PRODIGAL DAUGHTER Jenny Lewis

Last year the Rilo
Kiley vocalist took a vacation from her band, visited her hometown, and wound
up with a solo album.

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

Going back and forth between the past and the present, the
inane and the barely passably sensible is pleasing to Jenny Lewis.

 

That’s her life and that’s her wife, what with having spent
the better part of growing up absurdly in one brand of show-bizzy limelight or
another; a child of vaudevillians and entertainer-types, a kid actress, a
country-tinged pop band chanteuse, a mistress of wordy Saddle Creek-y solo
album (Rabbit Fur Coat) éclat.

 

“And now is my time,” says Jenny Lewis crisply. “My time.”

 

Not just because she’s away again from that old California gang of hers
– the now decade-old Rilo Kiley that she birthed with guitarist/one-time
paramour Blake Sennett. Or that she’s simply releasing her second solo effort
in two years.

 

Jenny Lewis has produced Acid
Tongue
– a damn-near live album that’s got no Pro-Tools, is all analog, is
far less wordy than her previous recordings, and whose vocals were tracked as
they were happening. Lewis produced it with some old close friends and brought
in a few pals to play and sing.

 

But it’s her.

 

You can’t help thinking that having her return to her
childhood home (the one between Las Vegas and L.A.) of Van Nuys to record Acid Tongue wasn’t just the work of
healing old wounds (“Badman’s World”) wounding old heels (“The Next Messiah”) and
reconstructing the Oedipal Complex for 2008 (“Jack Killed Mom”), but rather
some sassy shout-out of independence and huzzah-huzzah-hoorah-ness.

 

Besides, there’s got to be some particular self-satisfaction
at work; of divinity, silliness and narcissism that would allow her to place
her face on the cover of this new album done up as dozens of acid blotter tabs.

 

“Well, you may as well have a laugh,” says Lewis, about her
lysergic cover art. “And if you were to drop a tab, you might very well see as
many mes standing before you.”

That doesn’t sound so bad.

 

From the reaction to 2006’s Rabbit Fur Coat – produced by her bud Conor Oberst’s Bright Eyes
stalwart Mike Mogis – a couple-hundred Jennys would be great. She did three
tours around that solo effort alone. But it’s always seemed as if Jenny-philes
have wanted more of her. No sooner than people liked Rilo’s quirky irked brand
of indie-country-pop, Lewis’s soulful squint of a voice and panicky
character-driven lyrics (2001s Take Offs
and Landings
on Barsuk), they wanted the band to go major label and her to
go solo. The moment she released something small and the band hit the majors
(with 2007s Under the Blacklight for
Warners), people wanted more solo stuff from Jenny.

 

Everybody seems to be waiting for something from her.

 

“I don’t know why they’re waiting. I’m incredibly stubborn
and I probably won’t give them what they want,” she says plainly. She is her
own driving force and won’t be cadged into doing more solo projects. She does records
with whatever speed and volume because she is not yet satisfied. “I never am
and never have been. I want more. I never assume that I’ve done all that I can
do. That just happens to be one of my character traits.”

 

Jenny Lewis dictates the pace. Things have been as such
since she decided to become a writer and singer.

 

Stop.

 

This is not the question where you ask her about the
childhood acting thing. This is the question about the through line that exists
between those careers; the one beyond “Show biz.” She goes on to tell me a family
history.

 

Grandmother was a head balancer and dancer with Moscow circus. Grandfather
was a small time criminal and singer with vaudevillian Burt Lahr who fell into
depression and out of music when Lahr left the act to pursue the role of
“Cowardly Lion” in The Wizard of Oz.
Both of her parents were musicians who had a lounge act in Las Vegas and were on The Ed Sullivan Show.

 

“My birth was just a continuation of family business,” she
giggles. “But it was also about the continued avoidance – for me – of avoiding
the straight life, a regular job. That’s what show biz presents itself as
always, a viable option from doing normal 9-to-5 stuff.”

So maybe it’s all one big gesture. But I’m not here interviewing a Jenny Lewis
of Facts of Life fame or a Jenny Lewis star of the touring version of The Lion
King or a Jenny Lewis known for hosting a reality show and singing for Disney.

 

Without sounding too lofty, this brand of Lewis found a
deeper aesthetic direction, an art form amongst the entertaining bits.

