Jenny Lewis: Born to Do It

From Hank III to Hayseed Dixie, subverting the old model of country music is no new phenomenon, nor is the rhetoric of the traditionalists who can’t get their heads around it. Rilo Kiley's frontwoman tells Dave Kerr how she cut her own path...

Feature by Dave Kerr | 02 Oct 2008

“People always call into question your authenticity,” sighs Jenny Lewis. “I refer them to the great tradition of bands like the Stones doing country songs. Fuck it, you just have to sing the songs that come from your heart and soul. I’m not writing for anyone but myself.”

Speaking to Lewis as she tours the U.S (“It’s great, my band is shit hot!”) and prepares to release her second solo LP - Acid Tongue – she already seems keen to play down the inference of the name she gave it. There’s a simple line on the title track where she coos ‘I've been down to Dixie and dropped acid on my tongue.' I ask whether she has encountered any knee-jerk disdain from the old guard for trading in the standard country rock props of chewing tobacco and moonshine. “More often than not you hear a cheer from the audience. Every night when I play Acid Tongue, when that line comes up people scream from the audience. And it’s funny, because I’m not a fan of LSD, nor did I ever set out to become a poster child for it.”

The suggestion that she might be making little of it on the off chance that her dad – Eddie Gordon, a reputed harmonica virtuoso in his own right - could be reading this piece is met with a laugh; after all, he appears on the record. Besides her father’s bass harp cameo and backing vocal duties from sister Leslie, also of no small note are the contributions from Elvis Costello, Chris Robinson (Black Crowes), Paz Lenchantin (A Perfect Circle) and Zooey Deschanel (She & Him), who helped complement the two bands Lewis formed (“Band A for the rockier songs, Band B for the softer soul ballads”) to take part in the album’s whirlwind recording sessions at the start of the year.

Video: Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins - Rise Up With Fists

Music and family are intrinsically bound for Lewis. “My parents had a lounge act in Las Vegas in the 70s and my first true introduction to it was where my mother went into labour with me on stage,” she recounts, “that really set the tone.” Literally born into it then? “Exactly, literally – and my mother is a fantastic singer. I just grew up trying to emulate her voice. When my parents got divorced the band broke up and she never really played music again, so I feel like I’m kind of carrying the torch for her, because she wasn’t able to really do it.”

It’s well documented that Jenny lived her formative years in front of a camera as a TV commercial, sitcom and film actress. “I was doing stuff that I knew wasn’t very good, for the most part. From a very young age I had very specific tastes: I was watching art films and listening to my mum’s cool records, so I knew that selling steak sauce wasn’t really my calling.” Or jelly? “Actually, you really can’t go wrong with jelly,” she laughs. ”I’ll sell that some more. But it was another part of my life,” she continues, finding a distance from the ‘live fast’ syndrome that has so infamously wrecked the later careers of those child actors who haven’t quietly faded into obscurity. “I think of myself as an entirely different person. I’ve done alright so far, but there’s still time for me to buy crack on the corner and get busted for it.”

Video: Jenny Lewis - You Are What You Love

It took a little time for Jenny to take her true calling seriously, but she says the epiphany hit her during a concert experience almost 20 years ago. “It’s when I saw The Pixies and The Cure at Dodger stadium. I’d never heard of the Pixies before. They were opening up and I got there halfway through the set and saw Kim Deal on stage. I thought ‘ooh, crap, what’s that girl doing up there?’ It truly is that moment when I thought ‘wow, women can really do this thing.’ I really didn’t know. You can play an instrument in a band and crush.”

Back in the here and now, fans of Jenny's usual gig in Rilo Kiley might be slightly concerned about the future of the band with all this solo project talk, but rest easy; the constituent parts of the band are just enjoying a brief sabbatical, having recently wrapped up an extensive tour in support of last year’s Under the Blacklight. “We’ve always done that,” Lewis confirms. “Blake from Rilo Kiley started another band many years ago called The Elected. Once he did that it really opened things up for us all. It was at that time I realized I could make a record on my own, which I’d never considered before – the band was always my main focus. But there’s always a danger when you start moonlighting with the mistress that you might end up marrying her.” Which immediately presents the question: is she happy to keep up with this Rilo-solo love triangle? “Yeah, but the sex is infinitely better with the mistress.”

Video: Rilo Kiley - Close Call (Live on Jools Holland)

When speaking about those studio sessions with the ‘mistress’, Lewis rationalises her appreciation for the analog recording aesthetic. “I wanted all the mistakes to remain on this record, and I really wanted to sing live. All of my favourite records that I grew up listening to were made in this way. If you think about music and listen to popular music of the last ten years, the overtones are so harsh sounding - it feels like there’re just too many tracks. For me it’s about taking the form and using the lyrics as a way to modernize the songs. I don’t ever want to be too nostalgic. I know at times you might run the risk of that when you record the way that we did, but I always hope that the lyrics update the sound a little bit.”

With the forthcoming presidential elections on everyone’s lips, the conversation moves from studio habits to Lewis's recent appearance at the Denver Democratic Convention. But before we can even get there, she recalls how she was accosted, quite bizarrely, by Kanye West in the airport lounge. “He didn’t know who I was. He said ‘Excuse me, would you mind listening to my new track?’ and put his headphones on me. I guess he was doing research.”

West recently pledged his support for Barack Obama by contributing a track to the presidential candidate's Yes We Can compilation, alongside soul legend Stevie Wonder and schmaltz rocker John Mayer. But it’s going to take a lot more than camaraderie captured on a compact disc to swing the vote. “It’s closer than you would think out here," Lewis suggests. "I think with the whole Paleontology topic things are shifting around. I don’t want to consider it a win at this point. I hope for everyone’s sake that things change – it’s time for a change in this country and it’s time for us to get a makeover internationally. Over the past eight years, traveling abroad, if you’re American, people are so mad, so angry at you. It would be nice to have a beautiful representative such as Barack to put people at ease.”

Jenny winds up the conversation on that unbeatable note: she’s off to “wander around the streets of Kansas.” My IMDB-sense recalls that she was once in a film called The Wizard, and there’s definitely a bad joke in there; but something tells me she’s heard them all before.

Jenny Lewis plays QMU, Glasgow on 18 Oct.

Acid Tongue is out now via Rough Trade.