Come join JENNY LEWIS in Las Vegas and LA to hear tales of childhood fame, dysfunctional parents and a 20-year singersongwriter career full of audio riches and heartbreaking wrenches. “You wanna blaze a doob outside, then I’ll shower?” she asks EVE BARLOW.
With arms outstretched: Jenny Lewis jumps for joy, Los Angeles, 8 May, 2019.
Photography Rachael wright Watch this!” says Jenny Lewis, sipping on a Modelo. “Take a visual of this for a second.” It’s midnight in Mandalay Bay’s casino, Las Vegas, and Lewis is exiting the House Of Blues where she’s just played the debut show of her tour for fourth solo album, On The Line. In the bar next door a band plays; a group of long-haired men whose bodies look beaten by decades of strife, yet their faces exude a purposeful passion. “Big wheels keep on turning…” chews the lead vocalist. “Carry me home to see my kin.”
They holler the chorus of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama and Lewis marvels. “Oh my God. This! These are my people!” Lewis isn’t coming home to Vegas, though she was born here, sharing a birthday with Bowie and Elvis. Los Angeles has been her home throughout a 20-year singer-songwriter career, her second. Her first career was as a child actor. She met her agent aged two-and-a-half, bought a house at five and quit by 20. Highlights include starring in 1989’s The Wizard opposite Fred Savage and playing Lucille Ball’s granddaughter in Life With Lucy.
Tonight, she’s an extra in a different scene. “These are lounge musicians”, she says of Vegas’s Lynyrd Skynyrd. “A covers band. This is like my whole family: my parents, my sister, my brother.”
Unlike the tale of Sweet Home Alabama, Lewis doesn’t have much kin left. “Just my sister. And a shit ton of half-siblings.” Sister Leslie isn’t here, but will be at tomorrow’s LA show. Her dad died in 2010.
Eddie Gordon was a virtuoso harmonica player and absent. “He played Brahms on the harmonica – a prodigy”, she says. Her mother Linda sang in a ‘70s duo with Gordon, called Love’s Lounge. Eddie and Linda played at the Tropicana and the Sands, which has since been bulldozed. “Beautiful footage”, she says – of the bulldozing, not her parents.
Lewis grew up watching things fall apart.
It made her a great raconteur. Brother Steve lives in Minnesota. His 30-year-old covers band is called The Rockin’ Hollywoods. One night The Rockin’ Hollywoods played local bar Mancini’s. “In the middle of the set the drums stopped”, she says. The band looked back to find their drummer slumped over the kit. He’d died. It’s part of Minnesotan lore: Prince, The Replacements and this. What song did he die playing? “Footloose”, she laughs. “He died on his throne. His drum throne. God, I hope I don’t die on the fucking throne”, she says, meaning the toilet.
“What a terrible place to die.”
Her parents divorced and Lewis moved to LA’s San Fernando Valley where she still lives. Her first memory is in Vegas – of her babysitter Lisa holding her by the pool.
“Lisa was a female Elvis impersonator – called Ellis.” She chortles. “I’m not making this up. That’s the fucked-up part, I don’t make shit up.” Throughout her four albums with indie band Rilo Kiley, four solo albums, plus numerous side-projects, Lewis has never made shit up. She seems destined to outclass her family’s talents. “None of my peeps were writers”, she says. “They were song interpreters.”
That fate changed when one of Linda’s boyfriends taught seven-year-old Lewis piano. “The moment he taught me Phantom Of The Opera I took the chords and wrote about my dad.” For her 15th birthday she wanted an acoustic guitar but Linda bought her a red Stratocaster. “I was so bummed.” She studied her Beatles songbook, and another one of Linda’s boyfriends taught her Desperado by the Eagles. “I wrote five songs over Desperado’s chords. One was about my friend Camille. A dark tale.
I played her it. She goes, ‘Ugh, I hate this song.’ I was like, ‘Sorry!’”
Turns out, Lewis’s catalogue contains many such harsh facts, but for years fans assumed some of it was fantasy. When she sings, “Where my ma is now, I don’t know/ She was living in her car, I was living on the road/And I hear she’s putting that stuff up her nose” on Rabbit Fur Coat (2006), she’s singing about their estrangement. Linda used to spend Lewis’s earnings on heroin.
