Rickie Lee Jones: The BLUERAILROAD Interview 2010
RICKIE LEE JONES:
The BLUERAILROAD Interview
Words & Photos by PAUL ZOLLO
SHE SPEAKS SOFTLY, not unlike the way she sings – soft, soulful passages, almost like secrets to the closest of friends, punctuated by bursts of exultation. Which makes transcribing an interview with her a challenge, but makes her records a joy.
One is reticent to use phrases like “her best album in years,” as it implies something diminished about the others. But her newest, Balm In Gilead, contains so much of what she does best, and what people love about her, that such a statement makes sense. From the pure, naked heartbreak of “Bonfires,” one of the most loving songs about lost love ever written, to the wise, knowing elation of “Old Enough” to the beautiful “Wild Girl,” which celebrates the 21st birthday of her daughter while simultaneously reflecting on the unchained fervor of her own wild days, it’s an album both orchestral and sparse, ranging from deepest sorrow to purest joy.
Like Judy Garland, Billie Holliday and other singers who invested the fullness of their soul and its sorrows into every song, Rickie encompasses a miraculous range of emotion in her work – “that’s my gift,” she allows – but unlike the others, she is also the songwriter of these songs, so the closeness to the bone we feel is ever more intense knowing it’s genuine. These are not interpretations (although she’s great at singing other people’s songs), these are songs straight from the songwriter’s soul. And in her work – unlike that of her famous paramour of the past, Tom Waits, and those who followed in his insalubrious footsteps – she did not wear masks or hide behind characters. Every song she wrote, to quote Waits, was “one from the heart.” And that reality – that lack of distance between the singer and the song – is what gives her work so much poignancy, and so much power.
For years, she lived in the heart of Los Angeles, in and around the streets of Hollywood, taking it all in. These days she lives high – way, way up high – up above this vast city, up steep winding canyon hills over Malibu in a cottage with lots of land around where she can keep her horse. It seems a good place for those mythic flying cowboys she wrote about years ago to embark on a voyage. It’s from here she embarks on her journeys – and does so with surprising speed, as one who tried and failed to follow her down winding hills to the Malibu flats knows well.
Born in Chicago the daughter of vaudevillian-songwriter Pegleg Jones, raised in Arizona and elsewhere, she came to Hollywood as a young woman, fell in with Waits and his pal Chuck E. Weiss, forever immortalized in her famous “Chuck E.’s in Love” from her astounding debut. And rather than any attempt to repeat past success, she followed her first with with an undeniable masterpiece, Pirates, likened by critics to the extended jazz-folk rhapsodies of Gershwin. “I really wanted to have a career,” she explained. “I wanted to be here. I didn’t just want to have a lot of fame and money for six years.” Other masterpieces, like The Magazine and Flying Cowboys followed, and Rickie has never looked back. “You can’t debut twice,” she explained, looking to the future. Which is where we met, on the crest of her newest work’s arrival.
We met outside a Malibu café, where the sound of people lap-topping and cell-phoning and munching on sandwiches around us was punctuated by the high frequency cries of the gulls. It was an unusually overcast day, one of those spectral afternoons when the lack of glaring light causes the colors to radiate like pastels on a canvas, and she seemed both somber and joyous as she reflected on the myriad paths which led her here. While we were talking, it seemed at first that nobody recognized her until out of nowhere a lady appeared with a bag of treats for her, and said, “Here’s some little goodies for you.”
Unlike almost all her past record projects for which she isolated herself to write a series of new songs, for this one she revisited songs she’d started before – some years before – but never finished for one reason or another. Though Dylan said reconnecting with unfinished songs was one of the hardest and saddest jobs a songwriter could do, she seemed to have no problem delving back into the mind she was in when first they were born.
Balm In Gilead is a gentle balm for her audience, those who have been as lost in the cold madness of modern times as she’s been. But it’s also a balm for Rickie, a reminder of what music can do both for the musician and the audience. As for “Bonfires,” the brand-new heartbreak song, she said, “It saved my life. It opened a door for me that for a long time I kept closed. I have this wonderful thing and I deny it. I love to sing, I don’t sing. My writing can help me, I don’t write. I know it’s precious, but use it. It’s a gift. You’ll feel better. It reminded me that I can sing songs and feel better. Other people, they don’t have that. Not only do I get to do it for myself, but I can do it for them. It really saved my life. I’d sing that song, and when it was done, I was okay. I don’t take drugs or anything anymore, and overcoming that mechanism to reach for something when you hurt, I reached for my songs. And even now when I sing it, I feel good when I sing that song. It soothes the heart.”
BLUERAILROAD: It’s true that the songs on Balm are ones that have been around for a while which you hadn’t finished till now?
RICKIE LEE JONES: Yeah. “Wild Girl,” most of it was written even before “Atlas’ Marker” in the 80s. It was the first song written after Magazine. But I didn’t have the finish and I kept playing it for people every few months. And it never went away. It was a whole intact song, I couldn’t forget it, it just was. “Remember Me,” the country song I started when I first got separated from my husband.
So all of them, waiting to be finished. I really thought, before I go on, I have to finish all these songs. They’re good and they’ve waited a long time. Then in September-October when David [Kalish] and I wrote “The Gospel of Norman Smith,” when we wrote that song, and the way it felt, with him just playing piano and me singing, it felt good. So the record was gonna be a record of covers, of me doing my old songs. Which we tried to do. But the record didn’t want to do that. It became new songs, instead.
You were going to re-do songs you’d already done?
I had done “Satellites” and “Texaco” – actually, Emmylou Harris sang on that. We made about six old songs, trying to redo them. Some very close to the same and some very different. Like “Satellites” was pretty different. I was kind of doing a Mott the Hoople, envisioning the guys in their platform shoes [sings high], and the boys sing falsetto. But, no, it wanted to be a written record.
Dylan said once that the hardest thing for him was to reconnect with an idea from a different time. Was that hard for you?
Well, that’s why it took so many years. What is it that I’m trying to say that I didn’t say then? Listening, I didn’t know. So what could I say now that I learned? Eventually, in the case of “Wild Girl,” deciding who it was about helped me decide what I wanted to say. As long as it floated around body-less, you could say anything. Charlotte? Okay, here’s what I want to say. And it finished itself. Without being too revealing.
Were you writing about yourself in it at first? You’ve referred to yourself as a wild girl in other songs.
I was talking to somebody. I was thinking of that girl in high school that everybody fucks but nobody likes. I was thinking of her. Who is she? What happened to her? And how could I save her? I don’t know why, but I was talking to that girl in every school. That’s how that started.
But also they’re amalgams. I was also talking to me – or all the girls – when we get all dressed up and we’re gonna go out and have fun. What is the line between fun and not fun, and who set it? Did society set it? Did you decide to defy society’s line, and how happy are you now? Come back. If you think of it in the general proximity of western slopes, it’s saying come back, come back from where you’ve gone too far.
