Over understated, percussive acoustic guitar and the barely-there, spectral drone of an ancient organ, the voice of Rickie Lee Jones seeps like water from a cracked glass—slowly, delicately, trickling across the music’s tiny, blessed imperfections, shifting directions without warning as it drags along the jagged edges, then slipping subtly back into the flow before snaking once again into a new meander.
“Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste,” Jones warbles, molasses-tongued, her signature behind-the-beat phrasing leaning on The Rolling Stones’ classic “Sympathy for the Devil” like it’s a lead-legged opposing boxer in the 12th round and she’s gotta hang on ’til the end and hope she wins by decision.
It’s the lead track from Jones’ new Ben Harper-produced covers album, The Devil You Know, a song she first performed for a Stones tribute this past March at Carnegie Hall. “I think a singer brings their emotional landscape to a song,” she says. “If they let that happen, it’s going to be new. ... When I was playing ‘Sympathy,’ I thought, ‘Okay—acoustic, female,’ which makes it unique in itself, but as I got into the deep end of the pool of it, I found it was like theater for me. I felt the devil. I started to sing with voices I don’t have—thin, fast vibratos and things that never come out of me.”
The seeds for this new album were planted when Jones and collaborator Sheldon Gomberg—who produced her last record, Balm in Gilead, and has played bass on sessions for Ryan Adams, Joseph Arthur, Warren Zevon and more—began brainstorming a list of songs from various movies. While some ultimately ended up on the record (“The Weight” from Easy Rider, “Reason to Believe” from Wonder Boys, “Play with Fire” from The Darjeeling Limited), the strict theme was quickly abandoned.
“I’ve had this thing in my career,” Jones explains, “when I start to aim in one direction, it automatically makes me aware of all the other directions I’d like to go to. I have trouble sticking with one idea. If I set out to do a jazz record, I invariably put a Jefferson Airplane song on it. ... When we started making this list, it became clear to me immediately that I didn’t want to do an entire ‘songs from the movies’ record.”
What Jones did want to do was keep herself open to whatever felt right at the time. She says the most powerful music she recorded in the year leading up to the The Devil You Know was her rendition of The Band’s iconic late-’60s anthem “The Weight.” “When I sang it, I felt devastated,” she says. “Devastated by the lyrics, and also what was happening in my life. It was very difficult, and I just put all of it in that song, and it reveals the true nature of the lyrics to me.”
Jones dances gracefully around the details but offers that, in her personal life, she’d fallen into a pattern of always ending up in a worse situation every time she tried to make things better. So she figured the right thing to do was just record the songs that seemed most relevant to her experiences.
“I don’t know why,” she says, “but when I set out to do a theme, I feel like I’m selling something. How can we be immediate and evolve if we decide beforehand how far we’re going to let ourselves go? And that’s how my mind works. That’s why I need a producer. If I have somebody who can contain me, then I can go as far as I want to go, and then I have a parent who says, ‘That’s far enough,’ but I don’t have to limit myself.”
On The Devil You Know, Ben Harper slid comfortably into that role for Jones. She knew he was a fine musician (he’d sung and played slide guitar on Balm in Gilead), but she was curious as to what kind of producer he’d be. Working with him, Jones was deeply impressed. “He’s quiet, but he keeps control,” she says, “and that’s really hard to do. It’s hard to not be intrusive and yet hold onto the steering of the ship.”
They made the new record at Gomberg’s home studio, The Carriage House, in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood. Jones would record with Gomberg, and a few hours later, when she felt ready, she’d invite Harper in to listen to what they’d laid down. There were times when they’d be thinking, “Wow, that was incredible!” but Harper persuaded them to not settle for great when they were capable of transcendent. Once, Harper came in, listened intently to the playback with his head down, and then said, “You know, Rickie, you’ve raised the bar, and it’s really good, but it’s not good enough.” It was exactly the kind of honest feedback Jones had been craving.
“The ability to say that to me? I just don’t find that in anybody,” she says. “And his devotion to whatever it was he saw unfolding—to not just say, ‘She likes it, let’s use it,’ but to say, ‘I have a vision and I’m going to guide you toward this vision.’ It was thrilling. Forgive me, but I haven’t had anybody with the balls to do that, or the vision. ... Initially, I was stunned, but it didn’t wound me at all. I felt like somebody was actually looking out for me, and not just mesmerized by—or so bewildered by—what I do that they couldn’t point it in a direction.
“I think when you work with somebody really great—I don’t want to use the word ‘heals,’ but it goes into all parts of your life. You’re just lifted when you’re in the company of great people.”