Artist to Artist: Jill Jones—She Is

I had the extraordinary pleasure of interviewing singer/songwriter Jill Jones in 2016 as part of my Artist to Artist column for the now-defunct–just a couple months before Prince passed, as she prepared to release her album ‘I Am.’ This week, I’m joining a crew of fellow Prince music heads, aka the Purple Avengers, for a special month-long #PrinceTwitterThread dedicated to Jill’s incredible albeit unsung career. So I decided to share our interview here as a reminder of just how truly badass she is. Enjoy!

Cover of Jill Jones’ 2016 album, ‘I Am’

Summer 1987. Just weeks before school ended and I headed down to New Orleans to vacation with my grandparents, I procured my copy of singer/songwriter Jill Jones’ debut album on Prince’s Paisley Park Records. It was to be the newest addition to my growing cassette collection comprised primarily of Prince and Prince-related artists like The Time, Apollonia 6, Sheila E., Madhouse, and later that year, Wendy & Lisa and Taja Sevelle (and of course, The Family’s 1985 premiere on vinyl). 

If right here is where you pause and ask, “Who is Jill Jones?,” let me hip you. She is the platinum blonde in a police hat sharing the keyboards with Lisa Coleman in the “1999” video, and whose voice you hear on songs like “Lady Cab Driver” and “Free” from that album. She reprised her role as Jill/herself in the quasi-sequel to Purple Rain, 1990’s Graffiti Bridge, bringing a decidedly sharp and far more interesting (although not fully developed) contrast to the enchanting Ingrid Chavez’s Aura. She has written, recorded, and toured with our beloved “Vanilla Child,” Teena Marie, Nile Rodgers’ and Bernard Edwards’ pioneering soul/pop band CHIC, Japanese singer Ryuichi Sakamoto, and The Grand Royals. 

Jill Jones in ‘Purple Rain’

Where her first solo album was a soulful, funk-driven 8-song collection that allowed Jones’ vocals to shine through, it was still, at its core, a Prince project co-produced by Jones and David Z. (even including a rather spectacular version of his song “With You.”) The opening track, the absolutely delightful “Mia Bocca,” surfaced a year earlier during the infamous birthday party scene in Under the Cherry Moon (and, years later, gave me one of my favorite lines with which to flirt, “tu vuole la mia bocca.”) “G-Spot,” a “nicety” little tune that is about exactly what you think it’s about, was originally meant for Vanity 6 and then Apollonia 6; and “All Day, All Night” and “For Love” both feature Prince and the Revolution prominently. The album’s third track, “Violet Blue,” is a standout, and the closing song, the masterful “Baby, You’re a Trip,” is gospel-flavored R&B at its finest.

In 2001, Jones returned with Two, an acoustic rock venture with producer/songwriter/guitarist Chris Bruce, who has also collaborated with Wendy & Lisa, Seal, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Doyle Bramhall II. A far more personal and introspective offering that Jones cited as a healing experience after her mother’s death and going through a divorce, the album delivered cuts like “Sleepy Daydream,” “Station,” and “Pissin’ All Over the Sun.” Two’s emotional and lyrical depth, new millennium production values, and distinct sound established a more well-defined, self-possessed musical identity for Jones and seemed to release her from the “Prince protégée” category that far too frequently suggests—even if not intentionally—that an artist can’t stand on their own without Prince’s guidance and influence. And while both albums gained some traction in the U.S., they fared far better overseas, where musical tastes are notoriously more adventurous.

Following Two, Jones was the featured vocalist on The Grand Royals’ 2004 album, Wasted. After that, she all but faded into the background. 

Jill’s eponymous 1987 Paisley Park album. A classic!

During our spirited and incredibly enlightening interview, Jones described her years away from the music business as a time of extraordinary, albeit sometimes extremely painful, growth, even going so far as to try to separate herself from the persona many had come to know: “I had to re-build…I bar-tended. I remember a member of the Wu-Tang Clan came into the bar and he said, ‘You’re Jill Jones!’ And I was like, ‘No, I’m not.’ And I was speaking with a French accent. There was this shame…I had just disconnected and disassociated and pulled myself away. I cut out everybody.”

