Jenny Lewis | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Jenny Lewis

Jenny Lewis

The Storyteller

Jul 01, 2008 Fall 2008 - Jenny Lewis Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Bookmark and Share


"I started when I was 2 1/2 years old, and when I was younger I was always very exuberant and I always showed interest in being the center of attention. So, my mother decided that she wanted to put me in acting because I was so interested in it.” – Jenny Lewis, Teen Set, 1991

Type the name “Jenny Lewis” into the YouTube search engine, and buried among music videos and footage of late-night television performances you’ll find a 1991 interview from a television show called Teen Set. The segment features the 15-year-old Lewis politely and carefully fielding a series of insultingly banal questions, ranging from those about her burgeoning hat collection to those concerning the then-exotic trampoline in her backyard. But, having already worked as an actress for 12 years at that point, Lewis never loses her poise; never rolls her eyes or seems bored. For those moments, it seems as if she’s playing a role—that of a soon-to-be star. And while she couldn’t have known that her acting career was about to wane just as she took up an interest in playing the guitar and writing songs, it’s not hard to see a master performer in those few awkward moments. She’s simply unshakable.

With Acid Tongue, Jenny Lewis has finally found the role she has been studying for her entire life, the star of a project where she assumes center stage from start to finish. Following up the critically adored Rabbit Fur Coat—the 2006 release that served as her tentative first solo album with The Watson Twins and a brief respite from eight years of intensive touring and recording as one-half of the songwriting team in Rilo KileyLewis has issued an authoritative statement. Where Rabbit Fur Coat was intentionally understated, a shy-around-the-edges tribute to her mother and the soul and country albums from her record collection, she now works in broad strokes. Where her debut was the sound of an artist just dipping her toes in the water of a solo career, not sure if she really could or even wanted to perform without her band, she now attacks her songs with palpable force and theatricality. With Acid Tongue, Lewis is an actress again, but not the plaintive poet of Rabbit Fur Coat. Part confessional siren, part sin-cataloging prophet, Lewis is primarily a storyteller, joined by a cast of characters and collaborators who stretch through every chapter of an already complex personal narrative.

Through it all, one thing is clear: Jenny Lewis might have left the silver screen, but she does know a good role when she sees it. After all, she was born for the stage.


Capturing Moods 

“I would have to say meeting new people and going to new places [is the best part of being an actress]. It’s really a great thing if you can do it.” – Jenny Lewis, Teen Set, 1991

 “I’ve been getting a lot of questions about LSD, and I really asked for it by naming the record Acid Tongue,” laughs Lewis from her home in Los Angeles, now 32 years old and freshly removed from finishing up her second full-length release. “And I’ve only had one experience with it, and it was really bad. Terrible. Truly the worst 24 hours of my life. I don’t even know where to begin. My friend at the time had an even worse trip than mine and attempted to chase me around the house with a butcher knife.” She adds with a gasp, “It was so wrong.”

And while Acid Tongue is far from a psychedelic rock album, there is a certain hallucinatory haze that hangs over the proceedings. Recorded in her childhood stomping grounds of Van Nuys, California, the album is a homecoming of sorts, with old friends and family popping in and out at a dizzying pace. And everyone sounds like they’re perfectly utilized, from sister Leslie on “See Fernando” to M. Ward’s growling guitar solo on “Pretty Bird” to Elvis Costello’s snarling vocal on “Carpetbag-gers.” Having long championed Lewis for her intricately imagined and vividly peopled narratives, Costello found the process so suitable that he ended up using that day’s version of Lewis’ band for his own album.

“I emailed him and sort of put it out there, and he responded and agreed to come down and sing ‘Carpetbaggers’ for me,” Lewis recalls. “As a tradeoff, he asked if we’d be open to recording two of his new songs. So, in one day, we recorded two Elvis Costello songs and two different versions of ‘Carpetbaggers.’ And those two songs of his ended up on his newest record, Momofuku. I was very nervous, and it took me an hour to figure out what I was going to wear on that day. And I ended up wearing purple on that day, which I don’t wear very much, and he ended up wearing purple, as well,” she giggles. “But I ended up not saying very much on that day. You don’t want to look like an asshole in front of Elvis Costello.”

