Interviewed

08.17.14

Jenny Lewis on 'The Voyager,' the End of Rilo Kiley, and High School Classmate Angelina Jolie

Following the death of her once-estranged father and two-year battle with insomnia, the Hollywood child star-turned-songstress opens up about creating her best album yet.

It’s been six long years since the last solo album by Jenny Lewis, the sunny-and-sad songstress with the striking red tresses. As the front woman of the rock band Rilo Kiley, Lewis helped shepherd a generation of angsty kids through their rocky teen years with her personable tales of love and heartbreak.

But Rilo Kiley is no more. The band split in 2011. To make matters worse, the break happened just one year after Lewis lost her father, Eddie Gordon—a harmonica virtuoso who served as a member of the Harmonica Gang and played with Sinatra. Gordon left Lewis and her mother Linda, also a singer, when she was just two. Shortly thereafter, Lewis got into acting, appearing on a variety of shows like the sitcoms Life with Lucy, The Golden Girls, and Roseanne, before appearing in a number of teen-targeting flicks such as The Wizard, opposite a young Angelina Jolie in Foxfire, and the notorious Don’s Plum, whose up-and-coming stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire blocked from being released stateside.

Following the death of her father, the Rilo Kiley split, and a two-year battle with imsomnia, Lewis is back with her third solo album, The Voyager—a beauteous pop record awash in melancholy. It was produced by Ryan Adams, with a little help from Beck. And the album, surprisingly, became Lewis’s first Top 10 album ever, bowing at No. 9 on Billboard’s Top 200. The success comes thanks, in no small part, to debut single “Just One of the Guys,” whose video features Lewis’s A-list pals Kristen Stewart, Anne Hathaway, and Brie Larson rocking out in drag.  

What was the initial pang of inspiration for The Voyager?

It was a long period of time. The voyage was extensive, so there are songs from five years ago that I’ve been playing out for a while. Certainly when I get to Ryan’s studio, Pax-Am, it was just the scenery that I needed. For the first time, I relaxed and gave up a certain amount of control and when you hit a wall, that can be a very scary and good thing to do. And we only worked together for like two weeks.

What kind of wall did you hit? Was it like writer’s block?

I wouldn’t call it writer’s block because I even tend to write through those periods, even though nothing seems to be any good. It was at a point in between bands, and having recorded many versions of these songs, I was a bit clueless as to what I wanted it to sound like. I was screaming for a spirit guide, and it showed up in the form of Ryan Adams.

"There was this club that we used to go to Alphy’s Soda Pop Club, and it was this dance club for kid actors. Corey Feldman used to show up in full Michael Jackson gear..."

He was your Virgil. I did hear that he tested you a bit by making you listen to Creed. That doesn’t sound too inspiring.

I don’t think he was screwing with me—I think there was some sort of hidden meaning in everything that he does. It may be hard to decipher in the moment. He told me he was going to explain to me why he made me listen to Creed, but he hasn’t yet.

Maybe that’s the ultimate palate-cleanser. Listening to Creed is perhaps his way of saying, “Forget everything you think you know about music, and start with a blank slate.”

Yeah, it sort of clears the deck. [Laughs]

I grew up listening to Rilo Kiley… what happened there? Was there a straw that broke the camel’s back, or was it a gradual parting of ways?

I think it was just a slow fade of love that ended it in the end. It’s such a complex thing—these relationships are twenty years strong, and it’s very hard being in a band because it’s like being in another family. I was stoked that we were able to get together to put out Rkives. We got together, looked at old pictures, and put together these old songs from our hard drive.

So it wasn’t acrimonious?

Um… I wouldn’t use that word. I think any break-up is painful.

What was your rationale behind ending Rilo Kiley and moving on to the next phase of your career?

It’s hard to speak to… it’s such a long answer, I’m not even going to get into it.

How do you think the break-up informed The Voyager?

The Kiley has always informed my music—particularly my solo stuff, because I had a rock band. The sonics were pointedly different with my other projects than they were with the band, so with this record, having the freedom to do anything and work with anyone and create a sound based on what the songs needed was cool. I felt liberated—single and ready to mingle vibe.

The opening track “Head Underwater” contains a line that really struck me: “I never thought I would ever be here / Looking out on my life as if there was no there there.” It’s a very dark track. Were you struggling with depression?

That’s a Gertrude Stein quote: “There is no there there.” But I wouldn’t say I was struggling with depression. I was actually experiencing insomnia pretty intensely, and that experience informed that song. I’d never experienced it before and had always been a 9-hour-a-night girl, and my sleep was interrupted very suddenly, so it took me a couple of years to get back to sleep. All the while, I was continuing to plug away on my record and keep myself occupied. I also scored a movie during that time, Very Good Girls, which kept me very occupied. [Director] Naomi Foner is the one that told me that Gertrude Stein quote. While I was having a hard time getting back to sleep, we’d talk and she told me that and it really stuck with me.

Video screenshot

How did you defeat your insomnia?