 

“That’s the only difference I think… I am a writer,” she
says. That’s what led her upon meeting Blake Sennett to write their first song
together, “Eggs.” “It was before Rilo Kiley. At least before we were called
Rilo Kiley. It was on the first day we met.” Sennett had a guitar riff. She had
a four track. He laid it down and she wrote stuff over it.

 

 

 

But this is not a Rilo Kiley story.

 

“Yes,” Lewis says quietly, when I ask if she feels like she
and Rilo have grown up together. “In some ways; but I don’t know that we’ll
truly grow up.”

 

Yes. Most of her Rilo Kiley lyrics are less personal than
those on her first solo album. But on the new Acid Tongue there’s a darker, deeper mix of the personal and the
character-narrative. “There’s so much more Rilo stuff so there’s been more to
experiment with and more time for it. But I was comfortable enough here to do
both character-driven songs and personal ones.” Does that mean she’ll find a zone
in Rilo in which to do both? Or is she better off keeping the personal tunes like
“Tryin’ My Best” to herself and for herself?

 

“To know that there’s someone else you’re singing about can
weigh just as heavily as a song you’re singing about yourself,” says Lewis. “Sometimes
the personal songs are easier. Sometimes the personal songs bore me.”

She’s tired of hearing of hearing herself complain about stuff. “That is until
I write another song about me complaining about stuff.”

 

Maybe she’s getting better at being solo than Rilo
Kiley-ing. She doesn’t know yet. Lewis can say that this Acid Tongue experience – recorded in the same studio where Neil
Young did After the Gold Rush and
Nirvana did Nevermind – was the most
comfortable she’s ever felt in the studio; so comfortable that she was able to
sing the songs in their entirety “The whole record is live, live singing, live
playing. I haven’t been able to do that in the past. This may sound a little
hippie dippy-ish but I just never felt free enough to do that. I was always
self-conscious in the studio.”

 

Her three weeks spent recording Acid Tongue were planned, but ever so loosely. If they could pull
it off the live haste and pace – great.

 

The title song’s first line – written
who-knows-how-many-years-ago when she was living in her Silverlake apartment
where she wrote 90 percent of all of her songs – was the start of the record:

 

I went to a cobbler to
fix a hole in my shoe/he took one look at my face/and said “I can fix that hole
in you”/”I beg your pardon I’m not looking for a cure/I’ve seen enough of my
friends in the depths of the God-sick blues”/you know I’m a liar.

 

The line didn’t dictate what would happen next. Nor does it
sound like anything else on the album. “But there was just something about that
first line coming to me; the idea of someone having an answer for you, a
solution to something, the sadness of that,” she trails off. “It was a feeling
I wanted to go with.”

 

 

So Lewis and her co-producer pals Farmer Dave Scher, Jason
Lader and songwriter/beau Johnathan Rice, along with musicians/singers Chris
Robinson (the Black Crowes), Zooey Deschanel, M. Ward, Benji Hughes and Davey
Faragher, all got Acid-ic. So did family
members like her vibraphone playing uncle, her singing sisters and – amazingly
-Elvis Costello.

 

“Once we got to the studio it was good and flowed very
quickly,” claims Lewis. “We could pull it off. We could play it live. Which is so
weird, to have to make a point of that, because that’s what music should be.
But I’m a child of the digital revolution.”

 

I stopped to finish a thought I‘d had earlier: that if she’s
having such a good time with people other than Rilo Kiley, is she worried that
she might be better at being solo than a Kiley-ite. She’s not. She just wants to
make the best music possible with whatever bunch of people she makes it with.
She didn’t start playing music to be burdened by her relationships and be miserable.
She wants to enjoy myself.

 

“Now’s the time.”

Not just because the moment out there is good. But, not to sound hippie-dippy-ish…

 

“The moment within me is good. I’m just starting to
understand what I do.”

 

And that understanding is? “I’m just learning how to trust
myself musically. I’m learning that you don’t have to say as much to make a
point.

True, that. Yes, the inspiration of Laura Nyro’s Gonna Take a Miracle – the spare soul momentum, delirious melody,
awestruck joy and the lean accompaniment of the trio of singers that was
Labelle – was the backbone for Rabbit Fur
Coat
. So, too, was a loquaciousness and a series of multi-syllabic phrases
that filled every crevice of every song.

