The Eternal Sunshine of Jenny Lewis

The singer/songwriter talks about taking Beck’s songwriting challenge, becoming a rockstar because of Kim Deal, collaborating with the magnetic presence of Jon Brion and how her latest triumph, Joy’All, helped her shed the weight of grief.

Music Features Jenny Lewis
The Eternal Sunshine of Jenny Lewis

Next year, I’ll be celebrating the 20th anniversary of Rilo Kiley’s More Adventurous—an album that, in no short terms, saved my life once upon a time ago. The title track, which has taken many shapes in my soul over the last 10 years, is one of immense and unshakable perfection; its chaotic and doleful architecture has lent itself to my sorrow over and over again. “And if I get banished from the kingdom up above / I’d sacrifice money and heaven, all for love / Let me be loved, let me be loved,” Jenny Lewis sang in the second verse of “More Adventurous,” and those lines have stuck with me. There’s a simplicity and benevolence in wanting to be desired by another body here on Earth; when I went through any of my many heartbreaks, there “More Adventurous” was to soften the ache. Flash forward 19 years or so, and Lewis is again examining how she might begin pulling love through the barricades of grief—this time on Joy’All, her fifth solo album in 17 years and a kaleidoscopic pivot of the grandest proportions.

Last month, I spent some time with Lewis via Zoom. It was a pretty last minute affair on a Friday afternoon, but to be on a call of any kind with her is an immeasurable rapture that 15-year-old me would be in shambles about (25-year-old me is, too, to be honest). From her Los Angeles homestead, she tells me I look like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Basketball Diaries—and I (and my ego) take her word for it, given that she spent a lot of time with him while filming Don’s Plum in the mid-nineties. Given how close to the spotlight she’s always been, and the gravitational magnitude of the music she makes, it’s easy to forget that Lewis is a rockstar immune to generational separation. Whether it’s taking roles in classic sitcoms like The Golden Girls, Mr. Belvedere and Growing Pains, fronting the incomparable alt-rock band Rilo Kiley or opening for Harry Styles on his Love On Tour dates in 2021, she’s continuously putting herself in the eyes of the zeitgeist. At the same time, she’s also been unveiling cornerstone records. Everything from The Execution of All Things in 2002 to On the Line in 2019 has found a niche in our hearts.

On the Line felt like a real achievement in so many ways. It was there that Lewis embellished her own storytelling prowess to the utmost degree. She chronicled everything from arguing about Elliot Smith and grenadine with a narcoleptic poet from Duluth to drinking Beaujolais wine and reminiscing about the past while kids play on a slip ‘n’ slide nearby. The album arrived to instant—and earned—critical acclaim and was her best work yet, but its cycle was cut short by COVID a year later. “[On the Line] had blue balls, to put it frankly, by the time we were cooking,” Lewis says, laughing. “Usually you tour something for two years, a year-and-a-half. We were in the groove and then the world shut down.” What came next was a familiar breakthrough of mourning, as the canceled tour and subsequent quarantine forced Lewis to slow down and process grief she’d turned off while on the road: In 2017, she reunited with her estranged, ailing mother after 20 years (who passed away before On the Line came out) and saw her longtime relationship with Johnathan Rice come to an end.

“The culmination of all of that—losing my mom, losing my dad before that, losing my rock ‘n’ roll dad Gary Burden, leaving my relationship of 12 years, going to New York for the first time and leaving LA—really caught up with me in 2020. And not having the distraction of going on tour, which is just the ultimate excuse to be a deadbeat and not get back to people and just run. My dad, he was a touring musician. He started three or four families and never stopped, because he was just on the road. His entire life was touring the world. I think I was following in that tradition of ‘just go, go, go.’ Then, once I stopped, everything was still there. I didn’t really have time to grieve, because I was on the road when that happened, so it all caught up with me in a really positive way, ultimately,” Lewis says.

The next chapter truly started with “Puppy and a Truck,” which saw Lewis really considering the weight of her own mortality and humanity. (“My forties are kicking my ass,” she croons at the beginning.) The song was released last year, but she’d been teasing it during the opening sets from her tour with Styles (who cameos dressed like a puppy in the music video) well before Joy’All was announced. I ask Lewis if the pandemic opened the door for her to find closure with losing her mom and going through a long-term breakup, but she rejects that term and replaces it with her own: “Opensure.” “I think it’s an openness to the reality of being a human being—as you age—and these things just happen,” she adds. “And that was the first time I’d ever been alone.” When Lewis laments “I’m 44 in 2020 and thank God I saved up some money / Time to ruminate like, ‘What the fuck was that?,” there’s a genuine sense of reflection there; a real space to grieve not just the loss of another human life, but the momentary loss of your place in the world. A feeling that was quite visceral for many of us at the same time.

