Musician, May 1994
The Guitar Virtuoso Meets the Producer Who Lays on
by Fred Schruers
Rickie Lee Jones and Leo Kottke
both enjoy (and sometimes suffer) reputations as
garden-variety geniuses -- Rickie Lee going from a
whisper to a howl on her emotive, jazz-tinged
song-poems, and Leo playing his staggeringly deft
but accessible brand of six- and 12-string guitar,
often singing his own Dadaesque songs. On a pair of
recent evenings in Los Angeles, you could see each
performer's devoted followers. Rickie Lee's crowd
for a showcase at the Troubadour was thick with
local scene-makers, plus aficionados both old and
new. Duetting briefly with Lyle Lovett, she mixed
material from her previous six records with four
cuts from her recent, self-produced Traffic from
Paradise. Her rough-trade cover of Bowie's
"Rebel Rebel" came early in the set, bookended
nicely by her closer -- a haunting version of
Donovan's "Catch the Wind."
Kottke, meanwhile, has been
on tour with a "Guitar Summit" grouping of jazz
master Joe Pass, flamenco virtuoso Paco Peña
and classical fixture Pepe Romero. Even amidst such
fast company (including an admittedly goofy attempt
to link all four up on a Mozart piece), he seemed
endearingly quirky, showing, the Los Angeles Times
noted, "an uncanny ability to make folk music sound
like capital-A art."
Kottke truly does defy the
categories, and one reason Rickie Lee used him all
over Traffic is his ability to put a
flexible spine in the midst of her comfortably
meandering song structures. During those sessions
she became a big-time fan of the compleat Kottke
artistry, producing his new album
Peculiaroso. As a producer, Jones did not
impose her own well-loved eccentricities; she let
Kottke give rein to his.
Kottke, staying at an
oceanside Santa Barbara hotel on the day before a
local concert, came down early and talked about his
piece for guitar and symphony, "Ice Fields." Rickie
Lee came in, at once demure and captivating. He
stood for a long, family-style hug, and they sat
down, a bit amused at the formality of such a
meeting, to trade insights. For the once
hard-partying but now clear-eyed Rickie Lee, as for
the newly lean Kottke, the beverage of choice was
MUSICIAN: What was the genesis
of Rickie producing Peculiaroso?
LK: We started this as you were
doing some of the last mixes for Traffic from
Paradise. We wanted to continue the fun. The
moment that I always mention is when Rickie was on
the floor, laughing her head off. And so was I, and
I thought, "God, it would be nice to just keep
RLJ: When I was making my record
I was really having a lot of fun. I had a kind of
casting couch where all the men sat when they came
in. It was really thrilling, because I liked them
all. I was really excited to sit in a position of
-- not authority, but also not as if I was an
employee of anybody. There was no producer, nobody.
The atmosphere of the studio was very warm, and
good music was coming out of it. Leo called me the
producer who lays on the ground. He wanted to have
the producer who lays on the ground laying on the
floor of his control booth. But what I did
wrong was when I took on the job for Leo, I donned
a job persona. I was really serious. I have really
good ideas and good instincts, but the artist is
the boss. Especially Leo.
LK: There's a tune on
Traffic called "Beat Angels," and at one
point Rickie said, "I think I hear a French horn."
And I thought, "Whaaat?" And when I finally heard
it, it was perfect. And that happens all the time:
the things that Rickie hears. She has an entirely
different relationship with the bottom end compared
to me. A different take on drums and rhythms, all
of it in ways that I haven't run into before, and I
wanted some of that.
MUSICIAN: I don't want to start
a fight, but Leo mentioned that "Twilight Time" was
not Rickie Lee's favorite track on his
RLJ: Oh yeah, I really
appreciated hearing you say that on KCRW. I said
that if you put that on, just make sure everybody
knows I didn't want it. I sounded like my mom. I
hate that song. For me it evokes a really boring
period in pop music. But Leo is from a generation
just older than me, and so maybe it has a special
romantic place in Leo's heart that it missed in
LK: There's a whole bunch of
tunes that are corny in their original format that
fall onto a guitar real easy, that I like. If I had
to sing that song I wouldn't touch it with a
RLJ: I think what I contributed
most to Leo was -- well, I don't know how to say it
other than to just tell you what I did, which was
just to turn on the machine. Because Leo, when he's
not nervous at all, is hysterically funny and
spontaneous and he plays flawlessly and also sings
flawlessly. But once he became aware that he was
going to do a take, he would stiffen up a little
bit so I just caught him. And he became aware after
the first song that he was being recorded, but he
kept his casual atmosphere, because it wasn't "All
right, here we go." I don't think anybody else has
got his vocals to be as calm.