Acid Tongue’s moods and textures change from song to song, from the smoldering blue-eyed soul of “Pretty Bird” to the multi-part blues boogie “The Next Messiah” and the straight-up country-rock of “Carpetbaggers.” The guitar tones are grittier, the arrangements are punchier and more varied, and Lewis’ singing is more visceral than in the reserved tones of Rabbit Fur Coat. It’s an album that feels like it was pieced together on the fly, a rollicking tribute to those soul bands who often played live in the studio, recording vocals in one take with mistakes left in for character. Having performed four of the songs while touring her first solo album, she invited many of those band members into the studio with her, lending those songs a loose and lived-in feel. From start to finish, Acid Tongue is an album cut from the cloth of the great ’70s singer/ songwriter song cycles, an album that never repeats itself despite retaining an insular and intimate feel. It’s nothing short of the confirmation of Lewis’ arrival among the great musical storytellers of her generation.

“We spent a great deal of time mapping out the record so that we could record it in a short amount of time,” Lewis explains. “We created different band configurations within that map. But, inevitably, things change when you actually perform them. When you’re collaborating with people, they bring things that you didn’t necessarily expect. I just let the songs dictate where the record would end up, and I let the vibe of the session run the ship. I wasn’t necessarily steering the ship.” She adds: “I was a passenger of the good feelings in the studio.”

If Lewis was just along for the ride during the arranging of the songs, she undoubtedly had a much heavier hand in the writing, and never before has she created character sketches that are so imaginative. There are the aching death metaphors of “Black Sand,” where the narrator collapses on the beach and allows herself to be washed out to sea. There’s also the aforementioned “The Next Messiah,” a track whose protagonist is a master shit-talker—a racecar-driving, cancer-surviving farmer, who thinks he just might be God incarnate. Then there’s the garage gospel of “Jack Killed Mom,” a strangely incestuous tale where a lascivious mother drives her son to homicide through her advances. But as much as Lewis commands the album’s center stage, sounding like she’s in total control of every second set to tape, she admits that she’s still haunted by the same nagging fears that plagued her when she was planning her first steps outside of the Rilo Kiley fold.

“I tend to always doubt what I do,” she admits. “I’m never entirely confident. I have this process where I’m happiest when I’ve first written something and when it’s first recorded. After that, the song soon falls out of favor. But this record, because I was surrounded by my friends and because I had played some of the songs on the road with the band, I felt a little more confident. Making this record, I felt as good as I have felt, but I was still filled with doubt once completing it.”

Though you’d never guess it, Lewis says that those insecurities are generally confined to the creative process, and the role of confident singer/songwriter comes more naturally when she’s performing. As the stage can often provide escapism like no other outlet, Lewis has grown comfortable disappearing into the character she becomes on stage every night. The girl who literally grew up on stage often doesn’t feel at home away from it. “I guess maybe the only time that I do feel confident is when I play music,” she says shyly. “‘Confident’ isn’t really the word. I guess I just feel the most like myself. I have a very difficult time with in-between song banter on stage. I just don’t know what to say, and I get so nervous just addressing the crowd.” Her voice then grows more animated: “But when it comes time to play the song, I know exactly what I have to do.”

 

Pictures of Success 

“A lot of people say, ‘Don’t you miss out on your childhood?’ But I don’t. This is my childhood, and I’m learning a lot, and I’m enjoying it very much. I don’t think there are any downsides.” – Jenny Lewis, Teen Set, 1991

 The words “former child star” are so often followed by words like “rehab” and “driving with a suspended license” that we scarcely notice when one of those stars ends up with something other than a mugshot and a stillborn career. Having spent their youth working long hours and memorizing lines while their parents scream at casting agents off set, many child stars are too jaded or too damaged before adulthood to want to make art. Though it’s not much of a secret in indie-rock circles that Jenny Lewis once had a second life as an almost famous child actress—she chewed up scenery as Shelly Long’s daughter in Troop Beverly Hills and shared an awkward kiss with Fred Savage in The Wizard—she has somehow managed to become the rarest of all preadolescent performers—one who has survived to reinvent herself as a legitimate artist.

