It’s a magical moment when life syncs up with the radio. The right song comes on unexpectedly, and the world gets quiet. I had such an experience around this time last year on a road trip back from Toronto with friends. We’d driven all night, clinging to the last seconds before our vacation was over, tallying up a continuous 18-hour staring contest with the horizon. As we entered colorful Colorado, the tedious fatigue set in, the coffee became ineffective, and we were exhausted of each other’s company. And just like a cinematic turning point, out of the speakers fell the first lines of Jenny Lewis’ newest album The Voyager.
“I’ve been wearing all black, Since the day it started, When I stopped and looked back, As my mind departed, I’ve been losing sleep, And I cannot sit still, I’m not the same woman, That you were used to.”
The hangover wearing off from days spent gallivanting around as kids, now back to responsibilities, we were caught in limbo, with only The Voyager to sort us out. The lyrics prompted a montage of past and future reflection — a scene that seems inconsequential, yet gains importance with time. We let out a collective sigh of contemplation as Lewis guided us safely back home.
I recently had the chance to catch up with Jenny Lewis who will be playing the Fox on Aug. 21. I asked her if she’s ever heard this sort of soundtrack-to-life sentiment about her music.
She laughs. “More like soundtrack to my life!” she says. “I’ve heard through the years, particularly with women, that some of the songs are markers in a way. And it’s weird, as I grow up and my audience grows up, how scenes shift. You can see it affecting a different generation of women in the audience. It’s really cool when that happens.”
It’s not surprising to feel that camaraderie with Lewis — after all she’s spent a big chunk of her life in the public eye. Lewis palled around with us as a kid, selling boxes of cookies and playing video games in films like Troop Beverly Hills and The Wizard. Then she navigated the woes and joys of life through her music — be it solo, fronting Rilo Kiley, or as part of Jenny and Johnny. She’s also provided music for films like the coming-ofage Very Good Girls and the late-coming-ofage Ricki and the Flash.
Her newest music project is last year’s The Voyager, an album steeped in experiences of losing her father, maddening insomnia, womanhood and the break up of Rilo Kiley. This is the first time we’ve gotten a solo album from Lewis since 2008. Even though she had been consistently working on music, she didn’t want to release the album until she knew it was done.
“Up until that point it wasn’t ready, Lewis says. “It needed to be cooked a little longer than the other ones. It was more like a braised meat than a grilled meat.”
In that time, Lewis worked to perfect each song on the 10-track album. Her lyrics touch on universal themes and explore complex emotions, simply and sparingly. Lewis delivers bits of wisdom in neatly wrapped packages, impactful yet effortless.
“I’m writing for myself first always,” Lewis says. “If I’m not happy with it, or if I’m not expressing something, or expelling a demon — something cathartic has to happen for it to be a song that I remember, first of all, because I forget a lot of them. That’s the first step to making a record: remembering your own songs. …
“Some songs require more work, some come almost fully formed,” she says. “But I’m a revisionist, and I like things to be just right. I tend to write a little clunky in my first draft where there’s a lot of ideas and a lot of words, and then I go in and slice and dice. I want economy. I want to get the story across in as few words as possible in a phrase.”
Never one to shy away from intense topics, Lewis deals with her problems through her writing. But throughout Lewis’ musical catalog, just upon hearing the melody or music of the song, you wouldn’t immediately catch the dark undertones. A good example is Rilo Kiley’s “A Man / Me / Then Jim,” from 2004’s More Adventurous.
“It’s just so sad, the lyrics are so heavy, but the music isn’t,” she says. “The first line is, ‘I had one friend in high school, recently he hung himself with string.’ It’s like oh, great. What a great opening line. Fuck! What’s the rest of the song going to be about?”
Lewis credits her collaborators for pulling her out of her lyrical cave and into the musical sunshine.
“Melodically I write somewhat upbeat, but I also think that my collaborators have always lightened the mood, like B-man (Rilo Kiley bandmate, Blake Sennett) was the first person I collaborated with, and his sensibility is very poppy,” she says. “I think that he wanted to do that to offset some of the darker lyrics, just because I’ve always written like that since the very first song I wrote. It’s just dark as night. So I’ve met many people who have sort of lightened me up for better. ”
Yet no matter how bright and airy the music seems, the songs still remain weighted. “Head Underwater” is always going to be about the passing of her father, and she says it’s sometimes a difficult song to play on stage.
Regardless of the anguish of reliving past tragedies, Lewis says trying to write cheerful songs doesn’t work for her.
“Whenever I’ve tried to do otherwise I don’t really succeed,” Lewis says. “Not to say you can’t be funny; there’s humor. But when I’ve tried, it ends up being dark anyway. It just comes off creepy rather than poppy. I was trying to write a dance craze song, and it was just so creepy.”
But Lewis doesn’t give her humor enough credit; it seems to naturally show up in her work. Both music videos for The Voyager, “One of the Guys” and “She’s Not Me,” feature Lewis and friends being goofy for the camera. Despite being the director of both, she was still surprised that they weren’t darker.
“It’s weird that I got into comedy — both of the videos are funny,” she says. “I went to film school, not for very long, at community college. But I imagined that one day I’d be a serious director, and then I ended up making these two silly videos.”
As with her music, her videos play with bigger themes, but they do so with a wink. For her most recent video, Lewis decided to give a nod to her past, revisiting her childhood acting days. In the video, Lewis is seen holding a squirt gun to a teddy bear’s head, doing the mashed potatoes in a Troop Beverly Hills uniform, recreating the poster from The Wizard and, less than gracefully, attempting to ride a tricycle. All this done alongside famous faces including Fred Armisen, Vanessa Bayer, Zosia Mamet, Leo Fitzpatrick and Feist.
“I’m really stoked. I love the way it turned out,” she says. “It’s really funny. I love to rewatch it. Just to see Fred Armisen with that power glove is so fucking funny. It kills me every time.”
Juxtaposing her past and the lyrics “She’s not me,” Lewis says she’s reminding people that you aren’t always who you used to be, and you’re constantly evolving. She’s come to terms with her past and realizes her experiences got her to where she is today.
“It’s deeply meta. It’s like a meta sandwich,” she says. “There’s been enough time where I can laugh at myself. For a while there, I was too serious to laugh at myself for being ridiculous.”
These days, Lewis is encountering a new set of challenges. The first single off her album, “One of the Guys,” tackled societal be a kid for a second.” pressures women feel. (Note: the pointed lyric “When I look at myself, all I can see I’m just another lady without a baby.”) Now, at 39, she says it’s hard to ignore that biological clock.
“It’s still ticking,” she says. “It’s interesting because I wrote that line when I was about 31, and I was projecting. I was like psychically writing for how I’d feel right now.”
For the time being, Lewis is content where she is.
“I’m not thinking about it every day until I get up on stage and sing that damn song,” she says. “These are the questions we ask ourselves, and I don’t know if my feelings will change on that. I live on the road, and I really like my life right now. So I don’t know if that would include a child at this moment. I feel like I’m a late bloomer. So I need to be a kid for a second.
ON THE BILL: Jenny Lewis. 9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 21, Fox Theatre Boulder, 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-447-0095.