MILE A MINUTE Juliette Lewis

Kicking off a major
European tour this week, the actress-turned-rocker shifts into high gear once
again.

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

The only person who speaks quicker than I and with a greater
rate of conversational shift is Juliette Lewis.

 

That’s only fair.

 

Since 2005, the actress known for roles in Cape Fear, Natural Born Killers has been carrying on at a breakneck speed with
her hyperkinetic garage band Juliette and The Licks and records from a raucous
debut EP …Like a Bolt of Lightning to
a racy, aptly-titled Four on the Floor CD.

 

At 36, it’s not that she’s slowed.

 

After being mostly away from the big screen so to tend to speed
demonizing rock ‘n’ roll, this year she’s appearing in the real life, Drew
Barrymore-directed femme roller derby scene flick Whip It, the eighties true crime drama Betty Anne Waters with Hilary Swank, Mark Ruffalo’s directorial debut
Sympathy for Delicious and the oddly
conventional romance-comedy The Baster with Jason Bateman and Jennifer Anniston.

 

Rather, it’s the music that’s calmed; taken on differing
temperatures, tones and textures courtesy Lewis’ solo debut Terra Incognita. Produced and played
mostly by Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, its irked slurring ambience and shirking
prog-punk shifts emulate his band, The Mars Volta’s recent recordings. On Terra Incognita, there’s oozing watery
tonic tunes such as “Romeo” where the usually growling Lewis rings high and
angelic, the cleaving and groovy (“All Is for God”) the chiming and
Byrds-y (“Fantasy Bar”) the liltingly poppy and kissable (“Uh Huh”)
and the vulnerably naked finale (“Suicide Dive Bombers”) where just Juliette
and Rodriguez-Lopez’s acoustic guitar make their mark.

 

Yet, here she is driving on a Los Angeles freeway while we speak, running
down her voodoo at 70 MPH.

“I like to do things illegally and if it’s a problem, I’ll
pull over,” laughs Lewis.

 

But what of, The Licks, the band she fronted for five years?
Since Terra Incognita is in fact the
proverbial solo debut, this must mean the Licks couldn’t lick Lewis’ newer
material.

 

“From the outside, it looks very simplistic like, oh, I changed
the band and said goodbye,” says Lewis. Instead, it sounds as if one of the
boys wanted his own thing, one wanted out, period, and the other two she’d
never written with. “So the spirit was fractured. I could not write the music I
was looking to write, or, resuscitate the heart of the thing.”

 

Feeling broken, abandoned, displaced and not knowing what
she was doing led her to play and write on piano, an instrument she hadn’t hit
since she was nine. She created a strong, exciting vibe with the Licks that was
mainly about energy hooks, the live show and feather headdresses. (Google some
photos.) “So now,” she continues, “I wanted to make a record as complex as my
own emotional life and nature. Then I thought oh fuck, I’m never gonna find one
guy who can, you know, produce the blues woman and the haunted woman and the
soul singing woman. I thought I’d have to three producers until I found Omar,
and figured out that he was the shit.”

 

Look at Lewis: all-complex-emotions and such. Was she ready
to pull an Iggy, the Pop who earlier this year said that rock was dead and that
guitar music was shit? (At least until he picked up where he left off with erstwhile
Stooges six stringer James Williamson for their reunion this autumn.) Lewis
laughs at the Iggy comparison. “He’s had it hard and fun for forty-some odd
years. No, my record very much has the spirit of the rock-and-roll animal, but
there’s more dimension and duality.”

 

That multi-dimensional sway could come from the fact that
she and her producer talked Terra out
in ways she hadn’t with the Licks-the space in the music, what Lewis calls her
lyrical story’s emotional life, the vocal instrument being as powerful as
electric guitar. “We talked about the guitars being mercurial and sinister and
then the drums being fat, heavy boulders of earth,” says Lewis. “Everything in
this record is a manifestation of the contrasts that live within this duality. You
kind of bounce back and forth…it’s celebratory, the lyrics are very cynical in
this pursuit of a perfect night.”

There’s some theatre up in this shit; that some of the distance she’s felt from
Hollywood
within the decade has closed and the drama-or the need for that drama-has
returned. She’s not starring in four films back to back because Lewis hates
acting even if she did push movie-making aside for four years while Licks-ing.

 

“I’ve never taken a break,” she says starting a rush of
words. “Now, maybe I’ve had unsuccessful movies, and maybe no one saw a movie
of mine for four years, but I never took a break from film for that long since
I began. So that was a very big thing for me, like I’m unplugging the umbilical
cord, and I had to go for broke to see if I had a future in music, and what I
did was that I toured the world three and four times over, and I created an
audience.”

Now that she’s got the music down, the films can move forward in a big way.
“This is the blood that pumps through my heart, drama and music.”

 

Even if she’s dissing Hollywood’s
Sunset Boulevard calamity as she does during the snot-nosed glam slam of
“Fantasy Bar?”

“Yeah, but I wrote it after going to Fashion Week in New York so I gave an
equal shout to the East coast and the West. There’s discontented souls on all
sides.”

***

 

The relationship with Rodriguez-Lopez came about in Japan
at the Fuji Rock Festival not so very long after Lewis’ manager had suggested
the Mars-man in passing. She recalls her initial reaction: “He wouldn’t have anything
to do with me. He’s too good for me.” When she relented and called, he was
completely enthusiastic and the two bonded over Fellini movies and the relationship
between cinema and music. In Rodriguez-Lopez, Lewis claims she found someone
who validated her decidedly non-academic musical language.

 

“He would ask me, like for ‘Noche Sin Fin,’ he’d say, ‘So,
Juliette, what do you want the drums to do in this part?’ I did this long,
lengthy metaphor: Zeus waking up from a nap, and there being a rumbling and a
clearing the clouds. [I was] very passionately describing this scenario. He
then whispered something to his drummer, and the drummer played, and that’s
exactly how it sounded to me.”

I have to look for Zeus on “Noche Sin Fin,” now.

 

“If I want it more pink, or I want it to feel velvety, or…
this is my language,” laughs Lewis.

 

Hushed songs like “Romeo”-as high as she hits-were about
letting her vocal go un-exposed. “It’s so uncorrupted” she says. “Truth be
told, I have more courage now, five years later, with music than I did when I
first started. They’re all like truths, these voices. I like moments of quiet, I
like moments of sheer angst-I know, that’s such a juvenile term. I also like
sheer torment, and celebration, that rah-rah spirit.”

 

Another part of her language, other than the one that
portrays women burning as witches in the darkly humorous “Female Persecution,” were
the guttural one-take rants like “Hard Lovin’ Woman,” and “Suicide Dive
Bombers” where Rodriguez-Lopez refused to cut in or change tack. Her lyrics for
the latter tune, some of which she started in a park in San Francisco at age 21, were finished upon
this recording. It’s these speed raps, sung as coarsely and sweetly and tenderly
as anything within Terra, that speak
to all the voices within Lewis’s head; the ones that motivate her to make
dramatic leaps in films and drive fast while talking with a fellow loudmouth.

 

Keep your eyes on the road.

 

Check Lewis’ MySpace
page
for info, updates and tour itinerary.

 

[Photo Credit: Rama (by permission, Wikipedia Creative
Commons)]

 

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