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Interview: Jenny Lewis on 'The Voyager', true love, and her musical sisterhood.

Interview: Jenny Lewis on 'The Voyager', true love, and her musical sisterhood.

There’s a red panda toy on-stage tonight - undoubtedly a first for Sydney’s Metro Theatre (after the show, bemused Australian venue staff take photos of it on their phones). The 'lil panda sits proudly, surveying its surroundings - star-spangled rainbows and bouquets of fresh flowers - looking on as Jenny Lewis and her five-piece band impress the heck out of an adoring audience.

Jenny Jr., The Panda, (as named during our interview at soundcheck / photos here) looks how I feel - equal parts ecstatic and reverential. When the last decade of your life has been soundtracked by all of Jenny Lewis’ albums, this kind of silent shout-out is like the bucket-list item I’ve always wanted to become reality, but just didn’t know.

Hours earlier, while writing a postcard addressed to New Zealand, Lewis tells us an anecdote about her time on Mumford & Sons’ stopover tour: "I just did this Gentlemen Of The Road festival show, and they have postcards pre-stamped backstage for the artists, so that you can send a postcard to someone - but I just sent postcards to myself, and I sat there for hours writing poems on these postcards about the Jersey Shore. I don’t know if that was their intention, putting them there."

Jenny Lewis is my spirit animal - she’s unashamedly unapologetic, the epitome of big sis wisdom, and a good human; like the very best kind that exists. Whoever said that you shouldn’t meet your heroes, has obviously never met Jenny.

"Can we embrace? I feel like I need to hug you after that," says Jenny post-interview, and the feeling is wholeheartedly mutual.

"...for me, it’s all on the table. My work, it comes from my soul, I’m never writing for someone else. I write from that feeling; so there are no rules."

COUP DE MAIN: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today! I grew up listening to Rilo Kiley, so this is such an honour! And in celebration of your existence, as tribute, we’ve bought you a lolly-lei made out of snacks.
JENNY LEWIS: Oh my gosh, you guys! Are you serious? Thank you! What are these snacks? Milk bottles?! Thank you, I’ll need these later.

CDM: Selfishly, I’m so happy that you’ve got some Rilo Kiley songs on your current set-list - I don’t think Rilo Kiley ever came to New Zealand, so this is like the end of a long wait for me.
JENNY: No, and we didn’t make it to Australia. Blake [Sennett] has a fear - or had a fear - of flying, so I think that was one of the reasons why we didn’t make it in the end. It’s a long flight, it’s quite a commitment - but that’s what drugs are for. <laughs>

CDM: Well, so that you have a super good reason to come visit NZ next time you’re in this part of the world, we’ve adopted you a Red Panda from the Auckland Zoo back in New Zealand.
JENNY: WHAT?! This is the best interview I’ve ever done. This is the cutest little guy ever! This is Jenny Jr.? Because I have a purse - it’s like a little mouse-purse, and I call him Gary - and I wonder if Jenny Jr. will fit inside of Gary?

CDM: Jenny Jr. and Gary can be friends!
JENNY: Yes! Perfect.

CDM: After working with Ryan Adams on your latest album and then touring together, it’s rad that it just so happened that you’re on the road together again here in Australia. Is tour-Ryan any different to studio-Ryan?
JENNY: Ryan is pretty consistently himself, but the coolest part about travelling with Ryan is that he travels with a pinball machine in a road-case. So backstage, there’s always pins to be played. I was never a pinball fan until I started making 'The Voyager' with Ryan, and now I’m a pretty... I can’t say that I’m very good at it, but I really enjoy blowing off steam.

CDM: Can you beat Ryan?
JENNY: I can’t beat him at anything. Maybe I could beat him at making a better Grass-Fed burger or something, but that’s about it.

CDM: Girls can do anything, Jenny. Keep practicing.
JENNY: Yes! But he’s a pinball fanatic. I’d have to put in a couple years - I don’t have the time to play that much pinball.

CDM: While in NZ last week, Ryan made national news after he helped rescue an abandoned kitten that he found in a cemetery. Is that a normal kind of life-event for Ryan?
JENNY: Really?! Did he really?

CDM: Ryan was the #1 Trending Topic on NZ Twitter with #CemeteryCat. He was roaming a cemetery one night, happened upon this abandoned kitten, then rallied our entire nation to try and help save/adopt it.
JENNY: Did he just happen upon the cat?

