American songwriter on her hidden hip-hop roots, creative honesty, and collaboration…
First published in Clash Magazine on 8th August 2019.
“We can’t do anything about the shit out there,” Jenny Lewis says from the stage at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in West London, “but we’re all OK together in here.”
Bravely clad in figure-hugging, head-to-toe rose-gold sequins in spite of the atypical British heat still burgeoning outside the ram-packed venue, the Las Vegas-born musician oozes retro-edged glamour in her flame-red beehive and delivers a glitzy, soulful performance, every bit the music and style icon her reputation dictates.
The image she cuts on stage is in stark contrast to the laid-back woman in t-shirt and trainers I had the pleasure of speaking to just days earlier from a hotel room sofa at the K West.
Throughout our freewheeling chat that touches on Ariana Grande’s towering heels at Coachella, her love of boxing, and whether you sneeze when you eat peppermint, amongst more heavy-going topics, I feel the counteracting forces of an effusive warmth with an intimidating otherworldliness, as if speaking with a Hollywood film star of yesteryear.
Husky-toned statements end in pregnant pauses with eye contact firmly held, each anecdotal answer to a question leaving me on tenterhooks of what might come next.
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The American singer-songwriter’s life in the limelight began as a child actress, appearing in Troop Beverly Hills and Brooklyn Bridge, Baywatch and The Golden Girls, Jell-O and Toys R Us ads in the late 80s/early 90s, her earnings going to support her family after her parents separated.
She made her break into music heading up much-loved LA indie band Rilo Kiley from 1998, which saw success over four albums and tracks featured on the likes of Noughties teen obsessions The O.C. and Dawson’s Creek. As well as time spent in The Postal Service, Jenny & Johnny and Nice As Fur, Lewis has been pursuing a solo career since 2006’s ‘Rabbit Fur Coat’.
Earlier this year came the release of her fourth solo studio album, ‘On The Line’, to rapturous acclaim, delivering yet another installment of the particular brand of country-infused indie rock she has carved out for herself, which she has since been touring the US, Europe and many a festival stage with.
The journey to the album’s completion wasn’t an easy one – while 2014’s ‘The Voyager’ was preoccupied with the breakup of Rilo Kiley, facing her father’s death and suffering the tyranny of depression and insomnia, the five intervening years before the release of ‘On The Line’ brought their own set of challenges: the break down of her 12 year relationship with partner and musician Johnathan Rice and her mother’s death from cancer.
Yet while these life events may have left indelible marks on the singer-songwriter, the songs produced in their wake are counterintuitively dominated by spangly sing-along choruses, lucid images and strongly-drawn characters in immersive narratives. In her explanation of what inspired the album, she’s impossibly understated:
“Just life as it happens. All the things that you would imagine that happened between like 35 and 40. A lot of stuff happens in that period. So my songs either predict or mirror or shadow real life. I never know what I’m going to write about, I just kind of write about it.”
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In that respect, songwriting is often a kind of therapy for the artist: “I think it’s a feeling that births a song,” she explains thoughtfully. “And it’s usually a feeling of agony or pain. Music is kind of therapeutic. And in that way it’s something to turn to. It doesn’t have to come from that place but I feel like it’s always a feeling and then hopefully something catchy pops up.”
“In order for me to remember it, it has to be incredibly catchy or it’ll just disappear into the ether of my unfinished songs pile. From 12 years ago, I have this one called ‘The Scorpion and the Lily’, that’s just this thing that keeps unfolding. I don’t think it’s very good. I better stop…”
The intensely personal nature of her music means that the experience of releasing them out into the public realm can be a double-edged sword: “The life of a record is so funny because in the formative stage, it feels so potent. Working on it takes however long it takes. But this one took a minute, so to have it done and out in the world and now starting to see people know the songs, it’s really satisfying. But it’s also like, ‘How do you know that? That’s really personal! Stop singing along with that sir, it’s inappropriate!”
There’s also a process of translating the album tracks to work live: “On the road with a live band, you’re not playing any backing tracks, it’s all what we’re creating organically. So sometimes it doesn’t work, a record piece.”
In particular, she notes collaborator Beck, the first of many on the album, is a meticulous producer: “Everything is very deliberate. So unless you hit all those marks live, sometimes a song will feel not as great. It takes playing it out in front of people 20, 30 times where it’s like, mediocre. And then one night, you’re like, ‘we got it.’”
