“Sometimes I listen to my music,” Rickie Lee Jones is saying, as she sits in a cafe here.
“And I think, ‘How is it that you have a job? You really suck.’ And then sometimes I listen to it and I say to myself: ‘How come everybody in the world doesn’t say that you’re the greatest?’”
The latter conclusion would be more logical. But it hasn’t always been shared by the masses. Not since her breakout success in 1979 as a beret-wearing bohemian with a celebrated debut album and one irresistible hit, “Chuck E’s in Love,” and a brilliant Beat poetry-infused 1981 follow-up, “Pirates,” that led Rolling Stone to call her “the most scintillating pop singer of her generation.”
Since then, Jones has followed her muse in unpredictable directions. If you picked up her superb 1983 EP, “Girl at Her Volcano,” or her 1991 album, “Pop Pop,” you might think she’s a straight-up jazz singer.
But if you took a listen to 1997’s “Ghostyhead,” you’d get the impression she was a dabbler in electronic meditations.
Or if you stumbled upon Jones doing “White Girl” on YouTube, fronting a roiling funk-rock band on the H.O.R.D.E. tour in 1996, you’d be convinced she was the quintessential hell-raising rock chick. And you probably wouldn’t know what to make of “The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard,” her 2007 album inspired by Lee Cantelon’s book “The Words,” a modern translation of the words of Jesus Christ.
Jones has felt that creative restlessness for as long as she can remember.
“It seemed like wherever I lived, even now, I could hear a train going by far away,” says Jones, 53, who was born in Chicago, grew up in Arizona, and lives in Hollywood with her 20-year-old daughter Charlotte and two pit bulls.
“For a while we lived (outside Phoenix), and in the distance you could see the light of the train,” she recalls. “I wanted to get on that train and go somewhere so bad, and live a rough life. You know, like Glen Campbell walking down the railroad tracks.” She flashes a girlish grin. “I just really wanted to live a rough life, made of love. I never saw myself going to the prom and buying insurance.”
Jones came by her wanderlust genetically - and through her father’s Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald records. Her grandfather was a one-legged vaudeville dancer named Peg Leg Jones. Her Aunt Bea sang with the Dorsey brothers, and her mother Bettye grew up in an orphanage. “It doesn’t get much more American than that,” she says.
Her parents waited tables. But her father, Richard, also wrote songs, such as “Moon Is Made of Gold,” which she performs in concert.
“We sang together a lot, and I’m sure I learned his timing,” she says, at the cafe. “The way I sit behind the beat, the slow way I speak. It all comes from my dad.”
In 1972, Jones left for L.A., getting her break when Little Feat leader Lowell George recorded her song “Easy Money” shortly before his death. With her freely swinging debut, “Rickie Lee Jones,” her hipster reputation was in place. She went out with Tom Waits, and found herself heralded as the next Joni Mitchell.
“I wanted to be a singer,” she says, looking at her younger self on the cover of her debut. “I wanted to be loved. But evidently, I wanted to be a singer more. I think I wanted to have a husband and go to the drive-in, but that eluded me” says Jones, who married French musician Pascal Nabet-Meyer in 1985 and divorced him in 1993.
Early success “(messed) me up, but not as much as not having it would have. The hardest lesson is you really think when you’re famous, you’re going to have friends. ... It used to kill me that I would be in my expensive hotel room, and nobody would call me to go to dinner. People think that fame brings those other things with it, but it doesn’t. It’s a queer and difficult lesson.”
In the 1980s, Jones felt lost. “Madonna and all the English music everybody was listening to” was “the antithesis of the emotional and idiosyncratic music that I do. I thought, I’m going to come and go and they won’t even know I was here.”
But then, “I started hearing me everywhere,” she says, in singer-songwriters like Sheryl Crow, Tori Amos and Alanis Morissette, “and that was a fabulously gratifying thing. ...” Jones adds, “It was not bitter at all. It was, If I die now, I was here. You can hear it in the way people sing.”
“The Duchess of Coolsville,” a three-disc career spanner, came out in 2005. This summer, she’ll be studying acting in Italy. The goal: landing a role on the Showtime series “Weeds.” “I’m made for that show,” she says. “I could be the hippie mama pot queen from the ‘70s.”
The rocked-out “Sermon” was a creative resurgence. Conceived by Cantelon, it became a Jones album after she improvised the droning Velvet Underground-style “Nobody Knows My Name.” That was the first of a series of free-flowing compositions that avoid preachiness and, at their best, recall Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks.”
Jones is not a practicing Christian, but a fan of Jesus’ “profoundly revolutionary” teachings. “Of course Jesus is God,” she says. “But so are you. I think we’re all one. Physically, we all come from the same DNA.”
“I think of performance as prayer,” she goes on. “What’s the right way to say this? Music is the real church, the real place people come to with their hearts open. People are really moved to ecstasy. They smile, and they cry. And they go home and they feel better and renewed for having listened to songs. I think songs are the real sermons.”
And the experience transforms the singer, as well. “I’m so lifted by making a noise in my body and singing those notes. I drift around the world and go into a building and go, ‘Oooh, oooh, ooh, ooh,’ ” she says, singing out. “That’s what I do. Who does that? I don’t live like everybody else. Because I’m a singer.”