Finstas, Ringo, and Wine: Catching Up with Jenny Lewis
Working with Ryan Adams and Beck, Lewis has a new album almost ready to release. But for now, let’s talk spirit animals.
It’s the first day of Montreal’s Osheaga Festival, the temperature has hit pre-apocalyptic levels, and Jenny Lewis is pacing. Maybe it’s just the heat, or the fact we’re both fighting Festival Brain, but things get silly fast. “You do the math!” she responds, playfully rolling her eyes behind a pair of Old Hollywood–style sunglasses after I ask her what musician would survive in a Rolling Stones/Beatles cage match.
It’s rare that Jenny Lewis is put in a position where she doesn’t have the answers. From 1998 until 2007, she fronted Rilo Kiley, a band that had the seemingly endless ability to capture the poetry in everyday life. (“You never knew why you felt so good in the strangest of places like in waiting rooms, or long lines that made you late, or mall parking lots on holidays.”) Even before officially calling it a day with that band, she was already creating solo work—first with the Watson Twins–assisted, folk-heavy debut Rabbit Fur Coat (2006), and later with rock/pop hybrids Acid Tongue (2008) and The Voyager (2014). And then—as if her CV needed additional lines—there’s the heavy-hitting one-offs, 2010’s Jenny and Johnny, and 2016’s surprise project Nice as Fuck, where she teamed up with Au Revoir Simone’s Erika Forster and The Like’s Tennessee Thomas.
Yes, there’s more music on the way. Lewis can confirm as much. But with the release date of her fourth solo album pushed to early 2019, details are scant, save for the Dolly-Parton-fever-dream-suit she wore during her Osheaga performance, her new painted piano, and an interest in the mysterious history of the dogwood. But like everything Lewis does—music, creating visuals, or even chatting—the devil, beauty, and absurdity is in the details.
How much of a workout does your phone get during the writing process?
I love recording on GarageBand on my iPhone. Oh, yeah! And taking hella nudie pics! No, only one nudie pic and hundreds of voice memos.
What is the best way to take a nudie pic?
Never ever is my actual head in the photograph. It’s the ultimate filter.
How many of these voice notes end up being developed into songs?
I would say probably 50 percent. Or maybe 40 percent, if I have enough energy. If I have an idea and I’m playing guitar or piano or just writing out in the world a capella—if I have the energy to actually get my phone out of my bag and press record—it means that I’ve remembered the song so far. Which says something. And if I record it and remember it, usually it’ll get worked on. That doesn’t mean it’s good, but the ideas become things.
My phone only brings me FOMO and envy. Yours brings creativity.
Well, this is the part I’m telling you about. But then there’s [also] the spiraling out on Instagram part. Trolling.
Are you asking me if I have a finsta?
Well, now I am.
Is there a song about a finsta? Or a lyric?
I feel like there should be. Maybe Father John Misty? He’s probably already written it. That’s his next album.
Four years ago, I saw you perform at Apogee Studio and you mentioned Ryan Adams and how he would play Creed in the studio. Did he bring any unorthodox working techniques with him this time around?
I started the record with Ryan a year ago at Capitol with an amazing band. Did a couple of songs with Beck. I’m almost done. It’s what you’d expect. He’s into Fozzie Bear jams. Keeping it real cold in the control room. A crisp 55 degrees!
We got to go up on the roof at Capitol, which was amazing. There was this video of Ringo Starr’s cover of “Only You” where Harry Nilsson is singing backup—and the video is them on the roof at Capitol. Ringo is wearing the coolest outfit: a blue onesie with a silver star, and star sunglasses. Nilsson is in a bathrobe.
“I love The Beatles. And I also love The Rolling Stones. Why do you have to choose? It hurts. Would you give up ketchup or mustard?”
I found out about that song because Tennessee, whom I play with in Nice as Fuck, has a shop in East Village. We were chilling in the shop one day and this French guy pulls up in a motorcycle, [and was like,] “I have to play you something!” It was this handsome guy. He showed us that video of Ringo singing “Only You.” It’s kind of in our consciousness. So being up on the roof was pretty exciting. And then I got to go sing at Ringo’s seventy-seventh birthday. I had my friends make me a blue jumpsuit with a star on it.
So what’s the vibe? Are you entering the Ringo stage of your career?
I love him. I love The Beatles. And I also love The Rolling Stones. Why do you have to choose? It hurts. Would you give up ketchup or mustard? Neither! I need both.
I’ve got to ask about the fringe suit you’ve been wearing lately. You’ve created so many different looks for previous projects—does this outfit hint toward the new album’s vibe?
I’m feeling it out. Usually I finish the music and then I have time [to plan the look], but this run of dates [came before the music was finished]. I had this rainbow marijuana suit that I wore for a year and a half. And now it’s hanging in the Country Music Hall of Fame, near Gram Parsons’ suit, which it was inspired by. So I had to retire that because I signed a contract with the museum for a year.
What should we make for the next album? There’s a song on the album called “Dogwood,” and it’s a very evocative plant.
Does the dogwood plant have a special symbolism?
It was the wood that was used for Jesus’s cross. God made the bush very thorny and sparse so it would never happen again. I learned the Biblical context of dogwood after I wrote the song.
It’s interesting that even when you’re not seeking it out, you have religious imagery woven through your work.
I don’t know why that keeps on happening. But dogwood flowers are beautiful.
Spirit flower. So, what’s your spirit animal?
Squirrel. Friendly but also a little sketchy. It’s wild in LA. My backyard, it’s like a safari. There was a mountain lion back there. A bobcat. Rattle snakes. Packs of coyotes.
Any other vibes we should know about the new album?
I’m burning incense on stage. It’s something that comes in the Nag Champa box. But it’s called Celestial. It smells so good. It makes you think of the cosmos but it’s very earthy. I’m thinking of it like wine.
Any chance of another wine collaboration?
“We’ve got humor coming [on the new album], but non-ironic humor.”
I’m going to try. The Voyager wine was a light funky natural. This time I’m going to do a baguala. There’s a lyric in one of the songs about it. I just get a case of wine out of it. And I get to do the label, which is the coolest part.
[As far as the albums goes,] I’ve got a couple of visual things percolating. Album cover, I have that. [For] onstage, I have a piano that a friend of mine painted. This seventy-nine-year old man from Northridge. Airbrushed.
It’s dogwood on the piano. On the suit. It’s happening. Oh my god! It’s the saddest song on there! So sad! We’ve also got humor coming, but non-ironic humor. For me it’s about truly being myself.
When does that happen, exactly? Asking for a friend.
I feel like you’re going to start to desire it now, and then you’re going to manifest it. And it’s going to coincide with the best sex in your life. FL