Jenny Lewis's new record, The Voyager, takes the journey of every relationship you've ever had and examines it from every vantage point. Heart full of fire and regret? Yes. Wall-papering over the scar tissue and trying to move on? Definitely. Falling in love all over again despite yourself? A thousand times yes.
But it's not just former lovers that Lewis continues to re-contextualize. It's all types of love — an umbrella of a word that covers and justifies and masks all manner of emotions — that captivate the 38-year-old singer-songwriter.
Lewis's songs are a tangle of textures, sounds, smells, words and broken promises. Her DNA seeps through into the beautiful, messy, complicated characters on whom she hangs her own (sometimes subconscious) desires, thoughts and feelings.
While there’s some sunny, SoCal levity to her repertoire, there’s also a linguistic/poetic foundation that infuses her words with a knowing candor and retro grime. It’s all anchored in an origin story straight out of a pulp novel wherein Lewis was a desert baby, born to a family of Las Vegas show business types, hustlers who enjoyed a frayed-edges glamour, making a home for themselves in the shadows of palm trees and seedy Sin City living.
Listen to The Voyager above and read the ABCs of Jenny Lewis here. You can also read the straight Q&A below from CBC Music's interview with her two weeks ago.
I don’t think anyone in the music business writes as great and poignant fond f--k-you songs like you do.
Like you really feel the love even as you’re wrangling disappointment or resentment or any of those things. I’m curious about how you balance those two together.
You mean the f--k you and the love? [Laughs] Well, we all try to balance that in our own lives. In the end you don’t want to be like a bitter asshole. And you don’t want to be the person, for me in my songs, like, you’re an asshole for these five reasons. You have to turn it inward on yourself at some point, you know?
Yeah, totally. And I don’t think there’s anything accusatory in your songs. There’s something wonderfully observed about everyone’s part in the undoing.
It’s funny. There are a couple people in my life I continue to write about. And you can kind of figure them out. And sometimes I don’t even know what I’m writing about until years later and I’m on tour singing a song and I’m like, "Oh my God, that makes sense to me now. I don’t know why I wrote it five years ago!"
Does it feel weird to realize that certain people are these tent poles in your existence?
Yeah, it’s interesting. Certainly I’m surrounded by some really fascinating people who have given me endless inspiration.
You’re very honest in your writing. Have you had to pay a price for that?
I have, but for the most part when you’re a writer and your friends are other songwriters as well, I think there’s an unspoken rule: you’re not allowed to say anything. You’re really not. Because we all write about each other and we have been for years. There are moments, sometimes, in my friends' songs where I’m like, "Wait a minute. Is that about me? Am I that big of an asshole?" And then I’m not allowed to ask! The work exists on its own, and I think when you’re a songwriter you’re pulling from your own feelings but you’re also creating characters. The luxury of being able to put it off on something that isn’t true is necessary.
“Just One of the Guys” pre-dates some of the songs on the record?
That was the first.
How has your relationship changed with that song versus the others? Was it setting a tone or mood, or was it exorcising something else and then moving forward into a different space?
It was the first song and it just spilled out of me a couple years ago and it had a directness to it, and I think the other songs kind of followed in line with that. I’m at the point right now where I want to be able to communicate very directly and if that means cutting something from a verse or getting rid of some syllables — sometimes you can say more with fewer words.
Some of the opening notes of “Slippery Slope” seem to share some common ground with “Under the Blacklight.” Is that purposeful or am I imagining things?
Most of my songs are the same three chords shuffled, so maybe that’s what you’re hearing? [Laughs] Oh my God, it’s so embarrassing. But here’s the thing with “Slippery Slopes,” I feel like it’s almost a return to the guitar-driven, almost indie-rock sound that I haven’t really explored on my solo records, and I wrote it on guitar in a way that I would have written, you know, 10 years ago. So maybe that’s what you’re hearing on that one.
It made me think about a lot of things, but considering RKives last year, are you sure Rilo Kiley’s over forever? Is there no ground left to mine here?
[Laughs] I would never say anything’s over forever. How could you possibly know how you feel? How could you shut the door on anything? And isn’t it popular now to retire and then come out of retirement? [Laughs] So weird.
I see it written, like, the former, the defunct, but there’s a part of me that thinks things don’t ever end. And I see this reflected in your music.
Yeah, and any relationship in your life, even if you’re no longer romantically involved with somebody, you still — there’s a place for them somewhere within yourself. Maybe not on a daily basis, but how do you ever fully fall out of love with someone that you loved?
I have no idea. I ask myself that all the time. [Laughs]
How do you move on? It’s so hard!
And I think a lot of people are going to listen to this record, particularly “Aloha,” and ask you, "Is this a map to your relationship with Johnathan?" so, where are things, how are you doing, are we supposed to be reading into this record too closely?
You know, it’s funny, when you’re writing about how you feel, it’s not necessarily a mirror of your relationship at that moment. I wanted to write about that feeling. We’ve all had that feeling in our relationships and you get through it. You weather it. But there are those moments where you’re like, "Holy shit, is this what I should be doing?" And people have to realize that these songs are written over a six-year period and a lot of things happen in six years.
And there are always these mini-reckoning moments where you contemplate and decide either we work through this or retreat.
Yeah, and that song, "Aloha," is a funny song. I really wanted a humorous moment on the record as a respite from some of the despair and the questioning, and I think "Aloha" really serves that purpose. And I really wanted to just get in a line about reading Slash’s biography. [Laughs]
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Check out CBC Music's 100 best Canadian songs ever.