In the CD booklet of her new album, Ani DiFranco says that “art is activism” and therefore it’s pointless to try and distinguish them in terms of their effect on each other. But political engagement can often have a stultifying effect on an artist’s work. It’s easy to fall back on platitudes when trying to incorporate views about current events into music, which is why a lot of singers steer clear of politics in their songs, even if they have strong opinions.
But sometimes the emotions churned up by political realities can act as a catalyst. Rickie Lee Jones, it appears, needed the administration of George W. Bush to help her emerge from the creative doldrums, a seven-year period when she thought she didn’t have anything more to write about. During that time her recorded work comprised a live album (her second) and a collection of covers.
“The Evening of my Best Day,” Jones’ first CD of new material since 1997′s “Ghostyhead,” contains three strident songs related to America’s current political situation. Ambiguity is an important quality of the best personal art, but there is nothing ambiguous about “Ugly Man,” the song that opens the album. “He’s an ugly man, he always was an ugly man,” Jones singsongs in her familiar childlike drawl to a jazzy 6/8 beat, “He grew up to be like his father, an ugly man.”
“I received lots of hate mail and threats,” Jones says via e-mail about the response to the song. “My family was in tears. But I said, ‘This is what we have to do, because what are we if we stand by silently and watch this go down?’ ”
Though the song is as relaxed and smooth as most of her work, it advocates in no uncertain terms “revolution . . . everywhere you’re not looking” and promises the ugly man in the White House that “we will take the country back.”
The directness of the language and sentiments recalls the protest songs of the ’60s and early ’70s, when Jones was going through her lonely, formative years in terms of music appreciation, though she says her main musical influences at the time were “West Side Story” and Laura Nyro.
“I first saw [Nyro] on TV back in 1969. I was captivated and repelled at the same time. Living on a farm in Elma, Wash. — a small town where I was an absolute outcast — I found the will to survive by just knowing that somewhere in the universe there was someone with that beautiful name, Laura Nyro, and there was a city where she walked and the wind lifted her hair. She was so sad and dark, unable to look up, contorting, consumed by the song she sang.
“It seemed a bit much, and yet absolutely real. I was spellbound. Something as simple as ‘Look at me, I am different’ can be ingested instantly and change you in a small way, but also in a way that one day might become very large.”
Later, she would move to the bohemian artists’ community of Venice, Calif., and with the help of like-minded musicians such as Tom Waits and Chuck E. Weiss, she would perfect her peculiar style, a mix of Broadway melodies, SoCal singer-songwriter sensitivity and beatnik cool. By the time her eponymous and highly influential debut appeared, with its attendant Top 10 single, “Chuck E’s in Love,” the kind of overtly political songs popularized by people like Bob Dylan and Country Joe McDonald were considered passe.
Jones’ songs have always been very inward-looking when they weren’t observing small details at close range. In fact, most of the material on the new album continues in this vein, but the impressionism that characterizes her work has given way to a greater emotional transparency, especially about her troubled past. As she sings on the title cut, “Someday, many years from here, you’ll dig up the things they buried and set them free.”
“I did not try to mix the political and the personal [on the new album],” she writes. “The music, the record, it’s all me — an extension of my view of the world. It’s become natural for me to talk about my feelings, and so my feelings about Bush and my feelings about my friends and family all come from the same source.”
She tends to think that songwriters “do their best work when they . . . write whatever kind of song they want to write” rather than what they think they should write.
Nevertheless, her feelings about the president and the state of America are intense enough to drive her to write for reasons other than simple self-expression. In the gospel-funky “Tell Somebody (Repeal the Patriot Act),” she directly accuses the administration of curtailing freedom of speech and setting “brother against brother, mother against mother.”
She does something that few artists, especially those of her caliber and experience, would dare attempt: She preaches. The song ends with an epigram worthy of Martin Luther King: “The depth of our democracy is only as good as the voices of protest she protects.”
“People are always saying how could the German people not see what was going on [during the Holocaust],” she responds. “I say, ‘Here is your answer. You are all standing there watching them change everything, corrupt the ethical fabric of our country, and you are saying nothing. You let them humiliate the few who speak out. You support them by watching their TV channel [Fox TV] and buying their products.’ I say we have no country to protect if we let ourselves become little fascists, accusing everyone else of doing what it is we are doing.”
Jones’ activism is not limited to her songs. Her Web site is called Furniture for the People, and its philosophy is as simple as its title, reflecting her newfound clarity of purpose.
“It was created for a couple of reasons. Personally, I just couldn’t go on with my comfortable lifestyle while knowing that millions of people have nothing at all. So I went online and looked for orphanages. They all need money, and every single face I saw needed me. So I chose one in Sierra Leone and set up FftP, with a board of directors. The idea was to raise money and take a lion’s share of the profits for the charity.”
The Web site also fronts for a record label, which has yet to release anything, but manifests Jones’ independent tack.
“A subscriber will be able to download any number of songs and create their own CDs of our artists,” she explains. “Right now this sort of thing isn’t being used much by the over-30 crowd, but I think it’s the future and I like the idea of consumers understanding how expensive it is to do this, and that each thing they like costs money and time to create. I’m looking forward to launching both unknown and known artists with Internet-only releases.”
Anger hasn’t been the only impetus behind her comeback. After living in Europe in the late ’80s and then in Tacoma, Wash., where she raised her daughter, Jones has returned to Los Angeles, the place that inspired her first great burst of creativity. “Recently, I had been remembering all things California — the surf boards, the bad art, the men with pointed shoes and combed-back hair and tattoos. Now I’m into the cars, the black lights under the cars, the men with hair nets, the Chicanos and the Koreans — it’s all amazing to me again. The sharks and seals and dolphins and storks, the whole darn thing. I like it here right now.”
The stimulation is obvious on the new album, which sounds surprisingly fresh for someone whose music has not changed substantially over the course of 25 years. Her personal hit parade at the moment consists almost exclusively of early ’70s artists (Cat Stevens, John Lennon, Sly & the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye) and current hip-hop (DMX, Outkast, Cypress Hill), none of which seems to have an obvious bearing on her own sound, but from her standpoint it’s all in there somewhere.
“I don’t think it should be such a stretch for a songwriter to use different kinds of ideas,” she says. “Kubrick created totally different kinds of films. I like to write different kinds of songs, as well as make different kinds of records. And I think I do it well, but I can’t say why.
“I mean, if you want to do an Appalachian song or a jazz song, just do it. If you want it all to be hip-hop, do it. It’s all up to you.”