That’s my guess. It’s many years later. I was always expressing myself through other characters. And they’re real, too. There’s a bunch of stuff taking place. I’m talking to me, I’m talking to the future, I’m talking to somebody I don’t know. I’m pretty sure I don’t care about the bleachers, but somebody does, and I’m being asked to write this message to them. And I believe somewhere in the world somebody hears that and goes, “That was written for me.” And they’re right. That was written for them. [Laughs]
And then, also, it was written for my daughter. Who I hadn’t met yet. And who will later find out what the spirit of that song was. My mother loved that song so much. She was the main reason I kept returning to that song. Because there was a point where it seemed really quaint and dated. And in the last couple years, whatever the date is, this song has so much innocent heart, that we’re gonna bring it in. So I don’t know how, but I did bring it in. I just transcended all the obstacles in my mind. It was right from my heart.
There’s a personal poignance for me when I hear it, because it’s a song which seems to connect the child in yourself with the child outside yourself, your daughter – celebrating her becoming an adult. And the very first time I interviewed you in 1988 – about Flying Cowboys, she’d just been born. And you said that before her birth, you were never sure if there would be a future. But since she’s born you realized there must be a future, because of her. Which is a progression, I think, every parent goes through to some extent.
When you say that about when she was born and how I felt. I feel exactly the same way. It never went away. When they grow up, you can’t live for them. And also their power is in you living for yourself, and they really imprint you. It’s so subtle, all the things they imprint in you. While children love our parents to love us, if our parents lived for us and are so affected by the tide of our behavior, then it’s not safe for us. They have to be loving but be a house that we can’t tear down with our actions. And my parents, you know, when I ran away, they moved. Which was not good. There was nothing to hold onto. And that’s hard. I don’t blame them. [Laughs] But it would have been better if they didn’t. When the parole people found me and took me to my house, and there was nobody there.
How old were you then?
Did you ever go back?
Yeah. I ran away two summers. First time in Phoenix. Second time, God bless them, they had moved to Seal Beach. I wanted to be in California and they took me to California. So I ran away again. I went to Big Sur. To be with the hippies. [Pause] How hard that must have been for them. I was only gone for a month or six weeks. But they were big adventures. Life and death all the time.
You said how this song, “Wild Girl,” has so much “innocent heart.” And that’s an aspect of much of your work – the connection with heart is so direct and unsullied.
It is. I just started to get that picture, I don’t know how I got it – but I just started to see if there’s one thing that is my gift in music, that’s what it is. I have an absolute connection to my emotions when I sing. And that seems to make people feel so healed. I don’t how that is, but maybe… I don’t know! People like my singing, they like the writing, but what happens in live shows… But it must translate to recording –
Does it? I just know live is where I really feel they can get how deep the water is.
It’s very much there in the records, which is why your fans love them and play them so often. And one thing your studio work has that your live shows doesn’t is when you sing harmony with yourself. That is such a special, rich and poignant sound – and few people do it as well.
Yeah. Thank you. It would be fun to do live. They sell contraptions and you sing the third, or something.
Actually, in the band I am going to work with this time, Joel Guzman played accordion and organ on it, and he’ll be touring with me. And he’s also a pretty great singer. These boys – these men – seem to be singing very well, so it should be a much more vocal group, so that’ll be exciting.
Your records have the emotional depth in singing of a Judy Garland or Billie Holliday, but the fact that you also write the songs gives the entire thing a deeper dimension, that it’s all your vision – and not an interpretation as much as it is pure expression.
I feel that the gift is singing. And it doesn’t matter to me if the person wrote it. I’m trying to think if that’s always true. If Emmylou Harris is singing a song, if she wrote it or didn’t write it, I believe her. If she wrote it, I’m more intrigued. And I suppose it means more. But I don’t know, really. Someone else’s lyric might express her feelings to her even more than her own. So I wouldn’t presuppose that because a person wrote something, they’re more connected to it.
I understand. Still, there’s an intimacy when someone sings their own song. It’s closer to the soul, and no one else could be that closely connected. We know it’s about you, and it’s from you.
Right. Do you like Frank Sinatra?
Yeah. The early records.
So if you heard Frank sing “Young at Heart” or “All The Way,” you know a little bit about him. But you don’t have to. You know when he sings, he’s a weak man, he’s a hurt man. He’s loving and he’s pleading. You get all of those things in the sound of his voice. Because he’s pleading, he’s weak. But because he’s strong enough to show you he’s weak, he’s strong. You get all these things implied instantly in the sound of his voice.
Just for you: Would you be more moved by Bob Dylan singing “All Along the Watchtower” – whatever it means to him, the story he’s telling to himself about the characters. That’s a sad song, a song of impending doom, but it hasn’t come yet. It’s an exciting song – would you feel more moved by Dylan singing it than someone else?
Yes. Which isn’t to say Hendrix didn’t do an amazing and great version of it. But hearing Dylan, for me, compared to Sinatra – there’s not the closeness to his soul that you feel with Dylan singing. His thing is so visceral and right from his soul. There’s a stronger connection with his spirit. When I hear Sinatra, as great as he was – and he was one of the greatest vocalists ever – I know someone else wrote the words, the music, someone else did the arrangement, the production, the playing. Whereas with your records, it seems every note, every beat, every word – is from you. It’s a much more complete expression of an artist.
Ultimately if it feels that way, then it is. For me, I love a song. I don’t care who did the horns. I just like to hear the horns. It’s funny, cause I do all that stuff. But as a listener, I just want to hear the voice singing.
So you enjoy listening to great singers as much as singer-songwriters?
Yeah. Maybe more. Maybe more.
You’ve famously interpreted a lot of songs, and beautifully –
I like singing. I think singing is the grease, the mystical thing, the sound reverberating on your skeleton and sending the waves out to people. [Laughs] That’s metaphysical for me. Whatever the message is, whether they’re reading the bible or making it up in the moment, or if they’ve written it out before they got there. I go [hums wordlessly] I don’t have to say [humming] I’m hitting you with the sound, yeah…
To me that’s the most important thing. And singer-songwriting is a phenomenon of our culture and time. It will come and go, and when it’s done there will still be people going [hums more]. But I’m really glad you like and understand my little imaginary world.
Yet your world doesn’t seem as imaginary as many. I think of Waits, and even Randy Newman, who are playing a character in their songs. You don’t do that – your songs are about you. You’re not putting on masks.
You think Randy does that?
Well, he doesn’t write about just one character, but his songs are almost always about a character, not about himself. Though you learn a lot about a songwriter from those kinds of songs.
