"I love these pictures! They're so cute!" bubbles Linda Ronstadt as she surveys the Howard Chandler Christy murals of frolicking nymphs that line the walls of Café des Artistes.
"My favorite model in the whole world is that girl over there who looks like a naked version of Snow White," she announces, pointing across the room to a painting of a saucy nymph talking with a Spanish soldier.
Ms. Ronstadt arranges herself at a corner table of the restaurant, one of her favorite Manhattan watering holes in the early 1980's, when she owned a co-op nearby in those days, she was the All-American princess of California rock, eager to explore less commercial musical avenues. Her adventures in everything from operetta to Mexican pop would consume much of her artistic energy for the next decade and a half.
Today, along with performers like Paul Simon, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell and Marianne Faithfull, she stands as an elder stateswoman of a pop culture in which everyone over 35 is considered elder. And she has left the Los Angeles-New York axis: a single mother of two adopted children, she divides her time between two houses, one in her hometown of Tucson, Ariz., the other in San Francisco. The record business still brings her to New York occasionally, although she comes reluctantly now, she says.
After a musical career that has spanned more than three decades and a romantic life that has included relationships with Jerry Brown, the former Governor.of California, and George Lucas, the film director, Ms. Ronstadt still has the air of a slightly breathless ingénue. Dressed casually in a nondescript black top and black pants, her hair in a no-nonsense bob, and wearing almost no makeup, she exudes the peppy eagerness of a cheerleader, an aging Snow White.
"I'm 48 years old," she declares. "I don't look like I did when I was 38; I don't look like I did when I was 28. It's got to be O.K. somehow. You've got to look in the mirror and go, 'This is reality, and it's all right.' I don't want to hide from that. I want to sing about it as part of my reality."
She sounds vital and engaged on her newest album," Feels Like Home" (Elektra), a typically eclectic collection of rock, folk and pop tunes. Her gorgeous coluntry-pop wail is fuller and rangier than ever. The record reflects her superb taste in songs and her interest in what she calls "layering," creating exquisite musical textures by combining voices and instruments, one on top of the other, in an orchestral fashion. She treats pop as a vernacular classical music. In today's rough-and-tumble pop climate where hip-hop and metal rule, this sort of refined esthetic has lost its foothold.
Ms. Ronstadt insists that she is not terribly concerned with declining record sales. "My career is secure enough at this point, where I can continue with things I personally love to do on one scale or another and enjoy myself," she says. "I have rarely felt I had to be up-to-theminute.
"Back in 1967 and '68, I used to think that a person who had a really enviable career was Judy Collins, because she was respected and did these kind of classic things. She was never the next big thing, so she didn't have to be the has-been three years later."
Ms. Ronstadt's perkiness seems at odds with the sophistication of what she has to say. Over a meal of cold poached salmon and salad, she describes in technical detail the creation of an album that changed twice in concept before being completed. Her account includes a disquisition on the glass harmonica, an esoteric instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin, which is used on the album. And she offers precisely articulated thoughts on regional accents in American rock-and-roll.
She also talks guardedly about the joys and pressures of being the mother of two children, ages 3 and 1, and about her exit from Los Angeles.
The new album blends songs by Randy Newman, Tom Petty and Neil Young with traditional and old-time numbers. Among the high points are the title song, from Mr. Newman's score for his musical-comedy version of the Faust legend; an ethereal harmonization of Mr. Young's song "After the Goldrush," and a country-rock ballad, "The Blue Train," whose swooping vocals were inspired, Ms. Ronstadt says, by watching Brian Boitano, the Olympic figure skater.
The album was originally envisioned as a follow-up to "Trio," the million-selling country record she made in 1987 with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, but Ms. Parton dropped out because of scheduling problems (Ms. Harris sings on three tracks).
With its choice of material, finely textured arrangements and powerful, heartfelt singing, "Feels Like Home" is one of Ms. Ronstadt's strongest albums. But for all its strengths, it has sold only modestly, peaking at 75 on Billboard's pop album chart and selling a little more than 50,000 copies in its first month.
Ms. Ronstadt is keenly aware that her brand of intelligent pop eclecticism has been pushed to the margin of the commercial mainstream. Two decades have passed since she and Joni Mitchell reigned as the queens of Los Angeles rock. That was before Madonna, who has dominated pop for more than 10 years. Today's rock, made by younger female contenders like Courtney Love, Liz Phair and P. J. Harvey, has a much rougher edge.
"It was kind of remarkable to me that I didn't have any idea who the Grammy nominees were except for Bonnie Raitt," Ms. Ronstadt observes. "But it's really O.K. I'm not supposed to be concerned with that music. And yet there's plenty of music around that I really like. Emmylou and I are both Maria Callas fans. We listen to that all the time. She's the greatest chick singer ever.
"I learn more about bluegrass singing, more about singing Mexican songs, more about singing rock-androll from listening to Maria Callas records than I ever would from listening to pop music for a month of Sundays."
She stops talking to hum a few bars from "'The Barber of Seville."
A series of moves has carried her farther and farther away from the show-business mainstream. Artistically, there were her three albums of American popular standards, recorded with Nelson Riddle; two Mexican albums, and one record of Latin American standards. Geographically, there were her move from Los Angeles to San Francisco and, more recently, her return to Tucson, her hometown, after a 30-year absence.
"Los Angeles became too enclosing an environment," she says. "I couldn't breathe the air, and I didn't want to drive on the freeways to get to the studio. I also didn't want to embrace the values that have been so completely embraced by that city. Are you glamorous? Are you rich? Are you important? Do you have clout? It's just not me, and it never was me."
Bringing up a family has given Ms. Ronstadt a good excuse to cut down on performing, an activity she has never particularly enjoyed. She is happiest, she says, staying home with her children, although she will return to New York later this year, to play Radio City Music Hall with her rock band in May and to perform with Rosemary Clooney at Carnegie Hall in July.
"I've done many of the things I wanted to do in my life" she says. "I've had a very active social life, I've had a very active romantic life. I've traveled all over the world. And what I'd really like to do now is stay home. I love to read. I love being at home and being part of a family. I love hanging around my brothers and sister and nieces and nephews with a house full of kids screaming and yelling."
Ms. Ronstadt feels no need to find a man and build a picture-perfect nuclear family. "There's no such thing as the perfect mate," she says. "There's the relationship you are able to renew. That's not really conducive to a person with a life like mine, which is by nature episodic. I think what our culture supports is serial monogamy, which is exactly what I subscribe to. What's important is that my children have a loving family that includes both male and female role models: loving uncles, loving aunts, loving grandparents, loving friends."
The waiter arrives with a thick slice of Key lime pie, and Ms. Ronstadt digs in hungrily.
"Being a mother takes you out of the center stage," she continues between bites. "Really, it's their turn. When Philip Glass once asked me to come and sing music I'd recorded on his record, I said: 'God, I hate performing. I especially hate to go into another genre without the chance to really practice. I'll just die of fright.' And he said: 'Look at it this way. It's not your show. You're not the most important one, so you don't have to be afraid.' So I said O.K., and I did, and it worked.
"A lot of the anxiety, the daily angst, is generated by being self-centered and thinking, 'Oh, God, the whole world is waiting to see if I can pull this one off.' And it turns out that it just isn't that important. What's important is making sure these little people have a proper beginning and are given some kind of tools to deal with God knows what they'll have to deal with in the future."