Even though Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice are one of L.A. indie rock’s most doe-eyed couples, their debut album together as Jenny & Johnny emerged from a breakup. They’d split with one of their favorite musicians — Bob Dylan.
“We were at this jam session in Laurel Canyon with our friend, [singer] Farmer Dave Scher,” Rice said. “We’d played like three Bob Dylan covers, and Dave put down his guitar and said, ‘I just can’t do this Dylan Fantasy Camp anymore.’”
Lewis and Rice each built their solo careers around the sprawling, metaphor-heavy songwriting style that Dylan turned into shorthand for “serious folk artist.” On “Rabbit Fur Coat” and “Acid Tongue,” Rilo Kiley frontwoman Lewis sketched a personal and archetypal trip through the loss of family, love and faith in Southern California. Rice’s two solo albums made the dazed, mystic romance of Van Morrison feel apropos to the angsty teen dramas that popularized his early work.
Scher’s jibe was a bit blasphemous. But when Rice and Lewis would return to their home in the San Fernando Valley to swap instruments and hash out new tunes, the observation turned into a revelation. “Once you’re out of the DFC — ‘Dylan Fantasy Camp’ — you can appreciate all sorts of things,” Lewis said. “You realize you aren’t Bob Dylan, and it’s liberating.”
“I’m Having Fun Now,” the duo’s debut full-length album, is full of those other things — ideas not unserious but certainly less severe. Rooted in the slacker fuzz of again-au courant ‘90s indie rock and the close harmonies of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, the release sounds liberating in the way that a well-seasoned couple can goof off and not worry about being perpetually impressive. The result, however, is often just as charming as when they’re on they’re best musical behavior.
“These songs aren’t entirely personal anymore,” Lewis said. “You get happy, and then what do you have to write about?”
Over a half-dozen glasses of wine and a plate of gourmet pickles at Greenblatt’s Deli in West Hollywood (where they seem to know the booze list as well as their own lyrics), the 34-year-old Lewis and 27-year-old Rice have a droll rapport that’s half tour-addled inside jokes and half Sartre-De Beauvoir-style needling between lovers with a shared careerism. They met in Nebraska in 2003 through their mutual friend, the singer Conor Oberst, and his producer colleague Mike Mogis, who was helming Rilo Kiley and Rice albums in back-to-back sessions then (he also worked on “I’m Having Fun Now”).
“I remember unloading our stuff into his studio and thinking ‘Oh, my, she’s pretty,’” Rice said, while Lewis recalled it a bit differently. “We were all like ‘Who is this kid that just showed up here while we’re trying to record?’ she said. “I’d glare at him when we passed in the hallway.”
Nonetheless, the two introduced each other to their formative music — Lewis offering indie classics like Pavement, Rice replying with ‘60s and ‘70s rock and folk staples, and it went from there. But they had to adapt to the public setting — they pepper stories with giddy quips about chilling with Bill Murray at Austin City Limits, flying to Hong Kong to play a Rodarte runway show and landing Elvis Costello as their backing musician on a bonus track — and dueling creative spaces that their new romance would occupy.
“There was a time when we’d broken up and rekindled a friendship, and I played her a song I’d written about the breakup and she was like ‘That’s just mean,’” Rice said. “We were playing a Haiti benefit with a bunch of our friends, and I realized that every person onstage had made out with everyone else. All our friends write songs about each other, and you’ll get these calls from people saying, ‘Hey, man, I think that one is about you.’”
So it’s striking that on an album made by prolific, love-struck songwriters, most of the songs are wryly inscrutable. At least three songs mention deadpan threats made with cutting utensils; two find Lewis fearing being eaten by pet snakes; another pleads to die “looking like a New Yorker cartoon.”
But the music is the most easygoing in either of their catalogs. “Scissor Runner” has a spritely jangle, and first single “Big Wave” documents the downfall of California’s economy over reverbed-out surf rock and tangles of feedback. The two swapped most of the instruments on the record, and the sound hits an appealing middle ground between tossed-off eagerness and the meticulousness of their solo records.
“Maybe it’s because they’re not the sole lead singer of the group, like they are used to being, it took a little pressure off of them individually,” Mogis said. “It felt new and not over-thought. Kind of like it was their first band, no baggage.”
Nevertheless, the sunshine of love and boldface friends don’t entirely hide some creeping darkness. Rice’s acoustic-noir ballad “Animal” is a lament over violent religious strife, and yet lyrics like “If you lose your fear of God, you are an animal at heart” show he can’t divorce from the faith of his Scottish upbringing and Irish Catholic roots.
“The well was poisoned for me young, being raised Catholic. I’ll never shake my fear of this potentially imaginary God,” Rice said. Lewis too wrote this effortlessly optimistic album after a wrenching year in her personal life, one where her father passed away. “You never quite get over something like that,” Lewis said. “Even when you’re happy, fears like that never leave your mind.”
Even within their intimacy, Lewis and Rice admit to pressuring each other creatively. The dynamic is even more fraught when played out across pop charts — in Rilo Kiley and solo, Lewis’ albums have outsold Rice’s by a wide margin, and when they played together onstage at the Hollywood Bowl this year, Lewis was the frontwoman and Rice played backing guitar.
“We never feel tension commercially,” Lewis said. “But if he writes a banger, it definitely inspires me to top it.”
On “I’m Having Fun Now,” that sentiment is palpable. The couple have fairly thoroughly retreated from the wilds of the Eastside indie scenes to a more sylvan, insular world of their own in Lewis’ hometown of the Valley, and that intimacy is all over this debut. But there remains one topic that the two are still learning how to talk about on record — how they feel about each other.
“There was only one pure love song I wrote for the album, and it wound up not making the cut,” Lewis said. Rice, with a glint of nervousness about being sent to the doghouse for admitting this, quietly agreed. “She played it for me and was like ‘What do you think?’ And I had to say ‘Eh, babe…"