Yeah. He tells feelings through stories about other people. Like when he writes “Marie,” he tells a story of a man incapable of loving someone.
Yeah. Like he tricked himself into writing a great love song.
I suspect he’s probably a very loving man, one on one, socially. Because you know what else I notice? Men write a lot more love songs than women. Which is funny, because we characterize women as romantic. But love songs are almost all men. Women are writing about [pause] situations. Yeah, Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell. Situations. You don’t hear them say that often. Laura did, I guess, but you don’t hear them say a love song. The moon’s rising, I miss you, where are you? A poem about the beloved. It’s usually in the hands of the men.
Laura, like you, was able to express genuine extremes of emotion in her work so powerfully – when her songs were sad, they were deeply sad, and the happy ones are truly joyful. You do that, too. Your joyful songs aren’t corny, which is tough to do.
I think I have to work to write a happy song. Because everything comes at a mid to low tempo now. I have to look for something up and find it. I write them carefully, they’re simple, they’re always just this is fun to walk down the street. You know? Because that’s the best thing about when you’re happy. It’s just one little thing that makes you happy, and you’re making friends. That seems like, for the most part, the kind of thing I can do is capture this moment, and these kind of people, and we’re doing this kind of thing, and it’s fun.
Yes. Is that what everybody’s happy song would be? Like the Rolling Stones are really good at writing happy songs. Even when their content is not happy, there’s something about their energies that makes it sound happy.
You know, I always say, the mystical thing is that the energy, the intention, is what gets translated. Your intention is to express this moment when things go wrong. But what you write about is a trailer court, and a blue car in a trailer court. Yet somehow when people come back to talk to you, they will say, “You know I listened to that song and it reminds me of when things go wrong.” They always understand what you intended. And that’s the mystical thing about songwriting to me. We’re talking on these other levels that we don’t know. And the best thing you can do as a songwriter and trust the higher part is writing, and don’t judge yourself or worry too much about it. Because it’s the higher thing that’s gonna be written. And yes, the wrong word or wrong phrase can impede that process, but let it be. Trust yourself, trust your journey and your life, write the song. That’s where I am anyway.
So when writing, you don’t judge it –
If I do, it’ll die. The moment it comes through, the moment this little critic speaks up, it dies. You got to really protect it from what you think someone who didn’t like you would say, the playground, you know.
When you start a song, do you start with an intention of what the song is about?
I don’t think I ever do that. I think it’s always just coming out of me. I never know where it’s gonna go, or what it’s gonna be. I don’t watch my process, but I probably write a line or two and then know where I’m gonna go right away. Do I want to do a rhyme scheme or a rhythm thing, or do I want to write free verse? It will usually tell you a direction to go. And than what the subject is, that will all be revealed. But it’s almost like a rhythm thing – what rhythm are we going to speak in? Loose rhythm, precise rhythm? But it doesn’t have the conscious in it. When I do stuff like that, I just get out of my way.
So it’s more a sense of following than leading?
Not leading it. Not thinking about it at all. I can take the pen and write you eight lines right now. when it’s done, it’ll probably make sense, rhyme. Because the part just behind my consciousness knows just what it is doing. If my consciousness gets in the way and says, “What about…?” The moment I go “What about?” , then that unconscious part goes, “Okay, you take care of it.” [laughs] And then my ego enters, and the flow stops. So I have to not guide it, but just trust that I know what I’m doing. And again, not bothering with it.
Like “Bonfires” was about 12 verses.
Yeah. They were written over a couple of days. And one was leaning towards this one melody, and one was leaning towards another melody, and they were both similar. One I was thinking about someone’s mother who died. And the other one was about my broken heart. But they were all happening at the same time, and they were all about saying goodbye, and wanting to find courage. So I found the verses and decided to repeat verses instead of adding extra verses. To repeat lines. To say this again that you really hurt me [laughs], if you didn’t get that the first time. And I felt better doing it that way.
There were a lot of beautiful verses, but I felt that I was going to lose the impact. What I was thinking about when I wrote that was Bob Dylan’s first record. I was thinking of how he played his guitar. This is where I am right now, it’s simple. And that’s how I wanted to deliver it. I didn’t want it to be like Fleetwood Mac, I wanted to be like Dylan.
Interesting you were thinking of Bob, cause like him this is a sad brokenhearted song, but there’s already an objective distance from the heartbreak – a stepping back – so that it’s such a loving heartbreak song. You sing more than once, “You are the sweetest boy I know..”
Absolutely. No other way to survive that except to give love.
Did you write that while you were in the midst of your heartbreak?
Yes. It did kind of save my life. Yeah. And that hasn’t happened in a while. And it kind of opened a door for me to life. I think for a long time I kept the door closed. I have this wonderful thing and I deny it. I love to sing, I don’t sing. My writing can help me, I don’t write. I waited till I actually couldn’t go another step forward. I asked myself why. I know it’s precious, but use it, you know, use it. It’s a gift to you. Use it. You’ll feel better. But it reminded me that I have that gift that I can sing songs and feel better. Other people, they don’t have that. Not only do I get to do it for myself, but I can do it for them. They can listen to it and they can feel better, too. I mean, I’m just talking about me. That I can sing songs and feel better, shit, that’s pretty amazing. It really saved my life. I’d do to sing that song, and when it was done, I was okay. I don’t take drugs or anything anymore, and overcoming that mechanism to reach for something when you hurt, I reached for my songs. And even now when I sing it, I feel good when I sing that song. It has that good thing in it to soothe the heart.
“Bonfires” has a really interesting blend of imagery and emotions – from the loving declarations to admitting you are burning everything you have to the connection between that and the bonfires in hell.
Yes. I drew a picture, too. I gave it to the cover art people. It was all purple, the light from the fire in the distance. Me in front of it, but looking over at you, and then around it, in the shadows, the demons, the beloved others, cats, dogs. I think there were other things. Some of them might have been visible, some maybe not. But most of it was a very very dark picture with a little shaft of light where all these things were burning. And in the distance, other bonfires. Cause that’s what hell is, that’s why there’s fire. Everybody burning everything that they loved. At least that’s what the song thought.
So the title “Bonfires” came during the writing?
Is that usually how it works? You never think of titles beforehand?
Sometimes I get great titles, but I forget to write them down. But if you have a title first, that would be really fun.
You’ve never done that?
I have, but not in many years. Let me think if I have. [Pause] I think I must have. I can’t think that I’ve done that, but I must have.
So many songwriters do that – start with a clever or evocative title. Randy Newman told me the same thing, though, that you did – that he never has a title first, that it emerged from the process.