CDM: I assume he was staying at the hotel opposite the cemetery.
JENNY: Amazing! We’ve unfollowed each other on social media, so I don’t know anything about #CemeteryCat. <laughs>

CDM: 'The Voyager' album opens with 'Head Underwater', in which you sing, "Looking out on my life / As if there was no there." A year on from the album’s release, do you still feel that disconnect with your past selves?
JENNY: No, and I think that line is about the past even in the song. Like, this is what happened to me and I’ve come through it. By the end of the song, that is no longer the case.

CDM: When you look back on your life, do you visualise your past selves as Matryoshka Russian nesting dolls? Or more like pieces of a jig-saw puzzle that fit together?
JENNY: That’s a good question. I think more of the Russian dolls, because that little you - that little innocent girl - is always in there somewhere.

CDM: The line, "If for just one second it helps us to remember that we like each other the most" in 'Slippery Slopes', is one of my favourite lyrics on the album. It’s so unashamedly unapologetic, which isn’t a typical narrative for female musicians in this day and age. Why do you think pop-culture stereotypes tropes of female fidelity and infidelity, pitting 'good girls' against 'bad girls'?
JENNY: That’s a big question and I think that everyone’s sexuality is their own - you’re on your own path and there’s no right or wrong way to do things. I’ve been in a committed long-term relationship, and that has ebbs and flows, as any long-term relationship does. But it’s funny, 'She’s Not Me' from 'The Voyager' [album], some people have assumed that I’m saying, "She’s not me, she’s easy," as if she’s promiscuous - and that’s not the point of the song at all because I would never say that about another woman and I don’t judge women by how they choose to carry themselves in that regard. But really, it’s just about someone who’s a little easier to live with than me. <laughs> She’s easy; I’m a little more complicated, it’s a little more difficult with me.

CDM: Another of the album’s important takeaway lines, is of course, "There's only one difference between you and me / When I look at myself, all I can see: I'm just another lady without a baby," in 'Just One Of The Guys'. Do you feel frustrated with society’s gender constructs?
JENNY: I do, but that line in that song is-- well, it changes from night to night, but on most nights, it’s light. It’s not entirely heavy, and I think that it’s okay to talk about those things in your work. I think there are pressures... like, you have to choose between your career and having a family - you can do both, or you can choose neither, or it’s okay to define yourself through your work rather than other humans that you’re creating.

CDM: I don’t really read album reviews unless it’s research-related, so I only read The Telegraph’s review of 'The Voyager' this week. They said, "Given Lewis’s age and retro-musical instincts, major stardom may now be beyond her grasp, but if you like your pop music grown up, she’s up there with the big boys." Every word of that sentence makes me livid, from them putting an expiry date on your career to the 'big boys' idiom. Do you think that music journalists would be judging these songs in the same way if they were Rilo Kiley songs?
JENNY: I don’t know... because if they were Rilo Kiley songs, if my band were still together, I’d still be a 39-year-old woman writing pop songs. I didn’t actually read that review when it came out. <laughs> I was reading an interview recently with Meryl Streep and she said something really interesting. She said that when she turned 40, the only parts that she was offered were parts to play witches in movies. So if someone like Meryl Streep feels it, I certainly feel it. But what she’s done, and she’s continued to do amazing work, is she’s also created a writer’s workshop for women over 40 - and it’s specifically for women over 40. So I think that kind of journalism... it will always exist, but I don’t let it affect my work.

HOW I FEEL ABOUT BEING IN AUSTRALIA...

CDM: In Kim Gordon’s book, 'Girl In A Band', she says: "For high-end music labels, the music matters, but a lot comes down to how the girl looks. The girl anchors the stage, sucks in the male gaze, and, depending on who she is, throws her own gaze back out into the audience. Since our music can be weird and dissonant, having me center stage also makes it that much easier to sell the band. 'Look, it’s a girl, she’s wearing a dress, and she’s with those guys, so things must be okay.'" Do you agree or disagree with those thoughts?
JENNY: Well, I think that’s why we play indie-rock. Because we don’t necessarily have to subscribe to that. I can only talk about my own experience, and in the way that I’ve presented myself as a female up on a stage with my band or with Rilo Kiley... and I grew up and I was extremely shy - I was a tomboy until I was in my mid-twenties - and when I started feeling more comfortable-- like if you look at early Rilo Kiley photos, I was in jeans and t-shirts, and then I started becoming more confident and just feeling more attractive. And so I started wearing dresses and I started wearing hotpants, and it infuriated some of the people in the audience - some of our hardcore fans - as if I had sold out. But really what was happening, was I was growing up and coming into my own and feeling more comfortable in my own body.