Despite the planetary clusterfuck it was mostly written in, Joy’All is Lewis’ brightest, grooviest and coolest album yet. The 10 tracks live up to the title they’re packaged under. Even “Balcony,” which she wrote as a tribute to a friend who died by suicide during lockdown, evokes a celebratory memorial rather than a solemn eulogy. When talking with Paste seven years ago, Lewis mentioned that she has full shoeboxes of lyrics. To no surprise, her prolific tendencies continue today—and she’s pretty adamant about not losing inspiration. “I don’t experience writer’s block, nor do I experience imposter syndrome. People are like, ‘I feel like an imposter.’ It’s like, ‘Well, maybe you are!’” she adds. When the world shut down three years ago, Lewis was working with Chicago poet and rapper Serengeti and Minneapolis multi-instrumentalist Andrew Broder, sending songs back and forth in, what she calls, their own “little version of the Postal Service.” Around that time, “Psychos” and “Giddy Up” were already finished, but the bones of Joy’All had not come alive just yet.

It was during lockdown, when Lewis took part in a songwriting challenge hosted by her friend and collaborator Beck, that she wrote nearly half of Joy’All (“Puppy and a Truck,” “Love Feel,” “Chain of Tears” and “Balcony”). “That was such a great thing to be a part of, just in learning more ways to do your craft. I write and it’s almost mystical. I don’t really know how it happens,” she says, before pausing briefly. “Well, I know how it happens with every song, but it comes through in a way that feels like I’m not in complete control of it.” Beck’s program wound up being a real grounding and energizing moment for Lewis, as she was tasked with fully zeroing in on what type of song she could build with specific limitations or guidelines in place.

“I usually start with a piece of a poem or short story and then find the instrument that makes the music to accompany it. And that could be a bass, vibraphone or drum. Whatever is in the room, I’ll use it to bring the song into the world. Or I’ll freeform phonetics, where you find the chords in the music and then the vowel sounds become a story. And then you plug in whatever you’re musing on at that time. The songwriting camp was amazing, because it was very distinct direction: ‘Write a song with 1-4-5 as the chord changes,’ which, apparently, is every pop song ever written; ‘Write a song with all clichés.’ That’s ‘Love Feel,’ where I looked up all of the tropes in Top-40 country songs. Any new way to do the thing, I’m open to learning about,” Lewis adds.

Jenny Lewis Joy'All

Credit: Bobbi Rich

She compares the songwriting camp to Fight Club when I press about who else was in her cohort, which I’m more than certain was a star-studded cast. “The first rule of Fight Club is that you don’t talk about Fight Club, so I’ve already blown that,” she jabs back. “I’m going to refrain from mentioning the people in the group, unless they want to come forward after reading this article. Make yourselves known, people. Make yourselves known.” Nonetheless, even though Lewis saw the whole venture though, the whole ordeal was an intimidating one (and a huge commitment during a time when creative tasks performed at home felt daunting)—and a few of the participants had dropped out by the workshop’s end. “You have to have the bandwidth to write, record and then, somehow, figure out how to upload it to SoundCloud. Those are, like, three separate parts of the brain: the uploading part, the poetry part and then the engineer part,” she adds. “Some people clearly had full studios at their disposable and it was fully produced music, which was like, ‘How did you do that in 24 hours?’”

With over half of Joy’All born in the Beck sessions, Lewis took to the RCA Studio in Nashville with her band—Dave Cobb, Brian Allen, Nate Smith, Greg Leisz and Jessica Wolfe. (Cobb also produced the record, while Leisz helped engineer it.) However, the guest of honor during those sessions was Jon Brion, the prolific multi-instrumentalist and composer behind the scores of Punch-Drunk Love, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Lady Bird. His inclusion on Joy’All marks his first credit since completing Mac Miller’s Circles in 2020, and a huge career moment for Lewis. “It was total serendipity with Jon,” she says, “I’m always thinking, ‘Who would be my dream producer to work with?’ And Jon is always at the top of the list.” For years in Los Angeles, she spent a lot of time around Brion—whether it was through Gillian Welch and David Rawlings or going to his shows at Largo, where Elliott Smith would perform.

