"I had no idea what kind of record I wanted to make, that’s why it took me so long” – hmv.com talks to Jenny Lewis
There was a point about six years ago when the most common term associated with singer Jenny Lewis would be prolific. She was in the middle of an extensive tour with her country pop band Rilo Kiley in support of their album Under The Blacklight, working on a new solo album that would be titled Acid Tongue and be released that year, lending her voice to a role in animated flick Bolt as well as helping Elvis Costello out with his new album.
Cut to six years later and things are very different. Rilo Kiley are done, they broke up in 2011 and bookended their career with an epic compilation named Rkives last year, and her new solo album, which she began in 2010, is only just coming out.
Not that she’s been sitting around watching box sets, alongside working on the album, she released a record with her boyfriend, singer-songwriter Jonathan Rice, under the name Jenny & Johnny, which is titled I’m Having Fun Now. The pair also completed a film score for Song One, which stars Anne Hathaway, while Lewis also toured with The Postal Service on their hugely successful world tour last year, reprising her role as the backing vocalist on their beloved debut Give Up.
Now she’s back out on her own with a new album named The Voyager. Recorded over four years, it is largely produced by Ryan Adams at his PAX-AM Studios, but also features collaborations with Beck, Mike Viola and Rice, of course. Channelling the classic sound and swing of Rumours era Fleetwood Mac, Stax Motown and vintage Jefferson Airplane, it’s a brilliant record.
Speaking to hmv.com ahead of release, Lewis opened up about the album’s difficult journey into the world, working with Ryan Adams and why this album represents a clean slate for her.
This is your first solo album in six years, and your first release in almost four years, are you feeling nervous at all?
“I’m not nervous. When you make as many records as I have, the butterflies start to subside. I’m really proud of the record and I know people will find it.”
How long did the record take to make?
“Four years, in all four years. But that included many sessions that I scrapped. The main bulk of the record was produced by Ryan Adams at Pax-Am, that was the last stop of this Ferris wheel that was The Voyager.”
So what made the process take so long? Was it working with different producers? Getting the songs right? Or just not the right studio?
“All of the above. I was producing the sessions with Jonathan Rice over a two-year period and we kept trying out different studios, different musicians, Dawes came in and played with us for a while, Mickey from Maroon 5, the Watson Twins, Blake Mills, they all came in and played, we just couldn't get it right."
“At the same time I was also working very intermittently with Beck, I mean like once a year we’d work on this song. Finally, I went in to PAX-AM with Ryan and he gave the songs an energy and a drive, a brilliant new perspective.”
What’s Ryan Adams like as a producer?
“He’s a lot more like Phil Spector than not. He’s eccentric in the studio, you have to bend to his rule, there’s no room for you to be late or slack off, Ryan has so much energy and so much drive. His methods are difficult to understand at first, but by the end you’re like ‘This guy is an amazing producer’. He would wind me up, but always to make sure he got a good performance out of me.”
What’s PAX-AM like?
“It’s amazing! It’s so f*****g cool. There’s so much beautiful vintage gear, beautiful analogue equipment, guitars everywhere and it's full of portraits of his cats and Star Wars paraphernalia. It’s right on the Sunset Strip, it’s really inspiring.”
How does it compare to other studios you’ve worked on?
“I’ve recorded at Sound City, which I love and at some other great places, but this is by far the coolest place I’ve ever worked. This is Ryan’s personal studio, it’s not for the public, it was such an amazing space.”
In what you’ve said so far about the album, you’ve made it clear it was quite a difficult album to write and record, can you put your finger on why that was?
“I guess I just wasn’t happy. I didn’t want to put something out unless it felt right. I struggled to get a couple of songs, actually when we finished at PAX-AM, Ryan instructed me to go home and write a couple more songs, one of which ended up being the title track.”
What kind of album is it lyrically?
“I think it’s very diverse, they range and touch on lots of things. There’s not one through line.”
Is it a personal record?
“All my records are I think. I’m always finishing songs in my head. For this batch there are the earlier tracks, and the ones I was told to write by Ryan. ‘Just One Of The Guys’ has been around for years though, I actually played that on the Jenny and Johnny tour, we work shopped it around before it ended up as the song it has."
Has the album come out sounding like you expecting it would when you started?
“I didn’t know what I wanted, that’s why it took me so long, normally I have a really clear idea of the record I want to make and the story I want to tell. This time I had no idea what kind of record I wanted to make, that’s why it took me so long. That’s why I needed the guidance of a very strong-willed producer.”
Were there things you wanted to change from Acid Tongue?
“No, I don’t think of records like that, they’re moments in time. I wouldn’t change anything about it, maybe the tracklisting, but nothing else. It was a wonderful time, a very fertile artistic time in Los Angeles, it’s a very honest portrayal of a moment. This record isn’t a moment in time, it was all about trying to make it cohesive.”
Given you’re the writer and arranger, how do you go about making sure you don’t add too much to track?
“Ryan was an incredible gauge for that, he helped me assemble a band and he would give me two or three takes to get it right, and he’d say ‘You know what, if there are mistakes, they stay in there’. He kept it very limited, he wanted a live feel and it to feel like a band playing in a room.”
When did you settle on the title?
“At the very end. Ryan told me to go home and write ‘Wonderwall’. And I was like ‘What? I can’t do that, that’s basically the most perfect song ever’. So I went home and wrote my version, it really resonated with me emotionally and it made itself the title.”
It sums up the album nicely, it feels like a real journey…
“I think so, it bookends the whole thing so well.”
So after the record comes out, do you have much touring lined up?
“So much. Lots of festivals, lots of shows, I want to make sure I keep busy and go and play to as many people as I can.”
What kind of band do you have with you? You’ve toured with quite a few different troupes over the last few years…
“It’s actually all new people, with the exception of one of my guitar players, who played with Rilo Kiley years ago. I auditioned all these female players in Nashville, Megan, my guitar player and Natalie, who plays keyboards, they auditioned for me on their iPhones, they filmed themselves singing along to my songs. I couldn’t find players in Los Angeles, no one I wanted could commit to a year of touring.”
Have you enjoying start over with a new band?
“I really have. I usually play with my boyfriend, or with Jason from Rilo Kiley, he's played with me for years, so it’s nice to be the boss, I’m the band leader, I decide the set list and it’s so much fun. It’s a lot of responsibility, but the best kind.”
Jonathan’s played with you pretty much constantly for the last few years, will it be weird to go on the road without him?
“I hope he’ll visit obviously… I think it’s good, you can’t do everything together, you can’t be with your partner constantly. I feel like I can disappear into this new band a bit more, I can become the character in the songs, I’m not up there with my friends.”
You bookended your time with Rilo Kiley with the release of Rkives last year, was it nice to put that time in your career to bed?
“It was so cool, so fun to go through all the old photos and songs, it took us years to put it together, I’m proud of those songs, I know why we didn’t put them on records, but I think they hold up really well.”
Now that’s all done, does that feel like a fresh start?
“It does. There’s nothing looming, it’s just this record and I can do whatever I want. It’s scary and liberating. I could make a record with anyone, it’s very exciting.”
Jenny Lewis’s new album The Voyager will be released on Monday (July 28th) and is available for pre-order in hmv stores now.