MUSICIAN: We won't repeat your
old self-deprecating saw about geese farts on a
LK: Yeah. I'll never live that
down. That's the most enduring thing I've ever
done. I'm not a tenor and I wanted to be
RLJ: I find him really
masculine. I am really attracted to the way Leo
sings. It's very rich, low and no nonsense. You
don't hear people sing with that Midwestern accent.
Leo's got a kind of authority that's really
intelligent and honest and no-bullshit. I really
like hearing his accent and his big booming low
voice. I don't know any like it.
MUSICIAN: You've heard him sing
RLJ: Is that the sad song?
Right. He sang that to me the night I met him.
[pause] I thought he was talking
LK: Go back to what Rickie
Lee was saying about getting the tape on when I
didn't know it was on: The hardest thing to do is
to get the engineer to turn on the
RLJ: Well, because that's not
the way they know how to do it. It's a kind of
inhumane bureaucracy. Just -- turn the tape
LK: So it went on and stayed on.
I was just going to run through a few things to see
what we'd do next and the tape was on. And I hear a
big difference in those. They're probably my
favorite cuts on the record.
RLJ: Sometimes Leo would go,
"Listen to this." And he would tell you a whole
tune for 10 minutes or some wonderful performance,
and the minute that he would be recording he'd make
LK: Yeah. My internal school
marm walks in and stands behind me with a big
RLJ: I think everybody does
LK: But some more than others.
With these [Guitar Summit] guys, when we
know we're being taped, we all feel the choke
happen. I don't think it hits you that way, that
it's time to choke.
RLJ: If there's nobody in there,
it doesn't, 'cause it's my thing, but once there's
a listener, like a producer, I become aware that I
am performing for somebody. If everybody has a job,
I'm not performing for them. But anybody who's just
listening will make me stiffen, too. I don't let
anybody in there to listen.
MUSICIAN: Did you ever have any
RLJ: Well, not since I learned
how to sing, no. When I was about 20 I worked at
the Great American Beverage Company, where you had
to be able to sing really loud to keep your job. We
were singing waiters and waitresses.
LK: Oh, I thought you were
canning Sprite or something.
RLJ: Katey Segal [of TV's
Married with Children, and a singer] worked
there too. And she could sing really loud. She was
a big hit there. But I couldn't. My boyfriend at
the time had a singing book and I read about moving
the sound from your throat to your chest.
[Rickie Lee studiously places three fingers
by her breastbone as she speaks]. I have it
down there. I practice breathing, and also I don't
over-sing. I sing with the same voice I talk
LK: That's what you told me that
I really try to remember.
RLJ: It works for me. I don't
ever get hoarse.
MUSICIAN: They say the closer a
prose writer's voice is to his speaking style, the
more you are going to be in the pocket and doing
your best work. Do you find that writing
RLJ: I write differently than I
talk. I write rhythmically. And when I speak I have
odd hesitations that I don't have when I write. I
think I'm more articulate on a piece of
MUSICIAN: When you're onstage,
do you have utter confidence in your vocal
RLJ: Of course. Why would I
MUSICIAN: I guess we'll ask Leo.
LK: Yeah. Although in the
beginning I didn't. Now it's home for me. Once I'm
through maybe the first piece. You know, I sit down
and I'm about an inch off the chair for a little
bit. But it's not nerves. It's just getting there.
And once you're there, it's a very secure place to
be. It's really good for ya.
MUSICIAN: Rickie, I saw you
remark somewhere that you used to feel responsible
for doing a lot more onstage, really barraging the
audience with all your weapons every
RLJ: I think I learned that
earlier than later. I think that one of the
horrible things most new singers or most singers
who will never truly be great do is, they
over-sing. They feel that they have to prove to you
in every song how good they can sing and they
sacrifice the entire thing. The greatest singer to
me is Frank Sinatra. There aren't any tricks or
antics. For me, it's a conversation, it's a story.
I don't Like hearing Mariah Carey or Whitney
Houston. When I listen to them, I don't believe
them. I don't care about what they're saying. And
most important, I'm not transported to their point
of view. I always remain the voyeur, the listener.
