"I'm a little shy, so it's funny that I came to talk," said Rickie Lee Jones, hesitantly greeting an overflow lecture hall audience at Santa Monica College from behind bangs. "And I'll look up when it's safe."
Not surprisingly, it didn't take the not-coquettish Jones long to bare her face and her feelings at Saturday night's free performance and discussion, billed as "a conversation on creativity."
Like many artists of a certain brilliance, Jones' trains of thought don't necessarily always run precisely on time, so someone with such an intuitive persona might have seemed an odd match for the formal aura of academia. But the singer managed not just to cozy up to the large, bare SMC stage--moving from piano bench to armchair to hardwood floor as she loosened up over two hours--but also to provide unexpectedly lucid interpretation of the usually unfathomable birthing process.
"The thing that I find most touching when I work is when I write something that I didn't know I knew," said Jones at one point, summarizing the elation of discovery. The guest lecturer brought books by Anne Sexton and Dylan Thomas, which she never quite got around to reading from, though they were held up as court exhibits of a soul-stirring-ness she claims to find in reading but not, pointedly, in any current music.
In this erratic but ultimately quite rewarding format, Jones greeted dozens of questions randomly shouted from overenthusiastic inquisitors with good humor and aplomb, whether they ranged from drugs to motherhood and from early influences to those she has influenced (a question about Sheryl Crow "ripping off your act" evoked a well-placed expletive that suggested she didn't totally agree). Among 10 songs sung, Jones saved her most textbook-emotive tune--"Coming Back to Me," the heart-rending Jefferson Airplane ballad she has made her own--for last, alternately explaining its delay as a matter of not being able to make it through the tune without crying or just a question of vocal register, again treading the fine line between technique and temperament.
"As long as we're doing workshop, I must confess, (the key) is very low. We are doing a workshop, right?" she asked. Then, jumping octaves, teacher made the students teary.