POP MUSIC / Every little fluffy cloud has a silver lining: The sky's the limit when it comes to stories about the ditziness of Rickie Lee Jones. But, as Giles Smith hears, that's nowhere near the whole story

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Rickie Lee Jones is back in the singles chart - or at least, a clip of her voice is. That's her you hear on 'Little Fluffy Clouds', a piece of plinky-plunky ambient music by The Orb, and she's not singing, but talking.

The clip is taken from an interview with Jones by an American DJ, recorded in 1989 and sent out with copies of the Flying Cowboys album to journalists and radio stations. Ostensibly an innocuous promotional item, the recording actually contains one of the most remarkable moments in the history of rock interviewing. After a couple of standard questions about the new album, the DJ, utterly without warning, adopts a syrupy, Simon Bates-style tone and tosses her one from left field: 'What were the skies like when you were a child?'

Now, this is probably not the sort of questioning tactic you would employ with Motorhead's Lemmy, or Sammy from Van Halen. But Jones doesn't miss a beat, coming back with an eloquent hommage to the heavens of her youth, their vastness, the regular presence in them of 'little fluffy clouds' . . . All in all, it's more ammunition for those who have got Jones marked down as ditzy and a bit of a fruitcake - which is less than half of the story.

In a London hotel briefly this week, promoting her new album Traffic from Paradise, Jones bunched herself up on a sofa and talked for an hour. 35 last Monday, she has a small, far-away voice, clotted and adenoidal and sometimes she drops into a long, slow sentence that tails off, or gets pulled back with a drawled 'Well, anyway . . .' Occasionally, though, the voice hardens into something lower and more steely. (Neither of these tones, incidentally, so much as hints at the volume available to her when she sings. At one point she demonstrated a line from a song, and the windows of the hotel room appeared briefly to bow outwards.)

This was, it should be noted, a Non-Smoking hotel room. Her manager insisted on it. And just before Jones arrived, he hid from sight the room's shiningly clean glass ashtray, just so there should be no confusion. Such fastidiousness on Jones's behalf may surprise anyone who remembers the cover of her first album, which pictures her in a red beret, eyes closed, dragging hard on a cigarillo - an image which, at the time, seemed like the very definition of cool. But that was 14 years ago, years in which Jones has seen off a drug problem, sat through a five-year premature retirement and undergone what would appear to be a far-reaching character overhaul.

During her childhood in Chicago, Jones's father sang, played the trumpet, wrote songs and tried, without success, to break into showbusiness. He taught his daughter to sing Rodgers and Hart's 'My Funny Valentine', teasing her because she couldn't manage the shift from minor to major in the third line. (In the sad and aching concert version of this song appears on the 1983 album Girl at Her Volcano, Jones sings alone at the piano, teasing the melody into long, mournful arcs. It would have to be among her finest recorded performances: 'And I think the phrasing in it comes from my father, the way he would sing it.')

As a teenager she ran off to Los Angeles and, in the years up to and around her debut album, she had an easily mythologised crazy phase. She was going out with Tom Waits (Jones is the woman in red on the cover of Waits's Blue Valentine album) and as Waits told the American writer Timothy White: 'She was drinking a lot then and I was too, so we drank together. I remember her getting her first pair of high heels, at least since I knew her, and coming by one night to holler in my window to take her out celebrating. There she was, walking down Santa Monica Boulevard, drunk and falling off her shoes.'

Her debut album, Rickie Lee Jones, which contained the perpetually catchy 'Chuck E's in Love', rushed her into the big league. It was a collection of pop tunes, sung with a pure, vibrato-free voice ('like Miles Davis' she says) in a beat poet's street talk. People compared her with Joni Mitchell (whom Jones immediately began noisily slagging off, mostly for being a 'fake' jazz artist). The album had richly dark moments - the heart-sinking ballad 'Company' and a slower-than-slow number about desolation called 'Coolsville', which nearly didn't make it to the album after her father had a bad time listening to the demo. But still the over-riding impression was that these songs came from some fabulously loose-limbed, laid-back place in which people roamed around in friendly gangs, spending nights in 'Danny's All-Star Joint' where 'they got a juke box that goes doyt-doyt'. It turns out that this community was just a carefully tuned illusion.

'Friends? I was making all of those up. Most of those came from Sal Bernardi's stories. (Bernardi is Jones's long-term guitarist.) He loves to tell stories about these people from New Jersey. I used to go and hang out at the Troubadour, stand out in front. But none of those people were friends. None of them were people I could have called to loan me five dollars or pick me up at the bus station.'

Terrified by the rapidity of her success, Jones buried herself in working on the follow-up. Pirates came out in 1981. Its protracted songs and daringly featureless arrangements left Jones's voice more space to climb around in, to lift to extraordinary heights and then swoop to a mumble. The album was received as a masterpiece.

'The pressure had been, prove it again,' she says firmly. 'And I did it again and I did it better, in a completely different way from what was expected. I worked at night. All I think of when I think of that album is night-time. I got up when the sun was going down, and all the world was night-time for a couple of years. I was full of pain and I was always fighting with people. And really lonely and really frightened about what was going to happen in my life - was I ever going to meet anybody, what was going to happen? I lived in fear and anger every moment. All that stuff is wonderful fuel for making things. So I made good work, but my memory of it is of a dark time.'

The collapse came after her third album, The Magazine, released in 1984. 'I was remaking myself, looking back at my life and at what might have lead me to drugs.' To which end, Jones devised a concert which was half spoken-word and explicitly therapeutic in intent, built on an examination of her childhood. The keyboard player had to play in character as 'the imaginary girl'; the bass-player played Jones's father. 'Little did they know when they auditioned what they were letting themselves in for. Each show became more reckless and less effective. When I got to Los Angeles, I was at the Universal Amphitheatre. And it's hard to play in a town where everybody knows you. So I had a really bad, really bad, historically bad night. After that show is when I quit working for five years.'

The 'remaking' took place in this break. 'I didn't have any coping skills. I was really mal-adjusted, I was having to learn things that other people seemed to know. Before I was 24, I couldn't apologise for anything. Courtesies felt like giving something up. Like someone in traffic, who if they let you out, it's like they're losing status. Now I'm really good at 'I'm sorry'. I'm sorry all day long.'

Her comeback album Flying Cowboys was released in 1989, and after that came a batch of cover versions, Pop Pop, in 1991. Traffic from Paradise follows her divorce from the musician and producer Pascal Nabet-Meyer, and a long struggle for the custody of her child, Charlotte. It is dark and weighty and slow to unfurl, but like every Rickie Lee Jones recording, gets carried along by the breeze at some points. It may well be her best piece since Pirates, though Jones is not being too specific about it: the first track 'Pink Flamingos' was written 'in Sweden. Or Norway. Or somewhere'. Recording started last year, 'In September. Or maybe July. I get lost.'

Whatever, the album's biggest surprise is a languid cover version of David Bowie's 'Rebel Rebel'. 'I like songs like that and I do them sometimes in concert if I'm feeling really gay. I think I'm void of basic beat-sexual material. I don't write it, but I like it. I don't like dance music at all but I love strong rhythms. They just don't come from me naturally.

'It's a risky business doing covers. People wonder why you're doing that. I think it's not all that serious. People have asked me since, did I like 'glamour' or 'glitter' or whatever it's called. Yeah, right. Can't you tell? Look at my platform shoes.'

'Traffic from Paradise', Geffen GED24602

(Photograph omitted)