To transport someone I think you can't get in the
way of the lyrics and the story. I think a great
singer is a really quiet singer. Not necessarily
volume, but a quiet, quiet spirit. And there they
MUSICIAN: Sal Bernardi wrote
"Beat Angels," yet you sing it so
RLJ: Yeah. He and I are kind of
fused. It's kind of hard to tell the difference
between his songs and my songs.
Kottke]: Do we hear you on that
LK: There's a couple of notes
RLJ: Leo was there for the
recording of that and what he played really set it
in. But then I put David Hidalgo on it, and it
became the battle of the guitarists. So I pulled
Leo out. Leo let me have it one day.
LK: [with a demurring
gesture]: I'd never been able to see that
happen, where a piece begins here, takes a shape
and then it's deconstructed in a way and comes out
RLJ: It's a shaky
LK: I didn't know where the tune
was going, and I -- I was amazed.
RLJ: It did change a lot. The
way Leo played it, it was more in the pocket, it
kind of centered around him, and by the time I was
done taking out his guitar, I could see that he was
"whoa-ohhhh, what's gonna possibly happen if you
take me out?" But it made it a quirkier, more
Rickie kind of thing than a thing reflective
of someone else.
LK: I got to the point where I
was raving so much to Rickie about how she did this
that I had raved too much. I was just being a pest.
You can't turn around every time you do something
and hear some guy saying, God, that was
RLJ: I'm not sure that my
decision was the right decision ultimately,
musically. Leo had it in a more south of the border
kind of thing. His guitar was ringing out really
beautifully, and I didn't want that to happen. I
wanted it to be weirder. I have a tendency to dig
out the things in my records that make them
palatable [laughing] to large
numbers of people. Like it's necessary for me to
make it a little off-center. I wish I didn't do
that. But that's what I need to do, I
MUSICIAN: But it rewards the
people who get across those couple of obstacles.
You know you've earned the emotion.
RLJ: Those few, those brave
MUSICIAN: Did you ever consider
working with jazz players?
RLJ: Oh no. I think jazz is
hideously boring. I hate jazz. With only a few
exceptions, only the really outstanding spirits in
jazz. I think it's the most boring thing. So I
would never invite -- especially traditional
players, because they'll play only the one thing
that they can play. I actually don't come out of
jazz roots at all. I come out of pure complete
Beatles pop music. 45s, AM radio. My father played
jazz, so I've always heard it. I didn't play it. I
MUSICIAN: So virtuosos don't
necessarily interest you in their own right. It's
more a feel.
RLJ: You know, it's just whether
or not they sing. And the only music I can't
relate to at all, and I haven't found any -- oh
now, actually Hank Williams I like, but country
western music has nothing -- I have no interest in
country music, and what they call jazz is so
repetitive and so uninspired. I think that the form
was okay for truly inspired players, but that form
has been regurgitated over and over by really
mediocre people who continue to bask in the glory
of it, as if they're doing something creative, and
they are not. I know jazz is a cool word, but I
actually don't like being associated with it at
all. I think what I do with jazz standards is
completely unique. I think it's really excellent. I
tip my hat to influences, but I don't think it in
any way -- and they've clearly let me know--
relates to traditional jazz.
MUSICIAN: Is that why you called
you previous album Pop Pop?
RLJ: Yeah, and that was probably
not a great title. If I called that A Girl at
Rue St. Denis or something, it would have
evoked a spirit and people could have gone, oh, I
know where we're going, but I just detest being so
blatant, so obvious. So if I gave it a title that
evoked nothing but bewilderment, then people would
have to listen and create their own thing with it,
which of course could be a big mistake. But that's
why I don't do that. I think there's a weird
phenomenon in the '90s of people insisting that it
not be the authentic article. It has to be
something they've already seen and heard. They'll
accept it as authentic if they recognize it. And of
course, if you recognize it, it's not
It started, for me, when
Madonna imitated Marilyn Monroe. Where a few years
earlier such a blatant grasp at things -- "Well,
I'm floundering now, I'll use this, I'll do this"
-- people would have snubbed their noses. But the
media accepted it, and she rose, and in fact,
somehow adopted the credibility of Marilyn Monroe.
"I'll dress like her," and somehow, for some reason
she was given the power. So it continues to happen,
to bring it back to Pop Pop, over and over.
