Rickie Lee Jones is a master of taking apart popular songs to see how they tick. She’s turned Jimi Hendrix’s far-out “Up from the Skies” into vocal jazz and the Rolling Stones’ outrageous “Sympathy for the Devil” into spooky acoustic blues. Her new covers album, Kicks, due June 7, continues that interpretive streak.
Jones is best known for Billboard-charting originals like “Chuck E.’s in Love,” “Young Blood” and “A Lucky Guy,” but she’s just as adept at cutting to the quick of golden oldies. On inspired all-covers albums like 1991’s Pop Pop, 2000’s It’s Like This and 2012’s The Devil You Know, she took well-known songs by Donovan, Frank Sinatra and Steely Dan and molded them in her own image.
Kicks features renditions of 1970s rockers Elton John (“My Father’s Gun”), Steve Miller Band (“Quicksilver Girl”) and Bad Company (“Bad Company”) rubbing against jazzy classics like “Nagasaki” and “Mack the Knife.” In a lesser interpreter’s hands, such a range could result in a confused mess. But Jones has always keenly identified commonalities in songs where there seem to be none.
“Those threads exist in my mind side-by-side,” she tells Billboard about the unlikely connection between genres and decades on Kicks. “I heard those songs at [the same] time in my life, and they’re all planted in the same garden.”
“Lonely People,” a friendly ode to the isolated by 1970s soft-rockers America, is a highlight of the set. While Jones says the band “weren’t A-listers” in their time, she found a deep well of sentimental value in the song. “You have to get over how you perceive a thing and look for the treasure in the music,” she says.
The video for “Lonely People,” premiering below, features Jones changing from costume to costume while poking fun at her own image. Watch it below and check out a conversation with Jones about Kicks and her early days as a songwriter and interpreter.
This is your fourth all-covers album to date. What inspires you to tackle others’ songs so often?
They’re often as much a part of my emotional vocabulary as the things I write myself. Because I’m not very prolific as far as this business goes, it’s a good thing to do. The reason I did this particular one is because it feels like something really positive is happening in my life, and in my musical life as well.
I just wanted to make an all-New Orleans record. I feel a part of this place, which has never really happened before. I made Kicks to see how New Orleans expressed itself through that repertoire.
In the past, you’ve covered everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Steely Dan. Why this particular mix of artists on Kicks?
I don’t know why that happened! Evidently, those threads exist in my mind, side-by-side. There’s a way to thread them all together, and they work really well. If the singer loves it, and it’s authentically at home in their heart, then they’re going to have an ability to relate it to people who might not have otherwise heard it.
These songs may not have much in common with each other on the surface, but in your hands, they totally do.
Yes. It’s not so much intellectual as emotional. How it feels. I heard those songs at [the same] time in my life, and they’re all planted in the same garden. So the question is, how can I put them together anew? I think it can, because of how it feels in me.
I think there are very few things you couldn’t put together if you find the song that makes them relate to each other. I think there’s a way to make all music accessible if you just find the right door into it.
You released your first album while some of these masculine acts — America, Bad Company, Steve Miller Band — were at their hottest. Did you ever feel out of place in the boys’ club?
All girls were unwelcome in the boys’ club. I rose to fame pretty quickly, but I had to work in cover bands and work with all guys, which was sometimes humiliating. I don’t know if that’s because you’re the singer or because you’re a girl.
But it’s rough getting musicians, much less boy musicians, to respect you and give you an equal say. And I guess my voice was so different that people couldn’t decide right away whether they liked me, so I didn’t have to struggle too much with that. My voice was odd-sounding, but my range and abilities were really superb.
I feel like the jazz people, who were always so snobby, never have respected me, even though I did meaningful and important covers of jazz ballads at a time when nobody was doing jazz. I helped introduce it to some rock people. I never understood why they didn’t accept me. I didn’t have the tame, boring image that jazz singers are supposed to have. I didn’t care.
And the clubs that didn’t let me in? That was okay, because I was fiercely devoted to my music, whether it was singing “My Funny Valentine” or “Chuck E.’s In Love.” I loved it all, and still do. If you have that kind of devotion to your work, eventually, people will acknowledge and accept you. In the end, your work will show what you are.
America’s “Lonely People,” like many of your songs, is about quirky loners on the fringes of society. Is that what attracted you to it?
The thing about America is that they weren’t exactly on the A-list. They sounded a lot like Neil Young and, at the time, it seemed kind of like a copycat pop song. But I think one of the things that I keep trying to say is that you have to get over how you perceive a thing and look for the treasure in the music.
Because even though they might seem that way and even though some of their music wasn’t as good as others’, here’s a beautiful, little honest song. It’s really simple. What a lovely, touching thing, to say “This is for all you single people.” I mean, that’s a clumsy thing. You’ve got to have a lot of nerve!
But I really meant it. I mean, this is a world full of lonely people, whether they’re 30 or 60, men or women, handicapped or running a marathon. Everybody feels loneliness. And I wanted to start out saying, “This is for all of us who don’t have anybody. Don’t give up.” That’s a righteous way to start a record.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of your self-titled debut album, which hit No. 3 on the Billboard 200. How do you look back on that time?
I remember everything. As we made it, we were probably thinking, “Oh, if we’re lucky, we’ll sell a hundred thousand and it’ll be a cult thing.” But as we finished, we knew we had something different. We had really unexpected and weird songs that were funny and simple and introduced a new kind of singing that had an impact on everything that followed.
But it’s never discussed, because people like to talk about men more than women. When they do give women kudos, they have to sell lots of records — and I did sell lots of records, don’t get me wrong. But that seems to be the reason people write about stuff. So, it feels important to say, “Hey! This is an anniversary of a really great record by an American woman!”
But now, I feel so lucky and so full of music. I don’t know why, but I’ve been delivered to a really great place. Maybe it’s age. I don’t feel afraid of talking about life and how great and ungreat things are.
Did you feel like your accomplishments were overlooked for a long time?
Yes, I did. But I feel like I’m not being overlooked now. Maybe I didn’t want to be a superstar. Maybe I wasn’t comfortable with all the attention. But it didn’t mean I didn’t make great work that had an impact. I just didn’t like having all that attention.
But I feel like something nice is happening. And it’s organic. It’s inexplicable. You do a really nice piece of work, then nobody even writes your name down. On any article. But then, it’s like the first record. You can feel it. You can feel something is happening, and you just hold onto the ride.