“It wasn’t really my dream,” Lewis replies when asked about the abdication of her previous path. “I didn’t choose to do it. I was very professional, and I enjoyed working and being busy, but it wasn’t something that I fantasized about. Certainly, there was a lot of joy, but I guess it was heavy at times. Nothing extraordinarily negative that other kids don’t go through, but I felt a weight and a burden because I was financially responsible for my family. For a very long time I felt the weight of that on me,” she says without malice. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she quickly asserts. “I wouldn’t put my own children in show business, but I think it definitely shaped me and has given me a unique perspective.”

How could it not? After all, how many kids are snatched up by a talent agent in a restaurant simply because their charisma is so irresistible? How many are supporting their families before they’ve lost their baby teeth? How many have to go through the process of making new friends at 12 different schools? How many have swapped stories with Lucille Ball? If Lewis writes songs that come from an outsider perspective, consider the fact that she has never lived a normal life.

“The schedule is hard on anybody—adult or child,” says Leslie Lewis, Jenny’s older sister and backing singer on two Acid Tongue tracks. “They work such long hours and they’re traveling so much that it takes them out of any normal schedule or childhood. It’s stressful, but at the same time she was given so many great opportunities. She was able to sing on camera and meet people and go places. A lot of her maturity came out of her doing so much at such an early age. It wound up being a good balance in the end. But, sure, I think anyone who is 5 or 6 years old and is working 18-hour days is bound to find it stressful.”

All those hours spent on set and off camera were put to good use, as Lewis became an astute observer, someone who gets paid to study, memorize, and watch how things unfold. Since she was a bit of an oddball at school, those skills were necessary for her to keep her sanity and challenge that of her peers. True crime stories and tales from the seedy side of life were her favorites, and her classmates simply didn’t understand what this precocious girl with the flaming red hair was going on about. Kids picked on her, and parents kept their children away from her because she told such bizarre stories. It was hard to make friends. It was hard to outrun her reputation.

“I had never seen any of her work, and I think that’s one of the reasons that we get along,” says Lewis’ boyfriend Johnathan Rice, a singer/songwriter who contributed vocals to Acid Tongue and toured with Lewis’ band for Rabbit Fur Coat. “I always knew of Jenny as a musician and songwriter. Then she told me all about that early stuff. One of the things that is remarkable about Jenny is that, more than anyone I know, she has the most dense life. There are just so many layers that make her who she is, just because of the way she grew up. What makes her so unique as a songwriter is her perspective on life and the way things are. What comes through to me in the writing is that it is shaped by a very long lifetime. You and I, we weren’t working when we were kids. We were just being kids. So her perspective is so unique. I can’t really think of anyone else who is doing it today that has that kind of perspective. I really think that sets her apart in so many ways. When you go see Jenny play—whether with her own band, or Rilo Kiley, or The Postal Service—she has it all. She can sing the shit out of a song, and she writes the shit out of a song, and she can perform the shit out of a song. There’s such a lack of emphasis on performance nowadays—the art of captivation. She has that for sure.”

As Lewis has spent most of her life cultivating the art of captivation, that ability to draw attention and hold it, she probably knows as much about it as anyone. But while she has applied her gift to great effect during her music career, Lewis appears to be in no hurry to return to her childhood profession.

“I knew that that wasn’t for me,” she says firmly. “That had become quite uncomfortable as I reached puberty and there’s so much emphasis placed on the way you look, and when you’re coming into your own and into your body, it can be pretty uncomfortable. I think some of those experiences made me turn inward. That’s kind of what fueled the things that I was writing about.”

