Rickie Lee Jones Biography
It’s the succinct summation of a six-year absence from the art of songwriting by an artist who has almost single-handedly redefined the expressive potential of words and music. Telling a tale, setting a mood, fashioning metaphoric connections that resound and reveal – Rickie Lee Jones has made it all seem so easy.
But it’s not. Not by a long shot and the story the personal, professional and political odyssey that resulted in the dozen new originals of The Evening Of My Best Day, her stunning new V2 Music release takes on the epic proportions of an authentic creative rebirth. More than simply a return to form, The Evening Of My Best Day is a formidable leap forward by an artist who, it turns out, has only begun to hit her stride.
Quite a contention, considering a career marked by audacious musical leaps beginning in 1979 with her era-defining debut, Rickie Lee Jones and continuing through such landmark recordings as Pirates (1981), The Magazine (1984), Flying Cowboys (1989), and Ghostyhead (1997), her last foray into original songwriting. In point of fact, however, Rickie Lee’s recording and performing output has continued unabated in recent years with It’s Like This, 2000’s inspired collection of cover songs and her in-concert document Live At Red Rocks, the following year. But it’s the composing that been conspicuous in its absence, an absence that, from the evidence of The Evening Of My Best Day, has made both the heart and the mind grow fonder.
“I was preoccupied with life,” explains Rickie Lee on the subject of her songwriting sabbatical. “I was living in Washington, mostly tending a garden and raising my daughter. I had neither impetus nor inspiration to write. It was an empty slate and there was no sense that anything would ever be coming again.”
It was, curiously enough, a combination of politics and professional curiosity that prompted her tentative return to composing. “The election of George Bush;” she recounts, “the passage of The Patriot Act; the monopolies of media and their misuse of language. I began to realize that someone had to speak up. There is a great tradition of protest music, from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan and I’m naive enough to believe that a song actually can change conditions. It’s all about power and intention and my intention is to wake people up and shake them out of their lethargy. But you can’t do it by yelling. You have to explain, to entertain. My constituency has always been outsiders and I think it’s the outsiders who have a real chance of reclaiming this country.”
At the same time Rickie Lee had begun to awake from her own creative hibernation. “I started out by just thinking about songwriting,” she reveals, “and the fact that no one was writing great tunes anymore. There was plenty of stuff that was deadly serious and totally lightweight, but nothing really memorable. Nothing singable. So I set out to study the best songwriters I knew -- Paul McCartney, Cat Stevens, Curtis Mayfield. I began to learn the craft all over again.”
It was an endeavor, Rickie recounts, which required steadfast discipline and the exercise of dormant musical muscles. “Every afternoon I would sit down to meet the song I was working on,” she continues. “The process of manifesting an emotion or a thought in a set number of lines and notes can be very difficult, especially if you haven’t done it for a long time. Some of this material was as much as fifteen years, but I didn’t just want to pat some clay on it and call it done. What was needed was patience and prayer to let the process unfold.”
It was early last year, Rickie recalls, that she began “circling around” the prospect of recording a new album. “My first concern was whom I could get to help me,” she explains. “I needed someone who could facilitate my return to the studio without getting in the way.” She found the right kind of “adversarial camaraderie,” in David Kalish, a close friend and accomplished guitarist who had worked with the artist back on 1981’s Pirates. “We started in a little room with his Protools. Sharing the music with someone I trusted was the first step in sharing it with the world.”
Once the project was up and running, progress was swift and steady. “David suggested Steve Berlin from Los Lobos,” Rickie reveals. “And Steve brought in a bunch of musicians, assembling different combinations. The work became increasingly joyful, especially after I started working with Bill Frisell.” A guitarist of astonishing range and depth, Frisell recording credits stretch from Chet Baker to Pat Mentheny; Marianne Faithful to Norah Jones and beyond. “It’s always gratifying to collaborate with someone who instinctively understands your musical language,” enthuses Rickie. “The first day we got together we did four songs in five hours and ended up keeping three of them for the album.”
As The Evening Of My Best Day continued to take shape, it became clear that Rickie was achieving a stylistic synthesis encompassing her more familiar ambient elements along with some surprising new influences. “There’s jazz, of course, and a lot blues and even some Celtic folk flavors from David Kalish. But the more I got into the intent of the songs, the more I focused on the spirit of the Sixties. I vividly recalled the era of the Black Power, when communities like Oakland became bound together by their culture and some of that East Bay grease got into the joints of this music.”
The result, a kaleidoscopic cornucopia of mix-and-match idioms, is anchored to a sensibility that belongs wholly and exclusively to this artist. From the unvarnished political intent of “Ugly Man,” and “Tell Somebody,” to the funkology of “Bitchenostrophy,” to the percolating blues of “Mink Coat At The Bus Stop,” and the evocative lyrics of “A Second Chance” to the cinematic sweep of “A Tree On Allenford,” The Evening Of My Best Day that finds it’s serene center in the effusive artistry of this stubborn original.
“These songs are the fruit of trees planted and prayed over for a long time,” Rickie concludes. “There are images from my childhood, from my family and from some surpassingly sad moments. But they can be summed up pretty simply: I am not conquered. And that’s the most political statement a human being can make."