Jenny Lewis has always been somewhat in the spotlight. As a child, she had a career in television before she grew up to discover and embrace her musical talents, which have made her an indie-rock sweetheart for nearly 15 years. So it’s not surprising that as she has recently negotiated her father’s passing and a serious relationship, Lewis took a moment to breathe. Now she’s about to exhale her first new solo album in six years.
“You’ve experienced these feelings and it feels cheap to write about them right away, so it kind of took me a moment to meditate on that,” says Lewis, who signed off on the masters of the new album Voyager three days before we spoke late last month. “I have no problem exploiting my life for my work — it’s what I’ve made my whole career on — but sometimes it takes a minute to figure out how you feel.”
The 38-year-old Los Angeleno is presently coupled with singer/songwriter Jonathan Rice. The two even recorded an album together, 2010’s I’m Having Fun Now, under the name Jenny and Johnny. Her shoulder-shimmying coo and his baritone croon mingle adorably throughout the alternately spunky/pretty rock, roots, and soul disc. She moved out of her rent-controlled apartment for him, but she swears she hasn’t changed: “I still drive my Ford Focus.”
It all began for Lewis with Rilo Kiley, a band she started with her then-boyfriend Blake Sennett, another childhood TV actor. Sennett appeared on Nickelodeon’s Salute Your Shorts and ABC’s Boy Meets World. Lewis started with commercial work and wound up on shows ranging from Life With Lucy and Baywatch to Murder She Wrote and Roseanne in her tweens and teens. They were introduced to each other by mutual friend Tara Subkoff.
Lewis says their first 20 to 30 songs were “joke” songs (many captured on 1998’s The Initial Friend EP), and they spent their first couple of years playing to empty houses. That gave them time to grow, become better musicians, and develop a live show.
“I feel really lucky that we had that time to do that. We had that time to be friends and to spend hours in the van listening to music and writing in the back of the van together on a shitty acoustic guitar,” she says. “I’m really grateful for those years. Certainly there are benefits to exposure, but I’m happy our early years were spent in the dark.”
Rilo Kiley released their debut full-length Take-Offs and Landings for Barsuk, and then found an even more sympathetic home on Conor Oberst’s label, Saddle Creek. (Lewis and Oberst remain close friends to this day.) They released the terrific follow-up The Execution of All Things in 2002, and the title was symbolic of the dark clouds on the horizon.
The relationship was failing between Lewis and Sennett, a fact reflected throughout the album. It opens with the chilling “The Good That Won’t Come Out,” where Lewis imagines herself on a frozen lake alongside friends complaining about the state of the world while they watch it melt beneath their feet. She worries about “all the good that won’t come out of me and how eventually my mouth will just turn to dust if I don’t tell you quick.” They had broken up by the time the album was released.
“It sucked. It is absolute torture to be in a band with your recent ex–boyfriend,” she says. “If you were me, you would crawl under a blanket and cry your eyes out, and then try to meet other boys on the road.”
Around the same time Lewis and Sennet’s relationship was going to shit, she contributed to Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello’s breakthrough project The Postal Service. Their 2003 release Give Up would prove to be a surprise hit. Last year, Lewis teamed up with The Postal Service for a tenth-anniversary tour for that album. Their fourth show was at Coachella, playing for at least 50,000 people, and it was so intense it made her verklempt.
“I walked out on stage — that’s the biggest show I ever played in my entire life, probably the biggest show I’ll ever fucking play — and I just looked back at Jimmy and I just started to cry, like a total pussy on stage in front of all those people,” she says. “I’m so proud to have been a part of that. It was like a rock ‘n’ roll dream. You make a record, tour it once, it goes on to sell a million copies, and you don’t tour again until 10 years later.”
Shortly after The Postal Service experience, Rilo Kiley would limp through two more albums, including 2007’s Under the Blacklight for Warner Bros., before beginning her solo career. Lewis released 2006’s country-soul Rabbit Fur Coat, which evoked the spirit of Dusty Springfield and Laura Nyro, backed by the peerless harmonies of the Watson Twins. The more rocking Acid Tongue followed a couple years later on Warner Bros.
With her upcoming album, Lewis is excited to close that six-year gap. There are a bunch of guests, though she’s hesitant to reveal too much with the release still months away. It’s just part of her methodical approach this time out.
“I worked on these songs for a long time so there’s no stone unturned, lyrically. I thought about them while walking on the mountain near my house I thought about them while flying on airplanes. I thought about them while lying awake with terrible insomnia. I finished them standing in line at Vons. While I was brushing my teeth. I was obsessed,” she says. “So I feel like they’re done. My poem is finished.”
These days Lewis is more comfortable in her own skin — as a woman and an artist. After years of obsessing over her perceived imperfections, now she’s completely over it.
“I’m at a point where I’m, why worry about that stuff you can’t change about your own appearance? Why obsess over it? Because once you stop worrying about acne, you’re looking in a mirror and you have wrinkles,” she laughs. “Then you’re like, wait a minute. I have both!”