Rickie Lee Jones is an American vocalist, musician, songwriter and producer. Over three decades she’s recorded music that includes blues, pop, soul, jazz standards, and more. She is a two-time Grammy Award winner and she was listed on VH1 as one of the 100 Greatest Women in Rock & Roll (she was number 30!) Her latest album is The Other Side of Desire, and she is the subject of Straight Shooters documentary of the same name.
Truly, each of these women are incredible and please visit their websites, because if I had listed all their many accomplishments, this interview would be ten thousand pages. Thank you so much, Gail, Katie and Rickie!
Wow. So first I want to ask about Straight Shooters Productions. Why start your own production company and how did this amazing thing come about?
GH: After the success of our webseries, people were asking Katie and I what else we had. So we decided to come up with a company and called it Straight Shooters because we are both very honest and we love shooting film. Cameras are my life! Katie, who is the genius behind the show ideas came up with some great ideas for TV series and I started shooting the Rickie Lee Jones documentary. Two shows were picked up the CBC immediately!
KB: It sort of came out of necessity because people kept asking my mom and I what we were doing next. But it’s also really, really fun. When you start working on projects you truly believe in and see them come to life, it’s addictive. I wanted to start our company because I wanted more control in my career, to work with my mom, who is my best friend and greatest support, and to use some of the skills I don’t get to use as an actress--being a business person, a writer, being the person who gets to make decisions.
I also want to ask about Centrepunch. I love the whole idea of looking at the police from the viewpoint of a young woman born into a family like that. Katie, you are writing this series along with Carlum DeHartog. What sparked this idea? What was haunting you that made you want to write this?
KB: I am obsessed by families. I wanted to investigate families and the realities we are born into. The main character haunts me. I hear her talk to me in my head all the time. I remember I just had this idea for this woman, how she dressed, her attitude, how inappropriate she was. I kept seeing her fake nails. I also wanted to talk about policing. I find procedural shows so frustrating because I don’t think anyone is a real person and I don’t think they truly look at the minutiae of being a cop--how much paperwork you really have to do, how sometimes you have to arrest your victim to get them to show up at court, that no one can really explain what mental health training is. My partner, Calum, is a cop, as well as a very successful writer. It’s amazing to have this inside look at a world I haven’t seen on TV before. Also, I was sick of how strong women were portrayed on TV. Why do they have to be so emotionless? Why is that their strength? The people I know who are the most fearless and the most vulnerable. Female cops don’t act like Gillian Anderson on The Fall, or the women on CSI. They act like people. In fact, they are probably more vulnerable or “off” because they are crazy enough to be fearless. I wanted to make a strong woman who wasn’t some two dimensional version of what we think feminine strength really is.
I can not think of anything more amazing that a mother and daughter working together on a project. How and when did you realize you would make the perfect team?
GH: Well, Katie is the young, hot, exciting new talent, and I am the 30 years of experience, so it is a good combo. We’ve always been close, and Katie was a child actor and we worked together doing our first feature film together when she was 15, called “Some Things That Stay,” based on a novel by Sarah Willis.
KB: We’ve always been a perfect team. My mom is so talented and so supportive. I just thought, we’ve always worked together, so why not do it officially? Also, we’re getting to work on our dream projects now. We’re really lucky. I think we are better and more useful together!
I was delighted to hear you had made a documentary on Rickie Lee Jones, who has been one of my favorite singer-songwriters and actually a heroine of mine. I notice that you talk about the documentary having a vinyl feel, meaning honest--even brutally honest. So I’d love to ask Rickie and Gail and Katie, what scared you the most about this project? (And thank you, Rickie for being here. I have a list of people I want to invite to dinner and you are always on it. Except I don’t cook, so we’d have to eat out.)
GH: I didn’t feel afraid really. I just felt excited that Rickie agreed for me to come to New Orleans to film her. The minute we met, I felt a huge connection and we have become great friends. But it is always hard making a film and I shot most of the film myself, so that was an added pressure. My first film was a short documentary about a musician named Wayne Pronger, who had cerebral palsy. It was called Uphill in a Wheelchair, and it screened at the Toronto Film Festival when I was pregnant with Katie. Since then, I’ve directed drama. With a documentary, it always like a Rubrik’s Cube when you edit, but Rickie’s honesty, poetry, kindness, coolness, intelligence show through. I hope people love the film--so far so good!
Recently, I told Rickie this is a dream of mine, this film, and it will be out in the universe, so no matter what happens, it is a success. Her life was a story I was driven to tell after I saw her perform in Toronto two summers ago. She was so amazing and spoke about turning 60 and her dreams. I also thought it was strange that my brilliant daughter Katie had never heard of her, because she knows a lot about music. I knew Rickie's manager and when he called me the day after the concert, I told him that I thought there was a movie there. It was perfect timing, because she was recording her first original album in ten year.
KB: Nothing about this project scared me. I was worried when I traveled with my mom to New Orleans and Los Angeles to help her and carry the camera bags that I would drop them, but that’s about it. I was just so proud of my mom for going out and making the film she wanted to. Her ability and confidence is the most inspiring thing about her.
RLJ: Nothing scared me about the project, but I was aware of one very important thing--the film belongs to the filmmakers. They reflect their face in yours. If you are in a state of change, if you are wanting to raise the banner of your age and your strength, you might see that reflected in me. If you are a former Anything, you might want to paint me as that, too. Gail came in at just the right moment and she and I really inspired one another on an artistic level. I could feel her respect as she realized the strange predicament of my career--such a great and important artist, who seems to have fallen in the cracks. How could that be, she kept asking. As we spoke, it seemed to us that women, as they age, seem to be swept away by far less interesting..well...men. Gail’s film is kind of the like the songs I wrote. We both say what we need to say succinctly, quickly with imagination and hope. I don’t like to be goal oriented. It messes with everything and can make things very hard. So Gail and I agreed we would just do what we do and trust in God.
