On Track: Jenny Lewis
The Los Angeles songstress goes through the tracks on her new solo record, The Voyager; plus, killing her darlings, working with Beck and Ryan Adams, and what "Wonderwall" has to do with it.
Jenny Lewis is a woman who doesn’t look back, but has a habit of keeping her history in her heart and in her work. Once the singer-songwriter finishes an album, she gives it away to the public to listen to and cherish, but has already moved on from that period of her life. A coping mechanism? Maybe. A challenge to remember her library? Definitely. “I only listen to my own music when I’m preparing to go on tour. I’ll take out a recording, or try to find a clip of myself on YouTube, or Google my own lyrics—because sometimes I forget the words! Then, I’ll find myself singing the wrong words and think, ‘Drat! Lyric Maniac, you’ve foiled me again!’”
While Lewis remains steadfast on her self-imposed no-rocking-out-to-her-own-tunes rule, there is one aspect of her past that seeps into her music time and time again: her San Fernando Valley roots. “Van Nuys, is—and always has been—completely embedded in my work, even if people don’t realize it. I always return to where I grew up.” The amalgamated cultures and laid-back vibe of growing up in Southern California can be heard in countless songs across Lewis’s diverse discography. Don’t forget, this is the person who serenaded the country’s second-largest city with the simple sentiment: “LA, you always let me back in.” Her latest album, The Voyager, is no different.
“When you are going through shit in your real life, everything else takes a backseat… In the end, it was the music that helped me get through such a dark period.”
“You know in the title track when I’m talking about 7-Eleven? It was the 7-Eleven that used to be on Van Nuys and Magnolia,” Lewis divulges. “It’s where I had my first Slurpee! So many of my formative moments were spent loitering in front of that 7-Eleven.” Familiar locations and recognizable signs are at the very heart of Lewis’s third solo effort. In listening to the ten pop-rock tracks that make up the country/folk-rock-inspired full-length, it’s easy to relate to Lewis’s struggles, each wrapped up in comforting landmarks of a brighter past. The tracks about loss, confusion, and maturity come from Lewis’s hardships over the last three years, including her father’s passing, her battle with insomnia, and the breakup of Rilo Kiley.
“When you are going through shit in your real life, everything else takes a backseat,” Lewis emphasizes. “How I was feeling as a daughter, my relationships, my health, all of it. The music was secondary; it was something to help me get through my real life. Really, though, in the end, it was the music that helped me get through such a dark period.”
We caught up with Lewis while she was experiencing Florida’s heinous humidity to dig deep into the track list of her latest album The Voyager, learning what it was like working with Voyager’s producers, Ryan Adams and Beck, why the title track relates to “Wonderwall,” and how, with this album, the LA native weathered her personal storms and came out on the other side with a new outlook on life—and a whimsical rainbow pantsuit to boot.
- “Head Underwater”
- “She’s Not Me”
- “Just One of the Guys”
- “Slippery Slopes”
- “Late Bloomer”
- “You Can’t Outrun ’Em”
- “The New You”
- “Aloha & The Three Johns”
- “Love U Forever”
- “The Voyager”
Which song was written first for the record?
“Just One of the Guys.” I wrote it years and years ago. I can’t even remember writing it. It’s just one of those songs that appeared magically. I don’t know if the song was around for [past project] Jenny and Johnny—that was the last record I recorded—I think that was 2010… I’m not sure if it was completely ironed out yet at that point, though. Also, sometimes, I keep things for my solo records if I feel that they are really, not necessarily personal, but from that singular perspective.
Which was written last?
“The Voyager.” Ryan instructed me to go home and write another song for the album, a ballad. Actually, he wanted me to go home and write “Wonderwall.” But give me a break, dude, I can’t write fucking “Wonderwall”! That’s one of the top five best songs of all time! He’s just like, “Go home and write it,” so I went home, listened to it, compared it, and that’s it: “The Voyager” is my version of “Wonderwall.”
Which song were your producers most excited to be involved with and work on?
[With Ryan Adams,] it was “She’s Not Me”—which is a song with open tuning. I had been reading the Keith Richards autobiography Life, and because of that book, I was messing around with open tuning for a song. I really had no idea what to do with it, but within moments of playing the song for Ryan and with the band, it started to sound exactly as I wanted it.
[Beck and I] both lived on the east side [of Los Angeles] for many years and when I would see him around, I would say to myself, “Oh my god! There’s Beck!” So I reached out to him and sent him a bunch of my demos, and he picked “Just One of the Guys” from about ten songs I think. Also he picked “Aloha & The Three Johns,” which I was so happy about because someone that I know—who will remain nameless—gave me shit about that song forever and then I got to say, “Ha! Beck likes it! I’m putting it on the record!” I mean, if Beck likes it, it has to be at least all right? We rehearsed, and then we spent one day together. Then a year passed and I went back in and spent one more day with him. And, honestly, I didn’t think that the version that he recorded was going to make it onto the record because I didn’t get it back from him until I was already beginning to mix. I had a version—that I love, that Ryan recorded—which is completely different from how I wrote it. It’s kind of got a Springsteen take on it: the tempo is different and the key is different, and I thought that that version was going to be the one that made it onto the record. But then Beck’s version came through and kind of knocked Ryan’s version out of the running.
“I write all the time and I write when I want to write, not when someone tells me. Like, I fucking hate homework! I didn’t go to college for that very reason; I just didn’t want to do any goddamn homework.”
Which song didn’t make the final cut that you wish was on the record?
Well, there’s another version of “You Can’t Outrun ’Em” that I actually preferred that came out of [Adams’s studio] PAX-AM, but it just wasn’t finished in my opinion, and I didn’t know how to finish it myself. So, yeah, there’s another version of “You Can’t Outrun ’Em” that has this rhythm section that is really dance-y and fun, which I wish made it in time.
Which song was the hardest to write?
I guess “The Voyager.” I’ve never been told to go and write a song like that for my own music. I’ve written music for films and stuff, which is very different. I can definitely do that for songs from the voice of, you know, a cartoon doggie, but when it comes from my own voice it’s different. I write all the time and I write when I want to write, not when someone tells me. Like, I fucking hate homework! I didn’t go to college for that very reason; I just didn’t want to do any goddamn homework.
Which song transformed the most from concept to creation?
I would have to say “She’s Not Me.” It really took on a new life at PAX-AM. I had recorded a version of it earlier that had a very natural, very clean sound to it. It felt uptight, and Ryan knew how to make it slinky, in the pocket. I didn’t think that song was actually going to make it on the record at all because it’s a very straightforward pop song for me, and with the wrong production it would have felt really poppy and maybe a little cheeseball. But Ryan knew how to make it feel classic. It just shows you what a good producer can do.
Which song are you most proud of?
I can’t say. I really can’t.
Which song shaped the mood or feeling of the album?
The songs came from a very extended period of time, so they reflect all different types of feelings. I don’t know how they fit together.
How did you decide on the order of tracks for this album?
I tried to order them in a way that made sense and told a story. You know, had an arc? Maybe it starts with a bit of darkness and ends with something lighter and simpler. I wanted that sentiment on “The Voyager” to be the last thing that people heard on the record. I wanted them to end up in Van Nuys. FL