Yeah. In the case of the record, I had a hard time finding a title for the record. I had the collection of songs together. I just didn’t know what the collection meant, and how to invite people in. It’s the first time I haven’t had a title. Usually the title presents itself before the record’s over. This one didn’t. I picked one, kind of, and wrote it and sent it around to people. And I have one friend who is kind of critical, but he’s very blunt. He’s British and he’s one of these very British blunt people. His name is David Tibet, and he’s coming out of the Goth Satan school of music. He’s very smart, but a little blunt. He pooh-poohed my titles, all of them. I had three or four. I began to think, “Man, I’m glad you weren’t here for any of my other records, because I don’t know if I would have gotten anything out.” Then I said that to him, I said the record feels like a balm, and he said, “Oh, balm in Gilead.” I had thought of that before but had dismissed it. But when he said it, it sounded right. And I thought, “Yes, I should go with that. It seems right.”
It’s interesting, following your last album, Sermon, to have another biblical reference.
Yeah. I thought about it twice before I used it. That might be why I hesitated with balm at first. I wasn’t sure about invoking anymore Christian stuff. But I think it’s good. I think it’s good to respectfully honor what I did before and not be afraid of it.
Often you have used one of the song titles for the album title-
Yeah, we almost did that. Like “The Moon is Made of Gold,” maybe.
Interesting choice, as that’s the one song you didn’t write.
Yeah, but a good title. What will get you to pick up this record? [Laughs]
The song “Old Enough” is great – like a classic Rickie Lee up groove.
I heard it on the radio yesterday. That’s the one the record company is sending out.
It’s a duet with Ben Harper – your voices together sound great.
I really like when you do the first chorus, and you sing the melody and he sings a higher part. That’s a great sound.
[Laughs] You know, the way that song evolved is that I wrote the verses, and he was brought in to sing one of them – the first verse. Which caused me to think about the second one, and rewrite the second one. Because the second one was pretty, but where it was at in my register was low-ish. But his was nice mid-high. So his had impact, but in my register it has no impact. So I began to think about where to write it, so that it was in a place in my register. Ultimately, the other verse is sweet. But nothing happened. It was like a Van Morrison thing. I ended up with the one that’s there, which is like (snaps fingers) kind of a Marvin Gaye kind of thing. It wasn’t that important what I said, but things have happened to me so I wanted to say something about why are you rejecting me when I love you?
That is a case of wandering away from a song. And finding it difficult to have something to say in four lines five years later. I had four lines I needed to write to connect what was there with what came after. And that was a lot of work. [Laughs] A lot of work !
And the other verse which was there was [sings strongly], “I wake up in the morning light/ the world is bathed and blue/ I take a walk when the sun comes up/ I run back home to you/ And late at night as the cars go by…” That’s where he comes in. So it was all one verse. Lately I’ve been thinking, God, that was a pretty good verse. [Laughs] But in that key where we were, it was hard for me to sing that. But I can do the old one live.
When you were writing it, did you think it would be a duet?
We were talking about doing duets with people. I sat and made up two songs in David [Kalish]’ bedroom to his little machine. And I sang really well, but they weren’t gonna be vocals to keep. But it was so no pressure, that the way I sang set the pace for how Ben delivered what he did. I did “Bayless Street” and that song. I don’t think I wrote it as a duet.
Was he your first choice to sing with?
I think I thought of Ben Harper cause David knew Ben, and he said, “Well I know Ben.” And I said, good, let’s see if he can do it. It’s been some time. Four years.
Four years? I didn’t know it had been that long.
No, not my part. Since he did his part.
So you two didn’t sing together at all in the studio?
No, it was separate.
It’s a great vocal sound.
David did a great job with Ben. He sings different than me, but he did a few takes, and David put it together.
Interesting you talking about David’s role in this, because my assumption, which is probably wrong, is that you have a vision of what you want and then the producer – in this case David – realizes that vision for you. But it seems he had his own vision to bring?
I evolve. Which is very tedious for David. David likes to have his ducks in a row: this is what we’re doing. That’s now how I work. I’ll take one his ducks, but we’re gonna have to see what happens. It’s a living process. It just is. I don’t do it on purpose, but it just is. So that was how we set out to do a different record and ended up doing this. And as a producer, you got to let that happen. Because that one was from discussions from four or five years ago. And I sang something and he took that and did what he did. Had players come, had people sing, made the track. In the case of songs that I’m doing in the studio, when I get there, David sits and watches. The best he can do for me is just enable me to do everything I’d like to do. And in the course of making this record, that happened sometimes and sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes that happens badly because of an engineer, or dynamics going on with people everytime, some bullshit always goes down. But as far as how we operate, if David is welcoming, friendly and everything is working and in its place, I’ll come in and write the song and put seven songs on it, and make a plan for what it’s gonna be. If my producer is going, “Man, my engineer is freaking out because he doesn’t want to use Pro-tools,” or whatever is happening with them, then it inhibits my ability to do what I want to do. The only thing I need from a producer is a little bit of control. Because I have so many ideas. If somebody will say, “Why don’t you focus on the horns right now?” Then I’ll do that. Just a little bit of interaction and involvement with me is so supportive. David doesn’t. So that made it hard.
When I went to Sheldon’s, Sheldon was so great. When I’d sing he’d smile. He say, “It’s so cool sitting here listening to you sing.” That’s the first nice thing anybody said to me since I started the record. And I thought I don’t know why – if they think I’m so competent or what. But just once in a while say, “Good job, that was nice what you did.”
David never does that?
Never. He’s from the too-cool school. [Laughs] And a lot of people like that. But in the intimacy of being in the record, you know. Because I can look for that in the engineer or anybody, that’s my problem. But if you’re making the record with me without making me worry that you’re judging me, just once in a while say, “You’re doing great work, it’s really beautiful.”
The album is so great, I’m surprised there were any problems-
There’s always problems. I just had to go, [very softly], I’m gonna finish my vision… And I just took a little love from Sheldon, and it just came out. “Wild Girl.” Because I am not that impervious. I really do well with a little bit of praise. [Laughs]
David didn’t realize that, or it wasn’t in him?
I wonder. Our relationship is almost like a big sister-big brother. Because I told him the reason I worked with him was a thing he said to me before we started working on The Evening of my Best Day, which was “You’re the greatest white soul singer.” Or something like that. He framed it as such that he acknowledged my love of R&B and that I’m a singer. So that was the compliment I got and I don’t think [Laughs] I ever got another one.
But that’s a big one.
Just say it to me every couple of years. And because I had just broken up with somebody, I didn’t have my bearings. I haven’t worked in a lot of small studios, I always went into the big studios. We worked at David’s home studio, which was a lot of fun. But I think, really, it comes down to this way that I work. Which is more like a jazz musician. We come in and let’s see what we do today. Pop musicians, they want to know what they’re gonna do today and how long it’s gonna take. I can accommodate in rehearsals, I can tell you how long we’re gonna be there. But we might spend four hours on one song. I don’t know if we’re gonna cover all five songs today, we’re gonna have to see.
