For It's About The Words & Conversations, Rickie Lee Jones talks about the impact of Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea in her life and an ongoing desire for connection.
A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) is the story of a young wizard named Ged who lives in the fictional archipelago of Earthsea. He is sent to school for wizards to complete his studies and clearly destined for greatness, he starts to show a growing ego. Full of jealously and anger toward another student, he attempts a dangerous spell to prove his power. The spell goes wrong and a shadow creature enters the world.
The shadow is only defeated when Ged learns to understand, through an inward journey of self-reflection, that he and the shadow are one. The shadow represents his dark side having been conceived out of ego. He accepts himself for all he is--both that of good and bad. And with that understanding, he becomes whole once again.
Howard: How did you find A Wizard of Earthsea?
Rickie Lee: I was walking in Paris, probably around 1986, and I came across this huge British bookstore that had a small American section and I just saw it and picked it up.
Howard: I loved her use of mythical elements, magic and wizardry to frame the storyline of personal growth and maturation.
Rickie Lee: This is written way before Hogwarts...
Howard: There are so many great themes in this story. What impacted you most?
Rickie Lee: I found a connection to Ged when he's at the wizard school. He's an adept student with nothing but potential for greatness. And I connected with his growing restlessness and need to prove his worth after his ego got damaged. Le Guin describes so beautifully the tear in the fabric of the world he creates and the entry of the shadow that attacks Ged and almost eats him alive.
The more I age the more I realize that ego is the only thing guiding us to greatness. And what leads us astray.
I related to this so much about my own career. I felt I had been the adept student and through my own ego opened up a rip in my own universe and let my own shadow in to eat all that I might have been.
And as I read Earthsea over and over I thought "This is the story of me."
Howard: So you came to the realization that your shadow (ego) made you aware of how to use your gift to make an impact.
Rickie Lee: When I tried to write esoteric and lovely things for the better good of all, I learned I don't have a very powerful voice. What gives power to my writing, and anybody's writing, is their personal experience. The personal tear is what makes others cry their personal tear.
I do know the ego is essential for great work, but it's also the thing that can hurt. I figure most artists are driven by this need to be noticed and loved and they never will fill that void. You see that often with young, great people. They usually go too far.
Howard: Did you feel that when you first read Earthsea?
Rickie Lee: I feel that now having read it many times over the years. When I read about him opening up the universe and letting in the shadow that was so real for me.
Howard: His journey through Earthsea is an inward one of self-discovery. And Ged discovers the shadow is the dark side-of himself.
Rickie Lee: Someone said to Ged that everything in this world has a name, and if you know its name you can control it. So he decides to go with that wisdom, and in one particular encounter, when the shadow suddenly sneaks up and is about to grab him, he turns toward the shadow and the shadow runs away.
And so he knows the shadow is himself.
What other evil can we loosen but our own?
Howard: When you read that, were there things that changed in the way you approached your life?
Rickie Lee: It's about forgiveness. The only way for that wizard to become a truly great sage is to forgive himself. Through that he can forgive everybody...and teach others how to forgive.
I believe you can't simply "aim" to be altruistic. He gets there because he is in the deep water of forgiving himself. I always think when you aim at others, it's harder to create an authentic thing. You have to aim at yourself to begin.
Howard: Were you able to forgive yourself?
Rickie Lee: I have been doing more forgiving recently. It's hard. Even just talking about it now helps me see it but there was a time where the judgment against myself was so profound. Where I am now, I can forgive and love her and understand that there was no other path to take because that's the path she took.
But I still feel the residue of angry judgment. The judgment comes from "could have" and "what if."
Howard: I have punished myself over a number of things and it took years for me to forgive myself. Living with a focused energy on forgiving, it's an incredibly hard thing to do.
Rickie Lee: It is. And we forgive others way easier than ourselves.
Howard: Let's talk about forgiving others and your interaction with your audience. Did you have to embed an element of forgiveness into that relationship?
Rickie Lee: Oh that's nice. My first 10 years were totally in fear on stage.
Howard: Of what?
Rickie Lee: Of being rejected, of seeing that perhaps I'm not really worthy of being there. Of them not liking me, and sending me home. Of me making a mistake.
And you know, I never really thought of it this way, but maybe it had to do with forgiveness because I decided to go on stage by myself. Up until then it always had to be in a band. And to do these pop songs alone, was so... to be naked.
