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July.14 Cover - Jenny Lewis
Written by Jhoni Jackson   

ImageStorytelling vs. Sentimentalism
Jenny Lewis Isn’t Writing About Herself


In true singer-songwriter fashion, Jenny Lewis is a storyteller. In fact, she’s an expertly convincing one. Despite having been a fan for more than a decade, I hadn’t realized that most of those tales aren’t based on Lewis’ own experiences. The bulk of what she’s penned – all those albums rife with heartache, self-loathing, hope and the loss of it – isn’t wholly personal. But she sure fooled me.

“You know, that’s not how I write,” she says plainly. “I don’t take current events in my life and then write about it. I think it’s really just the feeling that factors into the songs and the kind of story that I’m wanting to tell at the moment.”

When I was in my late teens, Lewis’ now-defunct band Rilo Kiley was both a means of catharsis and musical coming-of-age. On a fieldtrip to the University of Georgia in Athens with my high school newspaper, I picked up a copy of Saddle Creek 50, the 2002 comp that included the fuzzy, emotionally off-kilter cuts “With Arms Outstretched” and “Jenny, You’re Barely Alive.” After about a decade of obsessing over commercialized alt-rock and pop-punk, I finally delved deeply into independent music of all kinds. And, of course, those two songs assuaged the alienation I felt when I began to blow off my childhood friends, who had little interest in what I was getting into or the person I was becoming.

It wasn’t a total letdown, however, when Lewis revealed to me that most of her songs aren’t about her own struggles. Sure, in my younger years I took solace in the thought that I was identifying with a singular person; someone who felt similarly, someone else who often felt a little weird and awkward. But, still, the feelings she sparked remain – and there’s even a smidge of Lewis in there, too.    

Her latest solo platter, The Voyager, marks a break in an involuntary hiatus. Two years after the release of her sophomore LP, Acid Tongue, Rilo Kiley dismantled. Around the same time, her estranged father died. Lewis was hit with a long stretch of serious insomnia.

“I don’t know about cause and effect in that way, and I don’t think you can really equate something to one incident. I think, for me, it was just a culmination of a lot of things in my life that sort of caught up with me, in a way,” she reflects. “I think it was just kind of the perfect storm to keep me awake at night. Certainly the personal things that happened in my life happened around the same time. I can’t say one thing did it more than the other, but it definitely took me out of the game for a while. And that’s why I’m talking about it – because it took me so fuckin’ long to put out a record, because I couldn’t really…I couldn’t really work.

On the album’s lead track, “Head Under Water,” Lewis croons, “I’ve been losing sleep/ And I cannot sit still.” There’s an obvious parallel there, and a few others that could be connected to the brain-draining results of sleeplessness. The chorus, however, is hopeful: “There’s a little bit of magic/ Everybody has it/ There’s a little bit of sand left in the hourglass,” she assures. Even that, I suppose, could be linked directly to Lewis – the moment she was finally able to rest, maybe.

“I’m sleeping, if that’s the question,” she responds when I ask how’s she’s been doing. “Even though I’m superstitious – I feel like once I say everything’s great, everything’s going to fall apart again. I’m a superstitious person. But I am sleeping, and I have been for a little while now.”

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