Interview: Jenny Lewis

The “princess” of indie rock reveals how she has managed to find a new source of inspiration for her music now that she is no longer unlucky in love

By Elisa Bray, November 18, 2010
Jenny Lewis says her creativity is stimulated by old books - but not by synagogue music

Jenny Lewis says her creativity is stimulated by old books - but not by synagogue music

Jenny Lewis has had a few incarnations. Starting off as a child actress, she appeared in dozens of teen movies. She moved onto music and earned the title "princess" of indie-rock as frontwoman of the critically acclaimed band Rilo Kiley, before becoming a solo musician. Now, she has teamed up with her boyfriend, the singer-songwriter Johnathan Rice, to release a record under the does-what-it-says-on-tin name of Jenny and Johnny. Not that she had planned any of it.

"This record was kind of like an accidental pregnancy," she says, explaining that she had found herself surrounded by unfinished songs after a frustrating bout of writer's block. "We were in Japan playing my last show for my last record and when we got home we had terrible jet lag. We were up until eight in the morning every day and just started jamming these songs and then we went into the studio. Throughout the course of the week we made this record and created this new band."

You could say it has been a long time coming. The Las Vegas-born Lewis met Rice, born in Virginia to Glaswegian parents, back in 2003 through their mutual friend, the Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst, and have been writing music together ever since. After collaborating successfully on songs for Rilo Kiley's Under the Blacklight, Lewis's solo album Acid Tongue, and Rice's last record, forming a band just made sense.

"It's something we're quite familiar with and we're very honest with one another. There are no hidden agendas so it's a very open relationship in that way," says the 34-year-old Lewis.

Later this month the pair are embarking on their first UK tour as a band with their album I'm Having Fun Now, a title which, Lewis is quick to point out, "doesn't imply that I wasn't having fun before. Rock 'n' roll is a pretty fun job."

Prior to this collaboration, Lewis had hit a difficult patch in her songwriting. "I didn't feel like I felt when I wrote a lot of the songs that were on the early Rilo Kiley records," she says. "I'm a woman in my 30s and I just needed a new source of inspiration and a new honest direction. I don't feel unlucky in love anymore, and it's not all emo. It's a scary place to be in when you're like: 'What am I supposed to write about now? I don't feel heartbroken, so now what?'"

Did she go to shul as a child? 'No, my family worships at the altar of showbiz'

It was a room in the Los Angeles home Lewis moved into with Rice which provided the fresh inspiration. A couple in their '90s who had lived there before had left behind their entire library. "I find myself in that room in the wee hours of the morning just thumbing through these old collectible books and thinking of songs. It's a magical place for us," says Lewis.

As with all Lewis's albums, the lyrics cover her interest in spirituality - and she is amused to find that this often leads to being misunderstood.

"I'm not necessarily coming from a religious standpoint, but I guess there is a lot of questioning in my songs. Sometimes people come to my shows and think I'm a Christian artist and they put their hands up in the air, like they do. But first of all I'm a Jewish girl from the valley, and I'm from Los Angeles. It's funny to be misinterpreted."

She says she has been to synagogue only once or twice - she was not brought up in an observant home ("No, my family worships at the showbiz altar"). Her parents were also in a band, a lounge act in Las Vegas doing versions of '70s hits. Legend has it that Lewis's mother went into labour with her while on stage at the Sands Hotel.

Lewis's Jewish roots, she says, are not usually reflected in her music. "It's not like Leonard Cohen who always cited Judaism as a melodic inspiration. I can't say the same thing. The cantors didn't really make me want to go and write songs - I think I'm identifying with Jewish culture generally more than anything else."

She recalls when a family friend, trying to help her to find a nice Jewish boy, tricked her into going speed dating. "You go to this meeting hall where there are Jewish men on each table and you've got two minutes to talk to them and then they ring the buzzer and you move to the next table. He had tricked me into participating in that. He said we were going to a museum. It was very uncomfortable," she sighs. "I said: 'I don't think it's going to work out for me' and then I met Johnny who's Catholic."

'I'm Having Fun Now' is released on Monday by Warner Bros. Jenny and Johnny's UK tour starts in Birmingham on November 24

Last updated: 2:54pm, August 28 2014