And a kind of reversal happened.
I realized, "They've come to be loved. They want to be safe and healed for the two hours that they're there."
Howard: It sounds that because of your fear, you were asking them for forgiveness "just in case."
Rickie Lee: Completely.
I used to think, "I'm not good enough. And, please let me sing for you."
And suddenly this whole conversation left my art and it went toward "You and me being good enough has nothing to do with why we're sitting together."
And that was wonderful. It's not so much fear though fear is still a part of it and I don't know why. But I do know that if I make a mistake, the world won't end.
And learning that one thing has been really wonderful for me.
Howard: Are you contemplative on stage? You sound contemplative to me.
Rickie Lee: I am both. But I am more contemplative, funny, and intense on stage.
Howard: We talked a lot about the idea of forgiveness. Is this something that you consciously think about, a focus each day?
Rickie Lee: Yes, but it depends. One can set out and say that's going be one of the boats I sail in. I think that if you're pressed to be a forgiving person it can only be so by trial, so if times are very hard than that's what you have to contend with.
"Can I forgive what's happening?"
If things are going well then forgiveness isn't exactly going to be the theme of your day. So for me there are really serious trials happening, and forgiveness is a big theme.
Yeah, I didn't really think of that, but it is a big theme.
Howard: Is there anything "big" that you want to accomplish or is it more just trying to become as whole as you can?
Rickie Lee: I have specific ego things I want to do. I want to express and act, and write. I want someone to ask me to write. I want to be invited into other people's lives. I've lived a life secluded and sequestered and now I guess what I'd like to do is be invited.
This might not happen.
This might not be my spirit. Maybe I was sent here to go at it alone, and maybe where I offer inspiration and have power is alone.
But if you ask me, I'd like to be invited.
And the other part I imagine...I often fantasize of setting down show business, leaving and going to some humble place to serve. I would like to go help on a personal basis. Of being one-to-one again.
Howard: So let me ask you this: If you do have a desire to act or write, why don't you do the inviting?
Rickie Lee: Well actually I do, and that's why I start to wonder about my fate. Because I will call a manager and he doesn't know anybody, I'll go see an agent and I never hear back from them. I have some actor friends, who tell me: "You're so interesting!" But nobody invites me or says "Come and play with us."
And if I'm not invited, then I don't really want to go there.
Howard: This writing series I am doing was an idea I had years ago and it took me many attempts to knock down the door to get people to listen. Something in me drove it...almost as if I had no choice.
People sometimes are more powerful than they think they are.
Rickie Lee: I'll think about that. I better head over and knock on the door.
Howard: You said you lived your life secluded. By choice?
Rickie Lee: Initially by choice. I'm a lone person, and I was as a kid too. But in the last five or seven years, I've really tried to make friends. I've called people up and said "Let's go out," and I can't seem to get anything going. And it gets messy because when you're young, you really think your fame will buy you something. And you think that when you get older that fame won't be part of your story but it will always be.
You'll always go: "Wow, I thought that at least if I were famous somebody would come over to have coffee."
So what I start to think is as much as I might want it, it's not a thing that I learned how to do. I don't small talk. I'm kind of intense. I don't feel intense, but when I see me in film I go "Wow you're kind of intense!"
So being my friend is, is I don't know...
Howard: Loneliness is tough. I've been through that a lot. I would sometimes rather be alone and enjoy what I can create instead of pretending there is any wonderment in listening to "small talk." And I don't mean that to be judgmental. As I get older, I crave meaning and contribution and I guess the other stuff has just lost its relationship with me.
Life and soul have to be about true, loving connection.
Rickie Lee, what is next...what do you want to do?
Rickie Lee: I want to look at animals, and float around on a kayak and look at the birds, and I love that! And I like the water and the soft air.
Howard: It sounds like you're in need of nature.
Rickie Lee: Yeah nature. And maybe I'll make a friend or two that has nothing. I don't know maybe I won't like it, but at least I can see that it's nothing to do with show business.
Howard: You were a complete joy to meet and I enjoyed sharing with you.
Rickie Lee: Me too. It was my pleasure.
Rickie Lee Jones is currently working on a new album in New Orleans. This is the first new music she's written in over a decade. For more about Rickie Lee, please visit her website.