“When you’re a child of an addict there’s a dynamic”, she says of her premature adulthood. “But I rebelled at 15, smoked cigarettes, ran away, did acid at the mall.” From the age of 12 she was in Alateen meetings – AA for teenage relatives of addicts. “My mom was in and out of jail and rehab. I was dropped off at an Alateen dance thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll meet a cute guy!’
Riding high: (clockwise from right) Lewis goes for a spin in her back garden, LA, 2019; acting alongside Fred Savage in 1989’s The Wizard; with Rilo Kiley, 2004. “When you’re a child of an addict there’s a dynamic. But I rebelled at 15, smoked cigarettes, ran away, did acid at the mall.”
I didn’t.” She beat a kid up at school when word got out that Linda was using. “You defend your family’s honour”, she says. “So I fucking clocked them.”
Linda died from liver cancer in October 2017: Friday 13th. Lewis was by her side for eight weeks after two decades of silent treatment. Since then, she’s been sharing more than ever about her parents. Why? “Well they’re dead, so…” she says, cuttingly. “Sorry. I mean that’s the rule. I’m spitting on their graves. I didn’t wanna hurt them. Now they’re gone it’s my story. The truth as I see it.” Before she was terrified of what she saw. “I was repressing. I was writing about it but didn’t talk about it. I let very few people in. I was afraid they’d leave.” She pauses. “And I am my mother, so…”
The inner child in Lewis is contagious. Before the interview, she’s smoking a joint in a parking lot with LA restaurateur Roy Choi – a can of La Croix in one hand, a copy of Eminent Hipsters by Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen in the other. She’s 43 going on 13: boy crazy, talks like a character in Clueless, wears a weed-shaped pendant close to her heart. Later we’ll pass a Titanic exhibit. She’ll sigh, “Oh Leo.” Lewis would hang out with DiCaprio when they were teens. What did they get up to? “Well…” she giggles.
A mensch never tells. “We played video games at the arcade. Street Fighter.” She played as the character Dhalsim. “The long-legged guy. Never Ken. Ken’s too normal and definitely not Jewish.”
Jenny Lewis: “I feel in control of my craft right now…” As Lewis lets the night guide her, gliding past slot machines lined up like dominoes, she seems unfazed by losing her way or missing her 1am bus call. “This is where I feel most at home. With dirty carpets and a faraway smoke smell. It’s truly formative.
I feel like myself.” Even in moments of joy, her face has a way of falling. It reminds me of her lyric from 2006: “I was born secular and inconsolable.” Like a child, she becomes hopeless when there’s nothing to say. She tuts, hums, shakes her head.
On The Line is a grief album mourning her mother, but began as a grief album mourning a break-up. Lewis and Scottish- American songwriter Johnathan Rice were not married, but together for 12 years and made one album as Jenny And Johnny. Rice’s new LP came out today. Titled The Long Game, it’s about that dissolution.
It includes two songs they co-wrote. Has she listened to it? Her head shakes. “I uh…” Another silence. She takes her time and whispers quietly, “Not today.”
One co-write – Another Cold One – reads like a post break-up song (“It’s bittersweet in the long run/We’re both lost, nobody won”). Again her head shakes. “Often you don’t understand a song till later.” Her break-up was “pretty fresh” when Linda was hospitalised. “Johnathan was there for me”, she says. “I never want to hurt him.” She doesn’t believe in editing herself, though.
“I’ve said before: don’t hang around cannibals if you don’t wanna get eaten. I did not listen to his record today. But his record is fair game. It’s like Fight Club. The number one rule of dating another songwriter is: you can’t say anything about their songs.”
After all, her album contains songs about Rice (“after all we been through, don’t you wanna kiss me?”). After the split, Lewis fled to New York, the first time she’d lived outside LA. Her friend Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, gave her her apartment. When she was younger she’d dream of NYU (“I never took my SATs”). “I’ve been trying to get out of the Valley since I was 16.” In New York, she realised that wherever you go, there you are. “Kind of a bummer”, she says.
