Jenny Lewis, full of confidence and ballads, on why she isn’t running away anymore
Jenny Lewis had a transcendental realization, and it’s emblazoned on her T-shirt.
“I work for plants,” she says, alluding to the words across her petite frame.
It’s a saying the child actress-turned-musician created a few years back after she began microdosing mushrooms after 20 years without psychedelics.
“My theory is once you start taking mushrooms, other plants start communicating to you, and really, plants are what is gonna save the planet,” Lewis says. “So I work for plants in that I’m being communicated to by psychedelics.”
Her eyes may be masked by Prada sunglasses, but she’s serious. Lewis has become somewhat of an expert on all things fungi, detailing a laundry list of facts about plant communication and medicinal cures. “I feel like mushrooms are like aliens. They’re communicating. They’ve got all the answers.”
This statement might sound bizarre, especially coming from Lewis, 43. Yet she says it clearly, with the same delivery that has made her such a prolific storyteller and songwriter for two decades.
With her lyrics, Lewis has emphasized emotional clarity rather than documenting the effects of conscious-altering substances. She has long mused about running away: from people, from places, from her own demons. But when she decided she was going to run away in her own life, it was to New York. For the California native who has become synonymous with the city of Los Angeles, the change seemed surprising.
Yet it was a cross-country move that prompted her to focus on her own music once again — music that makes up her fourth solo album, “On the Line,” due March 22. “On the Line” began as a breakup record and became a rebound one, and in true Lewis fashion, it’s filled with ballads. The first single, “Red Bull & Hennessy,” sounds like it could be a rap track. Instead, Lewis evokes a “Bella Donna”-era Stevie Nicks with delicate grooves contrasting a dark narrative about coming to the realization of a relationship’s fading spark.
“It’s cool, because it is catchy, and it feels party vibes, but really, it’s about the saddest thing that happens in relationships, and I think people in any long-term thing … it’s not always easy, and you make a choice to work through these things,” she says.
For Lewis, “On the Line” conveys multiple meanings.
“If you’ve ever been on the line with a lover, where you’re waiting around for someone to flip or change, or being on the line between your professional and personal life, or being a woman on the line — choosing between career and family or both — and then just the literal phone reference,” she says. It also speaks to the digital age. It’s no coincidence there are references to mobile game “Candy Crush” and looking through a lover’s phone.
“We’re all communicating on these devices where it’s really hard to detect tone,” says Lewis.
These are realizations that came to the former Rilo Kiley frontwoman after spending some time alone, having fled to Manhattan after the release of her 2014 album, “The Voyager.”
At the time, she and longtime partner Johnathan Rice had mutually parted ways after 12 years together.
“We weren’t married, but we were together for a really long time,” she says. When she addresses the relationship, she apologizes to Rice out loud. “It’s personal to talk about this stuff, but you share consciousness with someone when you’re in a relationship; in a way, that poetry kind of reflects the shared consciousness, and I felt I needed to remember who I was as a singular writer, which means that I had to have a singular experience in my life.”
Lewis teases that she should stop talking about it now. “It’s been three years,” she tells herself.
The breakup prompted Lewis to refocus. In New York, Annie Clark, who records as St. Vincent, gave her a place to stay. Her friend Tennessee Thomas, formerly of the Like, was just down the street. Newly single, she leaned into her female friendships.
“They took care of me in New York, Nashville, L.A. … wherever I was, there was a woman to greet me at the airport, and truly — Nikki Lane, Tennessee, Annie, Anne Hathaway — all these girls were really open,” she recalls.
Lewis began playing music with Thomas and Au Revoir Simone’s Erika Forster at Thomas’ now-defunct Lower East Side boutique the Deep End Club. The trio would become the garage-rock group Nice As ... , releasing their debut album in 2016. Lewis needed an outlet and the project was serendipitous. But Lewis had been renting out her house and, after two and a half years, it was time to come home. “You gotta come home at some point. You can’t be a runaway forever.”
Lewis seemed to take cues from her own songwriting: “I feel like I write about this stuff all the time … you can’t outrun it. Wherever you go, there you are, that saying. You’ve gotta come home and take care of business, get back to work, water the plants, you know?”
Lewis returned home a different person — someone more independent and confident. “I know how to drive from Nashville to Knoxville without directions. I can go to sleep in a house at night that I’m just in — with the lights on and the alarm on, but still,” she says.
And with that, her perspective on love shifted. “I feel very open to love, finally. I wasn’t for three years. I was not in a good zone for that. But I feel very open, and I’m very excited about love,” she says. While she’s not too keen on dating apps, she has an ideal meet-cute. “I’m open to meet someone the old-fashioned way — at Trader Joe’s,” she laughs.
“On the Line” then is very much a transitional record, and that includes something that can’t be ignored: the cheeky album art of Lewis’ cleavage. The cover art for “On the Line,” shot by photographer and frequent Lewis collaborator Autumn de Wilde, features an image taken below Lewis’ neck, where she’s sporting a retro sequined jumpsuit.
After Lewis noticed a Polaroid taken of her that was identical framing to the album cover of “The Voyager,” which features a below-neck image of Lewis sporting a rainbow pantsuit, she knew it was meant to be the cover of the record.
