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In the Studio: Rickie Lee Jones

Over the course of her 20-year career, singer/songwriter Rickie Lee Jones has influenced innumerable other artists and acquired a passionate, almost reverential

Over the course of her 20-year career, singer/songwriter Rickie Lee Jones has influenced innumerable other artists and acquired a passionate, almost reverential fan base. A unique vocalist with a restless and unclassifiable style, she paints pictures and tells stories against out-of-the-ordinary tracks that meld soul, jazz, folk, rock and spoken-word riffing in the style of the great Beat poets. Her eponymous first album spawned the hit singles “Chuck E.’s In Love” and “Young Blood,” and garnered her both critical and commercial success. With her second release, the complex and bohemian Pirates, she made it known that she would be following her own path rather than chasing commercial success. Six more full-length studio albums followed, (along with an EP, two live records and a song on the soundtrack to The King of Comedy). On two of the studio albums, she brought her distinctive style to interpretations of songs — from jazz standards and pop to show tunes — composed by others, winning critical accolades for both the 1991 Pop Pop and It’s Like This (2000).

Never one for half-measures, when Jones sets out to make a record, a lot of people sit up and take notice. This time around, the songs were all her own. Determining that the time was right, she set up shop at The Village in West L.A. for an intense bout of writing and recording. Camped out for months in Studio A, she pulled together songs that had been gestating for years and new written-in-the-studio cuts, then gathered a diverse group of musicians and proceeded to cast each song as the muse determined.

Jones is an instinctive and subtle songwriter who arranges her own songs; she is also a perfectionist who doesn’t let go until she thinks a song is good enough. Unlike a lot of other artists, however, she has no doubt about when that is. Some of the songs on the album, set for a fall release and tentatively titled The Evening of My Best Day, are more overtly political than Jones’ past work. “As with all of the records I have made,” she comments, “the songs are about what’s on my mind — my point of view at the time — so the general color or coat of this music is social commentary. Within that, it explores a lot of personal feelings and hopes and sorrows. All of it does eventually come back to the morality of the world we live in today and our choices at every moment. That’s why this record is timely and sincere.”

Songs with a political message are something new for Jones; for this project, they were a main impetus. “I always tried very hard to avoid saying political things, because it’s so transient,” she explains on a break from the last day of mixing at The Village’s Studio D. “The greater work is to heal the heart. Heal the heart and I think people will go on their right path, whatever that is for them. That’s been my take on my job. But in my own life, I couldn’t be silent with the things that I see happening now: people destroying not only the fabric and integrity of our nation, but of the whole planet. I had to speak out. I did it with my music, and I hope the songs get heard.

“Some of these songs were started 15 years ago, and they just waited. They were really good, but they wouldn’t go any further. That was how this record started: I had four or five great parts of songs. And I don’t know if it’s the chicken or the egg, but once I decide to take on the recording process and insist that the songs arrive, they do. They arrive in abundance and tell whatever story that group of songs is going to present. It’s not anything I can plan. It reveals itself, and it’s almost always comprehensive and complete. Usually, it’s a complete learning experience for me, also. The pieces of the puzzle come together and, when put together, reveal what they have to say. The listener can take this trip as a participant — as one of the characters — or as an observer. The pieces will reveal themselves for many years to come.”

Guitarist David Kalish, who co-wrote and played with Jones on the 1981 Pirates, was onboard for the sessions as co-producer. He’d been working on a solo project of his own for Jones’ label — Furniture for the People — when, liking what she heard, she asked him to help out on an album of her own.

“When we started, we really didn’t intend for it to be the kind of project that it ended up as,” Kalish recalls. “We certainly weren’t planning on going into a major studio for a long period of time. Rickie had a couple of things mapped out when we went in, but she really wrote the record as we progressed in the studio. It was an interesting process to watch her take the germ of an idea — like a very raw vocal or a little guitar riff — and develop it over time. She definitely has a unique way of creating,” he says with a laugh. “There are so many steps along the way, and so many decisions that impact the next step. One of the interesting things is that she doesn’t clue you in, which is sometimes a wonderful thing because you’re constantly surprised. Of course, the other side of that is, some days you don’t know where your feet are.”

“I am a bit of a challenge to work with, because I’m so ‘of the moment,’” Jones admits. “It’s, ‘Oh, I have an idea, let’s go do that.’ Maybe [the people I’m working with] were doing one thing, and now they’ve got to set up for something else. But for me, that’s the nature of art. In a lot of recordings, people don’t work that way. It’s, ‘This is what we’re doing today, and the artist be damned.’ I don’t let that go down. I think the producer’s job is to facilitate and to be ready for what happens, not to tell people what’s going to happen.”

