Jenny Lewis: Still Searching

Music Features Jenny Lewis
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“You have to do your homework,” says Jenny Lewis, early one sunny California morning not too long ago. “That moment of inspiration is always welcome, but you have to work on it. You can’t just get stoned, write a riff and expect that to be the full song.” She’s talking about the long and arduous creative process that produced “Late Bloomer,” the centerpiece of her third solo album, The Voyager. “You have to get stoned, write a riff and then work on it later.”

Lewis worked on “Late Bloomer” for several years, carefully teasing out the story of a “furious and restless” young woman who gets lost in Europe, meets a headstrong woman named Nancy and searches for a songwriting hero. The kernel of the coming-of-age tune was based on Lewis’ own experiences: “When I was a teenager, I went to Europe on a backpacking trip by myself, and I met a woman who was following Sebadoh. It was the early 1990s, and that was my introduction to indie rock.”

But Lewis struggled to develop the story into something both personal and fictional: an essentially true story of lost innocence and new horizons. “I knew what I wanted to say, but I didn’t know how to say it,” she says. “I didn’t know how to wrap the story up.” It was Beck who finally persuaded her to finish it up. Or, more correctly, made her do her homework. While she was recording tracks at his studio in Malibu, Lewis played him a snippet of what was then called “Searching for LB.” “I didn’t have a last verse, so Beck instructed me to go into one of the guest bedrooms and not come out until I had finished it.” In the final verse, Lewis’ narrator and Nancy finally find Lou Barlow (the LB of the original title) in Paris, yet sexual jealousy severs their friendship. It’s one of the bravest verses Lewis has written, wrapping up with this bluntly devastating admission: “I promised I’d write her, but I never did.”

The lyrics were there, but “LB” was far from complete. Because Lewis has conceived it as a sequel of sorts of “Rabbit Fur Coat,” the title track from her 2006 solo debut, the song was a dirge: slow, deliberate, dark, rueful and emotionally bleak. It played, in other words, like a true story. Which it wasn’t. Not exactly. “I took the song to Ryan Adams at Pax Am [Adams’ Hollywood studio], and he was immediately frustrated by it. It agitated him. He didn’t know what to do with it because he thought it was so confessional. It’s not confessional, Ryan!” Adams sent her upstairs to work on it with Benmont Tench, the keyboard player for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. “Benmont fucking Tench! That made me so nervous. But he looked at me and said, ‘I know exactly what to do wit it.’”

The result is a folk-rock road tune, a breezy story-song in the Gram Parsons mode, with punctuations of Byrdians guitar, a high-flying bridge, some of the finest vocals Lewis has ever put down on tape, and a pervasive, yet gentle melancholy. Few of the events actually happened, but it has the mood of truth. It’s about youthful apprenticeship—creative, cultural, sexual—so it’s apt that it took a small army of collaborators, elders and advisers to shape the song. “It’s funny how a song can start in your mind, and then when it goes through all the filters, it ends up in a totally different spot. Without Beck, that song wouldn’t have been finished. Without Ryan and Benmont, that song would be the slowest song on the album.”

And without Lou Barlow, the song wouldn’t even be. “I sent the song to him and told him the story behind it,” Lewis says. “I was totally surprised that he actually came into the studio, because it was a bit stalker-y on my part. It was the most meta thing I’ve ever done.”

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It’s been 16 years since Jennifer Diane Lewis, a former child actor turned songwriter, co-founded the L.A. indie-pop act Rilo Kiley, and it’s been seven years since that band’s last album, 2007’s Under the Blacklight. Although nothing specific has been announced, that group appears to be either defunct or on indefinite hiatus, with each of its members moving on to other projects. Since then, Lewis has released a handful of solo albums exploring different facets of West Coast pop. Rabbit Fur Coat, on which she shared billing with the Watson Twins, was a country-rock opus, its sound defined by steely Bakersfield guitars, dusty Laurel Canyon harmonies and the kind of wry L.A. songwriting most often associated with Randy Newman and Jackson Browne.

Her follow-up, Acid Tongue, was wilder and woolier, never quite as accessible but also much more adventurous in its subject matter and song structures. It felt like a transitional album, simultaneously open-minded and overthought, and perhaps suffered from Lewis’ hectic schedule: it was, after Coat and Blacklight, her third album in three years. Perhaps stung by Tongue’s sour reviews, she would record one more album, I’m Having Fun Now, with Johnathan Rice, then lay low for a couple of years.

“I knew when we made the Jenny & Johnny record that the next thing I had to do was make a solo record,” Lewis explains. She has been working on some of the songs from The Voyager since 2009, recording rough demos at home via Garage Band. Sometimes she knew exactly what she wanted: “I produced [opening track] ‘Head Underwater’ with Johnathan, and it turned out exactly how I imagined it.” Other tracks, like “Late Bloomer” took much longer to tease out; in fact, several tracks transformed dramatically once she was in the studio with Beck and Ryan Adams.

