Monday, June 8, 2015

The Other Side of Rickie Lee Jones

Singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones talks to Andy Hazel about living in New Orleans, her 35-year career and staying on top.

She may be imminently releasing her first album in a decade, she may have a legion of diehard fans ecstatic at any message she chooses to share online, but right now Rickie Lee Jones is interested in one thing, her garden gate.

“I’m just trying…to close this thing,” she says in laughing frustration. “Do you hear that noise in the background?” She pauses to let a distant clacking sound ring. “Well I live between the train and the riverboat so I always have this sound. I love it…and there’s the train a few blocks away making itself known, it’s wonderful.” Since moving here in 2013 Jones has been sparked into creative resurgence, thrilled that the city reminds her so much of her childhood. That New Orleanians hang their washing to dry instead of using a clothes drier is, she insists, a very way to measure a city’s suitability.

“Things are pretty great here,” she says in a warm Southern brogue. “The town is really…what’s the word…it pulls people out into it, kind of like the opposite of LA where everybody stays in. Here everybody goes out. Wait…I got it!” A latch slips into place and her measured tones break open into a loud laugh. “Now, where were we? Andy, I’ve got to tell you, you’re the very first interview I’ve done for this record,” she says laughing loudly before screaming in mock terror.

Breaking through in 1979 with the song Chuck E.’s in Love Jones had two million selling albums, won a Grammy and was in an intense relationship with fellow singer-songwriter Tom Waits for several years. Unlike most pop stars of the early 80s, Jones wrote and arranged her intricate jazz-influenced pop songs, was backed by the best musicians available and exerted control over the whole creative process. Interviews show just how uneasy promoting and talking about her music, but also how readily she is to talk about her life. Famously, one interview became the basis for The Orb’s seminal ambient house track Little Fluffy Clouds.

“Whenever everybody’s putting out something new they’re usually just thinking about the new thing they did. I know people always like to ask me about old stuff, that time is the past but that music isn’t the past. All my art is timeless to me. 1979 is the past, but not [song from her first album] Last Chance Texaco.”

Any chance for juicy gossip about Tom Waits is neutered firstly by a polite segue into discussion of her music inspired by him, and secondly by fact “I haven’t spoken to him since…1979,” she says searching for the date before executing a rich, long pause.

“The places that my songs live, the times that they were created from; 1963, 1947 or 1922, not necessarily the week I wrote the song, that’s what they represent to me. They’re not cemented in another time. So, there might be a tune or two that is, or was, a real…healing tool, and that could invoke some feelings. But I’m not doing that right now.”

Right now is what Jones is excited about. She’s written a blog about the making of her new album The Other Side of Desire, and she’s excited to know what impression the cover art has made and what ‘journey’ the songs suggest.

The opening song Jimmy Choos is, as the title suggests, about luxury shoes. Ostensibly about helping a friend through a breakup, Jones repeats the phrase “Choos’ shoes” dozens of times, slurring the sounds and rendering the words ridiculous. “Wouldn’t it be great to hear that on the radio!?” She laughs. While it may be better suited to being on the soundtrack of a John Waters-directed episode of Sex and the City, it is a bold and confident song that is wholly her and instantly reminds anyone who only knows her from her 80s hit that her voice is a utterly unique creation. The Pogues-esque Christmas in New Orleans, and the long, languid, atmospheric tracks Infinity and Haunted echo her most acclaimed work and foreground her expressive voice to powerful effect.

“The first time I told the title to people I saw the look in their eyes and I could see they were thinking of sex. I thought ‘I guess that’s how that word is used’, but to me, we’re talking about the things you desire, not the things you need. We’re talking about this thing that leads you down all these roads that you’re better off not going down.”

Shedding the major record labels to make this, crowd-founded, album, Jones’ doesn’t find control comes from fame and influence, rather, money.

“While I have my finger on the button, how far I can push the button is totally decided by how much money I have to promote it,” she says with another warm, open laugh, “and actually that’s really exciting. Because when you have to work with all those guys – and they’re always guys, they used to wear suits now they wear flannel shirts – you feel like they are making choices and you have no control. So to be the person who goes ‘this is how we’ll spend the money and when we make money we’ll continue to use it to promote the record, and we don’t have to stop promoting the record because it’s the only record we have to promote’, that’s a great feeling. I feel like I will have more control, but time will tell.”

