Musician, May 1994

The Guitar Virtuoso Meets the Producer Who Lays on The Ground

by Fred Schruers

Leo and Rickie Lee on the beach (uncredited)
Leo and Rickie Lee on the beach (uncredited)

      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 Peñna 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 coffee.

MUSICIAN:  What was the genesis of Rickie producing Peculiaroso?

KOTTKE:  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 doing this."

JONES:  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.

KOTTKE:  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 album.

JONES:  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 mine.

KOTTKE:  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 stick.

JONES:  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 muggy day.

KOTTKE:  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 one.

JONES:  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 "Louise "?

JONES:  Is that the sad song?  Right.  He sang that to me the night I met him.  [pause] I thought he was talking about me.

KOTTKE:  To 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 machine.

JONES:  Well, because that's not the way they know how to do it.  It's a kind of inhumane bureaucracy.  Just -- turn the tape on.

KOTTKE:  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.

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