Artistic sensibilities can be crushed by the dispassionate churn of the commercial pop music industry. Performers who maintain any longevity learn to negotiate a truce in the war of business and pleasure, with the pleasure being music and business being all the rest.
Veteran vocalist and songwriter Rickie Lee Jones, who comes to the Harris Center on Sunday, has made her peace in a new home, New Orleans, and a new album inspired by the people who live there.
The album “The Other Side of Desire” is a crowd-funded release on Jones’ own Thirty Tigers label. The songs are the first she has written in 10 years. Her last three albums consisted of cover songs and reworked versions of previous material. The new album contains mostly unaffected, down-tempo ballads such as “Valtz de Mon Pere (Lover’s Oath),” “Blinded by the Hunt,” “Infinity” and “Christmas in New Orleans.”
Her distinctive voice remains that bruised girlish wail. Weary, gutty and ecstatic, Jones’ voice and her otherworldly ability to inhabit the terroir of the songs have always set her apart. She’s also made herself unclassifiable by singing songs across genres of pop, rock, rhythm and blues, and jazz.
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The new album’s title, Jones writes in her blisteringly honest liner notes, simply designates where she lives – the street made famous in Tennessee Williams’ play. But yes, there could be a metaphorical meaning as well. While driving around New Orleans and talking on the phone about her new home, Jones explained the legendary city’s influence.
“It’s a whole different way of living. It’s a combination of a countrified thing and French thing,” said Jones, 60.
“In France, they say things like, ‘It is not possible’ (laughs), and they mean it.” She then slipped into a made-up dialogue, “‘Can I get that sent to me today?’ (French accent:) ‘No, no, it is not possible.’”
Jones said New Orleans also is essentially an island in the country with a “What’s the big deal?” attitude about it. The two sensibilities combined are, for her, the essence of The Big Easy.
“If you’re not ready for it, it would make the city seem tedious and undeveloped. But if you’re coming for a different kind of life, it reminds you about what matters. The quality of the hour of the day. Did you say hello to somebody today? Did you look them in the eye? Are you courteous?”
Quality of life and the nuances that make it satisfying matter greatly to Lee, though holding on to them has proved elusive. She has lived on the East Coast (New York) and the West Coast (San Francisco, Los Angeles and Olympia, Wash.), where she went to high school and then returned to for a few years.
“There’s a joy and a self-respect here that’s hard to find in other places,” Jones said of New Orleans. “All that music you hear coming from here, it’s coming from here because that’s how the people are. It’s not a Disneyland version where the lifestyle’s imitating the music. The music’s naturally coming from this ‘we’re all in this together’ lifestyle.”
She’s had everything one could want in a pop music career. Her precocious debut came when she was 24 with the hit “Chuck E.’s in Love” in 1979. The song went to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and the self-titled album went to No. 3 on the Billboard 200. Lee’s jazzy, beat poet, 1950s hipster persona played well in the burgeoning video age and soon enough she won the best new new artist Grammy and appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone.
“The early success was of benefit because I’m still successful now,” Lee said.
There was also cost for the sudden fame and fortune.
“It was a hindrance because emotionally it was a hard adjustment. It’s a hard thing to understand that all your friends and family suddenly are a little different.”
No one stays on top of the pop mountain forever, and Jones had no ambition to do so, anyway. She has made records on her own terms, singing songs that matter to her. Her live performances are anticipated events because of the breadth of her catalog and the unpredictably of her set lists.
“I have storybook stuff as far as my career goes,” Jones said.
“There’s always an aftershock you have to overcome. Everybody loves ‘Chuck E.’s In Love,’ everybody hates ‘Chuck E’s In Love.’ But if you ride that out, then maybe you have a career.”
SBL Entertainment presents An Evening with Rickie Lee Jones
- When: 8 p.m. July 26
- Where: Harris Center, 10 College Parkway, Folsom
- Cost: $39-$59
- Information: (916) 608-6888; harriscenter.net