People imitate something, and they're given the
credibility of that thing, and when you do
something new, good or bad, you have no
credibility. Not even for the authenticity of doing
something new. It just doesn't matter at all. My
frustration is seeing people do really terrible
work, really uninspired, repetitive work that isn't
even sincere from their heart, blatantly taking
from another star to sell a record. And getting the
credibility of that star. It just confuses and
bewilders me. And it's happened with every pop
singer who has sanitized records. They've purposely
copied a style that had nothing to do with anything
they did before. That had nothing to do with their
voice, the way that they can sing. And received
kudos from an uninformed or careless
MUSICIAN: Linda Ronstadt's
What's New bothered you in that
RLJ: But even worse, Natalie
Cole. The result of Linda Ronstadt was Natalie
MUSICIAN: Both you and Leo seem
to have homes at your labels. You both are lucky,
are you not, to be credentialed "artistes" as far
as your labels are concerned.
RLJ: I wouldn't assume anything
if I were you. [laughter]
LK: If you mean, is it a worry
that I haven't generated hits and my career is
built on something other than record sales, I don't
worry about it because if I did worry about it, I
probably wouldn't stop. I agree with you that I
have a kind of a home as a player. And I'm really
happy with it. Everybody knows there's a lot of
trouble that comes with hits. You can have the
wrong hit. One of my favorite performers, favorite
song writers, is Loudon Wainright. I mean, he's one
in a billion. And his hit is "Dead Skunk in the
Middle of the Road." So I don't worry about it. I
do wonder sometimes why a label would want me
there. Because it's supposed to be, especially
these days, that nobody is around unless they
really generate sales. And I make a little money
for everybody, which sounds rational and sane to
me, but from what I hear, that's not the way people
RLJ: [borrowing a
jacket]: I shake like a poodle when I do
interviews. When I get excited I start shaking. I
hate that. Maybe I'm always doing interviews in
cold rooms. [Leo rises to shut the
He's a gentleman.
MUSICIAN: Leo, you told the
Pasadena crowd a good story about Muskogee --
playing trombone above a big vat of steaming
LK: Yeah. The annual Aunt Jemima
MUSICIAN: It occured to you that
the guitarist was better off because he didn't have
to inhale as frequently.
RLJ: Did you ever tell how you
became a guitar player at the end of your career as
a trombone player? Is it too personal?
LK: Actually, I think it
translates may maybe a little smarmy.
MUSICIAN: Weren't you given a
guitar by your parents as some crisis point in your
LK: I had been sick for a long
time. My little sister had died and I was doing
some thing that siblings sometimes do, which is get
very sympathetic and die as well. I was on that
route. Whether I would have done that or not, who
RLJ: I meant the contest you
went to. I didn't want you to go
RLJ: Leo had a big trombone
contest he'd been practicing for.
LK: Oh, boy. Yeah. In Oklahoma,
they have the state festivals. You rehearse with a
piano player and your teacher selects the music.
The last year, which coincided with this guitar, my
teacher told me to play "Down Home on the Farm" at
this festival. And it was the lamest, most
contemptible piece of stuff. I can't begin to
exaggerate how goofy this thing sounded. There's an
academy form to those things. You play the melody
in quarter notes, then it repeats in eighth notes,
and then, hold your breath, it repeats a third time
in 16th notes, then in 64ths, cadenza, and you're
done. So it repeats three times. I went on the
stage and I said, "I'm going to play Down Home on
the Farm." Guffaws-- the judges laughed, and
I knew I was in for it. I picked up the trombone
and I played the melody. Now they really laughed.
It was the lamest. And all of a sudden they knew
this was going to repeat a little faster. And every
time, they laugh louder. It was God awful. And that
was really it.
MUSICIAN: The Great Big
Boy record has such an emphasis on
lyrics, after so many instrumentals over your
LK: It started with a tune
called "Jack Gets Up" off My Father's Face.
I realized that I didn't have to stick to the AB/AB
format, bridge and the repeat and all. I could be
looser if I wanted to. I took bigger chances. I
admitted more to myself and about myself than I
MUSICIAN: The humor takes off
the curse of being self-revealing.
RLJ: People may be very curious
about you. I'm thinking of "Pepe Hush." For me that
song was about a person about to commit a crime,
and he had checked -- I had this whole scenario --
into a motel and was going to get up really early
to go commit a crime and the dog kept waking him
up. Finally I realized it was just about you
sleeping next door to a dog that was barking. But
initially I had thought, "Wow, he's writing about a
guy who is going to break somebody's arm and throw
the dog out into the yard. What an interesting
MUSICIAN: Rickie, you have said
you heard Great Big Boy and abruptly
regained an enthusiasm you 'd lost for
LK: Did you say that?
