“Are we taking a shower together?” asks Jenny Lewis, curiously. We’re in a bathroom, just the two of us, the only place in London’s Islington Assembly Rooms (where she’ll shortly play a sold out show) apparently suitable to do an interview. There’s a shower, there’s a toilet, there’s towels, there’s lockers, and there’s Jenny Lewis; the former singer with crossover indie-rock darlings Rilo Kiley, successful solo artist, collaborator with just about everyone, and a woman apparently doomed forever to be referred to as “former child-star Jenny Lewis”. Appropriately, considering the location, she’s decked out in a classic red adidas tracksuit and shell-toe trainers. She looks kind of gangster.
It must be an odd experience, being interviewed when you’re an artist like Lewis. Journalists can rarely resist talking about the acting career she abandoned years ago (see, we’re even doing it ourselves...) and her habit of writing excellent first person narratives and the odd confessional bit of storytelling in her songs mean everyone thinks they know her. She’s here promoting her excellent new record, The Voyager, a fantastic, emotive, organic-sounding collection of songs produced by Ryan Adams, with contributions from Beck and boyfriend/collaborator Johnathan Rice. Lewis has made no secret of the effect her father's death, a bout of depression, insomnia, and the break up of her band have made on the album, and it’s led to an inevitable, and depressing, line of questions...
“Hang on,” she says, “this isn’t right yet.” She’s noticed a huge pile of fake flowers on a high shelf and grabs a bunch for each of us. She holds hers like a microphone and says “so tell me about your dead dad?” thrusting her posies under my nose.
It must be weird constantly being asked about something so personal by complete strangers...
“So your Dad’s dead,” what? You wanna make me cry? It’s my fault, because I’ve put these things out there, disguised somewhat in these songs. In my initial conversations about the record I was very open about my experience, and really all I can do is laugh about it. Every time someone asks me that question about my Dad I can hear his laughter, off in the cosmos. It is very relatable though. What happened to me happens to millions of people. The other one I get is “so you didn’t sleep for six years”, which isn’t entirely true, but insomnia is also a female health issue too, so I’ve been really open about those things.
The record does sound very personal though, so that must encourage it?
Aaaaaaaah, maybe. If you listen to Rilo Kiley records there’s definitely a lot of soul-baring there too. It does have a certain directness that I think people are mistaking for something ripped out of my diary, but it’s not totally the case. There’s a lot of storytelling as well.
What about the other stuff people always seem to ask you: Do you find it weird people fixate on the “child star” thing?
I think it’s a unique back story and people are fascinated with self-destruction. For whatever reason, I survived my past, so people find it to be noteworthy. The truth is, I was never very famous as an actor. I was a bit-part character young actor, so there wasn’t one part people recognise me for. When I walk down the street, particularly in the states, people think that they’re related to me somehow. They can’t figure out where they know me from but assume they know me somehow. What can you do? It’s my past, and at this point I’m just embracing it. It’s a weird, showbiz story.
It’s odd when you consider you’ve devoted far more of your working life to music, and that’s where you’ve had proper success on your own terms. If we’re honest it’s the music that’s the reason we’re talking to you to begin with…
If it wasn’t for the music I wouldn’t be alive to talk to you.
So let’s go back to the obvious questions - when did the album start to come together?
It goes right back to when we released the Jenny & Johnny record [her album with boyfriend Rice,]. Like any other record once we started touring I started thinking about the next batch of tunes. ‘Just One Of the Guys’ was one of the first songs I wrote. I assumed that I’d make a record in a month or two, then my life kind of got in the way. So throughout my “personal experiences” I was in the studio with Johnathan producing these songs, some of them I liked, some of them I didn’t like, and then I hit a wall. That’s where Ryan Adams came into the picture. I messaged him on twitter, which I’m ashamed to admit - so modern - and asked if I could come in and record one song I’d written with Johnathan, something I’d been working on for a while, so he said “come on down to Pax Am [his studio] for a day. We recorded ‘She’s Not Me’, and by the end of the day we’d recorded a second song that I didn’t even know was finished. He asked me if I’d re-cut my whole record there. So I did.