By way of circumstance the songs were the first she’s written alone since Rabbit Fur Coat. She writes “almost every day”. “I feel in control of my craft right now in a way I hadn’t fully felt before”, she says. It contains all of Lewis’s nuances: her ‘60s classicism (Heads Gonna Roll), her blues-y rockers (Red Bull & Hennessy), her balladry (Dogwood). Little White Dove is its centrepiece. An olive branch to her mother on her hospital bed, and a reclamation. “In the middle of love, I’m the little white dove/ I’m the heroine”, she sings. She performs it onstage with a victory strut and a pout.
She recorded the LP with a showstopping group of legends, including Rolling Stones producer Don Was, Beck, and Ringo Starr in Capitol’s Studio A. “He’s so cool”, she says of the Beatle. “Way more relaxed than I was. I’d say, ‘Hello Ringo’, but between my teeth I was like, ‘Oh Jesus Christ!’ I love the fucking Stones. But I’m a Beatles stan.
It’s all I listen to.” The other day she was at AutoZone getting a new car battery. The clerk, an old man from India, was playing The Beatles. They bonded. “He said something so beautiful: ‘Babies love The Beatles.’ It’s true.” She sighs. “The Beatles transcend everything.”
WE’RE NO SPRING CHICKENS BUT WE’VE STILL GOT IT.
Says Lewis about her new which includes highlights…
From solo LP Rabbit Fur Coat (2006)
Lewis performs this sad ballad banging two wooden claves. It’s slow and sleepy, like a train pulling into its station, while she waits for contentment to return.
- SILVER LINING
From Rilo Kiley’s Under The Blacklight (2007)
Rilo Kiley’s final LP was a go-hard-or-gohome effort for the band; a synth-y crossover into mainstream rock. Lewis carries its legacy effortlessly. “Hooray hooray, I’m your silver lining/Hooray hooray, but now I’m gold,” she sings.
- JUST ONE OF THE GUYS
From solo LP The Voyager (2014)
One of Lewis’s finest: an ode to curating your own rules in a man’s world but eventually hitting a wall.“There’s only one difference between you and me,” she sings.“When I look at myself all I can see/ I’m just another lady without a baby.”
- RED BULL & HENNESSY
From solo LP On The Line (2019)
There’s a moment in the bridge where Lewis goes full-on Kate Bush. Contains all the drama of Fleetwood Mac, and similarly she’s lived it.
- WITH ARMS OUTSTRETCHED
From Rilo Kiley’s The Execution Of All Things (2002)
One of Lewis’s most beloved anthems on unrequited love. She cuts the house lights for this, invites a sea of iPhone torches and lets the crowd carry the verses.“And if you want me, you better speak up/ I won’t wait, so you better move fast.”
- ACID TONGUE
From solo LP Acid Tongue (2008)
A folkier acoustic ballad and one of Lewis’s best stories. She sings about taking solace in sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. “To be lonely is a habit like smoking or taking drugs/And I’ve quit them both but, man, was it rough.”
Performing These Days with Jackson Browne at the Hollywood Palladium;
“No popping, guys!” Lewis is a band freak. Before Rice, before her solo career, came Blake Sennett and Rilo Kiley. Sennett and Lewis wrote songs, played them to room-mates and formed a foursome. They took off in 2001. “It took over my entire life. I was in a relationship with my bandmate, just like my parents. The cycle continued. I had no idea.”
The band survived long after their split. “It sucked!” she says. “It was so hard. You break up, then you see the person the next day and spy on them outside the club like, ‘Are they making out with someone else?’
But I don’t know how to be with someone unless we play music together. I’m away for so long. I wanna hang with my babe.”
You wonder if it’s tough for a prolific, successful female to be with a male songwriter of lesser success. One of Rice’s new lyrics goes: “I always pictured you and me growing old disgracefully/Now I see the club’s sold out and there’s no room for me.”
She makes a pained face. “Yeah, probably not a good idea”, she says, of the question, seeking to keep things sweet. “Johnathan is amazing, and was supportive. It takes a very special person to be able to support a strong woman. It shouldn’t but it does.”