RLJ: Well, I go through long
periods without writing anyway. It was just one of
those, a couple of years had gone by. No direction
had shown itself to me.
MUSICIAN: And you were reminded
of what a songwriter does?
MUSICIAN: Then did stuff start
to issue forth pretty quickly?
RLJ: Exactly what kind of stuff
are you referring to?
MUSICIAN: Ummm, ah...
RLJ: Well, we've made a sexual
innuendo. Are you going to print that?
MUSICIAN: If there're no
objections raised in the next 30 seconds it's going
RLJ: Will you write down that
you were blushing really badly after you said
MUSICIAN: When you sat down to
write did you feel almost too influenced by Leo's
RLJ: No. But I think I did keep
them compact like his songs were. I liked that they
were three minutes, four minutes. That they made
the point and left. So I think that, um, leaked out
a little bit. Once of the first ones was "The Altar
Boy." I know it doesn't sound anything like Leo,
but I was heavily influenced by my feelings about
Leo and to make a little compact statement that
would impress him.
LK: There's a line in that song
about licorice seeds. It just goes "Bing!" Every
time I hear that.
RLJ: Thank you.
LK: And the way the piece closes
on the guitar, when Rickie resolves it. I attach a
lot of that kind of thing to what you must have
heard from your dad when he was playing. Rickie's
harmony is really good. It's real satisfying and
very surprising. Yet on something like the resolve
to "The Altar Boy," it's the way it should have
happened. It's very, very satisfying. But you never
expect it. And I love that. It's not like one,
four, five or a three minor thrown in or something.
It's a real mobile harmony. There's a thing called
voice leading, where the voice within a given chord
leads it. In other words, if you're going up a
scale, and you are structuring it as a major sixth,
with that harmony each chord is essentially the
same. It's as if that's what was going on, but it's
not that. You get a combination of the tremendous
kind of security that you get from voice leading,
which is standard in jazz so that everybody can
think together. But you're doing something
different, which is really surprising. So you get
both at the same time.
MUSICIAN: You two co-wrote "The
Albatross" with [bassist] John Leftwich. I
hear analogies to touring in the seagoing
LK: Rickie and I did talk about
my experiences in the Navy, and about the constant
movement, the isolation of it. Rickie uses pieces
of herself and a song like that or "Running from
Mercy," which I also got to take a hand in, isn't
about finding a metaphor - - it comes from some
deep place, purely felt, intuitive
MUSICIAN: Rickie, when you set
out to write this record, did you sense a theme --
of the sort people talk about on
RLJ: You know, I can't say that.
It's not only because I object to defining myself,
you know, but I can't stand outside and tell you
what the meaning of that is, or even what brought
it on. Once it's done, it's done. I don't know what
made it, and I don't know what it means, I don't
think that you can articulate
MUSICIAN: Interesting as the
individual lyrics are, it does seem you're heading
more toward pure vocal expressiveness -- that your
voice is more than instrument than ever.
RLJ: I think maybe what you're
not hearing is the strong particular thread of a
recurring theme and "This is what this is about."
Because I don't have that in my life, I don't dwell
on anything. I just don't live like that anymore.
So there I am, I'm explaining myself and I don't
want to explain. And I have always hoped that
doesn't make the stuff weaker. In a pop sense it
probably does, you know. But I don't think in the
long run, in the true art of it, that it is. I hope
it isn't. But weaker or not, that's where I
MUSICIAN: What's your favourite
moment on Leo's record?
RLJ: "Parade." There's a kind of
moody blues thing that comes out in people I really
love, different writers, and I do feel a kinship
with that kind of strange, beautiful painting that
is of no consequence doesn't reveal its
intentions. It's just a little painting with
words and beautiful melodies.
Leo Kottke owns 30-odd guitars
(including a '50s vintage Telecaster he likes to
plug in occasionally), but "If I only had two
seconds I'd grab what I'm using onstage, my Olsen
six-string and my Taylor (Kottke model) 12-string."
He favors GHS strings for both, "white bronze" for
Rickie Lee Jones uses a Taylor
six-string Leo gave her. She plays with a Sunrise
pickup through a Sunrise Tube Interface.