FOREVER YOUR GIRL
The eternally cool Jenny Lewis heads from the Canyon to the cosmos on her third solo album, The Voyager.
"I'm 38," says Jenny Lewis, wearing a tracksuit and swirling a glass of Barbera at a kitschy Aspen-themed hotel bar near Times Square. "How did that happen?"
Happily, there's an answer to this question: She's been busy, putting out Rilo Kiley and Jenny and Johnny records, touring with The Postal Service, writing songs for films (Song One and Very Good Girls), and, most recently, birthing her third solo album, The Voyager—a sticky, glowing study of mortality and fertility, filtered through '70s Laurel Canyon folk and '90s alt-indie crunch with a side of Fleetwood Mac, and the most ambitious work of her career. Think of it as Blue for the social-media-malaise era, with lines like "Heard she's having your baby/ and everything's so amazing" propped up by lilting strings and life-affirming harmonies on album standout "She's Not Me."
Not surprisingly, the record was conceived during a particularly difficult point in Lewis's life—her band Rilo Kiley had broken up, she was suffering from severe insomnia, and she learned that her father, a traveling harmonica virtuoso from whom she'd been estranged since childhood, was dying of colon cancer. "He was a truly gifted musician, kind of a savant—but not a part of my life," she says. "Growing up, I saw him very infrequently, but I never had any hard feelings toward him because he was a pretty sweet guy." During visits, Lewis discovered that she had six half-siblings. "A few days before my father passed, we were all in the same room together, passing a joint around," she says with a laugh. "We all had the same sense of humor, and we got to share that with my dad, which was really special."
When she was a baby, Lewis's mother and father performed together in a Las Vegas lounge act called Love's Way. "My first memory is of my babysitter, a female Elvis impersonator," she says. Her parents divorced when she was three, and she moved with her mom and sister to the San Fernando Valley. Almost immediately, Lewis was "discovered" in a Van Nuys playground and began acting. Her most indelible role: Troop Beverly Hills' Hannah Nefler. "When I was 19, I made a conscious decision to stop acting," she says. "I also think the industry made a conscious decision—they didn't really want me anymore, and it coincided with my revelation that I was actually a songwriter." As if on cue, Lewis's phone buzzes with a text from Danielle Haim, a former member of her solo touring band, who's in Spain to play the Primavera Sound festival: "You're on TV!" she writes, sending along a fuzzy pic from her hotel room's television of a young Jenny Lewis, circa an indeterminate role from the 1980s.
It was while touring with The Postal Service that Lewis decided she wanted to get back into the studio. She'd heard good things about Ryan Adams's PaxAm at Sunset Sound, so she DM'd him on Twitter. "I wanted someone to take the control away from me," she says. "I had been recording on and off for four years, and loved all of what I was doing, but I needed someone to infuse the songs with some new energy." The first track they recorded was "She's Not Me." "That was take number two with a live band and vocal," she says. "That's not how people make records anymore, and it just felt...a little magical." They continued on, recording track after track, over the course of a week and a half. At the last minute, Beck sent a version of "Just One of the Guys," the album's first single, which the two had worked on earlier. Rounding out the record are collaborations with her longtime partner (and Jenny and Johnny cohort) Johnathan Rice.
As on past albums, Lewis worked with photographer Autumn de Wilde for The Voyager's visual component. The two drove around the San Fernando Valley while listening to the songs and came up with a subplot that would play out on the cover and in the liner notes. "The last Rilo Kiley record [Under the Blacklight] was about the underbelly of Los Angeles and staying up too late and doing too much cocaine, so I wore hot pants for that entire album cycle," explains Lewis. "This record didn't feel like that; it felt...not necessarily more masculine, but a little bit more androgynous." In the back of her closet she found a double-breasted white suit—a long-neglected freebie from Aritzia—and de Wilde asked her art director, Adam Siegel, to paint directly onto it. The result is a mystical revelation. Think: Nudie Cohn meets Lisa Frank on the side of a van. An image of Lewis wearing the suit graces the cover and complements the swagger and sleepy epiphanies of the songs inside.
While many of the lyrics were written in the middle of the night at the height of her insomnia—"which I later found out is not what you're supposed to do; you're supposed to let go," explains Lewis—she's quick to point out that the record is not wholly dark. "There are a lot of different colors and feelings and questions," she says. "But having gone through something like that, it changes you. Any traumatic event—not being able to sleep, your band breaking up—you come out on the other side."