Each offered a very different approach to refining and recording her songs. Beck worked closely with Lewis to develop her demos into fleshed-out songs. His touch is most obvious on the first single, “Just One of the Guys,” with its loping, slightly narcotized beat and chorus of “ba-ba-ba”s. Adams was a very different, almost antagonistic presence in the studio. “Ryan didn’t want to hear demos,” Lewis recalls. “He didn’t want to know about any of the songs before we recorded them. He didn’t want context.”

Just as he wouldn’t listen to her demos, Adams wouldn’t let Lewis listen to playback. “He said to me, ‘you make records you can listen back to and get immediate gratification.’ Hey, Ryan, don’t tell me how I make records! But then I thought about it and realized that maybe a lot of musicians do perform for the playback. You want to hear what you’ve done, but at the same time, you can get caught up in that and lose your forward momentum.”

That particular strategy forced Lewis to be work faster in the studio and trust her creative intuition, such as on “Love U Forever,” which Lewis explains started life as “Love Him Forever.” Something about the song, however, felt tentative and withdrawn. “We were recording it live at Pax Am, and I made a mistake and sang, ‘I’ll love you forever.’ And Ryan screams, ‘That’s it! That’s the song!’” She hadn’t thought of switching the pronoun, but “it made a lot of sense to me. It’s a direct sentiment. You’re putting your nuts on the line there. I’ve always tried to get around writing love songs, I guess because I’ve always had a hard time saying, ‘I love you.’ It took Ryan Adams to make me sing it outright in a song.”

Both Beck and Adams inform the sound of The Voyager, but ultimately it’s Lewis’ album. Her bright alto and sharp wit inform every song, but perhaps more crucially, her personality shapes the album as a whole, specifically her fascination with West Coast pop—from the buoyant melodies of the Beach Boys to the exacting lyrics of Joni Mitchell, from the character sketches of Randy Newman to the emotional candor of Fleetwood Mac.

She relies on popular collaborators, yet remains the mastermind behind her music, treating her sidemen as instruments that can produce a certain sound when she needs it. Besides, surrounding yourself with smart people makes you smarter. “When you’re standing in a room with Ryan Adams and Benmont Tench, I think you ought to listen to what they have to say. It’s like that old Drew Barrymore movie where that goblin sucks the life force out of you in the middle of the night.”

Cat’s Eye?

“Yes! I’m like Cat’s Eye. Elvis Costello is sleeping and I’m stealing his life force!”

In other words, Lewis considers these sessions to be seminars, the studios to be classrooms where she can learn from her heroes. As befits a solo artist, however, she gets final say. “That is the true joy of being a solo artist,” she says. “I can do whatever I want. I can go wherever I want. I can show up with my guitar and my song and it can sound a hundred different ways. That’s the freedom of being on your own. The flipside is: That’s you on the cover. If it sucks, it’s your fault.”

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(Speaking of that cover, a quick aside about The Voyager album art, which shows Lewis—or, at least, Lewis’ torso—clad in a suit airbrushed with stars, waves, and clouds. The blues, pinks, and greens are soft yet vivid, not to mention very Southern California: the hues of a sunset over the Pacific Ocean. Lewis’ face is cropped out, but a tangle of her signature red hair hangs down over her shoulder; her name and the album title are spelling out in her bulky jewelry.

“That jacket was painted by Adam Siegel, who is Autumn De Wilde’s art director,” Lewis explains. “Autumn has shot all my album covers since Rabbit Fur Coat, and she directed the ‘Rise Up with Fists!!’ video. We always like to make a little mini-movie for each album. So we talked about what was going on under the songs and tried to photograph the mood.

“I wanted to wear a suit for the cover, as per Ryan Adams’ suggestion. He said, you really need an iconic album cover. He thought I should stand in front of the American flag that he has hanging at Pax Am.” That would have been too Born in the U.S.A., too Gold, so Lewis went with a “graffiti’ed Gram Parsons vibe” instead. The result is arguably the best and most striking album cover of the year.)

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The ordering of the tracklist is crucial to The Voyager, which plays less like a collection of songs and more like a picaresque novel. “There is certainly a beginning, a middle and an end in the way the songs are ordered, but I won’t Van Dyke Parks it and call it a song cycle,” Lewis says. “It does turn back into itself, I guess.”

Stitching everything together into a larger narrative is a series of references to big events, public disasters. “The Voyager” is a veiled reference to the Challenger disaster of 1986. “I remember I was in the fourth grade when the Challenger exploded, and they wheeled a television set into our classroom. We watched it on the news, and the whole class cried. That really affected me. It affected us all.”

