It takes chutzpah to redo the kind of songs that get labeled as iconic, like The Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," or "The Weight' by The Band, or Neil Young's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart." But Rickie Lee Jones has made a career out of surprising people. She takes on these iconic tracks fearlessly and never disappoints.
With Ben Harper as producer, Jones reinterpreted 10 tunes for her new album, The Devil You Know, that appear on many people's "Best Of" lists. She recently sat down with NPR's Scott Simon to discuss her newest project and life on the road. She also performs two songs from the new album.
On reinterpreting other artists' songs
"When I started out, there was this kind of glamour associated with singer-songwriterdom that wasn't being given to just singers. So I think [I recorded the album] partially to remind people that a singer is the one who interprets the song. And once you do that, it's yours. To me, it doesn't make it more mine because I wrote it; it comes alive in the heart and voice of some other interpreter."
Covering 'Sympathy' by The Rolling Stones
"I was invited to do a Rolling Stones tribute at Carnegie Hall. I had to think of a song, and I just started playing that on the acoustic guitar. It was clear that that part and that aspect of that song had never been explored — just raw, one devil with one guitar.
"It's kind of an evocation, and I do it by myself. It's a powerful, frightening, fun romp through the upper echelon of hell. Every time I do it so far, it's like acting — some other thing you can embody and wear the skin of another thing, and tell another kind of story than your own. I like it."
On her favorite part of the music business
"[It] must be when I'm on stage and I'm in the river of it. There's a little bit of fear, but it's not so much that it's fear — it's excitement. Sometimes I press that down. When I don't press that down and go ahead and be there in the surreal of it all and get taken up in [the audience], there's nothing like this. Maybe a reverend in a church, maybe it happens. I don't know, but it's pretty wondrous."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
You know, it takes a certain chutzpah - to use a technical term - to redo the kind of songs that get labeled as iconic. The Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" or "The Weight" by The Band or Neil Young's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart." But Rickie Lee Jones has made a career out of surprising people. Now, with Ben Harper as producer, Ms. Jones has reinterpreted ten tunes that appear on many people's best of lists. Her new CD is called "The Devil You Know" and Rickie Lee Jones joins us now in NPR's performance studio 4A. Thanks so much for being with us.
RICKIE LEE JONES: So glad to be here.
SIMON: You made a point of not only doing your own music over the years but also reinterpreting other people's songs.
JONES: Well, because when I started out there was this kind of glamour associated with singer-songwriter-dom that wasn't being given to just singers. And so I think partially to remind people that a singer is the one who interprets the song. And once you do that, it's yours. It doesn't really - to me, it doesn't make it more mine because I wrote it. You know what I mean?
JONES: It comes alive in the heart and voice of some other interpreter.
SIMON: Like it's one thing to do your version of "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore," but my gosh, "Sympathy?" It's so identified with the Rolling Stones. You'd think nobody else would...
JONES: I was invited to do a Rolling Stone tribute at Carnegie Hall. Had to think of a song. And I just started playing that on the acoustic guitar and it was clear that that part, that aspect of that song had never been explored, you know, just raw, one devil with one guitar.
SIMON: Let's listen - let's not keep people in suspense. Let's listen to your interpretation.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL")
JONES: (Singing) Please allow me to introduce myself. I'm a man of wealth and taste. I've been around for a long, long time, seen many a man's soul to waste. I was round when Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt and pain. I made damn sure Pilate washed his hands and sealed his fate. Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name...
SIMON: It takes on a whole different aspect. I mean, it goes from being like a street anthem into an individual anthem.
JONES: It's kind of an evocation, you know, and I do it by myself. It's a powerful, frightening, fun romp through the upper echelon of hell. And every time I do it so far, I'm really...'cause it's like acting, you know, some other thing you can embody or wear the skin of another thing and tell another kind of story than your own. I like it.
SIMON: Yeah. You conveniently have brought your guitar...
JONES: Yes, sir.
SIMON: ...into the studio, which probably not just for company. You're going to sing for us, right?
JONES: I was asked to bring it.
SIMON: I'm told that first up we're going to be lucky enough to hear you sing "Seems Like a Long Time," of course, obviously, a Rod Stewart tune to a lot of people.