Brion’s inclusion is thanks to Greg Koller, who mixed Joy’All and happens to share a recording space with the multi-hyphenated production wizard. “As we were bringing the mixes [for Joy’All] back to LA to tweak them, Greg suggested that Jon play on the record, and I was just totally over the moon,” Lewis says. “I got to go into the studio and hangout with Jon, where he played every single sound of his Chamberlin for me. He went through every single sample.” After two or three days of collaboration, Brion wound up playing vibraphone on “Essence of Life” and the Chamberlin on “Apples and Oranges,” but one specific gesture that he brought to Joy’All was a monumental full-circle moment for Lewis (and me, ever the Jim Carrey stan)—when he played his Talent Maker on “Chain of Tears,” the same instrument he used when scoring Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

“‘Chain of Tears’ is, thematically, in that world—where you’re just so hurt by a relationship that you would just do anything to forget the person. It’s so painful everyday, but, eventually, you get a little distance from it and you start feeling a little better. And maybe you don’t think about them for an hour and then two hours and then a day goes by and then a week and then a year. So [Brion] used that instrument on ‘Chain of Tears’ as a nod to Eternal Sunshine. There’s a little moment in the song where I say ‘I wish there was some pill I could take to have your memory erased,’ and then it’s the sound from Eternal Sunshine from that exact instrument. He was so amazing and so generous. He wakes up very late in the day and works through the night, so, by four in the morning, I was curled up in a little ball sleeping on the floor of the studio,” Lewis adds.

The songs of Joy’All champion personal bliss and celebrate intimacy. On lead single “Psychos,” Lewis spins a colloquial framework of sensuality and confidence: “I’m not a psycho / I’m just trying to get laid / I’m a rock ‘n’ roll disciple / In a video game.” It’s similarly provocative to a song like “Red Bull & Hennessy” from On the Line, but displays a fresh layer of balance and self-centering. “Cherry Baby” is another vulnerable, diaristic endeavor gleaning an upbeat bent and another Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind image. “‘Cause I fall in love / Too easy, too easy / With anyone / Who touches me / Fucks with me,” she sings atop a mellotron dueting with a very stripped-back, sing-a-long-style percussion.

This new chapter finds Lewis shifting the perspectives from other people onto herself, and it’s done so with a generosity that feels both earned and quantifiable. “When you come out of the woods and you see the moon or the sun, it is inevitable—coming out of this period of great change and grief and acceptance,” she says. “[Joy’All], on the surface, is a lot about dating or relationships, but, really, every single song comes back to your relationship with yourself.” A track like “Giddy Up” is a prime example of that bliss-chasing mantra, where it explores—as Lewis puts it—“cognitive dissonance” in the stage “before you’re ready to get your shit together.”

In the wake of the pandemic, there’s been no shortage of poppy records getting releases by indie artists. Lewis herself is mining through a blend of honky-tonk, psych-rock and disco on Joy’All, as opposed to the singer/songwriter spirit that’s been her bedrock for two decades. On the other side of irreparable climate grief, it’s no surprise that sonic inclinations are starting to favor small delights far and wide. “There’s a bit of hope and some joy sprinkled throughout [the album], despite the great trauma that the world went through. No one wants to talk about it, but we went through some shit as a global entity—so I felt as isolated and as connected as I’ve ever felt to the whole world in 2020, 2021,” Lewis adds. Going into production, she knew that she wanted to play guitar on everything and sing live, but a few of these songs were originally demoed on piano during the On the Line era four or five years ago. The one reference point she had for Cobb was Tracy Chapman, which, to Lewis, meant making every story crystal clear and not bogging the work down with unnecessary elements and narratives.

While Joy’All is not as lyrically dense as On the Line, it does, in many ways, outshine its predecessor compositionally. Lewis opts to not take herself so seriously, even if she’s mining through the last gasps of recent, unresolved trauma. And that alone is a testament to her genius, as it’s infinitely harder to write through joy than it is agony. At the forefront of that idea is “Psychos,” and the plan was to always have the song be Joy’All’s welcoming committee. “[‘Psychos’] makes me laugh and it doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is where I’m at right now. I just don’t want to take myself too seriously in my life,” Lewis says. “It’s a flex in some spots, but it’s also light. It’s not fully pointing the finger out, it’s kind of pointing the finger back at yourself. ‘How bad do you really want it?’ Is it the ego? Is it the id? It’s about you.”

In the week before our conversation, she tweeted about the “namaste, ye” line in “Psychos” being a reference to Kanye West—though it has since been deleted. When I tell her that I was hesitant to ask about the tweet because its disappearance had me questioning its existence in the first place, Lewis offers me some reassurance: “I love to tweet and delete. It’s one of my favorite pastimes. It’s like gaslighting the public,” she says, chuckling. But this isn’t the first time Lewis and Kanye have been linked. At the Denver Airport 15 years ago, he infamously played his unreleased 808s & Heartbreaks for her—without knowing that he was test-driving his upcoming album with the frontwoman of Rilo Kiley.