 

A Better Son/Daughter

“I like all sports—baseball, soccer, swimming. And I also like spending time with my friends. That’s what I’m usually doing on the weekends.” – Jenny Lewis, Teen Set, 1991

Conspicuously absent from the above quote is any mention of Lewis’ interest in music. At that time, she was still finding her footing as a songwriter, just picking up a guitar for the first time and realizing that the strange stories that she carried around in her head made for strange subject matter. Of all the roles Lewis had played, she wasn’t ready for this one.

“I didn’t know that I wanted to be a songwriter, I just wrote songs,” Lewis says. “I listened to a lot of hip-hop growing up, and when I was 12 years old, I started writing verses and weird poems. I started playing guitar when I was 15 or 16, and I started playing piano when I was 8 or 9, so through all of those outlets, I always wrote little bits of songs. And I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of people. You meet some pretty eccentric people in Hollywood. And I think my own home life was very interesting. It was an interesting mix of going to work as a kid and then hanging out at home with my mom and her friends, and they always had these unique, shocking stories to tell. So those became a part of my songwriting from a very young age. I wrote a song when I was 10 years old about prison life. I have no idea where the hell I got that from, but those were the kinds of tales that fascinated me. I wasn’t a My Little Pony kind of girl. I was more into the ’80s equivalent of The Forensic Files. I still love murder TV. I guess when I met Blake [Sennett] I realized that there was one other person in the world that wanted to hear those things that I had written.”

Of course, meeting Sennett was a turning point in Lewis’ life and career. The two former child actors embarked on a romantic relationship and then founded Rilo Kiley in 1998, resulting in a collaboration that launched them from unknown indie-pop band to an increasingly ambitious major label act (whose line-up is rounded out by Pierre de Reeder and Jason Boesel). But while it took Sennett to give Lewis the confidence to decide that she was ready to audition for a new, non-acting role, she actually came from a rather impressive musical pedigree herself, as her parents and sister Leslie had a Las Vegas lounge act at the time of her birth.

“My parents got divorced when I was very young, so I didn’t really know my dad all that well growing up,” Lewis explains. “I would see him every couple of years, and it was always for a brief amount of time. I was always in awe of my father, but we never got a chance to talk about what had influenced him. I think genetics are a pretty strong thing, and I think inherently I am my father and we like the same things. He comes from this old guard of post-vaudeville generation, and he has spent his entire life on the road. I think I get a lot of that old showbiz sensibility from my father. The [lounge act] broke up when I was about two, and the marriage ended when I was about three. I don’t remember actually seeing them play. My older sister, she was actually part of that act for a while. I think she sang ‘How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?’ And my entire wardrobe, as far as my stage costumes go, [is] basically ripped from my parents’ lounge act.”

As anyone who has a passing familiarity with Rilo Kiley’s music knows, Lewis’ parents’ divorce has hung heavy over her songwriting for years, turning up in references stretching across her body of work. But just as Rabbit Fur Coat allowed Lewis to both pay tribute to and fictionalize her mother, Acid Tongue allows her to bring her father, harmonica virtuoso Eddie Gordon, into the canon. This time, however, her chosen subject was sitting right beside her in the studio.

“It was really strange and wonderful, because we’ve never played music together,” Lewis says of her father playing on “Jack Killed Mom.”  “I was so impressed with his musicianship and skill. It’s an incredible thing that he does. He can play classical music on the harmonica. People being able to play the harmonica in that way is sort of a lost art. And we had him play really simple stuff. I was kind of embarrassed that he didn’t get a chance to really shred.”

But while her father made an appearance on the album, little did he know that the album’s centerpiece, the 9-minute, three-part epic “The Next Messiah,” was inspired by him. It turns out the shit-talker of “The Next Messiah” is actually Lewis’ father.

