Born again

Rickie Lee Jones leaves Chuck E. behind and looks toward tentative tomorrows

Rickie Lee Jones doesn't want to be here. Well, here, maybe--in the Novel Cafe on Main Street in Santa Monica, a nice site for a cup of coffee or a light lunch. Rare and used books line the walls, and patrons keep to themselves. It's a pleasant enough spot to kill an afternoon.

Jones just doesn't want to be here--in front of the tape recorder, answering questions, speaking on the record about her record. Even with friend and collaborator Rick Boston, the former Low Pop Suicide frontman since gone solo, by her side, she's uncomfortable in such an artificial setting, revealing intimate things to a stranger with a notepad. Better she talk over the phone, where she can't look you in the eye, watch the way you sit, see your reaction to her answers.

"I'm really engaged in you: Are you happy? Do you like me?" she explains. "Those kinds of things happen more in person, because once you're in my presence, I begin to care. And when there's a purpose, the conversation is corrupted. There's a purpose in promotion. I want everyone to hear the record, but I have a kind of humbleness and a kind of integrity that don't want to promote it."

It is not so surprising that Rickie Lee Jones would prefer to keep to herself. Until only a few months ago, she lived in Ojai, out in the dusty nowhere about 80 miles northwest of L.A., for eight years. She moved there for her young daughter, to raise her away from a Hollywood in which Jones herself essentially came of age. But she came back--she needed adult company, needed the taste of a martini, needed to play again in the small clubs to the friendly faces. She came back to, for lack of a better phrase, find herself, to recreate Rickie Lee Jones in her own image. She wanted to make new music, to leave behind that lone hit single and the records that followed; she wanted to find an unknown audience, one that didn't expect her to return as she had left.

So she shows up at Largo, an intimate L.A. club, every now and then, playing the occasional three-hour-and-forever gig that ends only when the martinis pull the covers down on her drunk, sleepy eyes. Not that she's living the lush life once more--not at all; call it the occasional indulgence, a little blurry fun every once in a while. Last October she tried out a couple of songs from her then-forthcoming record, Ghostyhead, and played till she literally wept, closing down the Fairfax Avenue joint at three-something in the a.m. with an old Dylan song, crying with such unabashed glory that those who remained felt like voyeurs. "That was my martini night," Jones recalls of that evening, smiling at the memory of a memory.

Ghostyhead provides rare proof that even the most entrenched artist can be reborn in middle age. Those who would accuse Jones of jumping on the techno bandwagon--as so many reviewers are already doing--miss the point: Ghostyhead, with its loops and samples, is the ambient inevitability, the record Jones was born to make ever since she stood up on tiny L.A. stages in the mid-1970s and began delivering on-the-spot monologues. It's more like a collection of short stories and poems set to daydream melodies and nightmare vibrations, a record haunted by junkies and abortions and faded photographs and lost ghosts drifting through abandoned neighborhoods. Everybody's looking for something better--and, of course, doomed never to find it.

Through it all, Jones' voice dips and dives through sputtering beats and metallic echoes and guitar loops. Yet the record doesn't sound so different from what came before--this isn't David Bowie desperation here, a fading artist trying for one more dance in the spotlight--and it doesn't smack of mere trend-hopping. Rather, Ghostyhead is what happens when a musician reinvents herself out of necessity, when she stops trying to fulfill faded expectations and begins writing only for herself once more.

"The circle started to get smaller and smaller," she says. "I was doing what I had always done, but the amount of interest was getting smaller and smaller. Popular music is renewed by new generations, and as that happens, your generation gets smaller. There was a lot of reckoning--I didn't want to just be part of that generation. I didn't want to stand for a generation. I didn't like that. And there's tremendous pressure to stand for things and not change.

"Aside from yourself--How do I create new things?--it's pressure from others. It's like, 'We question your integrity if you change. What did you stand for if you change? And why are you changing? For attention?' Well, you're changing for all those reasons--all those are good reasons. I had spent a long time trying to be very pure in thought and intention, but it wasn't necessarily getting me to where I wanted to go artistically. So there was a lot of building up to get to the point where I was new enough to be receptive enough to new ideas. New ideas challenge and destroy the old way, and if you are the old way, what are you gonna do? Be challenged and destroyed, or are you gonna be new? I didn't want to be the old way."

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