Rickie Lee Jones has been accused of many things, but never of taking the easy route to pop stardom. Jones, who comes to the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara on Friday, has always been a clearly different sort of singer-songwriter--a sweet, sexy and smart vocalist who boasted a poetic way with words and a penchant for bohemian debauchery.
After her 1979 debut album produced her biggest hit, “Chuck E.'s in Love,” Jones was recognized as a fresh, new voice. But the ‘80s were a roller coaster and in those years Jones produced a very few, very fine albums. She also fled Los Angeles for Paris, where she met her husband, Pascal Nabet-Meyer, and in 1986 moved to Ojai. There, Jones and Nabet-Meyer are raising their daughter, Charlotte Rose.
Now comes the latest wrinkle in Jones’ musical life--a pop album that doesn’t sound quite like any other. “Pop Pop” is a not-so-basic set of “pop” tunes made famous by Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and others, mostly with only a spare backdrop of acoustic guitar, acoustic bass and bandoneon (the tango accordion).
In this uncluttered instrumental setting, Jones explores her art of interpretation, exuding both savvy and innocence. She sings, with a touch of self-revelation, “I Won’t Grow Up.” Her daughter can be heard giggling in the background on a version of Oscar Brown Jr.'s “Dat Dere” (a song that Lannie Kaufer of Wheeler Hot Springs introduced to her).
This is not the first time Jones has tapped timeless jazz standards for inspiration. Her 1983 “Girl at Her Volcano” record was an EP-length tribute to her jazz instincts. At the time, unfortunately, the song “Lush Life” was an all-too appropriate theme song: Oozing across the Arlington stage in 1984, Jones seemed lubed by Jack Daniels.
But that was a lifetime ago. “Pop Pop” is a much kinder, gentler version of “Volcano"--more like a hot spring, really.
In a phone interview from Portland, Ore., last week, Jones talked about the album and her adopted hometown.
How is life in Ojai treating you?
It’s a small town, and I like driving up there. It’s like going under the magic bridge as you get close. You feel, “Ah, I’m home.” I do like it. . . .
I’m starting to want to be near a city again, a neato city--San Francisco or Boston. Not too dangerous. Kind of cute. With lots of cappuccino machines. There are no good cappuccino machines in Ojai.
Is “Pop Pop” an album that’s been brewing inside of you for some time?
The idea of doing a jazz album was, but the way that it came out happened just before we actually did it. I wanted to do an acoustic jazz record for some time, but the accordion made it really different.
It’s such an unusual, offbeat character to introduce. And yet it was really normal. You’d expect it from a Gidget movie or a movie from back then about some place you’ve never been to before. Once I heard it, it fit, but it really hasn’t been done.
The album developed as it went, but it has been brewing for a long, long time. I was waiting for the right moment, but I don’t know what the right moment would be. So I just did it.
Do you see this project as a kind of valentine to some of your favorite tunes?
How nice. I don’t know if I ended up doing my favorite tunes. Some of my most favorite tunes were actually done, in the last five years, by other girl singers doing pop standards. I did a couple of my favorite melodies, but I don’t think there was a tune that had lingered in my heart for many years to do. The Jefferson Airplane song (“Coming Back to Me”) I always loved, but I don’t know if I ever thought I would ever do it until the last year or two.
Your Sinatra tunes are done in a distinctly non-Sinatra-esque way. What would the man think of your approach?
I think he would have loved me when I was younger, except he would have thought I drank too much. I’m not sure what he would think of me now. He’s older. I’m older. I had that old school thing back then. Who knows. He liked Ava Gardner. And I like Ava Gardner, so maybe we’d hit it off.
“Pop Pop” nods toward earlier pop music in a direct way, but your original music has always had a connection with the past too. Do you reflect nostalgically about, say, the beat era?
I guess a little bit. It’s hard to say because I wasn’t there. But there was something about their esoteric lifestyle and independence that’s attractive from a distance. They were probably pretty sleazy, but they’re nice pictures.
And that’s really what the ‘90s are about, isn’t it? Pictures of things, pretending to be, being about something but not being the thing. It’s kind of our collective American life. This century is coming to an end and now we just sit and dream about what we did.
How would you compare this project with “Girl at Her Volcano”? Both rely heavily on standards, but they’re pretty different beasts.
This one was much lighter and a little gayer. The other one was more of an exorcism.
So now you’ve come out on the other side?
Let’s hope so. Let’s hope it’s not a circle, you know what I mean, where you think you’re out and then you’re right back where you were.
* WHERE AND WHEN: Rickie Lee Jones performs at the Arlington Theatre, 1317 State St., Santa Barbara, at 8 p.m. Friday. Tickets $22.50. For information: 963-4408.