It’s funny how I wrote a letter to a musician that said, “You know what? When we’re onstage, it’s like magic, some of the greatest moments of my life. And we’re offstage, you’re a pain in the ass. And I can’t figure out why nothing translates from these mystical moments onstage to how we talk to each other offstage. You treat me like an employer, but I’m just a girl, just a girl, trying to play music with people.
I think that’s part of the problem. I’m famous. I’m my age. People regard me as an institution, as an idea, instead of a girl. They think you don’t need, “Hey, that’s a nice shirt, I like that shirt.” But I’m just a person named Rickie. I’m just a girl. So that was interesting year for me finally acknowledging that I’m not just a girl, I’m me. That’s what I am, that’s how people are gonna come to me. And me teaching them that I’m a girl like anybody else, like any other girl.
You’ve been making records for a long time now—
Does the process of getting your ideas recorded get any easier?
It doesn’t seem to be. [Laughter]. I think it really does have to do with the producer. They’re the ones who set the pace for how things will go down. And whether of nor people are happy when they come in, how many hours we work, it really had to do with the producer. I like having a producer. There are producers who control everything artistically. But for me a producer is someone to share this responsibility with. Say a producer in a film with Steven Spielberg will say, “Here, I’ll give you all the things you need to make what you want to make,” that’s ideal for me. Except I want a little bit of interesting guidance. I really do. I can do it all myself, but I don’t want to. I want somebody to help me.
So it’s someone who brings their own ideas as well as working with yours-
I’d like that. It’s not so much their imposing ideas of what the horns should be, it’s directing me always towards what I think the horns should be. Or I don’t know what the horns should be – okay, I have an idea. It’s all about becoming an enlightened person. In the process I find out I don’t know what to do. You help me let go of it. And when we’re done, we’re better people for it. We’re not angry people suing each other. That’s my ideal. I think I had some of that in the early years with Lenny [Waronker] and Russ [Titelman] because they were producers, they knew what they were doing. The only confusion happens – I think it’s ego – people feel they’re not getting their due. They think, hey, you know what? I work really hard and I’m really talented, and calling me producer doesn’t tell all the things I do here. I want this credit and that credit. And I say, hey, you know what? Your job is to do everything you can to make the record great. Wake up every day and be grateful you have the job. Don’t be angry. This is just a way of being. It’s so easy, if you feel you should have had something better in your life, then everything you do, you’ll try to extract from it that thing you didn’t get, you know? And you’re gonna be a little angry. And it’s just a hard way to live your life. Instead, why don’t you wake up and go, “I could be at the gas station pumping tires. I am so fucking tires. I am so fucking glad to be here every day.
That sense of gratitude is so important, and something we’ve touched on before—
Yeah. It releases you from your ego. So I really am grateful to be here. The older I get, I think, what a miracle. What a miracle on every level. What a crappy life it could’ve been, or I could’ve been married. But how miraculous to come from where I’ve come from.
You know what – do you ever watch those TV shows where they tell you the behind-the-scenes stuff about a film?
Yeah. I like those.
I don’t. I don’t wanna know.
I think they’re often better than the movies.
I don’t. Cause now every time I watch the film I know that that guy at the window didn’t have a shoe on. I’ll never be able to watch the film again. I don’t want to tell too much stuff myself. I like to tell it, but I don’t want to know it. I think it can ruin the experience for me. If they listen to the record and it’s sweet and than they read – wow, they were really pissed off at each other – then it’s not so sweet. I they wanna buy a book about it and they paid, then they’re into it. But I don’t want them to read how fucking difficult it was. [Laughs]
I spoke to Lenny Waronker a while back, and told him how much I loved the albums he did with you. And he said it was one of the hardest things he ever did.
Yeah, very hard. I didn’t know then how hard it was for them, because they were always so sweet to me. I’ll tell you, I kept them waiting hours. On the second record. There’d be a start time at one and I’d show up at five. So Pirates was very challenging. The first record, though, it was my first record. We started later in the day – 3 or 4 – I’m still kind of a late person, but I’d show up within an hour of when we started. I would be surprised if that one was described as difficult. I don’t remember any big emotional things. All I remember was a lot of love.
For the first one. But not during Pirates?
There was a lot of love, but I was very late, a lot. I don’t remember them ever getting angry and yelling at me, but I remember feeling they were disappointed with me and pulling away. Drugs. I was writing those interesting songs.
Again, it’s surprising to hear this, cause Pirates is a masterpiece. One of the best albums ever. And those songs are quite amazing – like little suites. Multi-dimensional songs.
Yeah, they were. They were done in L.A. and New York and back in L.A. again. Over a period of about, I’m feeling, 18 months. I remember Russ telling me, “You gotta finish that last verse of ‘Western Slopes’.” Russ was bring it in. Lenny had a family. They’re leaving their family all day. He ended up getting divorced soon after that. I don’t know if it had anything to do with me. It was just his job.
How come you worked in both New York and L.A.?
I moved to New York. I think I was still in L.A. when I started it. Finished back at the old studio in L.A. I didn’t know better about money then. They were spending a lot of money. On their hotels. But it was a wonderful way for me to work. They would do block-outs [at the studio] day and night. That was expensive. Pirates cost maybe $250,000. My records now don’t cost $250,000. So it was expensive.
On this album, the production is really nice – very sparse at times –
Yeah. I was going for a kind of – I don’t like to use this word – but a kind of roots, and soul. Moving back and forth between roots and soul. And a new flavor for me – kind of country – more so than the Lenny stuff. A little more than usual. So one of the titles was “Dolly’s Café.” It reminded me of this place I used to go to as a kid, and the kind of music we are so comfortable with. And we easily moved between such a wide palette of music when we were young that kids now are not exposed to. They are sold one kind of song. And that’s all that they hear. And they have to really work to be exposed to another kind of music. I mean, at least we heard it on the radio. We heard Andy Williams and then Bob Dylan –
Yeah. They don’t. So we’re smarter than they’re gonna be. But they’re probably gonna be better at a kind of intensely specific task, because that is the way their brains are being aimed.
It’s interesting to me how much they love the music from our generation – Beatles, Dylan, Stones. That music comes across.
Yeah. It’s good songwriting. I think that they like, at the end of the day or the end of the week, everybody likes to sing a song.
Yes. Whereas my parents’ music seemed ancient to me.
Did to me, too. I guess cause we’re talking about rock and roll. I guess that’s the difference. They were divided socially by a kind of music. Where we’re all in the same musical pot called rock and roll.
When I was a kid, popular music evolved so much – just from 1965 to 1968 was an enormous shift. And I assumed then that music would continue to evolve at that rate. But it didn’t. Did you feel that, too?