‘She’s Not Me’ is probably my favourite song on the record
Ryan rescued it from obscurity. He really knew what to do with that song. I wrote it in open tuning after I’d read Keith Richards’ book, as that’s the tuning he uses, and immediately Ryan was, like, “oh my god, I totally get it!” And he did, he totally got it.
So somewhere swimming around on your hard drive there’s an entirely different version of the whole album?
Oh yeah, there are multiple versions. I didn’t end up using all of the stuff I recorded at Pax Am. The record is a hodgepodge of mostly Ryan produced material, but then the Beck produced song, ‘Just One of the Guys’ was sent along on the very last day of the session. I didn’t think that was going to be on the record. Two remained from the original Jenny & Johnny sessions, so there’s tons of extra Ryan stuff hanging around.
It must have been pretty extraordinary to have the Beck-produced version just turn up and blow you away…
Honestly I was really into Ryan's version, which is completely different. It’s almost like a female-led Springsteen tune. He was all “this is boring and slow! Speed it up!” and he cut one of the outro parts, and I’d become used to his version... I was going to open the record with it, and then Beck sent the other one along, and if Beck sends you a song he’s produced you better damn well put it on your record, or you’re an idiot.
He did a really good job with it - he sort of hit the ‘Beck Button’ that makes songs sound great on the radio
I never thought I’d hear anyone say that about one of my songs!
A lot of your stuff sounds great on the radio, surely? Things like ‘Portions For Foxes’ (by Rilo Kiley) sound like radio hits
I guess I just haven’t heard them like that. That was pretty shiny, although it wasn’t a big radio hit. Maybe it could have been… I blame it on the bridge, I should have cut that bridge in half. Ben Gibbard [former collaborator and member of Death Cab For Cutie and the Postal Service] is always my barometer, he told me “the song is great, but the bridge is too long” and I was all “Don’t tell me what to do, Gibbard!” and then later, of course, I regretted it. All the advice he’s given me that I haven’t taken, I have always regretted.
You’ve made a lot of records, but this is only the second to be released under your name on its own, is there a difference?
Well, Rabbit Fur Coat [debut solo album, released under the name ‘Jenny Lewis With the Watson Twins’] really is my first solo record, and those are my songs, that really was my mission statement as a solo artist. I shared it with the twins as they were such an important part of the sound and the aesthetic, but I do consider that to be a solo record.
I suppose it’s a really good name for a band - “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Jenny Lewis With The Watson Twins”...
It just all came together. I remember telling the twins for the first time that I was going to feature them in the title and on the cover, and they were all “What?!”
You seem to be instinctively collaborative though?
Or “needy”? I have been, thus far. I would like to make a record where I play everything and it’s just singular vision, because when I record at home and demo everything it does have a different feel, but I need other people. Socially I need them to provide insight on my songs. I’m kind of limited, musically, so I write the same song over and over again, so I need help taking the songs out of that. Like Ryan said - “what’s with all this campfire bullshit, it’s really fatiguing?”
That’s a bit rich coming from Ryan Adams, of all people…
Uh, yeah! But I knew what he meant. That’s why you collaborate, you get another musical mind on it. He said “you’ve done your job, you’ve brought in these songs in here”. I was ready, I knew the songs inside out and backwards, but to have someone like him to flip things and add some excitement, I needed it. Beck, as well, I’d say “how about we try this?” and he’d ignore me, and I’d go “er...ok.” I wish we could push the ‘Beck Button’ on more of my songs. I was all “how about we do another one?” but he was finishing his record, I got him for one though and that was pretty great.
It would be interesting to hear a purely ‘Jenny Lewis’ record though, something very stripped down
Sometimes the simplest songs are the best, like Daniel Johnston just pounding chords on a casio. Songwriting is for everyone. There’s the range from Daniel Johnston to Jazz Fusion and everything in between... from Elizabeth Cotton to David Byrne. I guess right now I want to hear a little more ‘out’ stuff. I feel like the ‘indie’ taste is shifting, there’s room for a little bit of Fusion now. I saw St. Vincent the other night, and there’s moments there that are pretty fusion-y, in the best possible way, but placed in this overall aesthetic that makes it really powerful.
