‘Right now, I’m just looking forward. I’m looking forward to the next show and the next song that I’m going to write.” Former Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis went through a tough five years making her new album, The Voyager (out July 29). We spoke to the Las Vegas native as she was heading north ahead of her appearance at this weekend’s Toronto Urban Roots Fest.
After hearing your new single Just One of the Guys, I wrote a short review of it. In my first draft, I wrote that I thought you sounded like you needed a hug, and referred to you as a “cool rock chick.” Then I decided that the hug remark could be seen as patronizing, so I took it out. Then I switched to “sharp singer-songwriter,” thinking that the former might be a sexist description. Was I being overly sensitive, as a male music journalist writing about a female artist?
I would like to be viewed as a great songwriter, period, not a great female songwriter. I’d like to be considered as an artist, period. I think that’s what Joni Mitchell also said many years ago. I think they always separated her out of the group. The truth is that she’s one of the greatest songwriters of all time, period. There are certain trappings with female musicians. Do I need a hug? No. I’m just fine. And I think your correction was a good one. I’m a songwriter.
That being said, that song, Just One of the Guys, was certainly written by a woman. Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young aren’t going to write it. We want that other side, don’t we?
Of course. You want that diversity with arts and music. It’s just when women are put up against each other, compared in that way, specifically to their gender – I think that’s when we tend to prickle a little bit. We just want to be considered as artists. Don’t lump us together just because we’re girls.
With your first band, Rilo Kiley, you were the only female member. But the band you’re touring with now has three men and three women. Was it by design?
It came out of a musical desire to have female voices. But then, when I began to think about it, the equality is really important when you’re out on the road. I’ve done a lot of touring as the only woman in the band, with five dudes. They’re like my brothers; I like touring with men. But I realized when touring the Rabbit Fur Coat album, having the Watson Twins [Chandra and Leigh] around, it really balances things in a really nice way.
What about touring this new record? You’ve said it was the hardest record you’ve ever made, and that there was insomnia involved. But musically it’s still upbeat, even if you were going through some tough times.
I’ve always written songs that sound a bit cheerier than they actually are lyrically. With Rilo Kiley, I think that’s what our entire career was based on, and I’ve certainly continued that tradition with my solo records. For this one in particular, I tried to simplify the sentiments a little bit. I really made an effort to make things direct.
The song Love You Forever, you can’t get much more direct than that.
I don’t think I would have titled a song like that in the past, because it is so simple and direct. The thing is, I sang it that way in the studio as a mistake. Originally the line was “love him forever,” but my producer, Ryan Adams, said “love you forever” was the better line, because it made it direct. So we changed the lyric, which informed the rest of the record.
We know him as a singer-songwriter, but what kind of producer was Ryan Adams? Was he just a sound guy, or did the two of you truly collaborate?
He was everything. He’s the most involved producer I’ve ever worked with. He was unafraid to tell me what he liked and what he didn’t. Like Jerry Garcia and Sonic Youth combined.
How did you react to such a strong producer?
At times I prickled, and I didn’t understand his methods in the moment. It’s hard to put your ego aside. But why work with a producer if you’re not going to take what they’re suggesting? I’d gotten to a point in my own life where I’d become very vulnerable and almost desperate to finish my record. I needed a spirit guide, and turned out to be Ryan Adams.
One of the things you were going through had to do with your father. Is the song You Can’t Outrun ’Em about him?
Yes. My father was very sick when I started writing that song. He passed soon thereafter. I didn’t know him very well growing up. He wasn’t around. But being around him in the last couple years of his life, it really was very moving. All of the love that his kids felt for him, he couldn’t escape it. He was right there when we were in the room with him. It was an interesting life lesson for me. How you accept love, and how you can’t really escape that.
Jenny Lewis plays the Toronto Urban Roots Fest on July 6.