Yeah. It started repeating itself. They called it retro or they called it New Wave. Whatever they called it, it was evoking something that had already been done. And purposefully evoking.
I didn’t really think about it then. Looking back, I was surprised that it stopped moving forward. But you know, the shape of the universe is a spiral. Everything we’re experiencing seems new to us, but maybe to somebody a little older, it wasn’t so new. So we see it repeating, but maybe that’s what it always is.
Do you think there are still new places to go with songs?
Yeah. Well, with production. I heard something last week. It was a song that seemed to be 25 minutes long. And they kept going to different places, they never went to a bridge or a chorus. Maybe I’m hallucinating, but they were operating within a framework that was roughly pop. It wasn’t like Aaron Copland. They just kept going different places. I thought, wow, that’s bitching. It’s like an opera, but it isn’t. That would be something that would be fun to explore.
You’d like to do something like that?
Yeah. I like that. I like exploring improvisation more. I like going into places I haven’t been. I’ve never done a really definitive jazz record. Although right now I don’t feel very interested in jazz. I’d like to do a kind of bluegrass record. I’d love to do old American folk songs. Songs of people crossing the Midwest. Heartbreaking songs they sang of their children dying and people drowning and getting shot. People sing them but not seriously. Like “Clementine.” That’s a heartbreaking and beautiful song. And “The Streets Of Laredo.” It has a line in it: “I see by your outfit you’re a cowboy.” That seems to me to be the hippest line. Because it acknowledges we’re bonded. You dress like me. You’re one of my kind. Wow, that’s a neat thing to say. And he’s laying there in the street lying. He got shot, they lay him outside and cover him with a sheet, so they can look at him. I see him out there in a sheet – that’s the white linen that he’s dressed in. That’s a pretty serious song. That’s a whole legend and a whole lot of information in one song. There’s a lot of different things that I’d like to do. So to get the psychic energy, the money, to deliver the card in the career. I’d like to have a band with some other people. I had an idea for a band name – Public Domain. That’s a cool name, isn’t it? We could sing these old songs about each state, and use them for public schools teaching the incredibly boring histories of each state.
When you write a song, do you ever choose a key prior to starting?
No, I’ve done that in the old days. They do seem to come a lot in G.
Yeah, there’s a lot of G on this album.
I can fight it, take it down. But why? If that is what works?
Do you think each key has its own colors or characters?
Yes. I do.
If I named each key, could you tell me how it makes you feel?
I could try.
Okay. How about C major?
C seems like it would be dressed in a nice cowboy outfit. Friendly, not bothering anybody. It could lead to the sad, it could lead to the happy. It’s a kind of middle of the road. It’s a little low in my register, I think of it as a boy’s key. It’s very friendly.
D’s much more of a challenge. It’s got more tension in it than C. I think of my mother a little bit. Seems like a feminine key. I don’t know if it’s because of where it is in my register that I have these impressions, or how it is to play; it’s one of the first chords you learn to play [on guitar]. I don’t know how to just hear it without feeling what it’s like to play it.
E is like the dirt. It’s where things fall to. E is something to lay down on. It’s really easy key to sing and play. It’s a good resolution. I also think of it as a masculine key.
[Pause] I don’t know F very much except as a passing chord to C or D. I can’t feel it as its own thing, I feel it as moving from one place to another.
G seems to be like the celestial chord. It seems to be very expansive in the spaces between the notes. The spaces between the notes seem bigger than the spaces between the notes in D, though mathematically it’s the same. My impression is in G, it’s wide open, and you can move in and out of it, improvising an Indian thing or a blues thing or a folk thing. It allows you to go anywhere you want to go. You can play it tough or you can play it soft. It’s really a complicated beautiful key.
Interesting – cause your songs in G on this record, like “Wild Girl” – have a very wide melodic range.
A. I think I like A a lot, too. A couple of years ago I was doing a lot of stuff in A. A has a lot of strength and is more like that producer I was talking about. [Laughs] It’s expansive but it’s a much more consoled key. You can have fun with it, but it’s not like G where you can go all kinds of places. And it will accommodate, obviously, blues, but you can do these contemplative things in A. Like when Van Morrison sings about the fireworks and the river. You can do those kinds of things in A if you want to, it would accommodate that. It wouldn’t accommodate “The Moon Is Made of Gold” very well. But if you changed it a little bit to a different rhythm [sings a kind of galloping rhythm], A would accommodate that kind of rhythm. And, obviously, blues: [sings chunky old-fashioned blues rhythm, like a horn section “Ba Ba ba ba ba]. So it’s more compact. What it wants is more specific and defined. It’s not so expansive. But it will accommodate improvisation. That’s what I feel about A.
And it’s funny cause I think A can be masculine or feminine. It can go either way.
The Beatles used A a lot, more than any other major key.
Yeah. I think of it as a happy key. In your new album, Balm, almost every song is in a major key except for “Gospel,” which is A minor—
And the music for that one was David Kalish. He played the chords. I made up the melody, but he played the chords.
How does A minor make you feel?
I like A minor a lot. [Pause] It’s sad, but it’s not without hope. It’s a nice sad place to visit.
“Blue Gazelle,” from the new album, is also A minor.
Is it? Yeah. That’s another one of those expansive things. A major does not provide it, but there’s a lot of places in A minor. There are a lot of dark, pretty colors, but it’s not black. It can be something you use to get to another place. Like if you were playing a Paul Simon song that’s in a happy key, chances are you will pass through an A minor on your way to where you’re going. It’s a nice chord and a nice key.
Seems much darker to me. [Frowns]. See – I frowned. And, you know, you can write beautiful things in E minor. I think Neil Young and Van Morrison write a lot of E minor and A minor. Sorrowful. It will accommodate rock. Powerful rock. If I started a song in E minor, it can be a pretty dire thing. I would rather pass through those chords.
[Pause, sings softly to herself]. I don’t know it well enough. I can see the D and I can see the F#. That’s funny. I don’t know it well enough to say what I think about it. The Bs are fun. They’re fun. Things on the second fret are fun, like F# or B. And that’s why I see them. I know the names, but only after the fact. I know more where it is on the neck.
I did this same thing with Brian Wilson recently, and he had colors for each major key, but said every minor key for him was black.
They are dark. But I don’t see them all as black. E minor looks pretty black.
Some people feel it’s easier to write a pretty melody in a minor key. Do you agree?
No. A pretty melody comes to you. I think maybe the most perfect melody is “Greensleeves.” And it changes from minor to major. [Sings melody without words.] It’s minor and then major and then minor. And any Beatle tune goes in and out of major and minor. I think the chords become what you rest them on. They affect how you feel about the melody, but you can sing that melody all by itself. I think if a little kid was just singing a melody and they didn’t know what the chords were, if it would matter. Probably not. So, no, I don’t think I agree that necessarily minor keys create better melodies.