For more than an hour, we talked at length about everything from our shared affinity for music from other cultures (she’s currently working on a documentary exploring the origins of music and how seemingly disparate musical forms are connected, like the music from the Bedouin tradition and the music of Louisiana); to the socio/political realities African Americans confront still in 2016; to the ridiculous Twitter beef between Kanye West and Wiz Khalifa; Amber Rose’s mission to reclaim and redirect the word “slut;” and why it’s so critical that we support our fellow Black artists: “I have a very difficult time criticizing any form of Black art. I will privately give my [opinion]…but we don’t have the luxury do that to one another. We need to support endeavors within our own community. We have to.”

With her brand new album, I AM (Peace Bisquit)—her first solo project in 15 years, out today, Jill Jones emerges like a Phoenix, having overcome the trials and tribulations that seem to have become commonplace for most artists working in the music business. Still, Jones’ story is unique and truly inspiring, and like so many unsung music creators her journey has proven to be simultaneously cautionary and magical. Jones deliberately set out to record happy songs for the new album, songs with humor and confidence to uplift and empower. 

What an absolute joy to feature the original Jill, Jill Jones, in our exclusive Artist to Artist series. Lets talk about your new album, I AM. How does this latest project exemplify all that you are?

Jill Jones: This project came about because I had reached a place in my life where I was comfortable with who I am. During this time, when you let go of all the other concepts of what someone thinks of you or how you need to be, I found peace with who I was. And I decided I am who I want to be at this point. I got into Kundalini yoga a few years ago and started a serious meditation practice because I wanted to change some things. And then I realized there were some things that I’m not going to change—these are soul experiences that I just have to learn, and they’re not going to change until I finally accept what they are. It had become very easy to focus on the sad aspects of my life—the death of my mother, a divorce. I spent the 15 years after that album not really being comfortable in my own skin, not accepting the parting of my mother, not being involved with a label and having to do everything myself. I became kind of angry about it. 

I went into advertising—which was great for me. I wasn’t pleasant to be around in the music situation because I had so much resentment. I felt music was one of the love affairs of my life that was unrequited, something that always left me hanging. It was like a really bad lover! Then I realized it was me the whole time. Once I went into marketing and advertising—I worked in business procurement for an ad agency—it was a very empowering moment for me to get outside of the little [music industry] bubble. The ad agency wound up being the college I never attended. Once I finally got out of the whole tune of melancholy, and I was raising my daughter as a single mom…there was this whole re-structuring and going all the way down like Persephone into the depths. Rebuilding put me back to “this is who I am.” And I wanted to celebrate that. Did you miss music? Did you find yourself feeling even more disconnected not doing it?

Jill Jones: I did miss it, but I did cut it off. I wanted to be angry about it, to always have some negative thing to say. I was scared, I was terrified! I didn’t want to be rejected, I didn’t want everybody to know that I was a failure. It was a very interesting time for me. There was so much humiliation. It was like, “What am I going to do, and how am I going to do this?” You struck a chord with me there, because as an independent artist Im going through a very similar experience and often find myself wondering if Im meant to keep working at it or if its time to walk away. I suppose this is part of the creative journey.

Jill Jones: There are enough things in this world devised to silence us, to squash our voices. The worst thing a person can do is silence themselves. Living with that silence—there is great solitude, and then there’s this cold, barren, isolated silence…but you’ve got to walk through it. You’ve got to keep going. Of course, a lot of folks reading this will remember you from your years with Prince. You released one album on Paisley Park Records in 1987, which many (myself included) regard as a slept-on classic. Can you talk about that experience a bit, working and recording with Prince and ultimately parting ways?

Jill Jones: [The Paisley Park record] wasn’t the typical pop thing that was going on at the time. It wasn’t that we didn’t try it; you’ve heard those bootlegs of the songs Prince has given to many people to try, like “Misunderstood” and so many other songs. And to be honest with you, they just didn’t work for me. I sounded goofy, and he knew it. There was no conviction. When we recorded together, sometimes I’d sing a pass on something and then I’d say, “Was that OK?” And he’d say, “If I believe it, I don’t care about bad notes. If I believe it, then I’m cool with it.” So we tried those little pop sassy songs that would’ve been on parallel with Paula Abdul and what was happening in that era, and it just didn’t work. There was such a lack of authenticity, it was really difficult to pull that off. When we added strings and lush sounds and rich, rich ambient energies in the first album, even in [the “Mia Bocca”] video it said, “They’re not ready for you yet,” which was added on the fly by [director Jean-Baptiste] Mondino in the voice over. I think, for some reason, that was the energy surrounding me. It just wasn’t the time. As an industry veteran, youve no doubt you have watched the music biz morph multiple times throughout your career. Youve also been pretty outspoken on social media about some of the less savory aspects of the business. With this in mind, are there certain practices or standards from back in the day that you think the industry could use now?