Suggestions of attention being the new online currency are brushed aside. While younger fans are discovering her older work (The Word recently named her second album, 1981’s Pirates as one of the 25 most overlooked albums of all time), Jones is more interested in that one thing that younger fans value most, authenticity.

“I’m not trying to reach for the attention of kids. Forgive me for what I’m about to say, but I see 60 year-old women trying to look like they’re 25, or making product to try to get a 20 year-old to buy their product I feel embarrassed for them and for me,” she says, tellingly. “I like the way I look. I like my age. I like my generation. I like who I am and I’m going to make a record that hopefully speaks to everybody. I’m not gonna try to pretend like I’m not who I am. That being said, I want to look great!”

Jones laments the shorter attention spans she feels typify the younger audience and is unwilling to cater to it. “The thing about staying in business in my age is to be happy about who you are, and then the record I make  - I love my record – but before I love my record I feel OK about who I am, and the life I live. I think that’s going to be what makes it an interesting journey, at least I hope so.”

Rickie Lee Jones’ album The Other Side of Desire is out June 19 on Cooking Vinyl.

REVIEW: Citizenfour

There’s been a change in the language. We’ve gone from talking about freedom and liberty to talking about privacy.       

- Jacob Appelbaum

American film reviewers have been hailing Laura Poitras’s documentary Citizenfour in terms so hyperbolic as to risk inviting ridicule. “One of the major and defining documentaries of recent times”, “an electrifying countdown to an epoch-altering event,” “[it] isn’t a film so much as a big fucking deal,” and, as the poster boasts, “the movie of the century”.

Film buffs that know a lot more than Farrago are saying it’s a lock in for the Best Documentary Academy Award. But, besides all the bluster and hubris, who or what exactly is Citizenfour? Can it make boring things like ‘leaking documents’ visually interesting, and, more importantly, away from its headline grabbing subject matter, is it actually good?

First up, Citizenfour is a first-hand account of the world’s most famous fugitive, Edward Snowden and his leak of millions of top-secret National Security Agency files. The files detail the extent to which governments and telecommunications companies spy on their citizens and customers, how they covered it up, and the lies they told, under oath, about not doing so. While the issues of security and privacy are of massive importance, key to Citizenfour is that director Laura Poitras was the first of three journalists Snowden leaked documents to, and she filmed their first meeting.

The reason why this film is not just good but worthy of its hype, is balancing the intimacy and immediacy of millions of documents from US intelligence archives to Snowden’s laptop to the global media, with a study of Snowden himself.

The early sequences of Poitras, journalist Glenn Greenwald and Snowden’s novel-worthy introduction in the lobby of the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong (Snowden: “I’ll be the one working on a Rubik’s Cube. You’ll ask me what time the restaurant opens. I’ll tell you and then warn you that the food is bad…then we’re good”) makes this seem almost fictional. Once upstairs in the hotel room things became very real very quickly. As Snowden said in an interview with the New York Times, “we all knew there was no going back once she turned the camera on.”

Watching her, Greenwald, and later the Guardian’s Ewan MacAskill (flown over once Greenwald emailed him the code phrase “the Guinness is good”) try to maintain their composure when they realise they are getting the greatest journalistic scoop of modern times plays out like a white-knuckle thriller.

From Snowden’s heavily encrypted attempts to contact them using his codename Citizenfour, to his Julian Assange-enabled escape from Hong Kong to Moscow (soon to be the subject of its own film), Citizenfour leaves you with the feeling there is far more of this story to tell. Oliver Stone is working on his own version, in which Snowden, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is cast as a modern day hero. Poitras has hundreds of hours of additional footage, much of which is likely to be just as jaw dropping as her story here.

Unlike the Assange documentary Wikileaks: We Steal Secrets, Snowden is clearly uncomfortable with being the centre of attention. As much as some wings of America media may like to demonise him, Snowden – unlike Assange - is not a divisive character. He is at pains to point out that he is driven to do what he thinks is right, at immense personal cost. In the film he is clearly incredibly anxious, but also clear-headed and calm. His transition from earnest nerd to literal overnight celebrity makes it so watchable. Snowden, well aware that the media will try to deflect attention from embarrassed politicians to a character assassination, has unreserved loathing for the way national security leaks have happened in the past. “Some people want to skulk around in corridors and speak anonymously? Fuck that.”