Jenny Lewis Joy'All

Credit: Bobbi Rich

“Randomly, we were at the airport and he was just sitting behind me. He’s like, ‘Yo, check out my new shit.’ And, at the time, I was a little indie rock boxed-in, where I was of the ‘autotune sucks’ people, which I’ve completely changed my tune on. I think autotune is like reverb, it’s a tool. When it’s amazing, it’s fucking amazing. So, Kanye played me the song and I was like, ‘Autotune, really?’ And then I played him ‘The Next Messiah,’ my nine-minute, rock opera jam. And he listened to the whole thing, which was so cool of him,” Lewis explains.

Though that storybook encounter between her and Kanye might feel unlikely in any other universe paralleling ours, the distance between Jenny Lewis and rap is not a far measure. She grew up a fan of the genre, and it quickly became integral to her own understanding of rock ‘n’ roll. And, without 1990s hip-hop, it’s unlikely we’d have the version of Lewis we all know and adore. One of her favorite artists ever is De La Soul, and their sample of “Peg” on “Eye Know” is what got her stoked on Steely Dan growing up—which, given how folks prematurely determined that her first post-On the Line project would be a yacht rock album because of the coastal paradise of “Puppy and a Truck,” absolutely adds up.

“When Steve Albini was going off on Steely Dan a month ago, I took it personally—because De La Soul sampled Steely Dan and I became a huge Steely Dan fan because of De La Soul, and they’re the coolest motherfuckers on Earth,” Lewis adds. “[The ‘Peg’ sample on ‘Eye Know’] is something that won’t happen again, because of laws around sampling. So that art at that moment is precious, and it informed my entire songwriting. I started writing raps when I was 10. My mom’s boyfriend at the time, whoever it was, they all seemed to play something. I’d be like, ‘Teach me a couple chords on the piano or the guitar’ and then I would put these weird raps to—which I feel like my songs are still like that.”

When COVID hit in 2020, Lewis was one of the last artists to perform a Tiny Desk concert for NPR before lockdown. She reveals that she’s been having anxiety nightmares about playing Saturday Night Live since she was young, even though she’s never been a musical guest on the show (not yet, at least). The difference in scale between SNL and the Tiny Desk series is stark, but the importance of both accolades is virtually the same. Her approach to the set was similar to the spirituality she centered around Joy’All: “You go in there, it’s a little edgy. But, I think in not taking it too seriously and just being light in the room and telling jokes, it was an amazing time,” she says.

But the most important part about that Tiny Desk performance—and what has come to be an integral piece of Joy’All, too—was guitarist and vocalist Emily Elbert and upright bassist and vocalist Anna Butterss accompanying Lewis behind Bob Boilen’s desk. Since collaborating with the Watson Twins in 2006, she’s maintained an almost exclusively all-woman lineup in her band after consistently playing with only dudes beforehand—a shift she partially credits to Bright Eyes’ Connor Oberst employing an all-woman band for their LIFTED or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground tour in 2002. “It was groundbreaking at the time,” Lewis adds. “All women in the band, it was so inspiring, which is why I was drawn to that scene. I was like, ‘Wow, look at all these badass women playing instruments. This is incredible.”

When she was in Rilo Kiley, Lewis found a lot of inspiration in Cursive’s Gretta Cohn and Superchunk’s Laura Ballance. But the first woman she looked up to in rock ‘n’ roll was Pixies bassist and Breeders originator Kim Deal, who she saw play at her first concert ever: The Cure and the Pixies playing at Dodger Stadium with Love and Rockets in 1989, when Lewis was 13. “I went with Soleil Moon Frye—Punky Brewster—my homie forever, and we walked in and I saw Kim Deal and I was like, ‘That’s it. That’s it, right there. That’s what I want to do,’” she says. “I’m so happy that, in 2003, young women came out to see Rilo Kiley play. Hopefully it inspired them to learn an instrument and start a band.”

An album that, at its core, is about harnessing your own autonomy as a means of moving through grief, Joy’All is constructed from the same pillars of empowerment that Lewis was energized by 34 years ago. There’s optimism, hope and courage at every turn, even when she’s navigating through one of the various renderings of loss that’s plagued her for five years and beyond. When the final airy, harmonious moments of “Chains of Tears” tumble into a brief, flickering coda from Brion’s Talent Maker, I consider a Nietzsche quote spoken in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: “Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders.” The idea that Nietzsche was gnawing at was that to forget is to expel all vulnerability and pain. But there’s something flawed in that reasoning, as trauma can often shape us into vessels better equipped to process the grief that may return to us. Remembering the misery is how we begin to rebuild and, in the euphoria of Joy’All, that is exactly where the work of Jenny Lewis endures.

Joy’All is out June 9 via Blue Note/Capitol Records.

Matt Mitchell is Paste‘s assistant music editor. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, but you can find him online @yogurttowne.

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