Storytelling 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.”
How exactly she was able to return to normalcy, I’m not sure, because Lewis doesn’t seem to be, either. Whether it’s related or not, I can’t speculate, but Lewis got the itch to try someone new when the time came to record The Voyager. In the press notes for the album, she says she was “searching for a spirit guide.” She found one in prolific songwriter and producer Ryan Adams and his partner Mike Viola.
“I don’t think [Ryan Adams had] listened to any of my music. And he has such an immense catalog that I don’t know if there’s anyone that’s listened to everything he puts out, because there’s so much. But my knowledge of his music was pretty limited as well,” she says. “I think we went in a very unique situation, in getting to know someone while you’re working with them. It’s a very intimate thing to record your new songs with someone.”
Being unfamiliar with Adams in general, Lewis got a surprise when it came to his recording methods. With a backing band comprised of a mix of seasoned, all-over-the-place players – Griffin Goldsmith from Dawes on drums, occasional Black Keys member and varied session player Gus Seyffer on bass, plus Viola on keys and guitar, as well as Adams himself, also on guitar – they laid down all the tracks without Lewis hearing any of the playbacks.
“And he didn’t let us record more than two or three takes,” she adds. “So I would just play the song for the band, they’d take notes, I’d play it for them once or twice. And then we just recorded and everyone had that opportunity to get it right, and if they messed up, well, the mistakes are in there. For me, I think [Adams] wanted to establish some momentum with the music. I think that’s kind of the idea of [his] Pax-Am [studio] – it’s an almost live representation of what’s being played. “
Aesthetically, The Voyager is a middle-ground between her solo debut, the 2006 semi-soulful collaboration with the Watson Twins. Rabbit Fur Coat, and its primarily alt-country successor, 2008’s Acid Tongue. There’s a twang in the guitar, which could be attributed somewhat to Adams, and Lewis’ vocals are as honeyed and heartfelt as ever. And, like any of her material, there’s a strong pop sensibility that ensures even the more temperately paced numbers are memorable and single-worthy.
In terms of content, however, the album feels as intimate as early Rilo Kiley material, albeit age appropriate. From early on in the collection, there are multiple references to motherhood. On “She’s Not Me,” she sings sourly, “I heard she’s having your baby.”
“I think it’s a pretty universal sentiment when you move on from something. Again, I think people are under the assumption that I’m writing specifically about my own life exclusively, but I’m not,” she says.
Lewis has been in a relationship with her former touring bandmate, Johnathan Rice, for some time now. They’ve worked together often, from “Carpetbaggers” on Acid Tongue to his own tunes to film soundtracks. There are moments on The Voyager that point to a desire for a family, like on “Just One of the Guys.” Lewis regrets, “No matter how hard I try/ To have an open mind/ There’s a little clock inside that keeps ticking.” If that’s not clear enough, she goes as far as to say, “I’m just another lady without a baby.” But, then again, there’s that storytelling element. Lewis isn’t necessarily talking about her own wishes.
“I think it occurs to you one day when you look around and all your friends are pregnant or they already have kids. It something that we all consider,” she says. “And I think you make a choice at a certain point either way. And I think just the point of the song is that whichever way you choose to go, it’s fine. There may be expectations put upon you, but ultimately it’s your life to live, and you make the decision if you want to have a family or not.”
I prodded, but only a little. Lewis, who’s been acting sporadically since she was a kid, guested in an episode of the podcast-turned-program Comedy Bang! Bang! in early June – sporting a fake pregnancy belly.
“Total coincidence, by the way! Which was really funny, because that came out I think on the same day as my single, and I started getting calls from, like, ‘New Mommy Magazine,’ like, we want to interview Jenny about her pregnancy! And then ‘Just One of the Guys’ came out, which is totally the opposite of that. It’s just kind of funny to have those things occur on the same day,” she laughs.
It’s doubtful that Lewis is perusing mommy blogs with a box of tissues on hand. But, if she hadn’t practically discredited that possibility, I could have imagined something like that. How convincing she is not only is a testament to her skill as a songwriter, but also to Adams’ abilities as a producer.
“I think he did such a great job,” Lewis gushes. “He rescued a lot of my songs from the graveyard. They were just buried. And, you know, I revisited them thinking that they wouldn’t work, but the new arrangements and his ideas just infused them with life. I can’t believe they existed in any other way before he got ahold of them. Like, this is exactly what I needed to do.”
There are hints of a breakup on the album, too. But they’ve got nothing to do with Lewis and Rice, who are still very much a couple.
