Everything Is Embarrassing: The Confessions of Jenny Lewis

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Jenny Lewis is the quintessential indie rock heroine. For the last 15 years, her emotionally honest anthems — both with Rilo Kiley and on her own — have soundtracked love and heartbreak, detailed familial drama, and aired dirty laundry with bandmates, all the while showing that it’s possible for a woman to be down but not out of the game. After a four-year hiatus, Lewis returns with her third solo LP, The Voyager (Warner Bros.), on July 29. It’s a confident album made in the face of personal struggle, including the death of Lewis’ father, the public dissolution of her band, and a mean bout of insomnia to boot.

As with her two previous solo efforts — 2006’s Rabbit Fur Coat and 2008’s Acid Tongue — Lewis updates the Laurel Canyon folk-rock tradition on The Voyager. But her latest is also the most capital-I, capital-R Indie Rock album she’s made in a decade, since Rilo Kiley’s More Adventurous. Electric guitar riffs strut right through layers of feedback while Lewis’ words — on her biological clock, love triangles she’s too damn old for, fighting depression with vices, listening to Metallica, her childhood, marital pressure, and one comically bad vacation — are bound to resonate with the fans who’ve grown up with her these past 15 years.

We recently spoke with Lewis about making the album — with just a little help from Ryan Adams and Beck — as well as a myriad of other topics she was kindly game for: her nerves and feelings of embarrassment regarding personal material, the rainbow suits she’s been rocking as of late, dancing with the Postal Service, and kissing Fred Savage back in the day.

Flavorwire: In light of “Just One of the Guys,” I imagine you’re getting more questions than ever about your biological clock, which is what you were trying to commiserate in the song.

Jenny Lewis: I’ve gotten a lot of questions about it, and I suppose when you have lyrics as direct as I do, it’s your fault if people ask. But I don’t have a problem talking about it because I think it’s okay. Whatever you choose in that department, it’s your personal business. There’s a certain amount of pressure from people if you don’t have children. Not to say that I won’t end up having kids, but I think it’s like a very sensitive issue for people.

FW: It seems like you crave collaboration even in your solo albums, where you’ve worked with Johnathan [Rice, her beau] and the Watson Twins, and now, Beck and Ryan Adams in producer roles. Do you feel like you need other people to bounce ideas off of?

JL: I do! I like learning from people, really. I think in switching up the person a little bit, you get to experience a lot of different ways of how to do things. I’m not afraid to ask for help when I need it — and I don’t always need it! Sometimes I know exactly what I want.

With Ryan [Adams, who produced the bulk of The Voyager], he’s very energetic and his style is very unique to him. We weren’t allowed to listen back to what we were doing as we were doing it, so he has a lot of parameters and a lot of rules, things that you shouldn’t do. I was able to conform to that to a certain degree, and it was kind of liberating in a way.

FW: Is that disorienting? You’ve been doing this a long time, you have your own way of doing things…

JL: Yes, but I’m the one who went to Ryan asking for help. He didn’t come to me. I was pretty open. My ego certainly, a couple times, was bruised. But I was there to get something from him, and he definitely gave me his full attention — for a short amount of time. I had him and his producing partner, Mike [Viola], for two weeks, and then they were off and running.

I’d been working on the songs for years, so it felt like an eternity, but really, once I got in the studio, it just all happened very quickly. They just knew exactly how to kidnap my songs from me. My babies, they took them. Those are my babies, by the way.

FW: That’s the perfect answer when people ask you about kids.

JL: “I have so many! I’ve got ten coming out this year!”

FW: I know that a lot of living came at you in the four years you spent writing The Voyager — particularly with your father passing and Rilo Kiley ending — and you can hear that in the record.

JL: I wrote when I was feeling good and I wrote when I was not feeling so hot. So I think the album is a combination of those things. But I did find myself a couple times just, while recording them with Ryan, who I didn’t know very well, a couple times I felt pretty emotional. I was like embarrassed to show that emotion in front of someone that I just met, but sometimes you just can’t help it.

FW: That’s funny, I think maybe people have the notion that musicians who live in the same town and work in similar genres must know each other. Did you know Beck before he produced “Just One Of The Guys”?