“That’s my favorite song on the record,” she explains. “It was sort of a subconscious thing. I didn’t sit down and set out to write a song about him. It just sort of came out in this phrase ‘The Next Messiah,’ which he’s not,” she laughs. “He doesn’t know [the song is about him]. He hasn’t heard it yet. Considering that I gave it to my mom on my last record, he’s due his. But I got so tired of singing about my mother for Rabbit Fur Coat that

I had to kill her off on this record with ‘Jack Killed Mom.’

Poor mom.”

 

It Just Is 

Having now conquered every stage she has stood upon, Jenny Lewis is quickly approaching a moment where her fame as a solo artist is about to outstrip the fame of her band. Since she has been assuming an increasingly larger part of the Rilo Kiley songwriting duties, writing or co-writing all but one song on their latest release, 2007’s Under the Blacklight, you have to wonder just what purpose her old band serves at this point.

“I don’t want to have to write different kinds of songs if I don’t want to; I want to be able to write whatever feels natural at the time,” she says, sounding unwilling to commit either way. “I go back and forth where whatever I’m doing is a reaction to the previous thing, so who knows where I’ll be in a year? I have to say that I truly love both outlets. I love collaborating with people, and I love Rilo Kiley and collaborating with Blake and the band. It’s something we’ve always done, and Rilo Kiley has always been a very delicate ecosystem that is on the verge of total collapse since our very first record. When you’ve got two people who were romantically involved, and that doesn’t work out, that lends itself to a very unstable environment. From record to record, I never think we’re going to make another record.” she says, pausing. “I’ve shifted my focus. I’m just thinking about these songs right now.”

That said, how long can Lewis reasonably expect to commit herself fully to both careers? How does a songwriter of such depth and vision find enough material to keep herself and her bandmates fed with new ideas? How long can she play two roles without getting burned out on both? Johnathan Rice has faith that her creative well is in no danger of running dry.

“You look at all the great ones—the Dylans and Neil Youngs—there’s that period of white-hot consistent output,” he explains. “Over two or three years, and there are three or four fantastic records. I think Jenny is doing her own version of that. She’s been releasing a record a year for the past five or six years, and that’s a pace that most bands don’t keep up with nowadays with the way the industry is and cycles go, but she has always worked outside of that. She just works as quickly as she wants to, and as soon as she has all of the outlets, she’s able to use the industry in her favor. If she gets tired, she’ll take a long walk or get a drink of water.”

Since Jenny Lewis has never known a life where she hasn’t been working on her craft every day, it makes sense. Having witnessed her charisma and inexhaustible work ethic since her sister was born, Leslie Lewis is similarly certain that her little sister is in no danger of overextending herself. “That’s the one thing coming from our background, we’re always comfortable juggling tons of things,” she explains. “That’s just really natural for Jenny. She’s tireless, as you can tell from all the other side projects she sings on. People always gravitated toward her no matter what. She has this really powerful silent persona. I think she’s always had it. It’s hard to describe. She wasn’t an annoying kid saying, ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ People naturally wanted to listen to what she had to say. It wasn’t just the red hair. I think Jenny easily could have a clothing line, a record company, and a multifaceted career. Wherever her heart guides her, she’ll be very successful. She’ll do a lot of things that will surprise people.”

Whatever the case, despite all of the accolades and honors, there’s still a little of that poised and professional 15-year-old girl in Jenny Lewis, the performer who only wants your approval. And while she’s still more at home on the stage than she is in her house, there’s one area of her performance she’d still like to perfect.

“I’d like to learn to loosen up a little bit, and I’d really love to learn how to speak to the crowd,” she says with a sigh. “God, I’m so terrified. I just don’t know what to say,” she shudders, the consummately prepared actress left without her line. But awkward stage banter aside, Jenny Lewis never struggles to find something to say once the music begins. Her greatest role will always be that of a songwriter. “When I’m getting ready to record, I’m haunted by the tunes,” she says. “They follow me around. I’m constantly thinking about the words, and when I’m sleeping I’m hearing the songs, and when I’m driving around, I’m thinking about them.” Having spent her life chasing the ultimate role, she has ended up with one that pursues her. “It’s good for someone that doesn’t have a day job.”



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