Lewis is obsessed with those moments that affect us all. On “Love U Forever,” she sings, “We were kids then in the Daisy Age, and we wore peace signs as the riots blazed.” It’s a fleeting reference to the L.A. riots of 1992, when the city erupted after four cops were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King, but Lewis’ juxtaposition of citywide violence with Native Tongues-era hippie-revivalist cultural emblems is damn near perfect. “I was 15 when the L.A. riots happened,” she recalls, “and my friends were middle-class kids from the west side of Los Angeles. They were graffiti artists, bad kids for the most part. And they looted the Gap on Melrose. We were watching this shit happen on the news, and these middle-class kids were looting in West Hollywood!”

The Voyager makes the public very personal, perhaps nowhere more potently than at the beginning of “The New You,” when Lewis sings, “When the twin towers fell and it all went to hell, I knew you’d be leaving me soon.” It’s almost callous as it equates the violent deaths of several thousand New Yorkers with a break-up, but that’s part of Lewis’ strategy of self-deprecation. “These are the moments that defined me not only as a person but as an artist,” she explains. “My memory isn’t the best. It’s like Swiss cheese. But those are moments that I’ll never forget, and I’ll never forget how they made me feel. So I wanted to talk about those important historical events. They’re public things, but they’re also very private because we all experienced them privately. As writers, we’re going to write about them.”

Or, as she sings on the title track, a poignant valedictory that closes out the album: “The voyager’s in every boy and girl / if you wanna get to heaven, get out of this world.”

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The Voyager is not Jenny Lewis’ most personal album to date. She’s careful to distance herself from the narrators of these songs, to emphasize the imaginative and fantastical aspects of her lyrics. “There’s always an element of truth to my records, but there’s also a cast of characters that I create for each record. They tell the truth. So I can never say that any one record is more personal than any other record.”

Most of these songs sound like they’re sung from the perspective of a woman in her late 30s who is concerned with her biological clock and the progress of old lovers. That can make a song like “Just One of the Guys” sound bluntly confessional, especially on the bridge: “There’s only one difference between you and me / When I look at myself, all I can see, I’m just another lady without a baby.”

On “Slippery Slopes,” she navigates the ups and downs of romantic commitment and sexual betrayal, and her observations sound specific to a woman who spends much of her time on the road: “If for just one second it helps us to remember / that we like each other the most,” Lewis sings as the song winds down. If she sounds like someone trying to excuse her own self-destructive behavior, that might just be the point.

“I tend to not know what I’m writing about while I’m writing,” Lewis admits. “The ideas flow in that way and then later, when I’m ordering a record or putting songs together, I try to make some sense out of everything. Often I won’t understand a song for years, and then a line will strike me. ‘Oh shit, that’s what I meant by that! Now I get it.’”

If creating songs involves a great deal of homework, Lewis spends even more time trying to figure out what they mean. As with any artists, living with songs means singing them night after night, often with new backing musicians and always to new audiences. That process can change her relationship with her old material, as she’s constantly reconsidering not only her solo material but also her Rilo Kiley catalog.

Devising a setlist for The Voyager was an intense process for Lewis, who revisited tunes from her entire career. “For the first time I’m looking back into the catalog of songs that I’ve written and trying to think about them objectively,” she explains. “Somehow a lyric that I wrote years ago can still be relevant. Some songs hold up better than others, and then there are other songs that don’t stand the test of time. We tried a bunch while we were rehearsing, and some of them I cut immediately. Singing them felt like musical theater. It felt like I was starring in Wicked.”

One old tune that is getting a new life on this tour is “A Better Son/Daughter,” from the 2002 Rilo Kiley album The Execution of All Things. “That was a song I was happy to retire when Rilo Kiley broke up,” Lewis says. “I can’t tell you how many hundreds of times I’ve had to sing that song all over the world. Not only does it require a lot of breath, but it’s a very heavy song. I really thought I was never going to bust that one out again, but it felt…what’s the opposite of analogous? It felt like it was in the same vein as ‘Head Underwater’ on The Voyager. Like they were bookends.”

That song continues to evolve as Lewis ages, gains new perspective and surrounds herself with new musicians. “I’m different now,” she says. “I like different things, different music. After playing the song with a specific group of people for 10 or 15 years, I think if you were to approach it the same way, it wouldn’t feel right. But being able to update with a new backing band has been really exciting.”

Lewis is, in other words, reaping the rewards of all that homework. By putting so much perspiration into her songs, she can age along with them and always have something new and meaningful to sing, regardless of whether they’re “true” or “confessional.” It’s not hard to imagine the songs on The Voyager enjoying similarly long lives, with Lewis dusting them off and finding new wisdom when she’s 50 or 60 or even 70. “It’s funny,” she says with a bright laugh. “A song is a kind of living entity in a way. That really amazes me.”

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