I don’t want to delve too much into the dark stuff, but I was interested in how going through those various experiences, grief and insomnia and everything, changed the record you wanted to make?
Quite a bit. Not only did I write more songs, but I became unhappy with what I’d worked on previously. It was like someone had turned the light on, and I wasn’t going to put out something I wasn’t completely happy with. And I worked really hard on it. I took it from Ryan and I mixed it with a guy called Rich Costey, a great mixer.. There were so many phases and different minds.
It’s interesting that this is your first proper post-Rilo Kiley work, it felt like your other solo work has been kind of lyrically and musically ‘other’, you’ve been able to be more folky, or more arty because there was this big pop/rock band to go back to. Now that isn’t there any more it feels like that side of you is finally being let into your solo work.
I think it retains some of the feel of my other solo records, but yeah - I’ve always had two places to put my songs. So I’d save some for Rilo Kiley if they were on the poppier side, and I also felt that my band was going to last forever, so I made my first solo record as vacation from the band, and it had to be different enough to justify its existence. With this one the band was done, so I was beholden to nobody. I think you arrive at that place, when you’re making pop music and you’re inherently arty, or at least your taste is inherently arty, which mine is - I don’t necessarily listen to much totally straight forward music - but being in a band you can kind of blame the person next to you, “this is really poppy because this guy’s making me do it.” Or you can embrace it fully, because it’s not your name. Then you find yourself at 40 thinking “fuck, my band is done, am I going to make these arty records forever?” It’s okay to make music that people like and that’s palatable. It doesn’t have to be weird for the sake of being weird.
When you talk about your artier tastes in music, what kind of stuff are we talking about?
It’s not just the old light-in-the-attic folky, collectable stuff. You’ll find me listening to Motown and R&B and Hip Hop, but the records we listen to at home aren’t exactly top-40 radio records, and I think there’s a point where you realise that the music that you make isn’t necessarily the music you listened to. Does that make sense? If you’d played me ‘Portions For Foxes’ at that time I probably would have said “turn this shit off,” but it turns out that was the music of my soul. We weren’t trying to make anything except what was truthful to what we could create. As you age you get those things in balance. I just write what I write - I never sit down and say “I’m going to write a song that sounds like this”. I just start writing and that’s the record I make.
I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed anyone who genuinely admitted to saying they wanted to make a record that was self-consciously styled in a certain way.
I can think of three or four people I won’t mention that write exactly like that. They put on a record, they turn it down real low so you can’t hear the lyric, then they write the song they think they’re hearing. Their songs are based on other songs. This is a traditional folk music way to write. Even Bob Dylan started out referencing Woodie Guthrie, so there’s no one way to write. For me, I just write what I write. Dot dot dot. We’ve got to be careful here by the way, or we’ll end up in a D.F.C. You know what that is?
I’m afraid not…
Dylan Fantasy Camp. You’ve go to be careful talking about Dylan or you get stuck in the Dylan Fantasy Camp and you can’t get out.
I wanted to ask a little bit about putting together live sets, you’ve got this sizable body of work now…
Well you can’t please everyone, but I’m trying to represent every era of my career, and it’s not easy. I’m remembering songs I’d forgotten I’d written. I was in an Uber cab and the driver happened to know who I was and said “I really hope you play ‘Godspeed’” and I was, like, “‘Godspeed!’ I’d forgotten about that song! Thank you sir!” We try and make it cohesive. My band learned about 30 or 40 songs and we go through and see what works. For a very long time I felt uncomfortable playing Rilo Kiley songs, like I was betraying someone, but really I was betraying myself because they’re my songs and they make people happy when I play them. So I’ve reclaimed some of that stuff for the first time on this tour, and it feels pretty great. Sometimes it doesn’t work without Rilo Kiley, but sometimes it does a song good to exist in a different world. I really believe a song is a good song if it can exist as an acoustic number, as a full band, at any tempo, it’s still a good song. I almost called my record ‘Versions’... ‘Versions For Virgins’.
The Voyager is out now.