“Certainly a band breaking up, that’s a relationship. And I think I was writing about Rilo Kiley breaking up on Under the Blacklight,” she reveals. “There’s a very obvious song called ‘Breakin’ Up’ that I thought was about a romantic breakup – not my own, but about a friend that I was writing about. But then, really, it kind of became about my band breaking up. For me, it’s not a conscious thing. These things come from the ether and make their way into the song and then you figure it out five years later what you were talking about.”
Of course, I had to ask her to elaborate on Rilo Kiley’s dismantling.
“You know there’s so many things that happen over 15 years of playing music with people and being friends that we really needed break from one another creatively and personally,” she says. “And so I’m still very much musically still involved with [drummer] Jason [Boesel] and [bassist/guitarist] Pierre [de Reeder]. Pierre recorded a couple songs on my record and Jason played on most of the Ryan sessions. So I’m very, very close with them and we’re still making music together. And we also worked very closely on RKives; that was put together with a lot of sentimentality and being able to look back on something that was so important for us all just growing up as people and as musicians. It was really cool for us to look back on all the work that we had done.”
After announcing they were parting ways, that catalog of bests and B-sides seemed to indicate permanency. Thankfully, the situation isn’t so black-and-white, according to Lewis.
“I couldn’t ever say anything’s permanent, right? I mean unless…someone is no longer around, you know what I mean, I feel like there’s always the possibility of friendship and creativity. For me, it’s just about creating stuff with people in an environment where you’re free to do that in a relatively pleasant environment,” she says, then laughs. “Very basic.”
When I apologize for making her repeat an explanation she’s likely rehashed a thousand times, Lewis is reassuring.
“I’m not trying to hide anything. It’s just complex. Relationships are just so complicated. And relationships that are personal and then become creative, it goes so deep,” she laughs.
Lewis is probably referring to Blake Sennett, her Rilo Kiley comrade who was once also her boyfriend. With Rice, she has a comparable union – but different too, of course. They released a power-pop record, I’m Having Fun Now, in 2010. They also teamed up to craft the soundtrack to Song One, a film starring Anne Hathaway that features a fictional musician called James Forester.
“I scored a movie on my own before that, and then we wrote a bunch of original songs for someone together, which was really fun and cool. For me it came at a time when I was really sick of my own material and just kind of sick of myself, in a way, that to be able to write for someone other than myself – in particular, a male character,” she trails off. “We weren’t writing for Annie, we were writing for this fake singer-songwriter James Forester, so to write for a male perspective was really fun for me.”
After learning and coming to terms with Lewis’ predilection for telling other peoples’ stories, whether molded after true events or made-up ones, that gig seems especially fitting. Still, the work that bears her name isn’t completely fictional.
“I think there’s always a little bit of me in every line I sing because I’m writing it. But I think that if I were to limit it to just an account of what I was feeling and going through, it would make for some pretty dull songs. Like today I woke up and went on a hike and ate some raw goat yogurt. You’ve got to spice it up with some drama,” she says.
With Under the Blacklight, she looked to Los Angeles for inspiration, she says. I ask if that means the father figure on “Next Messiah,” the epic, momentum-shifting track on Acid Tongue, isn’t based on her own.
“There are moments, but again, I wanted to create a very visual story where you could really see it. There’s a really disgusting part of that song that has nothing to do with anything in my life. When I sing it live, I’m like, ‘This is really disgusting.’ I think it’s the second part of the song – I wanted it to be really noir murder mystery. Maybe I’m the only who gets those references in my songs. I’m like, ‘I’m singing about a murder!’ And they’re like, ‘You’re singing about yourself!’” she jokes.
She’s referring to the lines, “When did she come to detest you/ When will they come to arrest you.”
“I kind of document a pretty disgusting existence, yeah,” she laughs. “But I’m obsessed with crime novels. I’m a big Jim Thompson fan, James Ellroy, and I watch tons of crime documentaries. So these little moments always kind of make their way into my songs. But actually I’m the only one that recognizes them.”
In light of that, a few of those nuances become noticeable on The Voyager. There’s “You Can’t Outrun Em,” by title alone, which comes with a sinister, sort of Western gun-slinging vibe. Then there’s the strange story of “Searching for LB,” where the character “longs for a big sister” who she also wants to kiss but has to share with a wayfaring male. It’s odd, and the deep and breathy interjections of other characters ‘speaking’ evokes a dark eeriness.
Even with the knowledge that I was, to an extent, misinterpreting all the Rilo Kiley and subsequent Jenny Lewis songs I loved so much, they haven’t lost their heart-wrenching effects. Just because Lewis wasn’t singing about herself the whole time doesn’t mean the feelings weren’t there. They definitely were, and still remain – alongside my new appreciation for her mastery of storytelling.
Photo by Autumn de Wilde.