DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
For Rickie Lee Jones, making music has always been a spiritual, otherworldly experience.
Ms. RICKIE LEE JONES (Singer, Songwriter): You're talking from the ether. You're talking from the place where our dreams and our heart, our emotion, you know, circles eternally.
ELLIOTT: The Duchess of Coolsville gets her latest inspiration from Jesus.
(Soundbite of song, "Nobody Knows My Name")
Ms. JONES: (Singing) For a thousand years I lay upon Lake Victoria, I was winged and many-colored and nobody knew my name.
ELLIOTT: Rickie Lee Jones's new album, "The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard," is based on her friend Lee Cantelon's book, "The Words," a modern interpretation of Jesus's teachings. Cantelon asked Rickie Lee Jones to read from his book for a spoken-word album, but Jones instead started improvising in song. The result was "Nobody Knows My Name." The song was recorded right there on the spot and is now the first track on her new CD.
(Soundbite of song, "Nobody Knows My Name")
Ms. JONES: (Singing) And I translate it to many hours of history but nobody knows my name.
ELLIOTT: Rickie Lee Jones is in the studio at NPR West and joins us. Welcome.
Ms. JONES: Thank you. Good to be here.
ELLIOTT: Now, I read you attended Catholic Church growing up.
Ms. JONES: I went a while...
ELLIOTT: But you were never baptized.
Ms. JONES: No.
ELLIOTT: Had you contemplated the words of Jesus much?
Ms. JONES: No, I've hardly read what Christ had to say. I like to read the Old Testament a lot, but I never made it over to the words of Christ. I just was not that - it just didn't seem interesting to me. I think, from my point of view, the Christ figure in America is so maligned, you know. He's kind of owned by the religious right. So that when you'd say Jesus, people brace - oh no, I can't wait for this conversation to be over.
And I thought if I could be part of creating a conversation that began to heal that idea because, you know, in this world we need all the hope and solace and direction that we can find, directly from the source. So I found a lot of hope and joy in this and this wonderful music.
ELLIOTT: Well, will you play a selection from the album for us?
Ms. JONES: Yeah, sure. I will.
(Singing) I wrote a letter to my father. I thought I'd tell him where I am. I knew that he's been hoping that I'll come home again. I'm standing in the doorway. But I'm happy living here. Everybody's always trying so hard to sing along with a song that no one can hear. Yes, yes, my heart was broken. Yes, yes, but I made it through the night. Hey little Janis Joplin, she's got a job down at the corner in a little bar. Well I guess we're doing all right. Because I got used to all that swimming. I said hey, come on in, the water's fine. And I know you don't remember me but I've seen you many times. Yeah, yeah, my heart was opened. And yeah, yeah, yeah, no, no I don't look back, never. And I'm riding around here in heaven in my Elvis Cadillac.
ELLIOTT: That was "Elvis's Cadillac" from Rickie Lee Jones' new album, "The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard." You paint a picture of heaven where Janis Joplin is working at the corner bar and everyone is riding around in an Elvis Cadillac. What do you think you'll be doing in heaven?
Ms. JONES: Well, I don't know and I don't know if there is a heaven, but in this story there's a heaven. I think what I was trying to do is I was thinking about this generation that my daughter is a part of - 18, 20-year-olds. I was thinking when we were 20, what did we have that's different? There seems something empty and sorrowful about this time for these kids.
ELLIOTT: Why do you think that?
Ms. JONES: You know, I mean I'm digging some of the kids that are doing the jam band hippie thing, but for the most part, I worry for my daughter especially and her generation. So this was a kind of postcard from me and my generation to hers. And "Elvis's Cadillac" is - I guess people like that because it evokes in them this of, you know, every generation having a kind of Christ figure.
ELLIOTT: Who is Jesus to you? I mean where do you see Jesus?
Ms. JONES: The Christ figure for me is the same as me, it's the same as the guy - as the person sitting next to me. You know, I just think there's a part of us that's eternal, that speaks through all of us. That's what I think.
ELLIOTT: You kind of get this sense of this back and forth between, well, are these Jesus's words or is this something from Rickie Lee Jones's life.
Ms. JONES: Yeah, that's right. You know, like I said, it's of my clay, but I have the words of Christ opened around me. Some of them are absolutely his words. Some of them are me speaking. I put myself back in the story. So sometimes I'm sitting on the table with the disciples looking through their eyes. Sometimes I'm looking through his. Sometimes I'm standing here looking back at them. I'm telling a story, you know. I'm telling a story.
ELLIOTT: Rickie Lee Jones, the last song we'd like for you to play for us is timely here on Easter weekend. Your song "Gethsemane" interprets the night before Jesus was crucified. Can you set it up for us?
Ms. JONES: I'd love to. Thank you.
(Singing) Well we went out to the garden beneath the olive trees. Bells were ringing and the rooster crowed. Men were standing all around. Other men were laying on the ground. And I am standing by myself. Shall I just let them sleep, let them sleep. You know, you wake up one morning and you're someone else. You're on your own. And there is no miracle to take you home. And you cry to the God who leaves you there, the branch and the bird and the empty air, to the God of why can't we turn back around. Because I have been true. Because I have been true to you. You leave me here when I call your name. Would you turn, would you turn away? All I want is your hand but all I want is your hand. Come on. Why, why you turn away from me because I've been true to you. Why will you leave me now when I've been true? I've been true, been true.
ELLIOTT: Rickie Lee Jones and her guitarist Peter Atanasoff playing the song "Gethsemane" from her new album. This is a familiar story. This is the night before Jesus is crucified. He's gone to the garden with his disciples. They've all fallen asleep and left him there alone. You get a very lonely image from this song as Jesus cries out to God, knowing what's to come. What is it that resonates with you in this story?
Ms. JONES: I think there are moments in all of our lives where we feel acutely betrayed and lost, where we feel like we've done exactly what we thought was the right thing to do, suffered for it, or maybe gone purposefully to suffering in order to achieve something and then find that the thing we thought would be waiting there isn't waiting there. In Christ's case, in realizing that his hopes are gone, that he can't stay and continue to teach and he's going to die and even this Christ figures goes but, but, but couldn't we turn back around because I would really - I think maybe we could rethink this again. And his doubt and sorrow, I think there's none of us that hasn't felt that. I don't think - it couldn't mean anything if it wasn't the human experience. That's what makes it divine. He's made of the human experience. And our human experience is divine.
ELLIOTT: Rickie Lee Jones's new album is "The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard." She played for us from NPR West with her co-writer and guitarist, Peter Atanasoff. Thank you both for being with us today.
Mr. PETER ATANASOFF (Guitarist): Thanks, Debbie.
Ms. JONES: Thank you. Thank you.
ELLIOTT: You can hear Rickie Lee Jones perform another song and see the premiere of the music video for the song "Falling Up" on our Web site, npr.org.