Rickie Lee Jones’ Balms and Bonfires

Some songs don’t last very far past the season of their own creation. Some lose their sparkle even before being recorded. Some get worn out by overuse. And some get stuck attached to a moment in the past, and never catch up. 

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But some songs, like the ones Rickie has written forever, stay with us forever. They make getting through this world a much richer journey, more romantic, more hopeful, and less lonely. 

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. It’s much like the span of emotion in her work, which has injected so much heart into an increasingly heartless world for so long, and deep, nourishing soul.

I’ve interviewed her many times over the years, starting back in 1989, and these talks are like her songs, in that they officially belong to the past, yet still speak directly to this moment in time. This is one from 2009, when her new album was Balm In Gilead, which offers must needed comfort in these dissonant times.

We spoke on  Halloween, and spoke of parenthood. Her beloved daughter Charlotte, who had just been born when we did our first interview, had just turned 21. My son was ten then, and Rickie asked what he was going to be for Halloween trick-or-treat. That year he couldn’t decide between being a fireman or a witch. When I told he he could be both, he said okay, and was a fireman-witch that year. Rickie, who understood kids, loved that. 

Balm in Gilead  flows from the pure, naked heartbreak of “Bonfires” to the elation of “Old Enough,” to the beautiful “Wild Girl,” which celebrated that momentous birthday of her daughter, while simultaneously reflecting on the unchained fervor of her own wild days.

We met outside a Malibu café, where the sound of people lap-topping, cell-phoning and munching on lunches around us was punctuated by the shrill cries of seagulls. 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. She seemed both somber and joyous as she reflected on the myriad musical paths which led her here.

Unlike almost all her past record projects for which she isolated herself to write new songs, for this one she revisited songs she’d started before—some many years before—but never finished for one reason or another.

Of the beautiful “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’d sing that song and when it was done, I was OK. Even now, when I sing it, I feel good. It soothes the heart.”

In the following, Rickie answered a query about the nature of musical keys, if she felt they each had a color or any other association, attached to them in her mind. Yes, she said, though not colors exactly, and kindly shared her feelings about those keys closest to her soul. And the others.

Our talk started with a discussion of the process which led to this album, which had to do with a tough challenge for all songwriters, yet one she surmounted: reconnecting with songs she let go of, and finishing ones that were never finished. 

RICKIE LEE JONES: Most of “Wild Girl” was written in the ’80s. It was the first song written after Magazine. But I didn’t have was way to finish it. So I kept playing it for people every few months; it never went away. It was a whole, intact song. I couldn’t forget it… it just was.

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. I thought of my daughter Charlotte and, okay, here’s what I want to say. Then it finished itself, without being too revealing.

Were you writing about yourself in it at first?

I was thinking of that girl in high school that everybody sleeps with, but nobody likes. Who is she? What happened to her? And how could I save her?

But songs are also amalgams. I was talking to me and to 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.

That’s my guess. It is 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. 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.

And it was written for my daughter—who I hadn’t met yet—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 it, because there was a point where it seemed really quaint and dated, but has such an innocent heart. 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.

That sense of innocent heart is always a prominent part of your songs.

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… that seems to make people feel so healed.

You’re able to capture the sense of extreme emotion in your songs, from deeply blue to genuinely joyful.

I think I have to work to write a happy song. I write them carefully; they’re simple and they’re about when it’s 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. The kind of thing I can do is capture this moment.

But isn’t 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.

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.

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 is trust the higher part that is writing, and don’t judge yourself or worry too much about it. 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.

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 must really protect it from what you think someone who didn’t like you would say, like on the playground, you know. Because it’s so tenuous. I am so afraid of losing them when I’m writing. They seem so delicate. They are formed by my intention to them, as well as, it seems, their intention for something to say.

Rickie Lee Among the Flowers. Photo by Paul Zollo/American Songwriter.

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.

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 what the subject is will be revealed. But it doesn’t have the conscious in it.

I just get out of my way—following, 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, then that unconscious part goes, “OK, 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. 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. Knowing there’s no other way to survive heartbreak than to give love.

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.

Do you think each key has its own color or characters?


If I named each key, could you tell me how it makes you feel?

I could try.

OK. 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.

E is like the dirt. It’s where things fall to. E is something to lie down on. It’s really easy key to sing and play. It’s a good resolution. Masculine.

I don’t know F very much.

Celestial. Very expansive.

I like A. Strength. It’s expansive but it’s consoled. It can be masculine or feminine. It can go either way.

A minor?
I like it. It’s sad, but it’s not without hope.

E minor.
Seems much darker to me. Sorrowful. It will accommodate rock. Powerful rock. It can be a pretty dire thing.

Does it make you happy knowing that your songs live on?

Yes. It’s like creating a universe. When we die, those little universes will be floating around. And people really enter this universe. We are creating places that people go into, and they go into the songs. It’s mysterious. I think making songs up might be much more important than we think.

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.

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