Rickie Lee Jones explores ‘secret room of your heart’
December 28, 2006
Aspen, CO ColoradoASPEN Rickie Lee Jones makes an audible cringe when I mention the word “message” in connection with her forthcoming album, “Sermon on Exposition Boulevard.”It’s not that Jones is one of those songwriters who reflexively avoids expounding on her songs; the 52-year-old was happy to dig into the issues raised by the new album, due for release in February. Nor was the mercurial Jones, who can be touchy (just before our phone interview, her publicist politely suggested I avoid talking about Jones’ deep past, especially her relationship with fellow musician Tom Waits), in a foul mood. On the contrary, she was cheerful and expansive. And it certainly was not that the album does not have a point of view to impart to listeners.Part of what was behind the cringe, no doubt, was that Jones didn’t want the complex album to be reduced to the most unambiguous line or two. Above all is that “Sermon on Exposition Boulevard” addresses a subject that Jones simply doesn’t have words for, a topic that, in her view, resists being named.”Sermon on Exposition Boulevard” has Jones – the “Duchess of Coolsville,” as the title of her 2005 career anthology bills her – stepping into the realm of Christ, religion and God. It is a subject close to her heart: “To me, I pray all the time,” she said. But it is such a delicate, private concern that Jones thinks that speaking of it is inevitably reductive.”I don’t call it God,” said Jones, who performs Saturday, Dec. 30, at the Wheeler Opera House. “I call it the invisible world – and I’m always listening for it, thanking it. That takes the edge off loneliness and sorrow. That puts the world in order for me.”
At least part of what Jones has to say, in song, about the topic is that there has already been too much talk about the sacred realm. Making the holy part of our daily conversation, part of our way of relating to one another, has lessened the personal experience of it. On “Where I Like It Best,” Jones cautions listeners away from public congregations of worship: “Don’t go out into the church filled with people … They like to make a big parade about what they are doing.” She prefers “the secret room of your heart.””It’s not about naming the names,” she said. “You call it what name you want. Humans put all this human stuff on it, that you’ve got to say his name or he won’t be happy. It’s not that. It’s that there’s this golden information waiting for you, and you don’t have to go to church or wear a hat.”In its way, “Sermon on Exposition Boulevard” makes an attempt to strip away 2,000 years of Christianity and get back to the spirit of Jesus himself. “These are all the words of Christ,” noted Jones of the album’s 13 songs. Jones is speaking metaphorically, of course; “Elvis Cadillac,” which has a different king cruising around and also mentions Janis Joplin, wasn’t penned by Jesus. But for Jones, the holy feeling can come from anywhere. “If you find it in music, great. I do,” she said.Making too much of a public display of religiosity not only divides people from the sacred experience, but it divides people from people, nations from nations. Jones says the piously religious have taken Christianity and “stolen it away as a kind of social barrier: ‘These certain types of people are Christian.'” Her wish is that people could find another route toward the spiritual realm that doesn’t come freighted with the weight of Christianity. “More reasonable Westerners find their way to Buddhism, because we’re not scared by Buddhism,” she said.Jones’ last album, 2003’s “The Evening of My Best Day,” took aim at a prominent figure known for often intoning the name of Christ. The album opened with “Ugly Man,” a sharp jab at President George W. Bush, and even the first President Bush: “He grew up to be like his father / An ugly man,” she sang. Jones took her deepest dive into political waters on the album, too, with “Tell Somebody (Repeal the Patriot Act)” a social protest set to a glorious gospel beat.Jones says she doesn’t see any incongruity in following a Bush-bashing album with one about Jesus. Lee Cantelon, a co-producer of “Sermon on Exposition Boulevard,” said Jones “was like the Stanley Kubrick of songwriters,” according to Jones. “Each one is not an extension of the one before. It’s the one I’m making now, the story I’m making now.”
Still, there is an easy link between the albums. President Bush has done much to sharpen the lines, political and religious, between Americans and between Americans and the rest of the world. Jones is looking to add her voice to the conversation about Christ, and What He Would Do in this world.Jones said she made “Sermon on Exposition Boulevard” “because of the stuff I saw on TV, and my own reverence for Christ and the maligning of the idea [of Christ]. I was hoping people could find their way to these words of solace. So my sympathies for being part of this discussion, that’s why it was possible.”The idea to make a record about the words of Jesus didn’t originate with Jones. Lee Cantelon, a musician and writer and a friend of Jones, created an instrumental soundtrack to accompany a spoken word version of “The Words,” his book about the teachings of Christ. Jones and Cantelon got into extensive discussions about the book, and he was invited to record a portion of the text. In the studio, however, what came out were her own words, which eventually became “Nobody Knows My Name,” the lead song on “Sermon on Exposition Boulevard.” And the project became something else entirely: Jones’ lyrics and vocals, over the instrumental tracks recorded by Cantelon and guitarist Peter Atanasoff.Jones traces her interest in the project not only to Cantelon’s book, but also, oddly enough, to her own appearances a decade ago on the HORDE tour. Playing alongside jam bands like Blues Traveler and Widespread Panic, said Jones, put in her mind the of improvising entire songs. It was that spirit that she brought to the recording sessions for “Sermon on Exposition Boulevard”: “You walk into the studio with a feeling, and hope that feeling could be manifested,” she said.Though Jones added a few instrumental parts to the finished product, the soundscape is largely not her own. Given that Jones is accomplished on a variety of instruments and has established an identifiable style, the sound is a departure from the usual Rickie Lee Jones album. There are primitive, pounding rhythms and an echoing backdrop. Jones likes the idea of being associated with such relatively hard sounds.”It was so different from a musical environment I would make,” she said. “And that helped me become something different.
“I never like to be associated with smooth jazz, or tame music. Because I consider myself too rebellious. I know my music is smart and very musical, but I was never happy that the lines between styles were so definitive.”The sort of collaboration that produced the new album was also new for Jones. “‘The Magazine’ – her 1984 album – “that was just about me, my production, my music, going inward. Me, me, me,” she said. “This is about going outward. It changed me.”Jones has hopes that “Sermon on Exposition Boulevard” will have an impact on listeners, and maybe even make a little ripple in the bigger world. But first, the album has to get past people’s hesitancy about the album’s subject.”I came at it with some amount of mistrust and fury,” she said of the project. She worries that “so much damage has been done to this name that people won’t listen.”But it could be as neutral as the Buddha.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org