Jenny Lewis Finds Her Way, With Help From Ryan Adams & Hillary Clinton
By Shannon Carlin
Last month, Jenny Lewis walked onto the stage at Governors Ball in New York City in an amazing Technicolor pantsuit to play new songs off her upcoming solo album, The Voyager. It was an occasion: years had passed since fans had seen the red-head on stage playing songs that were all her own.
In the time since her last solo album, 2008’s Acid Tongue, Lewis has kept herself very busy, releasing an album with her boyfriend and frequent collaborator, Johnathan Rice under the name Jenny and Johnny in 2010, writing a song for this past season of Girls, composing music for two upcoming films — Song One with Anne Hathaway & Very Good Girls, starring Elizabeth Olsen and Dakota Fanning — and touring the world with the Postal Service.
“That was a different role,” Lewis said to Radio.com over the phone. “I was supporting Ben [Gibbard], and hiding behind an elaborate lighting rig, so to be out on a stage during the daytime with my new band, in a painted suit, it feels pretty good.”
After her estranged father passed away and her band Rilo Kiley broke up after nearly 15 years together, it’s been a while since Lewis has felt good. To top it all off, she started suffering from terrible insomnia that at one point kept her awake for five straight nights. Her new LP tackles all of these things.
“They all get pretty real,” Lewis said of the 10 tracks on her latest record, “and I’ve never written with any filter. I just write for me.”
Over the phone from her home in Los Angeles, Lewis shared with us Ryan Adams’ many studio rules and regulations, how Floyd Mayweather helped her finally get some sleep and why Hillary Clinton is her style icon.
Radio.com: You’ve been really honest about some of the personal things you went through during the making of this album, from the death of your father to dealing with your band’s break up to suffering from terrible insomnia. Do you ever wish you weren’t so open about those things?
Jenny Lewis: There’s always a certain amount of regret when you’re telling a stranger about your personal life. But, I also feel that what I went through is something that all women go through. You know, we all lose our parents. There are nights where we can’t sleep. So I think it’s very relatable in a way and I talk about it because I got through it and I hope that it will help people that are awake at night and feel like they’ll never get back to sleep.
In an interview you mentioned that you owe the boxer Floyd Mayweather a thank you for helping you get back to sleep. How did you realize that boxing was your cure to insomnia?
I’ve never been into sports my entire life. I used to lie and say, ‘I love sports, I love all the sports.’ But when I was just trying to get back to sleep my sister was really supportive and we sort of found this love of boxing together. And we went to a fight in Vegas, and it just kind of got me out of my own head. To watch something that had a beginning, middle and an end, it gave me hope.
Do you feel like boxing influenced the music in any way?
Not exactly, but I would love to write a song that they would play before a boxing match. It’s like ‘Seven Nation Army,’ that White Stripes song, I wonder if [Jack White] knew while he was writing it. Like, ‘This is going to play in stadiums forever!’ (Ed.: he definitely didn’t).
You’ve mentioned that you hadn’t listened to all of Ryan Adams music and he hadn’t listened to all of yours. Do you think that helped the process?
Well, he’s made so much music. I don’t think anyone has listened to it all. [Laughs] I think he’s a great songwriter. I don’t know if he’s heard any of my music, but it really didn’t matter. He really reacted positively to these songs, and he was very encouraging. And at times while we were recording I would think he wasn’t listening, and then he would recite back a whole verse to me after hearing it once. He’s a pretty remarkable dude.
You’ve talked about Ryan only allowing a few takes for each song. Did he have other rules in the studio that he wanted you to follow?
Oh, he had a lot of rules. There were a lot of things we couldn’t do. And I think the perimeters were very helpful. You know, we disagreed a lot about background vocals, which sounds funny to even disagree about things like that, but his point was, if you’ve got a strong enough line, you don’t need to adorn it with a million background vocals. And he’s like, ‘Does Morrissey use background vocals? No.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I’m not Morrissey, thank you.’ And when I write a song, I’m hearing the harmonies part. So we had it out a couple of times and we ended up recording some stuff that I don’t think he wanted to record, but he ended up liking it in the end.
A lot has been said of the airbrushed suit you wear on the cover of the album and the different ones you’ve been wearing on tour. But over the course of your career you’ve always seemed to come up with looks that coincide with the album, whether it’s hot pants for Rilo Kiley’s Under the Blacklight or prairie dresses for your solo debut, Rabbit Fur Coat. When do you usually figure out the look of the music?
