Ater garnering notable success with her band, Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis looks primed and ready for solo success, discovers Doug Johnstone
At the heart of the American dream is the ability to reinvent yourself, the idea that you can start again and do anything you set your mind to. Jenny Lewis is the embodiment of that optimistic ethos.
So far in her 32 years on the planet, Lewis has managed two intriguing and successful transformations, the first from child actress to indie kid, the second from indie kid to country soul diva.
The sultry Las Vegas-born singer who fronts American indie stalwarts Rilo Kiley, spent her formative years as an actress, starting off as a cute nipper in a Jell-O commercial. She then progressed to small roles in the likes of Baywatch and Roseanne, ultimately appearing in a string of made-for-television teen movies.
Despite having established herself in the business, Lewis ditched all that around the turn of the last decade, abandoning acting and turning to indie music in her 20s.
As frontwoman for LA-based Rilo Kiley, Lewis has spent the last few years carving out a niche for herself as a college rock poster girl, delivering pouty, intelligent performances across the band’s four albums to date. While that band are still going (on paper at least) Lewis has at the same time been undergoing another reinvention, one which started in 2006 with the release of her debut solo album, Rabbit Fur Coat.
Up until then Lewis had been a literate, coquettish frontwoman, but her work with her band barely hinted at the depths of her solo material, the accomplished nature of her songwriting and her astonishingly developed country soul voice.
‘I’ve definitely felt the strength of my voice change over the years,’ she says. ‘It’s like working out, the more you sing the more you’re able to sing. It’s also a matter of becoming less inhibited in front of the microphone. With the solo stuff there’s inherently less pressure so I get to do what I want. I make sure I create an environment that’s comfortable and welcoming, then I can sing my heart out.’
It’s something she certainly does on new solo album Acid Tongue. Compared to the intensely focused melancholy of Rabbit Fur Coat, Acid Tongue is an explosion of riotous musical colour, a splatter of rock, country, blues, soul and gospel recorded mostly on the spur of the moment with a big smiley face on.
‘It was just a true joy to record,’ she laughs. ‘We did it in the studio for my 32nd birthday, and we had a great time, collaborating with a bunch of friends. It was definitely a lot less focused than Rabbit Fur Coat. With that record I had a very specific vision, I wanted everything to be precise, sparse and mellow, but with this record it was really more about the vibe, the songs and the collaborations.’
The collaborations are indeed a fascinating feature of Acid Tongue. Clearly adding to the informal and welcoming nature of the studio was the fact that many of Lewis’ friends and family appear on the record. Her current boyfriend, singer-songwriter Johnathan Rice (an American who grew up in Glasgow), is a regular contributor, as are pals M Ward, Paz Lenchantin from A Perfect Circle and actress and singer Zooey Deschanel. Lewis’ sister Leslie sings backing vocals on a couple of tracks and even her dad Eddie Gordon pitches in with some virtuoso harmonica playing. And that’s not even counting the bigger names she dragged in, including Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes and some bloke called Elvis Costello.
‘All that just sort of came about,’ she says. ‘I started thinking about the songs and casting the parts, and one thing led to another. The environment was really open so we thought it would be fun to try people out.’
So how come she knows someone like Elvis Costello?
‘We’ve been friendly for a couple of years,’ she says. ‘I got a phone call from him when More Adventurous [Rilo Kiley’s third album] came out. I thought it was a crank call. Ever since then we’ve kept in touch, and I emailed him and asked if he would sing ‘Carpetbaggers’ with me. I sent him a link to YouTube where myself, Johnathan Rice and a puppet sing it; that’s the only recording I had of it. Anyway, he came down and he was so cool, such an intelligent guy, so informative.’
Lewis claims that the driving ethos behind Acid Tongue was that she ‘wanted to create songs that would play well out on the road’. That has been borne out recently, with Lewis and her band currently trekking round the States on a joint tour with Conor Oberst and wowing audiences from coast to coast.
‘It’s been a little bit like battle of the bands,’ she laughs. ‘We go on first every night and try to blow him offstage, except there are no judges, only God will be our judge.’
An ultra-confident solo live performer, I ask whether some of her showmanship comes from her years performing in front of the cameras as an actress, but she swiftly rejects that idea.
‘I’m always terrified before I step on stage,’ she admits. ‘It takes me a song or two to warm up. It’s maybe to do with the history of my family. They were all performers; my parents are musicians, my great grandparents were in the circus, and I think something genetic kicks in and I lose myself in the performance.’
Both Acid Tongue and Rabbit Fur Coat are imbued with a wonderfully melancholic traditional country vibe, blended with some classic soul and blues stylings, influences both old and new in Lewis’ life, which didn’t get a look in with Rilo Kiley, something she found increasingly frustrating.
‘I grew up with my mother’s record collection, which was all country music and singer-songwriters,’ she says. ‘Then I bought only indie rock for a while; over the last years I’ve been learning more about the classics. You can probably hear that in the solo work I’ve made.’
Lewis’ two solo records have met with such acclaim that they’ve inevitably cast doubt over the future of Rilo Kiley. When I ask about the future of the band, she is cagey for the only time in the interview.
‘I’m not sure what I’m going to do, to be honest,’ she says warily. ‘I’m not as young as I once was and I just want to play music that makes me happy, so we’ll see where that takes me.’
Whatever form her future takes, long may it continue.
Jenny Lewis plays QMU, Glasgow, Sat 18 Oct.