A number of things, like exercise, hypnotherapy, nerve feedback, talk therapy. It took a perfect storm of things to take me down, and the same kinds of things to get me back. It was two years; a very long path. Looking back on it, I don’t want to experience it again, but I’m grateful because it forced me to take care of myself. When you’re on the road, sometimes you neglect your health because you’re constantly working and traveling.

You also experienced a very personal tragedy, which seemed to inform many of the songs on The Voyager, which is the loss of your father.

You can’t really predict how the loss of a parent is going to affect you, and it took a moment for it to set in with me, but once it did, it was very difficult. You start asking those big questions when you lose someone like that, and that definitely informed the title track of the record. Where do we go?

You two had a somewhat fraught relationship from what I’ve read—he’d left the family early on, and you and your mother lived on your own in California.

He stayed in Vegas and we moved to California, so he… wasn’t around a whole lot. He was on the road as well.

Do you have a favorite song on the record?

Maybe “Late Bloomer.” That one’s feeling pretty good right now.

I enjoyed that tune as well. It struck me as being about your rebellious teenage years.

Well, the coming of age years. I knew a lot of kids that backpacked across Europe, and I was one of those kids. I went all over—Paris, Amsterdam, and Germany. I’m grateful that it was pre-Hostel movie franchise. I definitely drank too many Space Shakes in a short amount of time, which I don’t advise doing. They just tasted so good!

“Late Bloomer” got me thinking of your teenage years, and then I thought about Foxfire, which I saw as a kid and was pretty badass and ahead of its time. You do have such a great line in that movie where you slam the rapey professor’s head against the bench.

What did I say?

If you ever put your hands on me again, I'm gonna snip your little nuts off with my toenail clippers!”

Oh… so embarrassing! [Laughs] Don’t I wield a gun in that movie? I can’t remember.

You shoot a character's father in the chest, I believe.

Oh, wow. Very bad.

Are you still friends with your Foxfire co-star, Angelina Jolie?

Oh no, I haven’t seen her since then. I don’t think I’ve seen her once since then! I also went to high school with her for a short amount of time. We had the same English class and she sat in the back of the class, and I remember wondering who she was—the most beautiful girl of all-time.

Speaking of movie stars, you got a lot of your celeb friends out for the “Just One of the Guys” video, including Kristen Stewart, Anne Hathaway, and Brie Larson. How did that come about?

It was a concept that I’d been thinking about, and I wanted to direct the first video. Based on my Instagram account, where I make these little Lynchian movies, that’s how I convinced my record label that I could direct it. And then I could my friends up and told them, “Oh, my friends Annie and Kristen and Brie are going to be in this thing,” and they said, “OK, you can direct it.” My only goal as a director was to make everyone look badass, and I didn’t have to do much because those girls were born to do it.

Do you have any favorite moments from shooting the video? It seems like a very fun time.

It was so great. When Annie started breakdancing, I nearly lost my shit. That was all her idea and we just rolled the camera, and she proceeded to do the best/worst breakdancing I’d ever seen. I laughed so, so hard.

Was releasing the video through GQ meant to be ironic? To release this feminist anthem through what is essentially a lad mag that guys read at barbershops?

I chose it because I thought it would be funny to release it on the Gentlemen’s Quarterly website, but I genuinely love GQ. The food and drink stuff that they cover in that magazine is so sick.

Wasn’t there a time, in the ‘90s, where you were “just one of the guys?” Back when you were hanging with Leonardo DiCaprio’s posse and appeared in Don’s Plum?

I guess I was a Tomboy back then. I’ve always been a Tomboy since I was a little, tiny chicken. But I can’t remember Don’s Plum. It was so long ago and such a different time. But I think we had a good time! We were kids.

Are you still friendly with Leo and the gang?

I don’t really see those dudes so much anymore. I’ve reconnected with some people from my past, like Soleil Moon Frye, who was Punky Brewster. She was my best friend when I was 10, and we’ve become friends again and it’s so great because so few people know me from that part of my life, growing up in Hollywood. It’s nice to have someone to corroborate the strange tales from the past.

What are some of the strangest?

There was this club that we used to go to Alphy’s Soda Pop Club, and it was this dance club for kid actors. Corey Feldman used to show up in full Michael Jackson gear and dance in the middle of the dancefloor. It was just great. Alyssa Milano, Corey Haim, you name it—they were all there. And I was sort of on the fringe.

Were you ever in love with acting, or was it just something that you were thrust into at an early age?

I think I was very serious—as serious as a 7-year-old can be—about work, and I liked the work and I liked the people. I just got to a certain age where I wanted more creative control over the words. I’d always been interested in words, and it felt a bit weird to not have any particular say in that respect. And music, with me, was just supposed to be. My parents were musicians, my grandparents did vaudeville, and it’s just a part of my soul. It couldn’t be stopped.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ask if Rilo Kiley is done for good, or do you think there’s a chance at a reunion somewhere down the line?

Never say never! [Laughs]