But it’s a collaboration she has found exhilarating, “to experience my own songs through like another artist’s prism, rather than like a straight engineer, there’s a trust. It’s exciting to just feel what is going to happen. It’s the room. It’s the cast of characters. It’s how you feel on that day. It’s the song. If the song sucks, it’s not going to fly. But once I had the songs, I was very open to send them off to college or whatever.”
Growing up with parents as lounge musicians in Las Vegas, music was always going to figure largely in Lewis’ life: “They had a band together. And so music is just in the genetics, like that’s just been the family thing. I grew up singing with my mom and my sister and my dad was a virtuosic harmonica player – genius – so music was just the family business. I also had this side thing as an actor, which was also the family business. But then I just started writing from a young age.”
Her mother’s singer-songwriter records were certainly a key influence but Lewis credits a love of hip-hop for her obsession and dexterity as a lyricist: “I think it was hip-hop that really got me into words. My mom was listening to Laura Nero and Barbra Streisand. But then it was my music, like A Tribe Called Quest, that was a huge, just poetic influence. It was Big Daddy Kane, it was like Run DMC. Souls of Mischief. EPMD – all this lyrical stuff. I’d write poetry and raps. And then someone taught me how to play a couple chords on the piano and the guitar and then that was it.”
It was then later that country music came onto Lewis’ radar, completing the “mixtape” of genres that define her output: “I got into Gram Parsons and the Byrds in the early 2000s, then into Bakersfield stuff a little bit later. It’s all about storytelling. I like very evocative storytelling.”
And it is that very love of storytelling that has led Lewis to sit apart as a songwriter, bringing the acute specificities of her experiences and musical education to bear on a sound that invites her listener into a distinct world via vivid imagery and often biting witty observations in each track.
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Opening with ‘Heads Gonna Roll’, the “lyrical mission statement,” featuring none other than Ringo Star plus a narcoleptic poet from Duluth, sycophants in Marrakech and nuns from Harlem, Lewis sees ‘On The Line’ as a story “from front to back. It begins with a breakup. But it’s really a rebound. And then a death and rebirth.”
“So the beginning, it’s like a play in my mind: here are the characters, now go for it. And Ringo’s on the first track. It’s a little braggy to put Ringo on the first track. But that is maybe the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me…”
Also featured on the record are Jim Keltner – “one of the all-time rock and roll drummers” – Benmont Tench, Don Was, Jim Keltner and Jason Falkner. Delectable melodies and nods to country-pop and 70s soft rock serve to seductively sugarcoat searingly poignant evocations of much darker subject matter, arguably the most candid reflections on her past her music has ever dealt with.
As Lewis admits, ‘Little White Dove,’ is the “funkiest song about mourning and grieving.” Tackling her mother’s heroin addiction, their decades-long estrangement and final reconciliation before she died in hospital from liver cancer, she sings, “A mother and child / Emergency behind a yellow curtain / On the second floor / All the guardian angels at the door / With their long white coats and stethoscopes” before leading into the line: “I’m the heroin.”
‘Wasted Youth’ ponders her years acting as a child, “I wasted my youth on a poppy / Doo-doo doo-doo doo, just because,” nodding to the hard-earned cash part-funding her mother’s opiate addiction. Stand out track ‘Red Bull & Hennessy’, hits on her painful break from Rice, “And we had it all / It’s falling apart / Never getting back again without that spark.”
‘Party Clown’ brings us Fuji apples, scorpions, beetles floating in red wine, while asking: “Can you be my puzzle piece, baby? / When I cry like Meryl Streep.”
Amid heartbreak and grief, lust and infatuation, cynical detachment and raw emotion, there’s a thread of black humour, as is pointed to in the album opener: “And maybe after all is said and done / We’ll all be skulls.”
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Having become increasingly adept as a solo artist, Lewis still looks back at first leaving her band as challenging: “Those were the best times ever. It’s so amazing to see things for the first time, especially with a bunch of your friends around. It was so potent, and so fresh, and so new that it was like as exciting as it ever has been.”
Branching out at first filled her with trepidation, she recalls: “I was terrified. Making my first solo record, my friend asked me to make it for his label. That wasn’t something that I would have done at that time. So I feel like I’ve been encouraged by people throughout my career. I’ve had these little spirit guides that have kind of like pushed me, like, ‘go do it. You can do it on your own.’”
That encouragement led her to surprise herself of just what she could achieve: “the art itself is the surprising part. When you realise you can do it. I remember hearing Rabbit Fur Coat off the tape in the studio after we had just cut. It was like live music. It sounded exactly like my dreams. It sounded like my soul. Band music is a collective soul but it’s different, it’s everyone’s experience. This was so personal.”