JONES: It's timely and sweet. So, should I try it?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEEMS LIKE A LONG TIME")
JONES: (Singing) Well, nighttime is only the other side of daytime, but if you ever waited for the sun, you know what it's like to wish daytime would come. And don't it seem like a long time, seem like a long time, seem like a long, long time. Hard times are only the other side of good times, but if you ever wished hard times were gone, you know what it's like to wish good times would come. And don't it seem like a long time, seem like a long time, seem like a long, long time. Help me, seems like, seems like a long, long time.
SIMON: Rickie Lee Jones here in our Studio 4A. Thanks so much.
JONES: Thank you.
SIMON: When you're recording, may I ask, do you welcome retakes?
JONES: I will do that but almost every time, my first or second take is the one I've set it and it doesn't get better. I don't know why that is but the first - like that one, that was good. If I tried to do it again, I'd start to think about it and then thinking about it would make me make a mistake later, and...
SIMON: Do you mind talking about your grandfather?
JONES: Oh, I love talking about him.
SIMON: He was a Vaudevillian.
SIMON: What memories do you have?
JONES: I had never met him. He died of tuberculosis, I think. But I grew up with the scrapbooks and the pictures and the idea that this is what we were truly meant to be and meant to do.
SIMON: Show people.
SIMON: Yeah. What was his act, do you know?
JONES: I do. He played the ukulele and he sang things like "Up the Lazy River," songs that were popular. He danced and I think he also was an acrobat. So, he probably tap-danced and did some flips.
SIMON: Was it surprising that he tap-danced? May I put it that way?
JONES: Well, I grew up with it so it's not surprising to me but it seems hysterical to other people, a one-legged tap dancer.
SIMON: He had one leg.
JONES: Yeah, yeah, he had one leg. That's why he was called Peg Leg. My favorite review said this mono-ped puts most two-legged dancers to shame. It was a great review but it also was written so respectfully, this mono-ped. Yeah.
SIMON: One of the real heartbreaking songs on this CD, of course, is "Reason to Believe," written by the late Tim Hardin. Rod Stewart, of course, had a big hit with it.
JONES: Yeah. Recording it with Ben, I didn't play the guitar, I just sat with him and he played his lap steel guitar and it was a conversation back and forth. And I added my guitar afterwards. But I think I can do it anyway.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REASON TO BELIEVE")
JONES: (Singing) If I listened long enough to you, I'd find a way to believe it's all true. Knowing that you lied straight-faced while I cried, and still I look to find a reason to believe. Someone like you makes it hard to live without somebody else, someone like you makes it easy to give, and never think about myself. If I gave you time to change my mind, I'll find a way just to leave the past behind. And knowing that you lied straight-faced while I cried, still I look to find a reason to believe.
SIMON: That's very nice.
JONES: Thank you.
SIMON: Very nice indeed. What's most fun about the music business?
JONES: Must be when I'm on stage and I'm in the river of it. There's a little bit of fear but it's not so much that it's fear. It's excitement. There's nothing like this. I don't think you can get this anywhere. Maybe a reverend in a church, maybe it happens, I don't know. But it's pretty wondrous.
SIMON: Do you write when you're touring?
JONES: You know, I was making up a song on the way here but the problem is they play music everywhere you go, so you stop into a hotel or a Starbucks and that everywhere.
SIMON: So, you had a song on your way here.
JONES: I did.
SIMON: I hope it's not gone.
JONES: It was about - let's see, it was woe to the stepchild who comes from abroad whose eyes are a different color and whose language is odd, who slinks around the house and skulks around school and everybody knows that she's nobody's fool, she's nobody's fool. And I was still messing around with that. But it's a song about stepchildren because somehow under the umbrella of our collective heart and in the law they don't seem to be protected in the same way that, you know, biological children are. So, I've been kind of leaning towards this more explicit idea. I think I would like to go down that road and write some explicit things.
SIMON: I mean, that's not exactly "White Christmas," is it?
JONES: Yeah. It's not "Chucky's in Love."
SIMON: Rickie Lee Jones. Her new CD is "The Devil You Know," and you can hear her Studio 4A performance of "Sympathy for the Devil" at nprmusic.org. Thanks so much for being with us.
JONES: Thanks so much for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY LOVE CAN BREAK YOUR HEART")
JONES: (Singing) You to be alone, only love can break your heart. Only love can break your heart. 'Cause only love can break your heart.
SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.