Multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis has been influencing the indie rock scene for over two decades. In 1998 she formed Rilo Kiley, a five-piece that went on to create five albums before officially breaking up in 2014. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the band, chances are you’ve heard their music as they’ve been played in countless television shows from Dawson’s Creek to Buffy: The Vampire Slayer to Orange Is The New Black.
As a solo artist, Jenny has released four albums, as well as having made countless appearances on other artist’s records including Elvis Costello and the Imposters’ Momofuku and Wavves’ Afraid of Heights. She has also written and released albums with the groups Jenny & Johnny and Nice As F*ck.
Her fourth solo album On The Line was released this month. The record features 11 tracks, including single ‘Red Bull & Hennessy’ which has already amassed over 1.1 million Spotify streams.
We caught up with Lewis to chat about how the music industry has changed over the years, the albums she’s currently spinning, and what it was like collaborating with the likes of Ringo Starr and Beck on her latest record.
Music Feeds: You collaborated with some pretty big names on this album – like Ringo Starr and Beck – what was that experience like?
Jenny Lewis: Oh, totally magical! It’s weird to even hear you say, like “Ringo Starr and Beck” – that’s so crazy to hear back. And yet it was so comfortable and fluid and everyone was so cool that played on the record: Don Was, who produced Bonnie Raitt’s Nick Of Time, Benmont Tench from The Heartbreakers, Jim Keltner: a rock-n-roll drumming legend. An incredible band.
MF: How did you go about setting up the numerous different collabs on the record?
JL: They just sort of… these things just happen. You just get a little idea and then you reach out. I think with this band we got a couple guys in there, we got Benmont and Jim Keltner, and then I think that’s how we enticed Don and Ringo. These guys know each other, they all know each other. They’ve played on so many records over the years together. They’re part of a community, and it’s so cool to have liaisons that bridge the gap between the generations. I think it’s so important to learn from those guys.
MF: What songs on the album are you particularly fond of?
JL: I love Dogwood the most.
MF: Why’s that?
JL: I feel that it is the emotional centre of the record. I just feel it. It’s not even lyrical content, it’s more just emotional content.
MF: You’re very emotionally open and honest in your lyrics, how do you muster the courage to write like that and put it out into the world?
JL: Well, I have no problem writing openly. I’ve never written with a filter, since the first poem I wrote when I was eight, probably. I’ve just always written very honestly. Recording it feels good, [laughs] putting it out into the world, that’s something else. That’s something I have to kind of reconcile on the road and reinterpret in the songs live. You know, you kind of have to relive some of these emotions which are sometimes painful or ugly.
MF: When you’re performing the songs does it take you right back to when you wrote them, or do the interpretations change over time a little bit?
JL: Both. Sometimes I’ll remember a little detail while I’m singing it, and it’ll just take me right back. But then the lyrics strangely reflect where I’m at in the moment as well and they’re like little messages of encouragement or like, red flags like ‘don’t do that again! Remember, you sang about it 10 years ago in this other song. Why are you repeating this behaviour?’
MF: What’s your favourite lyric you’ve ever written?
JL: I don’t know. I don’t think I can pick. But I’ll tell you this, that I like something that’s coded and has like four or five different meanings. Like the album title On The Line, that’s like on the nose… you can imagine what that means but there’s like five different meanings. That’s the stuff that excites me, and a line that is funny, that kind of offsets… something that can make people laugh, those make me the happiest.
MF: Yeah, I agree. It’s good to find those pieces of art that have multiple interpretations and can pull you out a little bit because they’ll make you laugh or you’ll be like “oh, clever” and it can break the tension sometimes.
JL: It’s like when you laugh when you’re nervous, you know? Or like, I always crack a joke in like, the most serious, romantic discussion, like I can’t help but just crack a million jokes and it’s like… I think it can be pretty annoying [laughs].
MF: You’ve been in the music industry for many years, how have you seen it change over that time?
JL: Well, I’ve changed a lot, although my process is kind of the same, like I kind of write from the same place. But I’ve seen things evolve, I mean, from records to streaming to all of that techy stuff. No phones at shows, zero phones to 100 per cent phones. Like, there’s no phone footage of my band in the early days because no one had a phone, and people were just watching you. I mean, they had their weird cameras back then, but not everyone had a camera, just like the nerds in front [laughs]. So, it’s a trip to see it change.
I’m not one of those people that’s like “the kids today” or like, “this is terrible”, I’m just rolling with it. Like, I find that Twitter – which is not like a new thing – it can be really fun, creatively, to learn how to communicate in that form.
MF: What advice would you give for aspiring musicians wishing to break into the industry?
JL: I would say don’t worry about he industry at the jump, but write what you know and avoid platitudes, if you can.
MF: What albums are you listening to at the moment?
JL: I am listening to Cass McComb’s new album, Tip of the Sphere, I love the new Sharon Van Etten album. I also have like, a whole slew of jazz records that I’m always listening to. Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy A Thrill. Really looking forward to the new Vampire Weekend record, and the new Tame Impala record! I mean, when is that coming? We need more Kevin now.
Let me ask you this, everyone asks me: “it’s been so long since your last solo record”… I feel like, when was the last Tame Impala record? And are they going to ask Kevin the same question?
MF: Yeah, it’s been a while. And Vampire Weekend have had like five years between releases.
JL: Yeah, but do dudes get asked that as much as women do? I don’t think so. There’s just such a different standard with that stuff, it’s interesting. So, I’m going to take note if they ask Kevin: “why so long between records, Kevin? What have you been doing?”.
MF: That’s a very good point. It seems that there are definitely questions asked more to men and more to women. Whether that’s a subconscious thing of a conscious choice, I don’t know, but I’ve noticed it too.
JL: Yeah, it’s not even a bad thing, it’s just like, worth noting.
MF: Yes, exactly, and being aware of, I think. I try to be aware of it as an interviewer. Sometimes I’ll find myself drifting into that and I’m like, “hang on, no”.
JL: Well, it’s almost like the consciousness pulls you there, ‘cause that’s what everyone’s… you know what I mean? You’re like “why so long between albums?”, you’re like “I don’t even care, why am I asking it?”
MF: Exactly, it’s like you see what other people ask and you think “oh, that’s exactly what I need to do”, and it’s like, no, not always.
JL: I think that there’s so much digital media, that to keep things fresh and have a new conversation is very exciting to me. To play with it a little bit and talk about things that are a little bit outside just fills the void with just like, not the same duplicate, you know?
MF: Alright, cool, so a bit of a different question then, are there any TV shows or podcasts that you’re really into at the moment?
JL: Well, I’m deeply into murder, not murdering [laughs], just murder entertainment. I really love the Ted Bundy doc on Netflix. It’s fascinating. In podcast land, similarly-themed, murder, so whatever it is, I’ll take it.
MF: Everyone seems to be making a podcast. Even just random people I know will be like “oh, I’m making a podcast now” and I’m like “cool, good, go for it!”
JL: I got into an Uber the other day and the driver was like, “I’m making a podcast right now” [laughs]. And I’m like “okay, good for you, man”.
MF: And he just interviews the people he’s driving?
JL: I guess so?
MF: That’s kind of a great idea!
JL: I know! It’s like Taxi Cab Confessions for the millennial generation.
MF: Do you have any plans to come to Australia?
JL: I think the top of next year, hopefully. So, see you in the summertime!
‘On The Line’ is out now. Listen here.