When you’re writing music, do you generate melodies by what you play on piano or guitar, or do you think of melody first and then go to the instrument?
It’s really both. Probably to get started, I just start playing things. If you already come to the instrument with a melody in mind, you’ve probably already got your song written.
It seems like most of these songs are guitar songs, except for “Gospel”.
Yeah, that’s the one that David did. Did you know there was a piano on that? Did we take the piano out? I took the piano out and just left Jon Brion and the bass in.
I was thinking also “Eucalyptus Trail” was a piano song.
No, not originally. It was a guitar song. But I ended up taking my guitar out and then I put piano on. The front is actually separate from the song. I created that afterwards, which is maybe why you had that impression.
These days do you mostly write on guitar?
Well, these songs, yeah. This was really, again, trying to stay in a roots and soul thing. On piano I tend to get dirt. Guitar usually assured a limit to what I do. On piano I explore. You know that 25 minute song I might write, I’ll probably do it on piano.
Do you ever work on both – take a song from guitar to piano or vice versa?
Probably I do. In the last couple years, the need to play the song on another instrument to show it to somebody has helped it evolve. I’ve got to be very careful doing that, because it’s still forming. As soon as you play it on another instrument, I’ll always hear it that way. In my mind. So it will affect and change what it would have done. Once I do it like that, I’ll make it more rhythmic or something.
That’s a good idea, you know. I wish I had that much discipline to do stuff like that on purpose.
No. Because it’s so tenuous. I am so afraid of losing them when I’m writing. They just seem so delicate. They are formed by my intention to them. As well as, it seems, their intention for something to say. It’s like the beginning of a love affair. It seems so tenuous. You say the wrong thing on that date and then they don’t call for two days and then you get mad and then it’s over, you know? Just in the beginning, you’ve got to be very courteous with your song. You need to play it every day. Every other hour, so it doesn’t die. Or you don’t forget exactly how you did that part. Which I do. I forget.
So why don’t I record them? Because something happens the moment I turn the tape recorder on. Because let’s say you’re filming and you’re on a dolly. I’m on a dolly and I’m filming this song that I’m writing. And that’s perfect. We got this picture. If I do something wrong, I’m not on the dolly anymore, I’m running next to it. I can’t get that feeling back, at least that first feeling I had. And if I lose that, the odds of losing the song are high. So when I record, it automatically makes me self-conscious, and I can’t get on the dolly. So I got to play it a bunch of times before I can take a chance of looking in the mirror, which is what the tape recorder is.
Do you think you lose ideas by not recording while writing?
Oh, I lose a lot of ideas. But, for me, if I don’t feel like finishing them, they probably weren’t important to me. And they are, after all, about being important to me. About I need to sing a song right now. if I don’t need it, it might have been a good song to somebody, but I don’t think it has that secret ingredient.
You know? I mean, I could be wrong.
When writing, are you influenced by the marketplace? Do you think at all of how your audience will respond, or what’s going to sell records?
I think I’m influenced a lot, but I don’t think it alters what I do. That is to say if I start to makee a song and I think, “Nobody’s gonna play this on the radio…” But [pause] I mean the opposite of what I’m saying. I think I react to my sense of people listening. But maybe sometimes I’ve gone the other way. To make something even less marketable in response. Yeah. I don’t think I did it this time, but I think there have been times when I defied expectations. If it was a coin toss, I would go the other way.
I think I have a cantankerous nature. I think I have a defying, rebellious nature. If I feel pressure to do anything, I cannot, I won’t do it. And then there are practical reasons. Because every time I aim, I always miss. I have to make it first. If I aim first and then try to make it, I always miss. It stinks of slightly being not true.
You were talking about how emotional my connection is. That’s what I have to offer you. And if I aim, I won’t get that. It really does just have to be this electricity, wherever it goes. [Softly] That’s the truth.
That direct connection you have with your emotions is very much there in your live shows – and I have seen you remind the audience that this is live, and there needs to be a connection. That’s it’s not TV. Whereas many shows I see, it’s clear it could be any night. It’s always the same. Your’s are different each night. Each moment, really –
I’ve seen shows, really successful shows, do the same exact thing every night. Tell the same exact jokes in the exact place. That’s like a revue, right? And it has its place, but that’s not what I can do successfully. I can’t do that well, so I don’t do that. I mean, I could do that but I don’t like it. Within two or three times of repeating myself, I’d feel like I’m lying to you. How could the audience be so different from a person? How could I set you up with your true and real feelings when I’m pretending and I’m already planning what I’m gonna say or do. I can’t do that. It’s not that I’m not aware of my control. I am. It’s not that I’m not aware of my control. I am. I know they’re in my hands and I’m careful with them. Even if I could do that, it would be a lie. It would be disingenuous. The people who do do that are disingenuous people. They’re not the most forthright people. [[Laughs] It’s a nice show, but it’s a reflection of how they are in the world. They control everything, they decide when they will and when they won’t. I don’t want people to feel that. When they’re with me, I want them to feel, wow, she’s doing this with us.
At the same time, I don’t want to be so emotional that they have to retreat. I don’t want to go too far. So it’s a lot of fun for me, because I get to keep measuring how we can go along together. Once in awhile I go a little too deep.
The way you are in shows honors your audience. That you will give as much as you do.
I think it does.
Is your feeling about your work – your albums – affected by sales and reviews?
I think it does. I think, at least at the time. When there’s a feeling of disappointment. First there’s the time preceding the making of a record when you’re planning it and feeling it. And then what you went through making a record, including spending your money. And then the hopes and dreams attached to the record. That’s where you got to be careful. If there’s anything I’ve learned, this is what I’ve learned: You must not attach anything to the record. It’s just a record. You can hope to have enough money to pay your taxes. But you cannot attach it to a record. They say, “If this record sells…” You should never start a sentence like that. I do think we should have a goal. If we had a goal of sales, then we would have a point of satisfaction. If we just put it out, then how can we decide when we succeeded? What if we said, “Let’s sell 50,000 records. Let’s get that goal.” This is business now. In capitalism, it’s a problem. But in the music business specifically, when do you decide that you succeeded? Are you always going to be comparing me with my debut? Because I can not debut again. I can’t introduce myself to an unknowing world again.
So I liked that idea. I thought I would set a goal. And then I could see if I met that goal. But it has nothing to do with my song. It’s taken a long time to protect my songs. So let’s say this album does none of the business everybody says it will do. I feel a little more protected. I feel that the songs are a little more protected than they’ve been in the past. So whether they do or don’t sell, I won’t not like “Bayless Street” or “Bonfires.” But that has not been the case in the past. When I did Flying Cowboys, there was a sense of failure. And it became very difficult to sing the songs. Some of them didn’t get sung for years.