Lewis gravitated towards special men, who lent her their platform. In the 2000s, she was a queen amid a sea of male anti-heroes including Bright Eyes, Modest Mouse and Death Cab For Cutie. She was a “superfan” who studied the back of Death Cab’s Something About Airplanes LP and sent Rilo Kiley’s demos to their label Barsuk. She discovered Bright Eyes from a friend’s mixtape, bought Fevers And Mirrors and listened in the car “crying my fucking eyes out”. She wanted to know Conor Oberst. “Who was this? My soulmate? And he’s super cute? It was fucking Christmas!”
Oberst was the reason she made debut Rabbit Fur Coat, which was the catalyst for Rilo Kiley’s demise. He asked her to make a solo album for then new label Team Love.
“I go, ‘That’s so controversial, I’m in a fucking band. I’m not a solo artist. I’m a band person!’” He insisted. The resulting album – confessional, spooky and gospel-tinged – was a cut above. Soon she was invited to be on Death Cab frontman Ben Gibbard’s side-project The Postal Service, too. “What a lovely gift to pluck me out of a dysfunctional [band]. Without Conor, without Ben… They believed in me and gave me a chance to learn, to step up and just fucking do it.”
Not all have been princes, though. The unmentionable of On The Line’s players is Ryan Adams, who produced briefly. Weeks after the LP was announced, the New York Times ran a story containing allegations of sexual misconduct against Adams employing the voices of ex-wife Mandy Moore, exfiancée Megan Butterworth, artist Phoebe Bridgers and a woman named Ava who was 14 years old at the time of Adams’s alleged abuse. He worked with Lewis in early 2017.
“I was in a relationship with my bandmate, just like my parents. It was so hard. You break up, then you see the person the next day outside the club like, ‘Are they making out with someone else?’ But I don’t know how to be with someone unless we play music together.”
“I was born secular and inconsolable…”: Lewis relaxes at home;
this year’s On The Line album. Lewis looks glum when Adams’s name is mentioned. After the allegations, she tweeted, “I am deeply troubled by Ryan Adams’ alleged behavior [sic]. Although he and I had a working professional relationship, I stand in solidarity with the women who have come forward.” She told Pitchfork she “hates” that he’s on the album. It’s not Lewis who should have to justify her actions.
She doesn’t resent having these conversations. “I get scared when I’m asked about Ryan. Ryan is an important part of the bigger story of my career. We have a deep musical connection. I really appreciate his contributions. Unfortunately I sometimes feel like I can’t say it. However! Bad behaviour is bad behaviour and if you’re fucked up people are gonna find out about it. You have to treat people well. To bring it back to The Beatles, we need to project peace and love. We also need yin and yang. But we can’t accept abusive behaviour.”
The next night at LA’s Palladium, the room brims with Hollywood starriness. The set is the best she’s ever designed. In a moment only a Jenny Lewis can pull off, a perspex phone rings upon a heart-shaped platform onstage. “Oh shit”, she says. She takes the call.
She asks. “I’m in the middle of a show right now…” Browne appears. They perform These Days. “Don’t confront me with my failures, I had not forgotten them”, they sing. It’s an interpretation, sure, but Lewis could have written it. Her band ran through it at soundcheck in Vegas yesterday afternoon. Who called Jackson? “I mean I actually dated his son way back”, she said backstage.
Despite her family traumas, Lewis’s inheritance – music – is her greatest ally. “It was the family business. It wasn’t a choice. But music as a job? What a fucking snooze. It’s such a gift to have success in music.
Playing in a Vegas lounge is better than jail, or another boring ass job. It’s like Cass McCombs sang [The Executioner’s Song] – you gotta love your fucking job.” As she moves into a new independent life, she’s trying to take stock more. “I’m so short. I’m five-foot-three-anda- half. I have to remind myself: Look up!”
In 2019, she’s greeted by a new generation as an icon. Her lyrics have become mantras like Buddhism for millennials. “It’s crazy to do something for 20 years, let alone do an OK job”, she says. Bus call looms once more and she sparks up. “You wanna blaze a doob outside, then I’ll shower? There’s an order for things.” Spoken like a true professional.
Nothing special, just a copy of the current list (for the future) of what can be found at https://github.com/bitcoin/bips/blob/mastebip-0039/english.txt
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