An interview with singer/songwriter Rickie Lee Jones, who returns to Seattle with songs from her new album, "Balm in Gilead." She plays The Triple Door Feb. 19 and 20.
When Rickie Lee Jones arrives on the stage of the Triple Door for shows Friday and Saturday night, she’ll bring something not every performer carries: Memories of hometown jitters. For two long stints in her life, including her high- school years, Jones lived in the Puget Sound region. Though she’s played dozens of memorable shows here over the decades, she can still recall the emotionalism of her 1979 Seattle debut at the Paramount.
“I used to get the hometown jitters,” she said recently in an e-mail exchange. “Like, the Nazarene, just can’t please them back home.” She’s making a bit of a joke, but also referencing her new album, “Balm in Gilead,” which has a couple of songs that explore spirituality. It’s not a born-again album like say, Dylan’s “Slow Train Coming,” but instead one of many in Jones’ catalog that explores wanderlust.
But labeling “Balm in Gilead,” or Jones herself in any way, is folly, as her eclecticism has been well established over her three-decade career. The new album has songs that are pop, some that approach jazz, and some that sound gospel, but about the only thing they have in common is Jones’ voice, and that all the songs were ones she’d been working on for years.
“The fact that it took them longer to finish just meant that they were pieces of earth from other times in my life,” she says. “So the feeling of the record would be truly unique, and rather like a first record.”
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Jones is one of the few performers who became a star the moment her self-titled debut was released in the ’70s. A week later she was on “Saturday Night Live” singing her hit single “Chuck E’s in Love.” Her first professional gig earned her accolades from Time magazine, which called her the “Duchess of Coolsville.” She was dating Tom Waits at the time, and they were one of the original power couples of the singer/songwriter genre.
Yet the relationship with Waits didn’t last, nor did expectations that Jones would stay within the confines of pop. Her second album, “Pirates,” was darker, in part due to her break-up, and she was already infusing jazz and R&B into her music with little regard for where her albums might be filed in the store. A series of highly regarded recordings followed; some were hits, some were not, but all showed her challenging expectations and pushing genres. Her 1997 album “Ghostyhead” is often cited as an early bridge between electronica and folk.
She was equally restless in her personal life, as chronicled on the new record’s “Wild Girl.” She moved around the globe in the ’80s, and struggled with alcohol issues and bankruptcy. She eventually had a daughter, and the two moved to Tacoma in the ’90s.
Jones moved back to Los Angeles in 2001, but with her daughter now grown up, she’s considering a return to the Northwest: “I’m thinking of moving back up for a while. I lived in Olympia, and Tacoma, but never actually lived in Seattle.”
Several songs on her new album touch on family, which seems to play an increasing role in Jones’ creative muse. “This album speaks to the arc of my life,” she says, “and so that is a reflection of age as much as anything, the arc being larger for my having stretched it over five decades.”
Any conversation with Jones is filled with contradiction, and brings up as many questions as it offers answers. She says she’s no longer “cutting edge,” but then she wonders what initially drew attention to her. “Is it that I was pretty?” she asks. “Did that offset how odd I was? I am the inveterate outsider, and yet there is something so girl-next-door.
“I was a traditional songwriter, but a nonconformist,” she continues. “There was always something hard to fathom about me.”
There was, and there still is, and that mystery, along with her ever-evolving sound, is why Rickie Lee Jones still draws in music fans.
Seattle-area writer Charles R. Cross is the author of seven books including his most recent, “Led Zeppelin: Shadows Taller Than Our Souls.” Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.charlesrcross.com.