The personal cost clearly eats away at him, and several scenes of him chatting with his until-now oblivious girlfriend as she tells him their house is being raided and she’s detained and questioned by police are potent.

Poitras’s balancing of the personal, political and cryptographic is what drives the film. That she pulled a narrative arc together from thousands of hours of footage of talking heads, people typing, courtroom antics, security infrastructure and impassioned nerds is remarkable and speaks to not only her skills, but those of editor Mathilde Bonnefoy.

While revealing little of the content of the documents, Poitras sets the stakes high at the outset and the film never stoops to sermonising. This withholding of judgement has earned Poitras and the film’s distributors The Weinstein Company a civil lawsuit in which they’re are accused of “aiding and abetting the theft and misuse of stolen government documents.”

Much of the press around Citizenfour is about issues it raises rather than the film itself, and, oddly, it fits into a continuation of conversations started by the events it depicts. How it was made, its partially redacted press screenings and secretive last minute New York Film Festival premiere last October and Poitras (notably almost excised from the film) has suddenly been thrust into the spotlight. World changing events have never been seen this intimately before. While Snowden pledged “public interest” as the driving factor behind his leaks, the public have been coming out of cinemas on Team Snowden (“What matters are how people feel about these issues, regardless of your opinion of me,”) or Team USA (which is also Team Australia since George Brandis, Julie Bishop and Tony Abbott have repeatedly accused Snowden of treason, treachery and of being a traitor to his country).

Whichever way you view it, everything has changed since the encounter shown here. How citizens think about their government, how governments treat their citizens, relations between telecommunications companies and governments, the role of the courts in national security issues, and the media’s increased reliance on whistleblowers to tell public interest stories.

The Australian government blame Snowden’s leaks (still being drip-fed by Greenwald’s website The Intercept) for forcing them to engage in data retention policies. Policies even the government’s supporters view as overreaching and imposing massive limitations on the freedoms of its citizens. Policies that will ‘drive up prices for Internet and phone services’ and, according to the telecommunications companies involved, ‘be a major intrusion into the lives of every Australian.’

Whether these come to pass remains to be seen. Either way, long after this film leaves cinemas its issues will remain in news headlines. As the opening sentence suggests, the conversation has changed, and that is exactly what Snowden set out to do.

The J Files: David Lynch

Music alongside image should augment it; help it sustain the illusion of reality. Emotions registered subtly on the screen should be writ large in the score. Music should make the internal audible…or so Hollywood tradition states.

Applying this concept to director and writer David Lynch is not straightforward. Lynch uses sound and music almost constantly in his films, but he doesn’t simply amplify the emotional. Music is pushed to do far greater things than promote empathy.

“I do whatever feels true,” he told ABC’s Sarah Kanowski while visiting Brisbane to launch his exhibition Between Two Worlds. In Twin Peaks truth meant slick 50s-style lounge jazz, in Wild at Heart, rock and rockabilly, in The Straight Story folksy Americana and in Inland Empire dark industrial electro. For Eraserhead, where his feature-filmmaking journey began, Lynch and sound designer Alan Splet created a combination of mechanical hums and inhuman screams, a legendary soundtrack that took four years to complete. In one key scene the claustrophobic brutalistic score briefly gives way to a sliver of low-fi dream pop: 

In heaven, everything is fine…

In fact, it could be argued the entire dream pop genre started with this effulgent 90-second torch song. The Pixies opened virtually every show with it and acts from Jay Reatard to Modest Mouse and Bauhaus have covered or adapted it. Not only is In Heaven an early example of Lynch incorporating ‘live’ performance into his films, but it gives us our first glimpse at themes he consistently returned to: An angelic woman dressed in white signifying moral purity, a man (in this case, Jack Nance) entering a realm between life and death, and the now-familiar mix of the surreal, funny, menacing, mysterious and comforting. Written and sung by Peter Ivers and performed by ‘The Lady in the Radiator’ Laurel Near, In Heaven exists in Eraserhead in both dream and ‘reality’.

In dreams you’re mine / All the time / Forever. In dreams.

