(Come and behold her, born the queen of (Los) Angels: Jenny Lewis. Photo by Bobbi Rich)
THE CHURCH CAN GET YOU YOUNG, and you never really escape. And sometimes you don’t want to. The church, well, a church, got to Jenny Lewis when she was malleable, impressionable – and Jewish – and she’s been a congregant-once-removed since.
How does that work? Although one of the sharpest and smartest pop songwriters around – masterful with melody, potent with lyrics, persuasive with emotions – Lewis has always been happy to declare her lifelong love of hip-hop next to any connections one might make with mis-‘70s Fleetwood Mac, an imagined world where Steve Miller Band played country, or classic pop writing of her native Los Angeles.
Starting with Run DMC and Beastie Boys, a spell as a teen wannabe rapper/fan of De La Soul, and an enduring fondness for Adidas, that love evolved into collaborations and tours, up to 2021’s run of singles with Chicago MC, Serengeti.
Still, maybe it was a morning where I played Jill Scott and Jenny Lewis back-to-back and started seeing connections, but it seems to me that soul has an influence on her that has not been talked about enough.
“Well, yeah. And I think the best songs are soul songs,” says Lewis. “I was thinking the other day about as a kid, my first concept of God – cause we didn’t go to church regularly; we were Jewish – was when my Mom would take us to the Andrae Crouch gospel church, [Christ Memorial Church of God In Christ] up in Pacoima, just to hear the music. I feel I then had a real impact on me, even though we weren’t there for God; we were there for the music, because we were music people.
“Songs that have always appealed to me are either soulful or longing, like country music. I feel like I probably first heard Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison and the longing, far away feeling that Roy emits.”
The longing and the pain, the closeness to God and the closeness to sin, are fundamental elements of country and soul, which explains why they have always comfortably intersected. Any fan of them can understand this quest to be better as very flawed humans. As would anyone listening to the new Jenny Lewis album, Joy’All. Has she trod that righteous path?
“Personally, absolutely. And over the last three years I’ve had a real witnessing myself moment,” she says, stopping short of declaiming an agnostic hallelujah. “I’ve written a lot of shit-talking songs over the years and that’s also fun, but that gets a little played out when you’re in your 40s. The blame game doesn’t get you anywhere, and in your songwriting it’s boring. So I think the accountability is more interesting to me.
“It’s fun to tell a story of a love affair gone wrong, that’s very fertile, but it is more interesting to flip it and look at your own place, existentially, in the relationship that you are singing about. I guess that is, yeah, like God or whatever you want to call it.”
For me it’s separate from God, or not having to relate to some deity. This record contains moments where Lewis, or her characters – who are never far from Lewis – say I’m going to find a better route for myself. Not necessarily be a better person, whatever that means, but be better for myself. And part of that is thinking better of others and thinking better of yourself.
“But that is the God concept,” Lewis ripostes. “I’m not a religious person but I love the teachings of Jesus, because it’s just that. It’s a process, and it’s a practice. So yeah, I think that’s where it’s at, this spirituality and self searching. And those are the artists that I am drawn to. I love Leonard Cohen: he was a monk, he left the Western world. These great writers who were expatriates, who went off the grid – I think if you’re an artist you are feeling things, you are really feeling things, which may be pushes us to those outer limits searching for happiness, for something.”
But you’ve got a career, fans and media blowing smoke up your arse, an outlet for revenge scorn – isn’t that meant to be the modern dream?
“There are a lot of perks to being a musician: you get to go to restaurants, there is a lot of access to drugs and alcohol and sex and all that stuff, and the ego stuff. And then you’re like, wait a minute, am I even happy?,” she says. “I don’t even fucking know.”
One thing about Leonard Cohen is his lifelong spiritual as well as artistic quests were built on the knowledge that life isn’t going to be good, not consistently, not frequently, maybe not at all, that you are not going to have happiness as a given, so it shouldn’t be the goal. Which brings us back to Lewis and a view by some people already that this record is a search for happiness, for some untouched joy y’all, which doesn’t seem right to me. She has never been that simplistic, that solipsistic.
“If you are a human being in this paradigm, it is extremely challenging because we are all going to die, and we don’t know where we go. And that in itself is a kerfuffle.”
(A pause here to enjoy – no, celebrate – the return of the word kerfuffle to our discourse.)
“The pursuit of happiness seems hedonistic to me. I actually dated someone who said he didn’t believe in the pursuit of happiness, so in a way Joy’All is a response, like a visceral response to that. I don’t know that you can ever truly be happy if you don’t accept grief. It’s like, you can feel all these things, but ultimately we’re all heading towards death, and how are you going to interface with that through all your life? As you age you are getting wiser and yet you are decaying. It’s such an awful paradox.”
But of course, Joy’All is more than just joy: it’s understanding where joy fits in, and that in real ways it is more important than happiness.
“Yes, but happiness is nice work if you can get it,” she grins. “And you can get it if you try.”
This is where being slowed down in the pandemic, or being completely stopped, had its unlikely influence on Lewis. Well, that and a dog, her new boon companion (and owner of an Instagram page), the curly black cockapoo, Bobby Rhubarb.