Flying Cowboys didn’t sell well?
According to them, no. I’ll tell you something: [softly] Flying Cowboys sold 470,000 just before it would have retroactively gone up in terms of my points. Mysteriously. Sold just short of a half a million in five months and then never sold another record for many years.
Seems a little unlikely—
How well an album sells though, of course, has a lot to do with the record company – their accounting, promotion, publicity, how they push it to radio, etc. It’s not really a measure of how good it is-
Yeah, we know that.
But even knowing that, you judge how good a song is based on how well an album sells?
It isn’t a question of judging them, it’s a question of being hurt on their behalf. And not being able to express that evolution. Because it is so emotional, I can’t do that song for awhile. I am sensitive to praise and criticism. I try to protect myself from reading anything. Except lately I’ve gone, you know you only once. Go ahead and read it. Someone is writing about you. Read what they say. As long as I feel stable enough in my life.
And the only thing that hurts is uneducated remarks. That seem like their rewriting the truth, or rewriting history. It’s not that it hurts, but it sends you. But you’ve got to trust that what should be will be. If you’re to be written in the books, you will be. If you’re not, you won’t. You can tell a whole generation you’re responsible for the creation of Be-bop. But if you weren’t, you probably won’t be remembered. The truth has a way. Of finding its way to the top.
So whatever it is that I did will probably be written in the books. You know, people, we get involved in little details. I watch James Brown yelling about something, or Van Morrison. They get obsessed with small slides of things that they can’t let go of. That’s the most important thing, to try to not get involved with those inner dialogues and have them with the outer world. Like, there’s one thing I want you to write down about me that no one has ever gotten right. The reason you’re here, you don’t even know the reason you’re here, God’s decided you’re here. Your ego is just getting in the way. Just wake up and be humble. Be grateful.
That seems to be an element of what has destroyed so many great songwriters who were great before they got a lot of success, and then were wrecked by the glory and attention. It’s rare to have someone like you who has done great work over decades.
It’s a journey. I think, in my case, and I bet in many cases, the key is to keep your fucking feet on the ground. Once you’ve become king or queen, you’re fucked. Once you treat anyone else like they serve you, you’re fucked. And I think when you first get really famous, it’s hard to learn that. People treat you like a rock star. You need to learn how to deal with fame. You know, famous people go to bed lonely, just like other people. Everybody needs to know that. Fame doesn’t bring you one thing other than fame. And it used to be like divine. The only people who could be famous had to have some extraordinary spirit that made everybody talk about them. You know? Anybody can be famous now. You watch these reality shows. So what is it? It’s not what it was. People who aren’t equipped for fame, they’re not one of those huge spirits that has been pre-ordained for fame – the kind that people want to be near them, want to talk about them, want to see them again. If you’re not really that and you become famous, fame is gonna crush you. Even people who are talented, really talented, the fame thing is still a challenge. Cause you really do think you’re gonna be happy. It’s like immortality. You think I’m always gonna live, so surely I’ll always be happy. It’s sounds naïve, but we do think that way. Maybe I am happier, or maybe I’m not. I don’t know how blue I would be if I wasn’t famous. But it doesn’t seem to bring happiness. It just brings fame. Whatever good that is. Sure, when I die, someone will remember my name. That’s good. None of us wants to be forgotten. But that doesn’t mean that I laughed or had better days. So you decide – what do you want to do, do you want to have a really happy life, or do you want to be remembered after you’re here? And you aim for that.
So many people, when they get famous, try hard to repeat what they did to maintain their fame. After your first album, though, the the great success of “Chuck E.’s In Love,” you made Pirates. Which was a profound step forward, a whole different direction.
I really wanted to have a career. I wanted to be here. I didn’t just want to have a lot of fame and money for six years . And it’s hard to have a career when you start out that big. It’s got to come down, and then you have to wrangle people to stay with your career. Because their tendency is just to think that you’re done. Most careers go up and come down. Mine went up and then down and then up, and just keeps moving. That’s what I think is kind of miraculous. I’m here with no videos, and no real financial success in a kid’s game. I think it’s really a miracle. The more I’m here I realize just how blessed I am.
You wrote, “It’s hard to be older and poor/ I just don’t dig it anymore…”
Yeah. That was really how I felt. But it was also written for so many people of our generation. Getting older. We thought we’d always have some kind of amount of money, and people are losing everything they have. I said that with a little tongue in cheek, but I don’t dig it that much anymore.
Do you think musicians hear music differently than regular people?
Do you listen to music as much?
I do but I’m not devoted to it as much, only because I’m busy. I’m older. I’ve got to feed my horse and take care of this and that. If I was a kid I’d probably listen a lot. Actually, I got an iPod. And that’s a real sign to return to listening. Because I’ve been a creator of it and not a listener, and it’s something else to be both. I think I didn’t listen for a long time because I judged everything. Now, it’s like me and birds. I don’t have that anymore. I’m not sitting and judging and measuring anything anyone who is singing anymore. That’s gone now, so I can listen again. I think
Does it sustain you or give you strength to know how much lasting meaning your songs have in people’s lives?
I think it probably does help a lot. Especially when you’re dealing with business people and they’re only looking at you like a product. And then that product isn’t doing what they’d like it to do, I think it can deplete you. So if you get a little bit of love from people, that’s really nice.
Lately I have had so much disappointment with sales, that I really have no more expectations. I have hope but no expectations. I like what I make, and I think that the feedback now tells me that there are people who are waiting to listen. So that relationship is intact, protected. So that’s how it’s good. To know that people are there, it serves them, they’ll buy it, they won’t all steal it. I used to think it’s better they have the music than they pay for it. It’s more important that they’re listening. However, it would be good now [laughter] if they bought it. I’m running out of money. Need a little money. And I have faith for the most part my generation will purchase this record.
People think this album will do well?
I think they do. They’re so flighty. They like the songs, they think they’re listenable. But they have to have a marketing plan to sell the record. Without a long-range marketing plan means what – do you think fairies are gonna deliver it to the people? I can’t tell you anything except I have a good manager, my head’s in a good place, I made a really good record, seems to be a potentially good moment in time for people who dig this kind of music. But you just never know if the mystical ducks are all lined up in a row.
It’s like creating a universe. When we die, those little universes will be floating around. And people really enter this universe. Their emotions are different. They really feel we are creating places that people go into, and they go into the songs. It’s mysterious. Wow, I think making songs up might be much more important than we think.
“Traces of the Western Slopes,” if you started playing that going into that place, I end up in the outer atmosphere somewhere.
So when I’m gone, those all will be here. And they’re places all their own. That’s really incredible. I’m excited about that.