Photo by Autumn de Wilde
Jenny Lewis On Loving L.A., Texting With Beck & Why 'On The Line' Is Just "One Piece Of The Puzzle"
I'm having trouble getting Jenny Lewis on the phone. Her publicists try again and again to connect our call, and at last have success on the third or fourth attempt. The irony is not lost on Lewis, whose much-praised fourth solo album, released earlier this year, is called On The Line and features a great deal of landline imagery in its marketing. "I've got like six rotary phones on stage with me on any given night!" she laughs.
In conversation, though, the L.A.-born and based singer couldn't be easier to talk to. Her voice is low and wry-sounding, evoking memories of her alto sing-speaking aesthetic on early Rilo Kiley cuts like "Go Ahead" and "Glendora," and she's clear and articulate when describing her perspective in making On The Line. A few months have gone by since the album came out (it dropped this past March via Warner Bros.), which means she's had a moment to absorb its accolades.
And boy does it have them: Recorded at Capitol Records' Studio B and featuring contributions from Beck, Ringo Starr, Don Was, Benmont Tench, Jason Falkner and Jim Keltner, among others, On The Line peaked at No. 34 on the Billboard 200 and earned rave reviews from respected outlets such as Pitchfork and Rolling Stone.
When asked how such an outpouring of recognition sits with her, Lewis responds that she's careful not to view herself as having "arrived."
"I really think of this album as part of 20 years of songwriting, and I really think of each project as a continuation of the narrative," she says. "I'm so thrilled that people are listening and they're enjoying it, and I hope it's one piece of the puzzle moving forward. I feel like it's dangerous to read your own press, because if you believe the good stuff, then you have to believe the negative stuff. So yeah, I'm just going to keep on writing as long as I can."
In our conversation, Lewis reflects further on her accomplished career trajectory—from Hollywood child actress to tooling around Omaha with indie saviors Rilo Kiley to eventually collaborating with Beck and mentoring younger artists—and goes deep on her complicated yet rewarding relationship to L.A.
On The Line features no co-writes—just you. Why did this feel like a good time to go in that direction?
First and foremost, I consider myself to be a songwriter. And that's really why I started playing music when I was a little kid. It wasn't about learning other songs. It was about expressing something, or finding an outlet for that expression. I think I wrote my first song when I was 10, nine or 10, and so the narrative for me has been really what interests me about music, and then the melody, and all of the things that go along with making records. Playing in a band, learning about the studio, all of that stuff has kind of come secondary to the poetry. So this album, I kind of found myself alone in the world once again, coming out of a long-term, serious relationship. And I really had the time to process and just work on a very singular storytelling perspective.
That makes me think of something you said in your Rolling Stone profile. You're kind of discussing the idea of learning to finish your own stories after a long-term relationship. It made me wonder if you feel like, with this album and in the time since, you've achieved that goal?
Yeah. And you know, that's a reference. Really, in any relationship, you start to share a similar consciousness. And I think when you have a partner, and you've been together, you have a lot of experience. They finish your sentences for you. They finish the stories. It's like now I'm a single woman out in the world. I've got all the time in the world to finish my songs. So I think being an artist, in some ways it's a double-edged sword. I think there's sacrifice for your work, which is being alone to create the work. Not that there's anything wrong with co-writing. I've co-written with my lovers and my band mates and partners over the years, and that is mostly because of proximity, and not that I don't appreciate it. I feel like I learn every time I collaborate with someone, but really left to my own devices, I've got like a hundred songs just sort of kicking around in there at all times.
If you haven't gotten the chance to yet, you should definitely check out the Linda Ronstadt documentary. The film briefly glosses over how she never married, hinting at how she may have felt like she had to choose between her career and long-term partnership.
Oh, I will. And she is not really a songwriter. Right? I mean she chose the band, as far as I know. The Eagles backed her. I mean, all filtered through her taste and curation, and that's so interesting. And have you seen the Motown documentary? On Showtime? It's amazing.
I haven't yet.
A lot of it is based on the song craft, where for me, being a performer is sort of a secondary part of telling the story. And the song craft to me is what I'm completely obsessed with, and it just plagues me. I walk around all day. I've got these little bits that I'm constantly working on and just... Not perfecting, but just finding the cohesive story. The story that begins with an opening line that gets you. Within the first line, it draws you into the story, and then you tell a complete story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. That's sort of the direction that I want to kind of find myself going in, just the craftsmanship of songs.
Right, and I get the sense that there's still an element of curation with On The Line, because there are a lot of people who came in on the album to work alongside you. On that note, how did you settle on which songs you'd bring Beck in to produce?
Well, Beck and I collaborated on the Voyager album, on the song "Just One Of The Guys" and "Late Bloomer," which I didn't end up using his version of "Late Bloomer." But he helped me finish that song in that I had two and a half verses, and we were demoing stuff for "Just One Of The Guys," and he had me go in the next room and finish the story. He's like, "You got it. Just finish it and lay it down." I've found these guides throughout my career that have always pointed me back in my own direction in a way.
They've been so supportive, but really honoring the song itself. And Beck is someone I grew up listening to. We've become friends over the years. We're both from L.A. We grew up in L.A., so we have this very unique perspective on the city and the music that comes through it. I think our taste, it's kind of like a mix tape. There's a lot of influence growing up in Southern California. Hip-hop, and soul, and funk, and country, and the Bakersfield country thing. It's all sort of in there. In writing for this album, there were a couple of songs that I thought would benefit from a kind of groove-based place. And I demo all my stuff on my phone on GarageBand, and I just texted them to Beck, which I think is called "bext." It's "bexting."