 

Acid Tongue – lyrically
– is more economical than that.

 

“That was a conscious decision. Going back and listening to
my older songs I think I was trying to prove something – overstating the
obvious.” So she went back over Acid
Tongue
things and scaled back the syllables. That happened, too, because
this album was as much about the total package as it was the worried words and
dark passages. The expansive, sometimes-psychedelic harshness is a far cry from
Nyro’s stewing Tin-Pan soul and Lewis’ mom’s favorite songwriter.

 

“Plus the location was more important” says Lewis,
discussing Van Nuys’ California’s
Sound City Studios. “We were all inspired by the records that’ve been made
there. Plus, returning to where I grew up was timely. I needed to address things
about my personal life, my past.”

Lewis isn’t so completely revealing as to what she was addressing. You don’t necessarily
need her to do so, save for the fact that she expressed pain at having to drive
past her childhood home every day as she rode to the studio and then realized
that she couldn’t run from things bottled up.

 

“You cannot run from feelings. You will be unwell. They will
affect all that you do. It will ruin your health. In order to do that, I had to
make this record there.”

Ask her to focus on the track that best reflects that search for addressing
those feeling, for picking at your emotions: she chooses “Badman’s World.”

 

There’s a certain line that listeners should seek out during
that haunted song. Lewis doesn’t know if it’s a necessarily poignant phrase.
But it was important enough to stop the recording of another track – “Sing a
Song” – as she came up with a twist on “Badman’s World.” Lewis started playing
“Badman” on piano only to have the rest of the band join in and the control
room ops continue taping.

 

The line is about scorpions. Originally it was about her and
another person being two scorpions in one bottle. Now, it’s about one of those
scorpions getting shot by Lewis. Which one gets shot is a mystery worthy of J.R.
and Dallas.

 

“You have to take responsibility,” says Lewis, when asked
what the point of the “Badman’s World” is.

 

Yet the whole album seems to be about her taking
responsibility.

 

She won’t take full credit for the economy of its lyrics not
matching the ferocity of its sound. Lewis credits her co-producers and mentions
Johnathan Rice. “The four of us together formed one great person.”

That she’s brought up Rice twice and that she’s made music in close proximity
with another one-time paramour, Rilo’s Sennett, the questions arise about it
being hard or desirable to work with someone you’re having a loving
relationship with.

 

“It is what I do and what I’ve done. It’s just very natural.
I’m always thinking about music. Every time, every day, writing words,
listening back, criticizing myself. It’s nice to have someone who is up for
sharing in that at all times of day at all hours.”

It is a risk, she knows, because you’re chancing personal happiness and the
longevity of the relationship. But she knows she has to do it. “You got to do
it. And as a woman playing music, it’s nice to have someone by your side… because
I am a coward,” she giggles. “Seriously. I’m lucky to have had talented dudes
around me.”

 

Speaking of talented dudes, Elvis Costello worms his way into
the conversation in the same fashion he wormed his way onto Acid Tongue. Apparently she first spoke
to the British lion when having Christmas with a friend’s father – Costello
drummer Pete Thomas. Costello phoned to wish Pete merry-merry, got Lewis on the
phone, got her to appear in his “Monkey to Man” video (“I did an awkward
walk-by clutching a purse”), then wound up dueting on “Carpetbaggers when Rice
was up for the low singing parts.

“I emailed him. He responded. And in exchange we recorded some
of his songs. The vibe was so good there that as soon as we finished mixing, Costello
went into make his own record there.”

 

Like Costello grabbing a lick, all the heavy heady sad
moments that fill Lewis’ Acid Tongue are ripe with lightness of being, of funny moments and gentle sessions. The
funniest seems the sweetest – the mad-mad-Jim Morrison moment of “Jack Killed
Mom.” While the whole song seems to seethe with its death knell promise (“I had
to kill off the mother character that was so prominent on Rabbit Fur Coat,” says Lewis), it is her harmonica-blowing dad,
jazz-bo Eddie Gordon, on the track.

 

“I was so tired of talking about my mother from that last
record that having my dad play on it was just hilarious. Having him and my
family and my friends in the studio felt like an honest record.”

 

Now let’s back to those acid tabs.

 

 

 

 

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