour Stein including you in his ode-to-himself Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I mean, how many times can we watch Bono take the mike like he's Jim Morrison? Enough! Or Sting tell us something obtuse that he thinks makes him sexy? Please.
Music, and the honoring of musicians, belongs to a jury of peers, and no record company executives allowed. And no critics under 35, and always an equal amount of men to women. Imagine in these days, Rolling Stone magazine still run by men writing for men about men. Please.
I have the feeling that Billie and I were more alike than anyone realizes. When I hear her, I feel her. I know how it feels to smile from the inside of her. Sometimes I think we are made from moulds, and they scoop a little of this and that, and you can see when some folks are made from the same mould. I think Billie and I sang / sing naturally. Our voices are easy from talk to melody, and there is no straining to tell the story, no need to try to impress you. We are totally into the song. We feel it. It's not only a story of the song, but it's a story of how we feel. That's the gift, I guess. Some of us feel this stuff, and when we sing, you feel it, too. Yes?