I think the movie is an inspired representation of my work and a spiritual--yes--a spiritual offering of me. I look at it and see myself with compassion and humor. She showed a musician trying to do her work. We are not often shown as professionals.
When will the documentary be out?
GH: It’s screening at the Raindance Film Festival in London the first week in October, and we have high hopes for the rest of the world!
Rickie Lee Jones’ career has taken her from ballads to jazzy blues—she’s impossible to categorize. Do all of you consider that a plus? (I do.)
GH: Rickie is the most amazing artist I have ever heard. her voice touches my soul.
What is most fascinating about Rickie Lee Jones is that she dropped out of sight to raise her daughter, which in this music business tends to be out of sight, out of mind. What did that cost you, Rickie and how did that change you in ways you never expected?
RLJ: The plus side is always sales, but for an artist, it is what it is. But I have been allowed to do whatever I want and still have a career, still get paid an advance, still work in theaters, clubs and I would say that the more you push the envelope, the more room you make for whomever comes after you. I don’t see a downside except you don’t get played much on the radio, but then again there are great artists like Marvin Gaye who moved from one thing to another and did it with grace. He was a hit maker, though, and I really did not write hits. I wish I could. I rather wrote feelings, moments, places.
The cost for me--well, the career was changing. the kids from 1980s were older, and the feeling on tour was hard. I kept asking myself, am I trying to hold onto something? I would back up all of Charlotte, my daughter’s, little life, a trunk of toys, a trunk of clothes and set them up in the bus, at the hotel. She liked the preshow ritual, the make-up. She sensed the excitement. She always loved her clothes and I dressed her up a lot.
For me, I couldn’t do both. I was just naturally devoted to my child. I still think it’s the most incredible of concepts, growing a person inside another person. I was in awe. I’m a devoted parent, a single parent. It’s very hard. She wanted a daddy so badly and I just didn’t have one for her. I did try to have positive males around, but ultimately it came down to me. It must have been hard to be my daughter. Sometimes fans were so aggressive, and there was regret. After the Chuck E’s in Love explosion, she knew we had money, but there I was. all alone in the house singing, and then going out on tour for a few days at a time, so that I would not be away long. My mom watched her. My daughter never seemed to react, but I think she just normalized what was around her.
She had a profound sensitivity to music at a young age. I knew I had created a palette of emotion that was maybe too wide for a little person. She’d weep at the sound of an oboe. I celebrate and listen to her. My devotion to my daughter has been in a way my devotion to my work.
I’d love each of you to answer this: How do you approach your art? (I have a specific method for writing novels and scripts.)
GH: I approach my art from an instinctive place. I try not to overthink, try to connect with people, to put a mirror up to the human existence. I guess my rituals are trying to take care of myself so I can be open to things and not get bogged down in the problems of life. I try to eat well, do yoga, meditate, love. I don’t worry the muse will leave because I still have a curiosity about the world. I create my art for myself and hope people like it. You have to have a thick skin, though because of course, not everyone will. But you do it because you can’t not do it.
KB: I just do it and that part isn't hard for me. When you’re in development with a network, there are certain steps you have to follow. You have to write an outline, get it approved, then write the script. I wish I could just go to script stage. I think I don’t procrastinate as a writer because there is so much waiting around as an actress. Now that I can finally make what I want to and not have to let anyone give me permission, I usually go full speed ahead. The way I work is unhealthy. I don’t pace myself. To be inspired, I try to read a lot of great classic scripts and watch really good TV, so I can be surrounded by the standard I’m aiming for. Even if I don’t get there, at least I know where the bar is set.
RLJ: I start the engine by saying, okay, let’s go. I listen to my thoughts, the rhythms, what is pulling me to it? Why am I writing, what is my intention? I then begin to write down things, but the writing is sacred. I wait before I write words on paper, and once I do, it’s a doorman opening the door for what follows. If I’m really moving in a direction, I might collect things--pop bottle tops, sea shells. I read books. I listen to what the universe seems to want me to say, what strikes a chord in me. Sometimes I think of one person who might need to hear what I’m saying. Sometimes I never let anyone hear what I wrote.
I have worried in the past that “it” (the muse) would leave me, but now I think I just take as long as I like. I have to be prepared for change, for the wisdom of the higher view.
I want to ask Rickie about a quote: “I wanted to be a singer. I wanted to be loved. But evidently, I wanted to be a singer more.” Do you think you cannot have both?
RLJ: Ah, quotes. Well, I guess when I said I wanted to be loved, I meant on a personal man and woman kind of thing, but since I live alone and have been alone most of my life, my choice to sing was the choice to live alone as well. I guess that’s the sense I make of that. In any case since I didn’t have both, I couldn’t have both. If I make room for both, and can enjoy it...well maybe I could have both if I wanted them both. Maybe. Yes.
What’s obsessing each of you now and why?
GH: I’m obsessed with my kids Rejane, Katie and Michael, my grandson Jesse, my boyfriend Kerry, my parents, and obsessed with getting this film finished in time for the screening at Raindance in London!
KB: I am always obsessed by Rap music and feminism. It’s a weird dichotomy. I listen exclusively to Rap and predominantly read about feminism. Also, all I think about are the shows I’m writing and the other projects I have on the go, so I guess I am always obsessed with work.