CDM: Because what you’re wearing totally affects the quality of your music.
JENNY: Right! But it’s so funny how no-one ever said anything about what Blake was wearing - if he had a moustache or not, or long hair or short hair, or shorts or Tevas, hat or no hat. But suddenly somehow the quality of the music declined because the length of my pants got shorter. So it’s absurd. But again, you embody your own femininity and sexuality in your own time.

CDM: 'Love U Forever' ironically voyages from the bliss of young love, to "the feeling of hell in a hallway" when a relationship is no longer shiny and new. Do you believe in true love? What does true love mean to you?
JENNY: I do. I think you have to believe in true love. I think practical love is also a part of the equation, and it takes work to be in love, and I think standing in love is something different than falling in love - and I think that’s the ultimate goal. You meet a lot of people that fall in love very quickly and obsess and then it sort of ends, but just the idea of standing in it is different.

CDM: Through Rilo Kiley, Jenny and Johnny, and now 'The Voyager' album, you’ve documented your relationships in a public way over a series of albums. It would be easy to dwell on the negative aspects of that sharing, but what have been the upsides for you personally?
JENNY: I learn about myself through my songs. And sometimes I write things that I don’t understand in the moment - I write songs because I have a hard time expressing myself in my own relationships, so a lot of times I’ll write something and then three years later I’ll truly understand how I felt at that time. So for me, it’s all on the table. My work, it comes from my soul, I’m never writing for someone else. I write from that feeling; so there are no rules. I never tell myself what I’m not supposed to write about. But talking about my relationship, that’s different - if I’m giving an interview, I think you want to keep some things for yourself. But once you start making rules about what you can and cannot speak to, then you could find yourself in trouble.

CDM: Do you think it’s more important to move forward or move on?
JENNY: Move forward. Because, do you ever really move on? I don’t think so.

IF I COULD GO ON A VOYAGE ANYWHERE, I WOULD GO…

CDM: In the Rilo Kiley song, 'Love and War (11/11/46)', you asked: "Can vanity and happiness coexist?" Over a decade later, have you found an answer for that question yet?
JENNY: HA! I love that line. That line is so funny, I really thought about it for so long. I think that I probably wouldn’t write that line today, because the hope is that you become more comfortable in your own skin as you get a little bit older. But if I could tell my younger self anything, it would be like, 'Don’t worry about it.' Like a 22-year-old Jenny Lewis, 'Don’t worry about it. It’s fine. You look great. Don’t worry about it.'

CDM: You worked with Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij on 'Completely Not Me' last year, for the 'Girls' soundtrack. He’s such an extreme perfectionist, that seems like it would have been the opposite studio experience of working with Ryan Adams who is so primal and instinctual?
JENNY: It’s a completely different style of working. Ryan is all analogue - yeah it’s all instinctual, but he is also a perfectionist if he has an idea about the song itself. He doesn’t let the musicians dwell on the process, but he’s very specific about what he wants to hear. Rostam is in a digital world, so things change when you’re not even in the room. But working with both of those guys I learned so much, and I actually am working on a song with Rostam right now - we just started writing something together and I always love working with him.

CDM: You’re so super all about the sisterhood. From having Z Berg perform with you on Jimmy Kimmel Live, to playing at Haim’s Sam Jam benefit show and also having the Haim sisters appear on-stage with you at Coachella this year. As sort of the Patron Saint of Valley Girl musicians, do you feel like a proud Mom watching Haim take over the world?
JENNY: How do you know all this stuff?! This is great! <laughs> I am so, so proud of them. I’ve had so many amazing musicians in my band over the years, Este and Danielle Haim, Blake Mills who’s amazing, Natalie Prass was in my band last year... so I’ve seen so many people go on to do really amazing things after spending a little time in my band. I’m so lucky to have people for a short amount of time. And I’ve learned so much from the Haim girls; I’m so incredibly proud of them, and I’m always there if they need me. They were actually over at my house a couple of weeks ago and were talking about songs and writing. I’m always a resource - if you’ve done time in my band, I’m always here for you.

Jenny Lewis’ album ‘The Voyager’ is out now - click here to purchase it via iTunes.

Watch the 'She's Not Me' music video below…

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