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Rickie Lee Jones Finds, But Doesn't Flog, Faith On New Album
Rickie Lee Jones felt a bit like a guest on her new album, “The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard.”
Oh, there’s no question it’s a Jones album, right down to the supple, whiskeysoaked vocals. But it’s also the most collaborative album of her critically lauded 29-year career. The songs were inspired by, and in some cases lifted directly from, “The Words,” author Lee Cantelon’s chronicle of the teachings of Jesus Christ. The musical ideas, meanwhile, were crafted by guitarist Peter Atanasoff.
And Jones really was a guest when “The Sermon ...” began — in the summer of 2005, when Cantelon tapped her to be part of a spoken word album based on “The Words.”
“In this situation I got to walk into somebody else’s setting,” explains Jones, 52, a two-time Grammy Award winner who was named Best New Artist in 1979. “They had created this music that I never would have created, nor was I responsible for the situation.
“I was a guest, and being a guest I was able to fi nd other kinds of ways of expressing the music than I do when I was an initiator. It was a great role for me. I like being a part of something rather than the leader.”
That cameo, however, led to a full-fledged album for Jones. Instead of reciting from Cantelon’s book, Jones sang her part, improvising it into a track called “Nobody Knows My Name.”
“As the music was playing, I just knew that I had something to sing,” Jones recalls. “I said, ‘I’m gonna sing this.’ They said, ‘Don’t you want to listen to the song?’ I said, ‘No.’ I just knew what I wanted to do. I didn’t need to listen to it.”
That decision sent Jones off in pursuit of her “Sermon,” recording first in a studio owned by a painter friend, then in a more traditional recording facility. “The Words” remained the signpost for the album, and Cantelon kept Jones’ vision focused, reminding her that “every song, we have to shave it down to the point. It has to be bam, bam, bam. There’s no fat. It’s a very lean and appealing pop record, but it’s raw.”
What it’s not, Jones hastens to add, is a theological statement along the lines of Bob Dylan’s trio of late-’70s/early’80s Christian albums. Jones — who was raised Catholic but “wasn’t baptized, so I always felt like a heathen, an outsider” — was drawn to “The Words” because, she says, it presented Christ’s teachings “with no commentary and interjecting that comes with religions. It’s just what Christ said and nothing else.”
By grounding the album in that, then, Jones hoped to create a more pure kind of discourse on his philosophies.
“With the religious right and everything, we’re so damaged by that name, Jesus,” she says. “When people say it, we flinch. We’re afraid. It takes a reasonable group of people to discuss Christ and take it back from the mouths of these terrible people who use it to tell you how to vote and how to dress and to sit in judgment and make fun of people and kill people — all the way they use it.
“I would like to be part of a discussion that tells people not to be afraid of that word. I can’t place myself in any position as a spokeswoman. I would just rather be a singer and be part of the discussion.”
And the singing part is something that’s perhaps even more important to Jones. “The Sermon ...” is the most accessible and directly rock-oriented album of Jones’ career, with Atanasoff’s guitar licks channeling the Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones, and taking her far afield from the folk, jazz and beat poetry of her earlier work.
“I love it,” gushes Jones, whose 18-year-old daughter is handling merchandise sales on her current tour. “I feel so much freer in this setting. Holding my guitar and singing like this, or sitting at the piano and singing this way, is really very fun.
“In my mind I compare it to the great pop records like Fleetwood Mac made, or (the Rolling Stones’) ‘Let it Bleed.’ People are mentioning different things, like Patti Smith, the Velvet Underground, (Van Morrison’s) ‘Astral Weeks.’ All those elements are there — and they’re very appealing.”
In fact, Jones is so pleased that she’s hoping more attention is paid to “The Sermon’s ...” musical approach than its provocative lyrical content.
“I hope people find their way to the music,” she explains. “I know the discussion about the impetus for the record is really fascinating, but what’s more important is that it’s a good record. I want people to hear it and go, ‘Oh, what a cool record’ first, and then, ‘What an interesting story.’ ”
Rickie Lee Jones performs Tuesday (Feb. 20) at the Majestic Theater, 4140 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance, $28 day of show. Call (313) 833-9700 or visit www.majesticdetroit.com.
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