Free-spirited, but still slave to the rhythm
As Grace Jones tells the story, a certain pop-singer friend once asked how she managed to get out from under her strict, religious Jamaican American family years ago, setting herself on the path to becoming a singer, actor and fashion fetish-object.
“You know, Michael,” Jones told Michael Jackson, “I just did it.”
And how. To paraphrase the title of one of her albums, Jones, now 61, has always been determined to keep living her life. Speaking by phone about her performance tonight at the Hollywood Bowl, she’s witty, forthright and gracious, a model of diva-like decorum. But if time and experience have gentled her image as a buzz-cut pop dominatrix, a stylishly promiscuous Amazon princess, Jones still strives to maintain her independent spirit.
“I just go with the flow, I follow the yellow brick road,” she said in her buoyant Caribbean accent. “I don’t know where it’s going to lead me, but I follow it.”
Jones might not register the Oz-like exoticism that she did in the early 1980s, but she obviously didn’t just drop in from Kansas, either. After keeping a relatively low profile for several years -- as low as possible, that is, when you’re a towering female supermodel with a crew cut -- Jones lately has been reasserting herself in public, including as part of a Massive Attack-led concert in London last year.
Last November she released “Hurricane,” her first studio album in nearly two decades. Reviewing her show in London earlier this month, a critic for the Independent wrote that “With her stylised vocals, other-worldly appearance and well-muscled haunches, she is breathtaking: a true entertainer in every sense.”
In living color
Performing live, Jones said of her current comeback tour, “is what I do best,” and she’s happy to be a slave to the rhythm again. “I just perform 100%, I don’t know how to cheat, I don’t know how to hold back.”
“Music has its own depths, and I let it take me where it takes me, even if it means stripping all my clothes off.”
Jones figures to give Bowl audiences an eyeful with her theatrical stage presence. Working with longtime collaborator and Oscar-winning costume designer Eiko Ishioka, she’ll flaunt a variety of ensembles, including a profusion of custom-made headgear.
Her bespoke stylishness has been one of Jones’ calling cards since she broke into the New York club scene, after her statuesque looks marked her for a modeling career. “I was skinny as a rail and had high cheekbones and a very interesting face -- or so I was told.”
It was an odd turn of fate for a woman who’d been raised in a family so formal that as a girl she’d been forced to keep most body parts, even her knees, covered up.
Few of her early fans might’ve guessed that Jones’ couture savvy was heavily influenced by her mother, an expert seamstress who used to copy patterns by Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent. Her mother also was an accomplished Pentecostal singer, with a voice that her daughter admiringly describes as “like going through the eye of a needle.”
“That’s a voice. It turned out I had deep throat,” Jones said, adding a rumbly contralto laugh. “I had to train it to get higher.” She now works with a professional opera coach.
Besides her modeling technique, Jones also brought a background in summer-stock theater to her initial musical performances. But despite the catwalk-instilled confidence that she displayed onstage, she was “really nervous” when she first started recording music.
“I never thought I was going to be a singer. That was an accident,” she said. “I remember doing an audition for a recording, my voice just trembled and fell apart.”
But she persisted, benefiting from her own songwriting skills as well as her shrewd choice in producers such as Trevor Horn and Nile Rodgers, and musician collaborators such as the reggae rhythm-section masters bassist Robbie Shakespeare and drummer Sly Dunbar. Immersing herself in fruitful collaboration comes naturally, Jones indicated.
“It just happens that you run into someone and this spark just happens. It’s like you can be in a room with 100 people and this spark happens, this electrical spark happens. And then you find yourself working together or in bed together or having a child together.”
Guided by her then-paramour, photographer/art director Jean-Paul Goude, Jones developed a series of striking public personas, in the best pop-chameleon manner of David Bowie. During the late 1970s and early ‘80s, she refashioned herself from a disco queen, being squired around Studio 54 by Andy Warhol, into an edgier, more androgynous, even intimidating figure, which she later capitalized on with film roles in “Conan the Destroyer” (1984) and the 1985 James Bond flick “A View to a Kill.”
She also evolved musically as disco yielded to New Wave, merging reggae beats as well as darker undercurrents with uptempo electro-pop.
Asked what she thinks in general of contemporary pop, Jones is characteristically frank. “It’s gotten boring, to be honest. Repetitive. I don’t think pop should mean that you had no talent.”
Among Jones’ latest personas, the most startling might be her role as grandparent to her son’s young daughter. For Jones, coming of age meant making a total break with her family, becoming a nudist, doing “quite a bit of acid-tripping” and generally acting out. Today, her family is totally supportive, Jones said, and her perspective on her own past behavior has shifted.
“I disappeared for about a year. It’s a terrible, terrible thing to do to a parent. Now that I’m a parent, I’d hate to do that.”
In the end, Jones believes, it is fear that often keeps people from living their lives most fully and openly.
“I like to think of myself as a positive person. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had a child,” she said. Referring to a song from the new album, “Sunset Sunrise,” which alludes to a cycle of renewal shared by all human beings, she added: “I do believe that. It will get better, it has to get better.”