Rickie Lee Jones Embraces The Spirit And Music Of New Orleans

You’re very intentional about honoring the spirit and music of New Orleans throughout The Other Side of Desire. The song we’re premiering, “J’ai Connais Pas,” is very Fats Domino, with a French Creole twist. How specific were your New Orleans sources for these songs? What is the city giving you, today, specifically as a musician?

I live in Bywater, which used to be called the Upper 9th Ward. Remember “Letters from the 9th Ward,” a little instrumental I wrote at the beginning of my version of “Walk Away Renee,” which of course was a play on the meaning, since I knew most folks would think of the nut house? Anyway, just a lot of background about the place in my songs.

I had lived in New Orleans when I started writing Pirates. The Lower 9th Ward was hit hardest by Katrina, and when I came back, one of the first things my ex-neighbor from the old days here, photographer and Pirate Barry Kaiser, did was drive over there and show me the houses, the watermarks. They’ve built some nice new places there, with a lot of restrictions for occupancy. Anyway, Fats Domino’s house is also there, where he lived and where I believe he still lives. So I started thinking, can I use him for the record? That sound, it’s as much of an institution as the Liberty Bell. Sure it’s made of sound, but it is part of how we define rock ‘n’ roll. And he is still alive? Damn.

Folks said, “No you can’t work with him, he doesn’t work anymore.” So … I hired [producer] John Porter, an Englishman who loves New Orleans and blues music (well, they all do, don’t they?), and he hired a North England-Scotsman named John Cleary, who lives here and has made this music his home. We also had another keyboard player from Louisiana, and between them, they played this song. Also I learned, if you play that bass line with the piano instead of the bass you are playing one kind of music — Fats music — and if you play it with the bass you are playing another. Which do you want? I want the piano to play the bass.

I don’t really know if you can hear it the way I wrote it, which really was pretty straight-ahead Fats, but I think we did a good job. Oh, they call that Swamp Pop. My friends from Lafayette were very excited, “Oh dat Swamp Pop, we do that wid our eyes closed, man.” Well, that’s not how they talk but someone in their family probably does.

But, shoot, I didn’t really respond to the question. The city is giving to me, or I am scooping from it, musically, culturally. In terms of the record, not only all the kinds of music that came from here, the ’60s girl group sounds and the blues singers, the legends like Fats Domino — I mean “Blueberry Hill,” come on, or the sitting-on-the-porch Cajun voices, so clear and piping, haunting, innocent of vibrato and twisting every last affectation out of the French, or the Killer and his driving manic white man sound, slapped together with the black clay of his childhood, all this, I am waxing eloquent this morning, but you ask about the city and I am enamored. I lived here before and was not so thrilled. The Dixieland did not invite me or incite me, and I found it to be a relic.

But today it is a living thing. The parades — and I mean kids suddenly start marching in a line, playing unlikely instruments past your window late at night — are made from the Dixieland vein. These new kids are weaving that music I grew up with — that my dad sang — the Mills Brothers kind of treatment of old standards and country (not western, but of the folks’) tunes. I am hearing good music here also from the streets. I tell you, it’s alive here right now. I embraced it, somehow.