Jenny Lewis

The Turbulent Success and Endurance of Jenny Lewis

Devon Maloney

By Devon Maloney

on 07.24.14 in Features

The Voyager

Jenny Lewis with The Watson Twins

For a musician who has considered herself a pop singer for more than a decade and a half, it’s striking how much of Jenny Lewis’s career has been defined by dissonance. She’s a child of showbiz parents who has spent 35 of her 38 years evolving from successful young star to successful indie-rock icon (not to mention evergreen Hollywood aristocrat) with apparent effortlessness — largely because you’d expect a young entertainer who is so frequently at odds with her contemporaries, be they fellow musicians or flailing actors, to spiral into the abyss where child stars end up in rehab, or worse.

Yet over the course of 10 records (none grating, all borderline idiosyncratic in their melodic charm), the erstwhile Rilo Kiley frontwoman, now 15 years into her career and on the verge of releasing her third solo record, The Voyager (out July 29 via Warner), isn’t even in treatment. Instead, she’s defied the odds, becoming everything from the poster child for the Los Angeles music scene and indie-rock fashion to the feminine answer to emo, all somehow thanks to the conflicts she’s encountered with bandmates, producers and, perhaps most famously, her fans.

“It’s kind of fucked up,” she told me over the phone last month. “I’m always like, I shouldn’t be treating my work or my interviews like therapy. I should just go get a fucking therapist. I mean, I have [had one before], but once you start opening the doors to that, figuring out why you do stuff, then I always become afraid that it’s gonna affect my creative output. I don’t want to know why I am the way I am.”

Fucked up or no, that outlook has certainly has its consequences — but in Lewis’s case, they’ve always been fruitful. Take, for starters, the fuel that transformed an early Rilo Kiley from outsider L.A. weirdos to indie-rock legends responsible for some of the most emotionally authentic songs of their generation: cold, unadulterated rejection.

“When we first started playing music in the ’90s, we were total outcasts,” she remembers, recalling the band’s first gig at the now-defunct Spaceland. “No one wanted to play with us, so we just had to create our own scene. We were making music that was kind of funny. It didn’t appeal to the hip Silverlake scene at that point, so we had to go on tour, and we ended up in [Saddle Creek Records' hometown] Omaha, where we met people who really liked our music. But we never really fit in in L.A.”

Then, consider the electricity that made Rilo Kiley the legendary indie rock act it became during its ’00s reign: The band’s best songs emerged from the emotional baggage between its lead singer, Lewis, and lead guitarist, Blake Sennett — a duo of former child stars who collaborated both while they dated, in Rilo Kiley’s early days, and for years after the couple split.

‘I think part of what was so magical about Rilo Kiley was this tension between myself and Blake… At times, it was really uncomfortable. But it created this energy.’

“I think part of what was so magical about Rilo Kiley was this tension between myself and Blake,” she says. “And from that, you know, we created. And we played shows. And, at times, it was really uncomfortable. But it created this energy.” That energy, while largely responsible for her band’s success, eventually powered a backlash, led by…well, people like me.

Like a lot of women of my particular demographic, I have taken Lewis’s career personally for a good portion of my life. When the opening chords of Rilo Kiley’s 2004 powerhouse More Adventurous drifted out of my CD player for the first time, Jenny’s sweetly twisted sense of storytelling collided with my pop-punk-obsessed brain. That year, I spent hours hitting the “back” button on my CD player, obsessively combing through the album’s lyrics about death and love and war and heartbreak, deconstructing and decoding liner notes like they were scripture. Rabbit Fur Coat, Lewis’s first solo effort (in collaboration with the Watson Twins) in 2006, invited similar obsession. When I graduated, it got worse: 2003′s The Execution of All Things — which I had previously liked but not loved — clicked like an epiphany. Everything I believed about god and happiness and politics and childhood, Jenny Lewis had articulated better than I could. For years, I woke every morning to the reassuring crescendo of strings and opening lyrics of the title track: “Soldiers, come quickly/ I feel the earth beneath my feet.” With formative experiences like these, it’s sometimes been a labor of love, like it has been for so many of her fans, to accept later work — like solo album Acid Tongue and Johnathan Rice collaboration I’m Having Fun Now, both of which boasted less backbreaking material than the albums she and her band had produced.

