Jenny Lewis: People assume I'm always writing about myself

Don't try to pigeonhole Jenny Lewis; she'll just push outside of your definition of who she is. The California singer-songwriter is set to release her first solo album since 2008's Acid Tongue with The Voyager, an album that has multiple layers in meaning and sound. With the help of Beck and Ryan Adams, Lewis's new album dabbles in indie-rock and pop.

Gimme Noise caught up with enigmatic Lewis before her show at First Avenue on Sunday night to see what she has been up to since her last album and what it's been like to be the sole female member in a touring group of guys.
Jenny Lewis: I'm very excited to come back to First Avenue. It's one of my favorite venues in the country. I also have family in Hastings, so I'm always happy to come back to the Twin Cities.

Gimme Noise: You've been working on your new record for a long time, and it's set to release at the end of July. How are you feeling about that? Are you excited, or are you ready to be done with it at this point?

This is just the beginning. I'm very excited right now, but ask me again is a year, and I might have another answer for you.

Why do you say that?

Just that the beginning of an album cycle is really exciting, but by the end of playing songs for a year, you're always ready to write the new batch.

You're touring right after the album release; is it scary to play new songs in front of people that might not be as open to them, and they only want to hear the old stuff?

You know that happens every single record, and there's always a period where you forget that people aren't as familiar with the material, and you assume they don't like it. But that's not the case. You have to let people get to know the songs. Obviously they're gonna react strongly to the songs they know very well -- the ones they're connected to.

It's been a while since you put out a solo album, right? I believe that last one was in 2008.

Yeah, it's been a long time. I did put out a Jenny and Johnny record in 2010.

Why did you feel you wanted to write about such personal things that were happening in your life at the time?

Well, I think that's a little presumptuous, honestly. Because how do you know that they're totally personal things? [long pause] If you only wrote from your own experiences, I don't know if that would make for a very exciting listen. People assume I'm always writing about specific things about myself -- and there's an element of that -- but there's always an element of fabrication as well.

Could you give me an instance of when you were thinking, "Should I, or shouldn't I add this in a song?"

Um... [long pause] I mean... [long pause] I think when you write about your relationships, you might suffer the consequences of that. The flipside of that is that I'm in a community of musicians and songwriters, and we've all been writing about each other for forever. There's this rule, this unspoken rule, where, if you write about something or someone, the friend can't ask you about it. They can't ask if the song's about them. There's a certain code.

Let's talk about working with Ryan Adams on this album. What did you enjoy most about working with him?

I enjoyed giving up the control to him. I really trusted him with my songs, and he helped me out of a very difficult creative rut.

Did he change the songs in any way, or did he give suggestions on how to shape something?

Yes, he was very vocal about what he liked and what he didn't like, and we changed the keys of some of the songs. We cut out some of the lyrics; we changed the titles of some songs. He really got into the structures in a way that I'd never experienced before. I had to set my ego aside, and I had to allow that help in.

[page]Were you used to working with someone else's direction, or were you usually the one in charge on your prior records?

It wasn't so much about being in charge or getting my own way. I think it's about growing as a musician and allowing yourself to be open to criticism. Any artist will tell you that you have to let someone else in at a certain point if you're going to progress.

Was it different working with Beck, or were you in the same mindset?

I was pretty open with him as well. I mean, Beck and Ryan, these guys are such incredible writers and artists. I have so much respect for them going in that I wasn't going to argue with Beck about things. [laughs] It was more, "Please, Beck, help me! I need your help!" He was amazing. He was so cool, and I didn't spend as much time with him as I did with Ryan, but he, as well as Ryan, was one of my spirit guides.

What was a track that stood out for you?

It changes on any given day. As I start to play them live they take on a different life. I think the title track "Head Under Water" documents something that I hadn't really written about before. It really sets the tone for the rest of the record. It's also been the opening track on tour as well.

I don't mean to "Neko Case" you, but I feel you were the sole female in a lot of bands during your career. Did you ever feel like the odd person out?

Well, I did certainly grow up as the only woman in a rock band, and I toured the world in a van with a bunch of dudes. I know what it feels like to feel that way, and I feel very comfortable surrounded by men, but with my first solo record, in working with the Watson Twins and having women around, in the songs and personally, I realized it's so important to have a balanced environment. The older I get, the more I try to reach out to women in my life. It makes me a better person. You have to make an effort to keep those relationships up. It's easier to be the only woman in a group of dudes, but if you're surrounding yourself with women, they're going to call you out on your shit in a way that men aren't going to. It's great; you need that.

I saw you play last summer when you came through town with the Postal Service. It was exciting and bittersweet at the same time. How do you feel to be in a group dynamic like that? Do you prefer a lead role, or do you prefer to be able to take a step back and let someone else take lead?

Thank you. I can't believe that we played our last show a year ago. I love doing both, and I've been really fortunate to have different roles in the bands I've been in. Working with Ben, initially in the Postal Service ten years ago, I learned so much about being a side person and being the guitar or keyboard player. I hadn't done that before the Postal Service. Every time I get to play with someone else, I learn so much, and Ben is just perfect. Every performance is perfect, so that set the bar pretty high.

What can we expect to see when you come through town at the beginning of August?

I definitely have a lot of record to pull from, so the songs represent eras and many different sentiments. I'll be playing full band. There's three women, three men, and we're digging back into the catalog a little bit and reinventing some of those songs along the way.

Do you feel you still connect with your older songs?

It's weird. A song can fall out of favor in my mind, and then in revisiting it, I'll often find something that resonates with me now. So I can never truly turn my back on any song. You gottta try it again in order to know how it feels. It's funny, when you write stuff, sometimes you don't know what you're writing about until many years later.

So it's safe to say your music catalog is a metaphor for life.

[laughs] Maybe.

Jenny Lewis will perform at First Ave. with The Apache Relay on Sunday, August 3, 2014.
18+, $22, 7:30 pm
Purchase tickets here.

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