Lynch did the same thing nine years later in Blue Velvet, another film about a young man approaching sex with a combination of fear and fascination. In a central scene, vicious psychopath Frank Booth (played by Dennis Hopper) commands a dandyish Dean Stockwell to mime to Roy Orbison’s In Dreams before weeping. In Blue Velvet Lynch uses pop culture to evoke a time and place, in this case smooth 50s pop and shots of picket fences and mowed lawns, before literally moving beneath their surface. The lyrics from In Dreams are used by Booth in a seduction / intimidation scene in which Jeffrey Beaumont (played by Kyle MacLachlan) is smeared with blood, violently kissed and beaten. The brutal violence and aggressive sex scenes gain power from their juxtaposition by being set in an idyllic, Reagensque setting and using iconic songs. When interviewed about how some people may never hear In Dreams the same way again, Roy Orbison, in his last ever interview, told Nick Kent: 

Oh, I was shocked! I was mortified. But later, I really got to appreciate not only what David Lynch gave to the song, and what the song in turn gave to the film, but how innovative the movie was, how it really achieved this otherworldly quality that added a whole new dimension to "In Dreams". I find it hard to verbalise why, but Blue Velvet really succeeded in making my music contemporary again.

Music, in Lynch’s hands, becomes far more than simply a soundtrack. It drives narrative, it’s re-appropriated and charged with far more than the songwriter ever intended. Blue Velvet is especially unusual compared to other films of the mid-80s in that it features a huge amount of symbolism: Insects, birds, ears, orifices, colours and numbers are all invested with layers of meaning. As such, the viewer (and listener) is encouraged to place extra weight on Lynch’s choices of song and look for meaning in them. Further examination is always rewarded.

She’ll never go to Hollywood…

“Collaboration…has to marry to the picture, it has to marry to the whole thing, or it will kill it.” Lynch told Sarah Kanowski. “It’s better to have no music than music that doesn’t work.” Making the TV series Twin Peaks saw Lynch at his most collaborative, working with a large cast and crew and all the opportunities, and restrictions, of a major TV network. The series and ensuing film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me are Lynch’s second and third collaboration with composer Angelo Badalamenti and singer Julee Cruise. The scene in which Cruise sings Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart at the town’s bar The Roadhouse comes at a pivotal moment in the series. Laura Palmer’s killer is about to be revealed and several other story arcs are reaching their peak or resolution. At this point, with 20+ million American households on tenterhooks and viewers around the world holding their breath, Lynch slows everything down for a musical interlude.

Laura’s friend Donna sitting at a booth smiles and mouths the song’s lyrics to new boyfriend James Hurley. The town sheriff sips a beer, the Log Lady shells peanuts and we drift forward in time to another gossamer-light pop song, the glacially paced The World Spins. We then watch FBI Special Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan, again playing an innocent moving into a liminal world) as the music shifts again, to a slow, haunting piece signifying The White Lodge, an extra-dimensional place he’s visited before in a dream. Cruise is replaced by The Giant, a messenger from The White Lodge, who cryptically tells Cooper that another murder is taking place. The stage on which Cruise is performing becomes a site for the transmission of messages to Cooper: Music makes the public, private. The overlapping of these worlds, and the splitting of self, is a recurring motif not only in Twin Peaks, but throughout Lynch’s career. Music is an essential part of creating a world in which this is not only credible but also familiar. The scene finishes with Cooper struggling to comprehend the message he’s received – reconciling his ‘selves’, and we transition, aided by the fading sounds of the theme from the White Lodge and the rising, ominous click of a record needle turning on the last groove of a record, to one the most protracted and violent murders ever portrayed on US television.

No I banda. There is no band…

Nowhere is music used more effectively to demonstrate this union or splitting of self than in Mulholland Drive. When asked to describe the music Lynch curates, chooses and writes, people are invariably lost for words. The terms ‘dreamlike’, ‘moody’, ‘atmospheric’, ‘scary’ and ‘weird’ are often used, and almost all of these terms appear on websites in which films are discussed when trying to explain or decode this film. Some give up, others agonise over the importance of fleeting symbols but all feel the intense atmosphere as Lynch languidly depicts primal urges and subconscious drives, toying with our traditional ways of interpreting films.