Jill Jones: The industry has changed so much, and on the other hand, it really hasn’t. There’s still that propensity to keep one sound—everybody using the same writers, etc. If anything, it’s become even more of a monopoly that now is showing you exactly how it takes care of itself. You have the publishing companies who have their writers, you have the singers with their labels, and you see how they all feed and they eat and everybody works together. When that happens, it’s really difficult if publishers are pushing certain select writers. A lot of the singers don’t play instruments—even the writers…so they give them the same songs that will fit A, B, C, and D. Then you have writers like Sia, who actually has fueled the industry for a lot of the major pop acts, and she has to resort to gimmicks. Maybe her image wasn’t as big as, say, Rihanna. But the reality is…the music is being performed by anybody who has the tone and the voice [for those songs]. But what about the people like me, whose tones and voices didn’t fit this little genre? They have to find a different movement, and the industry doesn’t support that. And our R&B sensibilities…what happened to soul music? It’s not being supported. But that comes from the masses, too—going to shows, buying records, being involved. 

In May 2017, I flew from Vegas to LA for one night only just to see Jill perform. It was an intimate set where she shared memories from years gone by and stories behind some of our favorite tunes she recorded with Prince. With R&B and soul, we hear so often from artists working in that space that theyre feeling really pinched, too. They dont feel supported by the labels, the fans dont necessarily know what theyre listening to because its become so hip-hop-centered. 

Jill Jones: We have this mantra in our industry that “I have to profit somehow, then I’m valuable.”  Then you have the existential thing of, “I need money. I need more money. I need so much money, you can’t talk to me!” That’s what’s driving the creative expression on a certain level. Your daughter, Azusena, is an emerging musical artist. What wisdom have you imparted to her as she wades into these dazzling and sometimes murky waters?

Jill Jones: Everything I said to you! [laughs] I don’t mince words. I really believe you have to do a lot of it yourself these days, and you have to have conviction. You have to be self-critical, create things you can live with and that you can feel comfortable with. You have to be so built up and during the period of creating your music, you have to generate your own evolution. Lets go back to your early career. But where did this journey begin for you? How did you get your start?

Jill Jones: My mother was Teena Marie’s manager, and my step-father was Fuller Gordy and he worked at Motown. Teena had been signed with a band and [the label] dropped the band, but they didn’t know what to do with her. Her relationship with my mother opened another door; she gained direct access to Berry Gordy and was really on his radar, and he got to know her and her passion. Teena was writing all the time, she wrote all her songs and recorded everyday. The connection with Rick [James] came about because my mom had met him and we had dinners at the house. It was like a great family environment, believe it or not. I started singing background vocals for Teena—she lived in our house, she was like one of my mom’s kids. We started writing songs and when she started working with Rick…I started leaving [school] and going to his house with a bunch of my friends. I’d show up at like 10:30 in the morning, and he told my mom! Rick ratted me out! He snitched! He was like, “You need to be in school, Jill!” [laughs] 

We went on tour with Rick, then Teena was opening for Prince—I think it was 1980, the Dirty Mind tour. That’s how I met Prince. He and I stayed friends, I finished school, then we started working together. CHIC…was that really weird phase where my mom had just died a year prior, and I was in New York alone with my daughter. Nile reached out and I took the gig. That was a great tour, but it was unfortunately the one where Bernard died on the tour. When I got back from Japan, Nile had left a voice message that Bernard had passed away. I’m glad I was a part of that. It was a great show, and he was such a lovely person. Any plans to tour to promote the new album?

Jill Jones: Yes, probably initially over in Europe. You know I’m half the time in Germany and half the time in LA. I’m involved in a company that has software that’s a recording process, all in real-time, so I can record with anybody all over the world. It’s a very sophisticated piece of work, so since I’m over there I try to do some gigs while also working on getting this product out in America (it’s in Europe already).

—Rhonda Nicole


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