I usually think about it after. I make the music and then it’s my job to present it live. To have something picked out, it helps you to get into the character of the record. I work with Autumn de Wilde on all of my album covers and we always create a little mini-movie with the album art. You know, we want to create the subtext, so we talk a lot about what I’m gonna wear before I wear it.
She had her art director, Adam Siegel, airbrush on these suits for me because I felt really androgynous. You know, I didn’t feel like wearing hot pants, I didn’t feel like wearing dresses. After the process of the record and how I felt, it just didn’t feel appropriate.
The album covers a lot of very feminine themes from marriage to having kids, did you feel like the androgynous look offset some of that?
I think it’s very feminine, the record. But, for me, presenting those themes, it feels more real somehow when I’m wearing pants. I don’t know. [Laughs]
Real women wear pantsuits.
Oh, certainly. Hillary Clinton is killing it in pantsuits!
On “Just One Of The Guys” you sing, “When I look at myself, all I can see/ I’m just another lady without a baby.” Where did that line come from?
I didn’t even realize how direct that bridge was until I played a version of it with my friend, Gillian Welch and we were practicing it at my house. I just remember the moment where, I had just written it and we were playing the bridge, I think she was playing the drums, and we kind of looked at each other and she’s like, “Oh wow, you said it didn’t you. You went there.” Yeah, I did. [Laughs] I don’t write with a filter. I’m not really writing in fear of what people will ask me later. You know, it’s just how I feel. I’m glad I said it.
With the title track, you said Ryan gave you an assignment to go home and write your “Wonderwall.” Had you ever done that before or had any other producer asked you do something like that?
Oh no, no one’s ever said anything as ridiculous as that to me. But it really inspired me, you know, to have a song assignment, to have a deadline, and I think I work well within those perimeters. And you know, in the end, when I played it for Ryan, I was like, ‘Obviously, I can’t write “Wonderwall” it’s a perfect song, but this is the best I can do.’
In the end, what actually inspired you to write that song?
Well, I was thinking about one of my other songs, ‘Acid Tongue’ in a way. And, I don’t know, when I play that ‘acid tongue’ line, it gets a great reaction from the crowd because I feel like it’s really relatable. And so with ‘The Voyager’ I wanted to end the record out in the cosmos and despite the themes on the record and the trouble, you know, I kind of wanted to end it in this infinite space, whether it’s where you go when you die or just the journey of everyone. [Pauses] The journey of everyone? Oh God. Sorry. [Laughs]
The song, “She’s Not Me” is a pretty perfect pop song. Where did that one come from?
Well, that was the first song I recorded with Ryan. Day one, two takes and that sort of set the tone. Like we kind of looked around the room like, ‘Oh s—t.’ and then at the end of the day he asked if I would recut my whole record at [Ryan’s] Pax [-Am Studio]. So that kind of began our musical friendship. And the song, I wrote that with [Jonathan Rice] and it was something that I had been working on for a couple of years.
I learned the Keith Richards open tuning and I was just kind of f—king around with that and just this idea came about. You know, coming out of a difficult period and thinking about a woman who isn’t struggling, like someone who’s easy to be around. Like that’s not me, and that really wasn’t me at the time. I wasn’t very easy to be around. I think the directive of that song, in part, comes from Johnny. You know, I think we really simplified the sentiment, which is okay to do. Sometimes I’ll complicate the message a little bit. He really took it back.
On “Aloha and the Three Johns” you sing about hiding weed from your maid and watching sexual favors being given out on a balcony. Is that song actually based on a real experience?
You’re the first person to mention that song. [Laughs] And I love that song. It’s so fun and it actually does come out of a trip that I took to Hawaii with my band years ago during the Acid Tongue tour. I arranged a show in Waikiki, Honolulu, after playing in Australia. The plan was to fly everyone to Hawaii, do a show and give everyone a couple of days off in paradise. But, when we got to Hawaii, not only was the weather abysmal, but we were in the middle of like a meth quarter in downtown Honolulu. It was like the scariest neighborhood, which, I didn’t know was possible in paradise. And we witnessed a couple of things over the course of the week we were there and I just thought it was funny to write a song about a failed trip to paradise.
Rilo Kiley released the Initial Friend EP 15 years ago. Are you someone who takes stock of those kind of anniversaries?
Yeah, I am. And I’m really sentimental about my band, like Rilo Kiley saved me. It was just like the most important thing in my life and I feel grateful for all the music we made together. And despite not liking “Glendora” still [Laughs] I’m just so proud of all of the work that we did.
Watch Jenny Lewis perform songs off her latest album, The Voyager, on CBS Saturday Morning on August 2.