The girl next door. The girl in a band. The girl that’s just one of the guys. Jenny Lewis has been perceived as countless things across an extensive career. The constant shifts in that perception of who she is can be tracked back to two character traits of the woman in question.
The first is that she has never been contempt with one set identity – after emerging as a child actor in the ’80s, Lewis moved her attention to writing and playing music. Even when that was seemingly set in stone, the music itself was in a constant state of flux – just a year prior to her band, Rilo Kiley, releasing the incredibly-poppy Under the Blacklight, Lewis released a solo album of alt-country and mountain-folk entitled Rabbit Fur Coat.
The second trait explaining how public perception of Lewis continues to change is based more on the present tense – this is a woman who still keeps audiences guessing as to what may happen next. Lewis’ dreamy, stylish, perfume-scented third studio album, The Voyager, was met with some of the most glowingly-positive reviews of her career; and accompanied by arguably her two most popular music videos, both complete with star-studded casts. At 39, Lewis is once again an in-demand performer and a style icon.
She finds herself back in Australia for the first time in three-and-a-half years this week as a part of Splendour in the Grass, in addition to a headlining show and two support dates for Ryan Adams, who was the producer of The Voyager. Music Feeds spoke with the woman of the moment last week about women helping women, her friendship with Adams and the Australian tour she described as “indie-rock summer camp.”
Watch: Jenny Lewis – Just One Of The Guys
Music Feeds: There is a big visual aspect to The Voyager – perhaps more than any other project you’ve worked on to date. It not only stems from the two videos that have been released, but the amazing suit you’ve been wearing ever since the record came out. Which came first – the visual ideas, or the music inspiring them?
Jenny Lewis: The visual part of making music, for me, is always a part of it. I’m always fantasising how things are going to look once I’ve done with the music. Just like with my last two solo albums, I collaborated with a photographer called Autumn DeWilde on this album. She’s amazing.
Her team includes a wonderful stylist, Shirley Corrada; and Adam Segal, who painted The Voyager suit for me. Once he did that for me, I somehow managed to convince him to do a bunch more art for me – now my entire stage set-up is covered in rainbows! There’s a rainbow kick-drum, we’ve got this huge backdrop… it really has become a whole world unto itself. To me, that’s the complete package of this music.
MF: Your return was heralded with the release of the video for Just One of the Guys, which featured Kristen Stewart, Anne Hathaway and Brie Larson. What was your initial reaction to the success of the clip? It went beyond just being featured on music sites – you were on all these fashion, glamour and lifestyle sites as well…
JL: I was pleasantly surprised! I have to admit, though, that I knew we were making something special when we were shooting. I knew we had something funny, and the energy on the set was palpable. I assembled a very female-heavy crew, and the editor I worked with had done stuff with Paul Thomas Anderson. It was a really great environment.
MF: That song seems to deal quite openly with the weight of female expectation and societal judgement of women. It feels like that’s something you’ve experienced your whole life; going through acting as a child, being in a band in your twenties and even now. Do you feel that things become notably worse for women as far as that aspect of life is concerned as they age?
JL: I really think that it depends on how you handle it. Being a woman in a professional position goes up against those issues, in entertainment and beyond. I think both Hollywood and rock & roll are both ageist toward women – there’s a different expectation from the ageing male rocker as opposed to women in their forties that play music. I just take it as it comes.
I try to employ other women – in my band, in my crew – and I’ve tried to improve the relationships with women in my life. My mother and my sister, especially; but I try to make sure that all the women that I know are aware they are appreciated. As a songwriter, I hope that the women who listen to my music grow with me. I hope that what I write about reaches them. I know I’ve got a lot of women listeners who have been listening to me since they were girls. I hope that they can grow with me.
Watch: Jenny Lewis – She’s Not Me
MF: Each Jenny Lewis record feels as though it’s coming from an entirely different place sonically. What brought you to the music you were crafting on The Voyager?
JL: I think I’m always at the mercy of my collaborators. I love collaborating – all of my records reflect a certain group of people; as well as my taste in music. I grew up listening to hip-hop and show-tunes. When I discovered Modest Mouse, I started a band. I love all kinds of music.
The difference with The Voyager is that I was free from any and all obligations to anyone but myself. My band was broken up and I was free to make the record I wanted to make. Ryan [Adams] and Beck [Hansen] really helped me figure that out. Who knows what I’ll do next? I might head down to Jamaica and make an EP. I love the freedom that comes with being a solo artist.
MF: What constitutes a Jenny Lewis set these days? Obviously, there’s more of an inclination towards material from The Voyager, but do you and the band have any other tricks up your sleeve?
JL: When I first put this band together, we collectively learned about 40 songs. This is really the first time where I’ve toured and opened up the back catalogue, including Rilo Kiley. We’ve been playing a tonne of stuff from almost all of the records. It’s been really cool to take some of these really old songs and translate them into the aesthetic of The Voyager. You can expect just about anything, which is super fun.
MF: Aside from Splendour, you’ll be playing a couple of shows with Ryan Adams, who produced The Voyager. Where did you two meet for the first time?
JL: We met a few years back. He was helping me set up a studio, and we bonded over gear. When I was on tour with The Postal Service, I was really itching to make a record. I called up Ryan the day after I finished up on that tour, asking him if he wanted to cut a track with me. What started as that ended up with him producing the entire thing.
We’ve toured together quite a bit since, and he’s become one of my favourite guitar players. I don’t know much lead guitar he plays on his own record, but he’s just got such a great sensibility. His guitar playing is like The Smiths meets heavy metal meets Manchester meets Danzig… it just fit the songs so well. There’s something about his playing that isn’t too polished, that I loved.
Watch: Jenny and Johnny – Big Wave
MF: This is your first time out here since your band Jenny and Johnny played as a part of Laneway Festival back in 2011…
JL: That was actually my favourite tour that I’ve ever done. It was like summer camp for indie-rock kids! The line-up was incredible – Ariel Pink, Warpaint, Blonde Redhead… every night, I was watching these incredible bands. We all got to hang out, too, which was really cool for us.
You don’t get that in the States – you do a bunch of one-off days, and you never see anyone again. With Laneway, we were all travelling around together and we really built up this great relationship.
MF: Are there any other acts on the Splendour line-up that you are looking forward to seeing or catching up with?
JL: Death Cab [for Cutie]. As I mentioned, I went on tour with The Postal Service, so I know Ben [Gibbard] really well and I always love seeing those guys. I’m really excited to be seeing Tame Impala, too – I haven’t met them personally, but I think their new album is absolutely amazing.
Watch: Rilo Kiley – Silver Lining