Composing on guitar or piano, Jones generally went from ideas to song outlines in a few hours. That process was recorded, and some of it became master tracks. “There were never really demos,” notes Kalish. “Because we used Pro Tools and had — with Jason Wormer — a really good Pro Tools guy, we were able to fix and clean up and actually use some of those raw tracks as the master tracks, which was great, because a lot of these songs are so much about the vibe. This record is not about a lot of playing or a lot of solos. Rickie is one of the great minimalists of our time, and it’s about the vocal, the words and the vibe that she creates.”

Jones is known for her eclectic — and demanding — taste in musicians. Past collaborators have run the gamut from Steely Dan’s Walter Becker, jazz bassist Charlie Haden, and Scottish cult and critical faves the Blue Nile to musician/producer David Was. A common denominator, if there is one, is an ability to connect on some visceral level with the emotion of a song. Working at The Village, some unexpected and fruitful musical interactions took place, including three tracks (recorded, according to Jones, in one “most joyful day”) with guitarist Bill Frisell and his band — Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen — who were recording down the hall.

Another song, titled “Lapdog,” came together on a spur of the moment when upright bassist Michael Elizondo, who’d worked with Jones on the 1996 Ghostyhead tour, was also at The Village, recording with Ry Cooder. “We did ‘Lapdog’ with him live in the room, much to [the engineer’s] consternation,” says Jones wryly. “I knew that was how we were going to have to do it to make it happen. It caused some problems with fixing a couple of things, but, ultimately, it was worth it. That was a song I’ve tried to record many times in the [isolation] booth, and it didn’t work. It’s hard to do sexy music when you’re isolated in a booth. The really living stuff has to happen in the room, with people’s energy actually coming together.”

Keyboardist Greg Phillinganes, recording in Studio D with Keb’ Mo’, was also borrowed for some tracks. Other musicians included keyboardist Neil Larsen, contemporary gospel singer Eric Benét and singer/songwriter Ben Harper on backing vocals, master session drummer James Gadson, Pete Thomas (drummer with Elvis Costello), Richard Thompson and Badly Drawn Boy, punk bassist Mike Watt, and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Cougar Estrada. “Every person that I called to do this record was thrilled to show up,” Kalish comments. “They all wanted to work with Rickie Lee, which made my job easy.”

“When it works, it works right away,” says Jones, describing how her tracking sessions come together. “If it doesn’t, you could play for three hours and it still wouldn’t work. Usually, you can tell right away. Someone gets it or they don’t, and if they don’t, showing it to them won’t make them feel it. That’s the sad part about tracking. You can tell immediately if it’s going to work or not, but then you’re still kind of obliged to try and make it work. The really great things work immediately because you speak a common language.”

Engineer Mark Johnson recorded the tracking and overdub sessions, with assistance and additional engineering by Wormer. Vocals, according to Wormer, were recorded with a U47 microphone through a 1081 preamp (module 20!) onboard Studio A’s Neve 8048 console, direct to Pro Tools with no compression: a challenge working with such a dynamic singer. “She definitely didn’t want compression,” notes Wormer. “She’s got great ears, and at first, she’d even test us to make sure we weren’t trying to sneak any in. She’d surprise us by suddenly singing something really loud and bust us if she heard a compressor on her voice.” Over the span of the vocal-heavy project, an enormous number of tracks were recorded and then libraried by date, so that Jones (whose memory of what she’s sung when is, reportedly, flawless) could access different vocal tracks when she needed them.

Mixing was also cast by song. Some mixes were done on Studio A’s Neve and some on the Neve 88R in Studio D, also at The Village. Mixing chores were divided among Johnson, Joe Chiccarelli and Mark Howard.

Making the record herself was an expensive way to go, but Jones found it had benefits. “The best part is not having a record label,” she says. “You would think I would feel bad — after 22 years of being a kind of quiet, behind-the-scenes staple in music — to find myself without a label. But what it did for me was free me from feeling indebted to anybody, in any way, to deliver a thing. Nowhere in the back of my mind was I wishing that I could make some kind of hit that people at the label would feel really good about. I mean, of course I want to sell 10 million records,” she adds, laughing. “But there’s nowhere in the album where I thought I was going to try to craft a hit for the A&R guy. Because I can’t, anyway.

“I hope I can always be able to do this: to make my own record and then sell it to whoever likes it. Rather than being with someone who’s already bought you and is obliged to try to sell what you give them, when — for whatever reason — between the time they signed you and now they’re no longer interested. Yes, of course I want to make money, but what I most want is that someone sees this record as an amazing thing and is excited to put it out.”

Maureen Droney is Mix’s Los Angeles editor.