And now, she thrives on being, “the creative director of my world. I feel more comfortable doing it, you know, designing the set and directing the music videos. Like I directed the ‘Just One Of The Guys’ video” – a brilliantly fun ensemble of Kristen Stewart, Anne Hathaway and Brie Larson donning Adidas tracksuits and fake ‘taches – “which wouldn’t have happened in my band, because it would have been a co-directing thing. So I feel like as far as a full artistic vision goes – good or bad, it could suck! – now I want to be in charge of the whole thing. I don’t want to really like share.”
She reluctantly accepts a need to engage in the promotional side of the business, “though it is annoying, sometimes. But it is part of the whole thing. If I want to get my music out there, this presence is really important. So I try not to not to grumble about it. Because if you’re not making like top 40 music, how are people going to find out about your music?”
At least with Instagram, she’s determined to have a laugh with it: “I’ve tried to curate my Instagram in a way where it is 100% authentic. It is 100% me. So whatever you see on there, if it’s lame, it’s my fault,” she says with a laugh.
I get a preview of the latest of her surreal Insta Story videos, “shot at the Queen’s tennis centre. We opened for Death Cab For Cutie there a couple weeks ago. And that’s where Wes Anderson shot part of the Royal Tennenbaums. Then we had these rabbit costumes…”
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In the span of her career, the 43 year old reflects she seen the industry and environment both for artists and audiences shift. She herself had to distance herself from Ryan Adams who had worked on ‘The Voyager’ and the early stages of the current album, after allegations were made against him of sexual manipulative behaviour.
“I think it’s evolving and I appreciate the dialogue,” Lewis says. “I was one of fewer women on the road when I started. Now there are way more women out there. But there’s still those moments. Like, this camera guy at this festival I played. I wanted the cameras to be in my aesthetic. So I go back to talk to him with the set list and he just rolled his eyes from the moment I opened my mouth. I could tell he didn’t want to do it. But I’ve learned over the years, to just not bat an eye, and just be patient, and get exactly what I fucking want. But you still feel those moments of resistance.”
While she does joke that becoming an “icon” of any kind usually implies “you’re kind of old”, she has no doubt of the importance of inspiring the next generation: “When I saw my first proper concert, on my own, without my mum, it was The Cure and PIXIES were opening. I must have been 11 or 12. And I saw Kim Deal on stage playing bass. She was maybe the first woman I’d ever seen playing an instrument. And that really resonated with me.”
That’s not to say she fully embraces role model status: “I never think of myself in a leadership context. I’m trying to just be myself. I’m not trying to be perfect. I try to be responsible with what I say. But sometimes, I talk shit,” she says with a wry smile.
Were things more wild back in the day?
“I went to a bunch of Grateful Dead shows as a kid. And like the even the parking lot was wild. You know? I mean, it was like drug culture. That was the 90s. We still have fun. Although it’s like pretty rated PG-13. I mean, I’ve never been invited to an orgy. So I don’t know. I’m trying to be less of a square…”
While she might not literally be taking things day by day – “I’m a hippie but that big of a hippie that much of a hippie” – there’s a resistance to overengineering her forward path: “I don’t have goals ever. I’ve got like, song ideas. I’ve got 10 or 12 songs I’m just starting. Like the kombucha thing, you’ve got to let it ferment.”
And there’s also a sense that having pretty much experienced it all, from child-acting to band life to solo artist, playing all festivals from Glastonbury to Coachella, becoming artistic director of all her output, she can take the time to relish in this moment.
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The week previous she was at Latitude: “I love Latitude. Our set was so fun. But then afterwards, we got stoned and went out into the crowd to watch Khruangbin, which was the best festival sets I’ve seen since like, Tame Impala at Coachella. It was absolutely dancey. We were like we found ourselves in the middle of like a steampunk 30th birthday party where everyone was dressed up and dancing around us. And we were like, this is amazing.”
Later that week, watching her delight, charm and coax her summer’s evening London crowd into being wrapped around her finger as pink and blue balloons filled the air, I saw that this is a Jenny Lewis who’s survived significant turbulence in her life, faced her demons and gone from strength to strength as an artist as a result – and now gets to enjoy the pink and blue-hued view.
Does she have any advice for young women looking to for the success she has enjoyed?
“I’d say: wear what you want. Sing what you feel. Write what you know. Stand flat-footed. Don’t take no shit.”
Wise words, well said.
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‘On The Line’ is out now. For more information and tour dates visit https://www.jennylewis.com/
Words: Sarah Bradbury
Photography: Autumn de Wilde