I’m not the most insufferable of her detractors. Those fans belonged to one of two camps, or maybe both: the ones who cried “sellout” when 2004′s More Adventurous arrived via Warner Music, and the ones who went ballistic upon the release of Under the Blacklight, Rilo Kiley’s disco-tinged 2007 pop record that would be their breeziest, most controversial and, ultimately, final studio album.

“I think people have let up on it a little bit now, but when it came out, people were fucking pissed,” Lewis says now of Blacklight. “We released ‘The Moneymaker’ first. I personally love that song and worked so hard on that video with Autumn de Wilde — and by the way, two women conceived that video and interviewed porn stars for days and days, and made a mini-short film. And people accused me of being in my own porno! They were like, ‘Jenny Lewis’s new porno’? What are you talking about?

“It was truly DIY, what we were doing, but when we signed to a major label, we got a lot of flak for it,” she adds, “which was so funny to me, because the music that we made is the music that we would’ve made anyway. We made More Adventurous before we signed to Warner Brothers. People were like ‘They’re on Warner Brothers, this is terrible!’ Yeah, well, Gram Parsons is on Warner Brothers.”

As it turns out, discord is at the core of Lewis’s identity as a musician — even now, when she’s writing some of her catchiest, wisest and, frankly, strongest material since Adventurous. Voyager came together this winter after years of tinkering with multiple collaborators, including, for the first time, fellow Angeleno Beck. Its final producer, Ryan Adams, “kidnapped” the album, according to Lewis, after a session that was booked to record one song stretched to include more than 10. With Adams, she established a tense rapport, similar to the one she and Sennett used as hit-making fuel in the early ’00s.

‘I have found that I create well under duress.’

“Blake and I were just forever at odds: We had a huge fight the first day we met, and the last time I saw him, we disagreed,” she says. “So that’s just our chemistry. With Ryan, it was more like — I don’t know if he was trying to wind me up to get a performance, but that’s what he ended up doing.”

In other words, as she deadpans: “I have found that I create well under duress.”

The resulting album could be called Rilo Kiley for the Grown Woman. With subject matter that includes fidelity and motherhood and the steady march of time, Voyager pairs the almost-vaudevillian theatricality of her most recent records — the stuff from which “the cool kids [who] like The Execution of All Things,” as Lewis calls them, recoiled — with an older, wiser take on the restless emotional complexity that first captivated fans like me.

“The marriage of bitter and sweet in music is something I love a lot,” says CHVRCHES frontwoman Lauren Mayberry, who’s cited Lewis as an influence and appears to have loved her for about as long as I have. “And for me, a lot of Rilo Kiley and [Jenny Lewis's] solo work is a perfect example of that: the beauty in the music and the vocal jarring perfectly with the lyrical message. Her work showed me that you shouldn’t over-think lines that are almost awkwardly personal, because often those words are the ones that hit people the most. That one line that really connects with someone can take a song from good to potentially life altering.”

Whatever her fans feel for her, though, if a performer like Lewis hasn’t learned to tune out the chatter of the hoi polloi, be assured: no one ever will. Luckily, the past few decades seem to have given her a knack for it.

“I always want people to like the current thing, and they don’t always like it,” she says. “But I meet these weird businesspeople…everyone always has a different favorite record. This guy the other day was like, ‘Your records are okay, but the Jenny & Johnny record, wow.’ I was like, ‘Wait, I thought…? I didn’t know people…what’s going on here?’ It’s just so funny how people perceive things. I’m really proud of [Under the Blacklight], for the most part, and I think some of it is some of the best stuff we ever recorded. But who fucking cares? What am I gonna do? I can’t worry about that. Not everyone’s gonna like you. You just keep making stuff.”