Jenny Lewis | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Jenny Lewis

The Slowest Moving Train

Feb 25, 2015 Issue #52 - January/February 2015 - St. Vincent Bookmark and Share

Enjoying a brief respite before embarking for the Austin City Limits Music Festival, Jenny Lewis is sitting in what she calls the “clubhouse,” a second bedroom in the hillside home in L.A. she shares with her longtime boyfriend and frequent musical collaborator Johnathan Rice. She’s more or less taken over the room with various personal items, among them pieces of recording equipment, thrift store purchases, and lots of clothes. “It started with one clothing rack and it expanded,” says Lewis. “It’s not fair, really [to Johnathan].”

Currently hanging amidst her collection of outfits is her rainbow suit, the colorful, airbrushed jacket and pants that Lewis adorns on the cover sleeve of her third solo album The Voyager. It’s since become a regular fixture for the record’s promotional appearances and live performances. “I don’t know if I can wear the suit for the whole album cycle,” she admits. “I’d like to, but I’m starting to get some feedback on Twitter-which I’m on for the first time. I’m getting the @ mentions, most of which are very positive, but there’s the occasional ‘That suit must be disgusting by now! Find something else to wear!’ and I think, ‘Maybe I should.’ The cleaning options are somewhat limited to a bottle of Febreze.”

The lived-in wardrobe is, of course, but a small aspect of Lewis and her latest work. Not counting Lewis and Rice’s 2010 joint LP as Jenny and Johnny, I’m Having Fun Now, The Voyager is Lewis’ first collection of songs since 2008’s Acid Tongue. It’s also the first album she’s made since her career-establishing band Rilo Kiley officially came to an end. Lewis’ highest charting album to date-peaking at number nine in its first week on the Billboard 200-The Voyager most importantly plumbs a side of the 38-year-old artist she preferred to keep to herself. “It’s me,” says Lewis. “On my previous records I have created a lot of characters and written through the characters-and not to say this record is fully autobiographical-but I think it definitely feels more like me throughout and it reflects me as a solo artist. Everything, from the artwork to the song choices to the choices I made in regard to the collaborators, I think it just reflects me. There’s a lot on the line with this one.”

Instances of Lewis’ newfound directness manifest throughout The Voyager, none more so than when she openly refuses a hypothetical marriage proposal from Rice on the track “Aloha & the Three Johns,” playfully claiming “I look terrible in white,” or on the bridge of lead single “Just One of the Guys” when she so matter-of-factly sings, “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.”

“I’m an American woman in her late 30s,” says Lewis. “I’m surrounded by my friends who have moved on to the next phase of their lives and I’m still in this other phase. Out of necessity, certainly, because I’m an artist. I make my living on the road, but maybe out of an arrested state of development because of the way I grew up on the road, and a little bit of fear. And I’ve always been a late bloomer. I arrive at things very slowly. It takes me a long time. I’ve referred to myself as ‘the slowest moving train.’”

The Voyager itself was its own kind of protracted experience for Lewis. Though she was on track in 2011 to start working on a new record and have it out sometime the following year, Lewis suddenly says she became stuck, developing a severe case of insomnia that lasted for two years. “You try anything that might work. I’m a relatively health-conscious person. I eat well. I try to exercise. So my first plan was to exercise, try to get healthy and that just didn’t work for me. Plan B was the pharmaceutical approach, which did not work for me either. That’s kind of the no-brainer-if you can’t sleep, take an Ambien. But for me, I’m just part of the rare percentage of people that have a paradoxical reaction to medication, so the Ambien kept me up. I don’t know if it’s my chemistry or what it is. There were just a series of things, distractions I used while awake, like listening to Keith Richards’ autobiography Life on tape over and over and over again.”

Looking back, Lewis still can’t fully pinpoint the exact cause of her sleepless nights. “I think it was physiological and psychological and spiritual. My life has been very unique and I’ve been working for a really long time since I was a little kid. I never had a break. It was a weird upbringing and family situation and I think [the insomnia] just kind of stopped me. It was just time for me to take an inventory. And I did. And I’m grateful because I learned a lot about myself in those two years.”

While she admits the results varied, Lewis continued to engage in the creative side of herself despite the difficulty that came with it (“When I’m in a state of panic I turn to music,” she says.) Scoring the Naomi Foner film Very Good Girls starring Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen, as well as collaborating with Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij on an exclusive track for Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls, gave Lewis the appearance of an artist that was just keeping busy. Personally, however, she was still struggling, leaning on family and friends for support. “It’s embarrassing to admit you need help,” says Lewis. “For me, I’ve always been so strong and I’ve taken care of everyone around me, and I was mortified to have to ask for help.”

What finally motivated Lewis back to health was Ben Gibbard approaching her with an invitation to join him and Jimmy Tamborello for their Postal Service reunion tour. “Ben called me and told me we were going to do The Postal Service reunion about a year out and I was sort of at my worst at that point and I thought, ‘Wow, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do that in a year,’” Lewis remembers. “But that helped me get things on track, knowing that the biggest career opportunity of my life was a year out and I may not be able to be a part of it.”

In the wake of the tour, Lewis finally decided to try her hand at some recording. Though she didn’t know him very well, Lewis off-handedly contacted Ryan Adams to see if she could come by his Pax-AM Studio in L.A. “When the stakes aren’t very high, I tend to flourish,” says Lewis. “I wanted to go in and just cut [‘She’s Not Me’] with him, a song I had tried recording a couple of times, and I knew there was still something there with the song. I thought, ‘Fuck it, I’ll just go in and record this one track with Ryan.’”

They developed such a great rapport in a small amount of time that Adams wound up serving as The Voyager‘s primary producer (Beck would produce “Just One of the Guys” while Rice would co-produce two others), helping Lewis lay down the record in just a week and a half. “It was just the right place for me to go,” says Lewis. “He was so generous with his time. Really cool. I know he’s since said, ‘Oh, you know, I just kind of did what I did. She brought the songs in.’ I don’t know if he realizes how crucial that was for me at that time. Maybe I’m just being dramatic but just where I was at, being there opened up a whole new world for me.”

This new world consists of a feeling of genuine autonomy for Lewis, learning to be her own person and making her own choices as an artist, but still being able to collaborate with individuals that will push her in places she normally wouldn’t go. “That’s really exciting to me, to kind of go and take my suitcase of songs and see what happens with the next one, give over part of it to someone else,” she says. “I’m not precious about how I write. I love writing songs alone, but I love collaborating, bringing another song into the universe that would never have been there otherwise. That’s just a pleasure.”

[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar’s January/February 2015 print issue (Issue 52/Best of 2014).]


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