Coming to the end of a long tour for her most recent album The Voyager, ex-Rilo Kiley songstress now exclusively solo, “just one of the guys” Jenny Lewis spoke to Chris Berkley of Static about the six-year wait between records, the reasons behind it and the helping hand that got the job done.
You’ve just finished playing some shows with Ryan Adams. He’s someone you have to thank for getting The Voyager over the line.
Yeah, he is. I was struggling after I had written a handful of songs for this record. It took me a couple of years to actually get into the studio and I reached out to Ryan and asked if would record one song, “She’s Not Me”, and one song ended up being an almost entire record after a couple of days.
So did he sorta kick your ass?
He did in many ways, but I needed it. I needed a good ass-kicking. I was a little caught up, I was a little in my head and I needed someone I really trusted to kinda believe in me in way and see me through it.
Well you had a fair share of bad luck between records as well. You had family loss and insomnia, which I guess was compounded by the personal stuff going on.
Yeah, it was a rough patch but you know, it happens. Nothing that anyone else hasn’t experienced. I lost my father, and a couple of things came together and created this very sleepless two-year period, and out of that though I met and worked with Ryan and Beck and got through it and made Voyager.
So how severely does that affect making a record? Did it sap all your creative strength having insomnia? Is it in sense like not being able to go to work? You’re not inspired?
Well I think when you’re not sleeping, everything is a bit off. So I was just really unable to function properly, but the one thing I could do, lying awake in my bed, I was shifting between watching The Sopranos on repeat and finishing the lyrics to my record. So I really did my homework and I finished my poem.
As well as caught up with Tony Soprano…
Oh yeah, I watched it twice through. The entire show.
And what was different about watching it the second time around?
It just got better. Aside from The Wire, probably the best show ever made.
It also seems each time between a record you’re looking for ways to combat either writer’s block or perhaps even boredom. Last time around you teamed up with you partner Jonathan for Jenny and Johnny. So is it good for you to be able to shift gears and inspire yourself by doing different things like that?
Well the Jenny and Johnny record was our retirement plan. Some couples rent an RV and drive across America, we made a power pop record, but for me I’m always at the mercy of my collaborators. Being a solo artist now exclusively, because of both of my bands broke up, Rilo Kiley and The Postal Service, I’m free to collaborate with whoever I want to work with. So it’s really exciting to switch it up. I come with the tunes but have reached a point in my career where I’m really open to production ideas.
It also seemed that doing that Postal Service tour in 2013 was another thing that helped get you out of your slump, right? You were on stage and having a bunch of fun, that must’ve been good because you were doing it for a definite set period. It was a one time only, 10 year reunion thing and then it was done with.
I remember Ben Gibbard calling me about a year before we were to start touring for The Postal Service, and I thought “Well, if I can get back to sleep in a year then I’ll do it” and he’s one of my best friends and he was like “Well, I’m not going to do it without you and we love you and we can’t wait to play these shows”. So thanks Ben Gibbard.
Well, you’ve got about 8 more years before he calls you again and words you up for the 20 year anniversary, so you can get more sleep in between now then and you’ll be fine.
I don’t know if he’s one of those guys that goes into retirement and then comes out of retirement. I feel like he’s a man of his word, so I’ll highly doubt that but I wouldn’t turn it down.
As you say, you also called time on Rilo Kiley in those intervening years between your last solo album and this one, but obviously there’s not too many bitter feelings because you still do those songs live. So was that something you were happy to put that to sleep? Did it help you forge ahead as a solo artist to not have that hanging over your head?
Well, no, Rilo Kiley is the most important relationship in my life thus far, in that my true heart and soul exist within that band and I grew up in that band with my brothers and my former lover. So it’s a very intense situation there. But, I do think when I was trying to do both, I would separate the songs, and kind of keep some for myself and give the rest to Rilo Kiley. Now, I’m a songwriter and I can put all of my songs into one project which is great.
It does seem as well there’s some self-help and self-betterment for you through not only listening to music but also making it. Do you find that the older you get the more records you make? Does it make you feel good to get past the insomnia and to make the record and be moving forward like that?
I guess I just put myself into my work and sometimes things are great and sometimes things are a little bit more difficult, and I sort write without a filter and if I get through it hopefully help someone else experience the same things and come out the other side, then great.
A lot of the songs that you’ve written, especially on The Voyager, seem to be semi-autobiographical. I know a song like “Late Bloomer” finds you finding Europe as a 16-year-old. Is it nice for you to tease people in terms of how much they think is about you in song and then how much they find out isn’t as well?
They don’t need to know the true story, and there’s always a little nugget of truth within the songs. My real life is really not that exciting.
Really? So you live out your fantasies through song?
I do. I’m in some ways a psychic songwriter, where I’ll write something and I won’t understand what I’m writing about but then 5 years later it’ll come to pass.
Does that also come from people analysing your work and journalists having to put it in context and that kind of thing? Do you, especially at the end of making a record like The Voyager which took so long to make, do you get to the end of the journey and put the record out and a lot of people join the dots for you?
That’s actually an interesting question. I do discover a lot about my songs through the interviews that I do, like.. (laughs) “Oh wow, you’ve got a great point, Sir. I guess am a late bloomer”.
There must be a lot of people asking you obscenely weird questions and joining far too many dots and thinking songs are about this and that.
That’s fine too. You’ve got to keep the mystery alive.
A lot of the songs on this record examine life choices. The opener “Head Under Water” has got that line in it about “My own mortality, I contemplated”. The older you get and the more choices and records you make are you more aware of that stuff creeping in?
I think I’ve always considered all of the big questions in my songs, but as a 28 year old you’re processing it in a different way. I continue to explore the themes that haunt me. (laughs)
It also seems that you’ve happily had enough distance in the film/tv part of your life because you poke fun at it in the “She’s Not Me” film clip. If people haven’t seen it, it’s you revisiting a lot of the roles or perhaps characters that you had done.
Yeah, I sort of wanted to pay homage to my child actor past, and so the video opens up with me behind bars, of course, where most child actors end up went eventually and then kind of went through my resume and then chose some of the most iconic moment from my former career.
And also invented some shows too. Would totally watch The Gilded Girls and Hellville, I gotta tell you.
Well I sort of had to fudge the titles there and we thought about it for a long time and like, oh yeah, The Gilded Girls…
Is there an alternate universe where you never became a songwriter and you never gave up acting?
I don’t think so. I don’t know if I would’ve made it though, honestly, without songs. It’s funny, because I retired as an actor when I was about 20 years old and once I gave it up, then the phone started ringing. Once I was no longer interested in being an actor, suddenly I got offers. I mean, granted, to like be in student films for free but still I would’ve been so excited had someone called me before I retired. But I am in this Christmas special that is coming out on Netflix around the holidays called A Very Murray Christmas where I’m singing and acting a little bit.
Have you hung out with Bill?
I have. He’s a friend of mine.
Was that a life-changing moment doing that Christmas special?
Oh yeah, one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.
I’m more pleased you in that and not A Very Growing Pains Christmas or anything like that.
Well, I’d be up for that as well (laughs).
Interview broadcast on Static on 22/07/15. Static can be heard on Sydney’s 2SER (107.3 FM) and via the Internet (www.2ser.com) every Thursday evening (AEST).