We can see the woman with blue hair sitting out of focus in a balcony above Rebekah del Rio as she sings Llorando, Roy Orbison’s Crying in Spanish. We recognize the importance of the woman’s hair being blue because of the blue box Naomi Watts’ character Betty is carrying and the blue key that has just appeared in Rita (Laura Harring)’s handbag. Seasoned Lynch watchers will recognise that on a deeper level Lynch has chosen this because it is somehow connected to the ‘Blue rose case’ of his previous film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and its soundtrack song Questions in a World of Blue, and of course earlier film Blue Velvet. But what does it actually mean? Menace? Calm? Lynch himself certainly isn’t going to answer (“The colours are part of the mystery. Blue is my favourite colour,” was as deep as he went when Laurent Bouzereau asked him for Cineaste). It is this sense of urgent importance without recognition that gives his scenes their power, and frustrates the viewer used to solving mysteries and defining purpose. Music is a perfect vehicle to draw in the viewer and allow them to accompany this deep emotional push without signifying anything specific.

‘We don’t know what the thought or idea is until it enters the conscious mind,’ he told Sarah Kanowski animatedly, and it is this state that Lynch works so well in - the ability to trigger something like a repressed memory or a dream but without consciously giving definition to it, and he always uses music to do it. Even in his very earliest short films The Alphabet and The Grandmother, acquiring knowledge leads to futile despair, a theme that returns again and again throughout his work as well-meaning people try to solve mysteries and wind up embattled in their own psyches. Those films, and Eraserhead, are as celebrated for their sound design and use of discordant non-natural soundtracks as they are for anything seen.

In depicting the subconscious on screen, Lynch has said he wants to give audiences the sensation of ‘floating’. He has also said that the best way he can do this is through sound. No film features as many floating point-of-view camera shots and sustained, lingering melodies as Mulholland Drive.

The film’s pivotal scene at Club Silencio, described above, highlights just how important this public/private real/dream dichotomy is. Before familiar red velvet curtains, Rebekah del Rio falls to the floor and Llandro keeps playing, the film cracks and perspectives and identities shift. With silence, the illusion that is the film world falls away.

“Silence is beautiful,” Lynch told Sarah Kanowski. “They say that this field within each one of us is infinite silence and infinite dynamism together. Just the word silence is very interesting to think about. It’s a beautiful, beautiful word.”


 Angelo Badalamenti’s long, languid sustained ‘cluster chords’ are hallmarks of Lynch films and here, in an earlier scene, as amnesiac Rita discovers the dead body of Diane Selwyn and realizes she is in mortal danger, one of Badalamenti’s chords stands in for her scream. Badalamenti has often spoken of the close bond between himself and Lynch. Whether he’s narrating the creation of Twin Peaks’ theme, causing Lynch to laugh so hard he required surgery for a hernia with his attempts to rap, or writing NME’s favourite film soundtrack of all time, their closeness is evident. It was clearly a big move for Lynch to step away from the man on whom he’d relied as a composer for 20 years when he decide not simply to pen lyrics for Badalamenti, but compose music himself, and sing it on his most recent film, 2006’s Inland Empire.

Lynch has always embraced new technologies, particularly those that grant him greater control over his art. He left film and TV altogether to focus on creating animations for and pledged never to use film stock again now that digital allowed so much creative control. An artist with nearly limitless tools at his disposal, Lynch focused on music and released two albums, Crazy Clown Time (2011) and The Big Dream (2013) both loaded with celebrity guests and recorded at his home studio.

“If I’m honest, I’m a non-musician and there are great musicians in the world, great players and singers. And what they’ve done is inspire me so much that I’m off with my lunchbox into the studio to try and have fun in the world they’ve inspired,” he said in the documentary Making the Big Dream. Inspiration is possibly the most profound gift Lynch has given from all of his art, and it is powerfully present in music today. Chillwave, dub step, witch house, dream pop - all of these atmosphere-driven genres and sub-genres venerate the work Lynch has done.

In one of the more notable examples, Lana Del Rey seemingly took a 2011 Guardian article referencing David Lynch's influence on her music as a challenge to cram as many Lynch references as possible into a two-minute version of Blue Velvet in a advertisement she made for H&M.

Lynch’s finest musical moment since launching his musical career is an iTunes bonus track I'm Waiting Here from his album The Big Dream. The track is a duet with Swedish songstress Lykke Li and showcases all his favourite musical tropes: reverbed guitars, ominous bass, sparse rhythm and a prominent breathy falsetto. It’s a reminder that, unlike many great musicians and filmmakers of the last 30 years, Lynch knows when to leave part of the job to someone else and, unusually for such a noted auteur, can play well with others.

Along with, tellingly, a remix, I’m Waiting Here is his most recent, and one of his strongest songs and when those factors coincide, it bodes well for whatever the future holds.