And he immediately was like, "Oh yeah, I get these songs. Let's do it." And so we went into Capitol Studio B with an incredible band. Jim Keltner, Benmont Tench, Jason Faulkner, Beck. And once the song is done, I'm at a point where I just want to hand it over to a producer. I've always been so involved in the production with my bands, and just the details, but I really wanted to be open to what a true producer would bring without my meddling, but having the song complete before stepping into the studio.
Is that something that you would want to keep doing? Handing your stuff over to another producer?
Well, I think openness is the key, and I have become more open. Coming from a DIY indie-rock background, you really have to do everything. Not only are you writing, arranging, recording your own material at home, but you're printing your own T-shirts, driving yourself to the gig, counting the money, doing the interview. You kind of learn how to do everything. But in a way, it can become a detriment once you've moved past that, because I think part of great record-making is a collaboration between producers and writers and performers. So to have perspective on your own work, to have someone come in like Beck or even Shawn Everett, who makes the record, who had yet another perspective on it, I think it was this communal effort that made for a really complete-sounding piece.
Yeah. It's so interesting, learning that it's OK to rely on someone other than yourself as an artist. But I imagine if Beck is in the mix, then that's probably a no-brainer.
Yeah. You have to trust your collaborators, and so to find myself in a room with Jim Keltner, Beck, Don Was. I was kind of like, "All right, I guess I can give up control now." But it's an ongoing practice in every area of my life. It's like, this is why I do yoga and smoke weed or whatever. You know what I mean? Just like learning how to let go, and letting that also be a part of the music, and being a student, and being a teacher. Embodying all of these roles. It's like I've been playing music long enough where people come up to me and they're like, "Oh, when I was in junior high, I went to see you play, and you were the first woman I saw playing a guitar on stage and like that made me want to start a band." It's like Katie Crutchfield from Waxahatchee is doing great. So to be able to be that role and be kind of a mentor, and then also surround myself with people who I can learn from, I think it's a process.
Now that we're kind of circling back to the group of people involved in the making of On The Line, why did a variety show experience feel like the right way to introduce this album to the world?
Well, I've made so many records. I've been doing this for so long. I've made so many music videos, some of which are good, some of which didn't stand the test of time, some of which disappeared. I don't even know where they are. Doing this, and in the kind of changing landscape of music, just what holds people's attention, and trying to not just make a stock music video, I reached out to Tim Heidecker, who I'm a huge fan of. He's a comedian, and part of Tim And Eric. He makes records as well, and he's just a really funny, funny person whose humor is a little bit off.
And so I reached out to him, asking if he wanted to make something for the album, and he wasn't excited about the music video format either. And he suggested we do an eight-hour live telethon in lieu of a music video. So it started out as an eight-hour telethon, and I was completely down. So creatively, to just have a new thing to wrap your head around to present an album... And then we realized that to do eight hours live streaming was really expensive, so we chopped it down to three hours, and we just filled the three hours with as many of our friends and wishlist people as possible. And it was a live experience that went off the rails at times, and was completely spontaneous and really so much fun. And it benefited the downtown L.A. Women's Center, which is a really vital, necessary place in Downtown L.A. And so we were able to donate a little bit of money, and get all these people together and have a spontaneous experience, and preview part of the record.
Speaking of L.A., I'd love to talk a little bit about your relationship to the city. What do you think fuels your affection for L.A.? What keeps you coming back?
I have a complex relationship with Los Angeles. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, and when I turned 15 or 16, I basically hitchhiked over the hill and never looked back, and thought to myself, "I'm never going back to the Valley." And then when I was able to buy my first home, I bought it in the San Fernando Valley. Sort of on the outskirts, but there's something that... It's like a magnet that pulls me back. After my relationship ended, when I was sort of in the middle of writing this album, I did go to New York for a year or so, and wrote a lot of my songs in my head walking around the city. But really, what I was picturing was L.A., was Ventura Boulevard, the strip malls, all of the places that kind of shaped my writing, all of the imagery. It's all steeped in Los Angeles kind of lore. So I try to remain positive about where I'm from. And I feel like everywhere I go, I meet people and they're like, "Oh, so you're born and raised in L.A.? You grew up in LA? Wow. That's got to be hard." Well, it's also hard dealing with a snowstorm in Omaha. These are different challenges.
But yeah, people have this idea of L.A., and I find myself defending it in a way, because there's so much and there's so many different ways to exist in L.A. There's so many suburbs. It's so spread out. You can really kind of find your own path there. I think that there's a lot of comparison in L.A. If you're a young woman growing up and you're in Hollywood, I think there are danger zones there, so navigating that also informed the writing as well.
Personally, I think L.A. is what you make it, because there are so many pockets and so many little neighborhoods. It's not just one thing.
Well, like they say, "Wherever you go, there you are." And Lana Del Rey, on her new record, had a variation of that plan, which I really like.
But yeah, I mean, I think being a musician coming out of show biz, growing up as a child actor, growing up within a family of performers... When I started playing music, I think people were like, "You can't do that. You're an actor. You're a kid actor. You're not allowed to do that." And so I think keeping it very small, and going back to the DIY thing, I think we did it on our own because we had to prove it to ourselves that we were viable writers and artists. And the L.A. kind of music machine, A) wasn't available to us. B) Just felt inauthentic. So we went around. We had to go to Nebraska to find our people. And then kind of circle back around. And then 20 years later, I'm at Capitol recording with Don Was. It's like I went around the block to get back to where I'm from. But it was like, we had to just go out and do it.