Don’t Look Back: A Q&A With Jenny Lewis

Jenny Lewis

Videos by American Songwriter

It’s been six years since her last solo record, but prolific singer/songwriter Jenny Lewis is back this July with The Voyager, an album produced by Ryan Adams and quite possibly her most personal work to date. Lewis, who parlayed her success as a member of Rilo Kiley into a solo career, wrote The Voyager on the heals of Rilo’s break-up and the death of her estranged father, which amounted to what she calls one of the “most difficult periods” in her life. We caught up with Jenny at New York City’s Governors Ball Music Festival to talk about the new album, working with Ryan Adams, and singing about her “shit, shit” times.

All this summer you’re doing the festival circuit, from here at Governors Ball to Outside Lands. Do you like it? Do you prefer festivals to theater shows?

No, theaters are better. Festivals are really fun, but to play your own show in an intimate setting is also really great. That kind of feeds you.

I feel like with a festival there’s so much more to worry about for an artist.

There are so many variables, but when it all aligns it can be magical because you’re playing for way more people than you ever would.

It’s so interesting to see you evolve over the years. What do you think when you look back at your own music?

There’s some things I’m prouder of than others, and there are a couple of embarrassing ones like “Glendora” – the Rilo Kiley song. So embarrassing!


Well, there are some pretty saucy lines in there. Like “Would you fuck me/cause I’d fuck me.” It’s a “Silence of the Lambs” reference in a song about New Years Eve and Glendora. Anyway, even that song is funny to me. It’s being able to be cool with something you made as a teenager or in any stage in your development as a human or a songwriter; it’s all kind of relevant to the moment. Some songs are easier to play live than others.

Are there some songs you don’t want to play anymore? Maybe they had meaning for you and now, no?

Well, I thought I didn’t want to play (Rilo Kiley’s) “A Better Son/Daughter” because it’s such a hard song to sing. It’s a really intense four minutes, but I brought it back for this tour and its been feeling different and good. The song is still the song, but I’m so used to playing it with Rilo Kiley and it’s totally different with a different group of musicians. It makes me feel good and appreciate both.

So for the new album, The Voyager, you collaborated with Ryan Adams? How did that come about?

It was totally organic in that I direct messaged him on Twitter. It’s a very modern story.

Had you met him before?

We hung out a couple times. I was on tour with the Postal Service last year, and we had just played Lollapalooza and that was supposed to be our last show ever. We knew we signed up for just four months of touring the world in true style to relive and honor that awesome record. As that was winding down, I was like, “I have to get back to my real job.” So I messaged Ryan, and was like, “Hey man, can I record a song?” And one song became twelve.

So you and him kind of clicked.

We did click creatively. He’s the producer of the album with his partner Mike Viola who was a crucial part of us actually working and getting it done. Mike’s creative contributions were really, really important as well. But Ryan’s the lead guitar player in the band that I put together for the sessions (which also included Benmont Tench from The Heartbreakers, as well as the drummer from Dawes). It was truly a sick band because they had to be good enough to record live. We didn’t fix anything; we only had two or three takes to get it right because Ryan wouldn’t let us do any more than that. He would actually stop us.

For a more organic sound?

That was just his process. He just wasn’t going to let us overthink it.

I think Clint Eastwood does that when he shoots his movies.

Well, you have to when you’re that prolific! Both of those guys are so prolific. Woody Allen does the same thing. You have to move at a good pace if you want to get to the next record. Ryan is not about looking back. When we were recording we always looked forward, and would never even listen back to what we were doing.

Wow. Did that feel weird, not listening back?

It felt great. I didn’t wanna hear my fucking voice anyway. I was sick of myself at that point. And so many of these songs I had tried in other studios with other musicians, and I just wanted to get it done.

How did you get the name for the album, The Voyager. Are you the voyager?

So are you.

So we all are?

Yeah, we are. One day Ryan told me to go home and write “Wonderwall,” and I was like, “What? I can’t do that, that’s a perfect song.” So I went home and was totally panicking and wracking my brain, and for whatever reason “The Voyager” came out of that assignment – not that it’s at all like “Wonderwall.” In other words, he inspired me to write another song for the record and not many producers can do that. I can imagine maybe Phil Spector can, or Rick Rubin maybe. Just song-oriented producers.

When it came to writing The Voyager, you were having a rough time.

A shit, shit time.

We all go through shit times.

All of us.

But not many of us have to relive these moments on stage, and think back to times where you’re hurting and have other people be entertained by them.

Yeah, it can be weird. The meaning of these songs change, though. Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m writing about when I’m writing about it. I’m speaking to something I don’t understand, until about five years later. A song, or different lines in a song, could also feel relevant for different reasons at different times.

That must be a trip.

Yeah, it’s a weird job.

Show business is weird.

Show business is weird.


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