The Duchess of Coolsville returns with a collection of melodic new tunes
Rickie Lee Jones’ career, by her own admission, has been consistent only in its inconsistency. Initially, commercial success came quickly with her 1979 self-titled debut—and its megahit “Chuck E.’s in Love”—followed by her highly praised sophomore set, Pirates (1981).
But the tangled trajectory she pursued from that point on perplexed the critics far more than it pleased them. A Rolling Stone cover story, a Grammy, and a game-changing appearance on Saturday Night Live soon gave way to critical drubbing and the scorn of those who found themselves unable to effectively pinpoint her niche.
In truth, Jones was reticent to repeat herself. She chose instead to vary her palette by tackling standards, jazz, electronica and ambitious experimentation. Still, she managed to achieve intermittent success during the 1980s and ’90s by placing songs on soundtracks and compilations. “I have this habit when I go in a certain direction, I’ll make a sudden left turn,” Jones says. “I can’t tell you why, but I refuse to fall into any particular genre. I just hate people deciding about something before they even hear it.”
Unpredictability has been the Chicago native’s hallmark from the start. “I remember sitting in a bar with Bette Midler and Tom Waits,” she recalls. “Bette said, ‘Let me tell you what’s going to happen, honey. You’re going to have moderate success with the first record and the second one, but then they’re going to put you down. With the third one, you’ll have a career.’
“So I knew when I had huge success the first time out, the only way to survive was to do something unlike the first record. With Pirates, I got a piano and went in a new direction, with lyrical references that were much darker. Luckily, the
critics liked it.”
Sadly, circumstances weren’t always so kind. “After Pirates, things got really hard for me,” says Jones. “Punk rock was on the rise. You had to dress that way, you had to hang with them. It was clear I was not part of any club. It wasn’t a decade for solo, unique people.”
Nevertheless, the singer-songwriter never hesitated to pursue her own muse, even with the increasing backlash. “What hurt my feelings was, when it came to my more experimental work, I found other people getting attention for doing the same thing I was. They never mentioned Rickie Lee Jones! It was a dark time for my ego and my spirit,” she says. “Now it does suddenly feel better. It feels like we’re painting the path for the future.”
Much of that optimism stems from the reaction she’s garnered for her new album, The Other Side of Desire. With it, the 61-year-old returns to the more accessible sound that characterized her earliest outings. Her first album of original material in a decade sums up the observations and experience gained over the course of her 35-year career with a renewed
sense of melody.
“I wanted to write simple songs that more people would like to listen to,” Jones explains, “songs that come from the folk-rock genre, storytelling mode, with repetitive verses. I wanted to write a song that basically said what it had to say in two or three minutes.”
With the new music comes a peace Jones hasn’t experienced in a while. “It’s made me realize it’s fine to not leave the palette I’m working with,” she says. “It shows a certain contentment with who I am. I’d like to have some money in the bank. I’d like to have some recognition. But you have to be in the here and now and be grateful for your life. Maybe I’m just lucky, or maybe it’s finally good timing.”