JL: No! I knew him from around town, because we’re both from L.A., but never had I spent an hour alone with him. So it’s really intimate when you’re a solo artist. You roll in by yourself, and then you’re working with another solo artist — it’s just the two of you — is pretty scary stuff. Particularly with Beck, whom I have been listening to since I was a little kid. But he was very cool and very open, just generous with his time.

FW: A lot of your songs come off as quite personal, and thus have resonated, in particular, with a whole generation of young women. Is it ever uncomfortable to write so openly and know that you’re going to play the songs live for years on end?

JL: When I’m writing a song, I want to feel something from it. But later I have to deal with the consequences of that. Some nights, if the show isn’t going great, it’s almost embarrassing in a way. Like if people are disinterested and you’re singing something personal. If you’re just singing something like “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” you’d be like “Ah, fuck it. Who cares [if they’re not paying attention].” But if you’re opening for Pavement and the crowd is like “you suck!”… I mean, I’m a huge Pavement fan, but I don’t know if their audience loved Jenny and Johnny.

FW: Do you still get nervous before shows?

JL: I do get nervous before every show. Self-awareness doesn’t creep in all the time, but when it does, phew, it’s pretty tough. Suddenly I’m like, “Wait, am I an asshole? Why am I standing up in front of all these people?” That, luckily, is rarer than the feeling of just kind of losing yourself in the moment.

FW: You’ve said that the Postal Service reunion shows eased you back into performing live after your hiatus, and you looked as if you were having the time of your life up there, dancing around with Ben [Gibbard].

JL: That tour for Give Up’s 10-year anniversary was so amazing: A) to play those songs, and B) in front of all those people — the most people I’ve ever played for in my life. Having been on a break for a while, it was so great to be able to just let them do most of the work and have Ben be the front person. It’s his band, I’m just his foil. So it was really fun to be able to like play the keyboard and look out onto 15,000 people and vibe out for a second. When you’re the lead singer there’s no rest, no break. But it was a true dance party onstage for the four of us.

FW: We must discuss the rainbow airbrushed Adam Siegel suits you’ve been wearing this album cycle. They’re stunning.

JL: One’s a little more My Little Pony, and the other one’s a little more like, Gram Parsons nudie suit. I love them so much. I knew I wanted to wear a suit. Autumn de Wilde, who I work with on all of my album covers and we’ve done a bunch of videos together, gets together with me after I’ve made a record to discuss the album art. I always want to tell a story and create a movie subplot, which we did for Jenny and Johnny and Under the Blacklight [Rilo Kiley album] as well.

Adam [Siegal], who’s Autumn’s art director, had been kind of revisiting airbrushing. He was a graffiti artist in the ‘80s in L.A. and they had done a shoot together where he airbrushed a suitcase. So Autumn asked him to do the suit, I gave him a color palette, we talked about the inspiration, and he just made those two suits for me. I kept on bugging him to paint more things. I was kind of taking advantage, like “Could you also do my boots? And my guitar? And my guitar strap?”

FW: “Can you just come over and do my whole house?”

JL: “Yeah, just do my teeth. I want a My Little Pony grin.”

Anyway, I’m going to ask him if he wouldn’t mind painting a couple more, because I cant take them to the dry cleaners! And I want to wear them every night on tour! For the decency — for the sake and happiness of my band — I need at least another blazer.

FW: You’ve been retweeting all these great behind-the-scenes photos from The Wizard, because it’s the 25th anniversary. What’s it like for you to look back on your early acting career?

JL: Well, first of all, I can’t believe it’s been 25 years since The Wizard and Troop Beverly Hills. It’s just so weird that I have a totally different career now than I did when I was a kid. And it’s been that long since I’ve been a working actress! I’m distanced enough from it to really appreciate it. Those are my memories from my childhood! They’re not like, “Oh I played soccer when I was 12.” It’s like, “Oh I kissed Fred Savage in a movie — and that was my first kiss.” Fucked-up memories from my weird childhood that, at this point, I’m pretty psyched to relive.

FW: What does it feel like to be so many women’s Girl-Crush?

JL: Well, I’d rather that than being everyone’s nemesis, though that’s cool to play too. I bet I would have a Girl-Crush right back on them! That’s just the weirdest thing I’ve ever said.