“You can put it up to your head, and it looks like you have cleavage,” she says. She’s also selling T-shirts that feature the racy shot, which she says was inspired by the Venice Beach shirts that feature bikini bodies.
I’m really excited about the cover, because, obviously it’s a little bit racy, but it’s not that racy. It’s just a little bit of cleavage.
“It’s gonna be my cleavage on your cleavage. I’m really excited about the cover, because, obviously it’s a little bit racy, but it’s not that racy. It’s just a little bit of cleavage. I’m proud of the fact that I feel comfortable enough to do that and that we’re dealing with a natural situation here,” she says.
The cover also serves as a small tribute to Lewis’ mom, who with her father had a Las Vegas lounge act (her mother died last year of cancer after her father’s death in 2012). “I wanted to go a little coke-ier, like a little more of a nod to my mom in Las Vegas, a little more glam, a little more body-conscious,” she says.
Some of the songs from “On the Line” were penned in 2014 and 2015, but the recording process didn’t begin until early 2018. “I had the stories and the feelings, and I had to get the songs out,” she says.
From the start, there was no specific sonic roadmap, but her collaborators helped drive the sound in a “classic” direction. Lewis again collaborated with Ryan Adams, as well as Don Was, Jim Keltner and Benmont Tench, who have played on most of her favorite classic rock songs.(The interview for this article was conducted before Adams, who also produced “The Voyager,” was accused in a report in the New York Times of sexual misconduct and abusive behavior by multiple women. After that story, Lewis wrote on Twitter that she is “deeply troubled by Ryan Adams’ alleged behavior. Although he and I had a working professional relationship, I stand in solidarity with the women who have come forward.” Through a publicist, Lewis declined to discuss further her relationship with Adams, who has denied the allegations.)
Lewis sought out mixer Shawn Everett, who worked on Kacey Musgraves’ Grammy award-winning album “Golden Hour” and the War on Drugs’ 2017 album, “A Deeper Understanding.” The goal was to “expand from the singer-songwriter world.” The process, which happened over six months, proved inspiring. During that time, Kanye West live-streamed an album-release party in Wyoming, and the direction of “On the Line’s” mix became heavily influenced by it.
“That was a pivotal moment where I was like, ‘Let’s see what it sounds like if we strip away the midrange and beef up the drums and the bass. So there is a slight hip-hop slant to the mix in the sound, although it’s organic in its inception,” she says.
That’s evident in “Red Bull & Hennessy,” but that cut didn’t set the tone of the album, which is why the complicated breakup ballad “Heads Gonna Roll” opens the record. The track was recorded with Ringo Starr. “Just the way that it starts, it feels like the beginning of a record to me, with the backward sound and to come out with just Ringo on drums ... it was never not gonna be that song first,” she says.
During her more than 20-year music career, Lewis has weaved an empowering thread of sexuality throughout her music, and “On the Line” is no different.
“I’ve always written about everything; nothing has been off the table,” she says. “So even on the earliest Rilo Kiley EP, I was writing about sex, but in a different way.”
“Dogwood” functions as the emotional center of “On the Line.” It’s resigned, blunt and real. “As I’ve matured, my songs have mirrored that, not that I’m mature, by any stretch,” she says. “In the early Rilo Kiley days, it was more imagination than actual action,” she admits. “I didn’t get a lot of action. I probably should’ve gotten more.”
The weird way we interact on our devices, that’s ‘on the line’ as well. You can come up with a whole reality on Instagram that is just not happening.
Like some of Lewis’ previous music (“She’s Not Me,” “Does He Love You?”), “On the Line” also features snapshots of infidelity. On “Taffy,” Lewis questions a lover: “I wanted to please you/my dress was see-through/as I looked through your phone/I am such a coward/But how could you send her flowers?”
Lewis often captures the ugly truth about relationships. “You peel back the onion, you just get to know the real thing, and it’s not always pretty,” she says.
During an interview, she does offer some advice, especially when it comes to looking in someone else’s phone. “If you have the instinct to do that, there’s probably something in there that you’re looking for, and then you’ll find it. But you’re not looking unless there’s something amiss, so it’s like the ultimate red flag,” she says.
Lewis’ focus shifts to the device itself. “The weird way we interact on our devices, that’s ‘on the line’ as well. You can come up with a whole reality on Instagram that is just not happening. You can troll yourself into a dark hole of depression,” she says.
But Lewis isn’t entirely jaded. “I like to believe people are good, but not everyone is honest or open or comes from a loving place. Not that I’m any of those things always.”
Ultimately, “On the Line” seems to pick up where “The Voyager” left off: at a crossroads of life decisions. It’s of a piece with one of the most affecting lyrics Lewis has written, found on her 2014 album: “When I look at myself all I can see, I’m just another lady without a baby.”
When the lyric is referenced, Lewis’ voice softens and her tone becomes more serious.
“As a kid, my friends would talk about their weddings or baby dolls, you know, we all played with dolls. But I feel like I was never in my mind a bride or a mother necessarily. And that doesn’t mean that I won’t still have a child — certainly, time is of the essence — but I feel like there are certain sacrifices that women make ultimately.”
She adds, “And I think I’ve sacrificed a lot for my songs and sort of chased a muse in a way.”
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