Bobby Rhubarb is the co-star of a cockeyed but convincing advice song of extreme likeability where Lewis sings “Like a shot of good luck/I got a puppy and a truck/If you feel like giving up/Shut up/Get a puppy and a truck”, and she means it.
“I know that I found joy in things that I hadn’t even seen in my own home. I found joy in the little things that really opened my eyes to what is important. Showbiz is great, and music is awesome. Being an artist is amazing. But there’s other stuff that you have to tend to as well.”
Maybe like people who had “a good war”, some of us may come out thinking, on balance, we had “a good Covid”.
“Yeah. It aged me, dramatically. Like psychically, and I slept on my face for three years – I’m a face sleeper it turns out – but for me it was well timed,” Lewis says. “Puppy And A Truck [her 2021 single, well in advance of the album that wasn’t even a germ of an idea yet] came out of it, which is how I deal with stuff: I make jokes. Which is annoying if you’re in an argument with me, because I’ll just keep cracking jokes and it’s maddening.
(Bobby Rhubarb and friend, Jenny. Photo by Bobbi Rich)
“So, that’s my take on it, basically Puppy And A Truck. And Balcony is the other on the nose pandemic song. That’s about my friend, Steve Bing [businessman and philanthropist who had spent or given gave away the vast bulk of his fortune by the time he died], who leapt from his balcony in 2020. He had a hard time. He had a harder time than me, and I went out of my mind, and found it again, and came back around. People didn’t make it. That’s some shit right there.”
Looking into yourself, voluntarily or otherwise, is not always a good thing. Does not always have good results, no matter what the self-help books try and tell you.
“I think you do when you’re ready to. And it’s not pretty; it can be very ugly. Unwinding your habits and all that stuff, it’s a big task, and I’m not saying I’m like Zen or anything; I am just beginning my personal journey, so I don’t know. For me, there is no coming back.”
Covid can’t take credit for everything on this album. Beck had a hand too, his songwriting workshops where artists had a day to write and record a song based on that day’s nominated topic creating the environment for, among others, Puppy And A Truck and Love Feel. The latter is a song that has echoes of Elvis Costello’s Sundays Best and Joe Jackson’s Sunday Papers in its gleeful collecting of genre clichés that ends up manufacturing surprising depth.
“There was an assignment from Beck, day four or five, write a song with all clichés. Thank you Beck I would never, ever have written that song otherwise,” Lewis says of Love Feel. “I started looking for country music tropes. I’m in Nashville so what are the most used words in country music? Love and feel, those are the top two, according to my sources – [she whispers ‘Wikipedia’] – and then it’s all the body parts, the drinks, the truck and the cars. And I did want to reference a honky-tonk.”
“But,” she chuckles. “Authentically.”
In case it wasn’t clear, something else happened since last Lewis released an album. Several of the songs were written from her new home in the heart of country music as the classic Los Angeleno, who grew up in “the Valley”, had her stint as a child actor, and has chronicled dreamers, schemers and survivors of the Californian city, now splits her time between the west coast and Nashville.
Apart from the chance to wear a range of cowboy hats, such as the red patterned one she is sporting today, what does Nashville offer her that Los Angeles doesn’t or couldn’t.
“Well it’s Music City. I now live in Music City which is pretty cool and poetic. And it’s the people, it’s the South, it’s amazing. Totally different to California where I grew up in a total bubble,” she says, before getting all Nature Channel. “This is the reality of the South: there are different insects: I got chomped by a Brown Recluse last year. Crazy spider bite from this poisonous spider that can necrotise your skin where you get bitten. There is a whole learning curve and I feel like it so important to input new things, just driving down new roads.”
Spiders? You want deadly spiders? Move to Australia, we’ll have you.
“Well now that I have spider venom coursing through my veins I’ve probably built up an immunity.”
Immunity? Ooh yeah. Forget a god, inner peace or cashy money, these days that is the real joy y’all. But lest this end on some note of Ringo Starr-like peace and love, it’s good to be reminded of old school J. Lewis, the kind of thing they don’t sing about in the Christ Memorial Church of God In Christ.
While being nicer to herself and others has been one result of the past three years, and notwithstanding her earlier comment that shit-talking can be played out by your 40s, for lovers of Jenny Lewis’ sometimes pungent critiques/takedowns, Joy’All still comes through on that front. Apples And Oranges is one that might thrill a little bitter heart.
Tellingly, it’s a song – comparing a new and old lover in ways that would leave a mark on each of them – that predates Covid and her life reappraisal, going back to the sessions for her 2019 album, On The Line. Though, even here the bitter has to face the fact this isn’t how we play anymore.
“I updated it,” says Lewis. “It was a waltz and I changed the time signature to 4/4, changed the key and then wrote the bridge, which brought it into the Joy’All world because the bridge’s lyrics are ’now that my heart is so fucking open/it’s not about you’.
“[I’m saying] It’s not about either of you. This is the story telling you but ultimately it comes back to that inner place.”
Comes back to that person who isn’t dependent on, who doesn’t need, either of these men to be happy. Who sees the benefit of each, whose weighed the pros and cons, and who’s comfortable where she is. Not just the bad in the men, but the good?
“Both are valuable. And,” she laughs in comic evil tones, “worthy of mining for songwriting.”
Joy’All is out June 9, on Blue Note. Read a review of it here.