UPROXX Interview: Jenny Lewis On Feminism, Drinking To Overcome Stage Fright, And Maintaining Her Bangs

If you have a fantasy best friend team, you’ll probably want to add Jenny Lewis to the starting lineup, if she’s not already in it. She’s been in the spotlight for most of her life, first as a child actress and then as the frontwoman of Rilo Kiley and as a member of The Postal Service. She’s collaborated with Beck, Ryan Adams (who produced her latest album) and Elvis Costello, and she records with her boyfriend, Johnathan Rice, under the moniker Jenny and Johnny. But despite all these artistic accomplishments, and aside from the fact that she is possibly part unicorn, (as evidenced by this guitar), she maintains a refreshing, down-to-earth vibe.

Currently on tour to promote her third solo album, The Voyager, Lewis also made her debut as director for her music video for “Just One Of The Guys.”  It’s a catchy gem, produced by Beck, and the video features Anne Hathaway, Kristen Stewart, Tennessee Thomas and Brie Larson. Together, they dress in vintage Adidas track suits, dance awkwardly, mock gender roles and explore both the notions of their biological clocks and the simple hilarity of a fake mustache.

The Voyager is a complex album that touches on painful subject matter, and it took Lewis years to write; while working on it, she also spent almost a week suffering from complete insomnia. But The Voyager, like Lewis herself, won’t make you sad, and in many ways it’s cathartic. While navigating the ups and downs of her own life, it’s clear that her defense mechanism continues to be her intelligent, heartfelt songwriting capabilities, complemented by a playful personal style, bright, cartoonish aesthetics, and overall upbeat musicianship.

UPROXX: Your latest album, The Voyager, touches on nostalgia, angst, indecision and also the pain of being a woman – or just being a person – but there’s also a really fun tone to it. What’s the message you wanted to convey? What do you hope people gain from it?

JENNY: I can’t tell people what to enjoy or listen or watch … I make a record every couple years and it’s kind of a document of how I’m feeling at the time and my observations. I hope people will connect to that, but it’s not really my job. My job is to create and put it out into the world. I do think that the colors on stage harken sort of a “My Little Pony” vibe. [Laughs] It’s not what I set out to do, but I found myself surrounded by rainbows, and that is a definite mood elevator – despite the subject matter in some of the songs.

UPROXX: What did you gain from writing this album?

JENNY: It took me a long time to write the songs for The Voyager. They represent an extended period of time for me, whereas in the past, I’d written a record every year or two years. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the songs, a lot of life experiences and things that we all as women, or as humans go through, and they pop up in the songs if you listen for them. I don’t know if you’ll feel it right off the bat … It’s definitely in there like, Where’s Waldo? It’s in there.

UPROXX: Do you have a favorite song from the album, maybe one that’s the most meaningful, or on par with your current mental state?

JENNY: The title track is a very open-ended song. I wanted the record to end up in the cosmos. It’s got kind of a cosmic spirituality to it, tucked away. I wanted to leave people with a positive, hopeful feeling. I think that “The Voyager” does that. I hope that the title track does that in the best way that I know how.

UPROXX: You started off as an actress, then you were a bandleader, and now you’re solo. Is this what you envisioned yourself doing when you were younger?

JENNY: No. First of all, I never imagined that I would get paid to play music. It was just something that was a part of my soul. My parents played music, and we sang around the house, and it was just a given. So stumbling into a music career was very unexpected for me. And then I really thought I would be in a band forever! Being in a rock band is like having a family with you on the road. Being a solo artist, I kind of just became that, despite my best intentions. When you’re the leader of something, it’s a lot of work, but it can be really exciting, as well – and kind of scary sometimes when you’re your own boss. But it suits me for the time being.

UPROXX: Do you know what you’re going to do next, or is it just going to unfold?

JENNY: I guess that’s kind of how I roll. I’d like to make another record and work with some new collaborators. I’d like to direct another music video. Did you see the “Just One of the Guys?” video for the album – I don’t know if you’ve seen it.

UPROXX: Of course! I love it. That was a fun video, but there were some serious undertones – you’re addressing a lot of different pressures. Was it a cathartic thing to do for you?

JENNY: It was a privilege to be able to work with some of my friends who are masters of their craft … They trusted me, and they trusted the song and the message of the song, and they trusted me as a first-time director, so it was really a thrill to be given that opportunity. I think the song resonated with my friends who were in the video; they could relate to the sentiment.

UPROXX: What was it like when you guys were off the camera?

JENNY: We laughed the entire day. I haven’t laughed that hard in a couple of years, or since. We were cracking up — we were doubled over with laughter, and everyone just brought IT. They were all so funny. I didn’t expect it to be so funny! You know, it’s a bunch of girls in track suits and fake mustaches, so of course it’s going to be funny, but what happens when you get into that costume? The character emerges magically.

UPROXX: Do you consider yourself a feminist? There’s a lot of hype about that word lately.

JENNY: Of course I do! Absolutely … I think that if we all try to practice these things in our own lives, that’s the most important thing: extending ourselves to other women, giving other women opportunities, allowing ourselves to be successful and challenged and not being afraid to tackle difficult things in the work place. So yeah, I am, of course a feminist.

UPROXX: You also record music with your boyfriend. What is that dynamic like? Obviously, you’re two creative people, so do you ever butt heads, or is it a harmonious process?

JENNY: It depends on the song. Some songs are very difficult to birth. Some just come magically. But I’ve been in a relationship with my coworker in the past, so I’m familiar with that, and it can go either way. But I love it because I’m truly obsessed with music, and to be able to share that with someone that you love is ideal.

UPROXX: I was backstage at a show once, and I noticed that the singer would go off to the side, in between songs, and do some yoga poses for a couple seconds and then run back out. Do you have any rituals like that, either before or during a show, to get in the zone?

JENNY: That’s a great idea, by the way! That’s never occurred to me … I’ve never had any ritual. I like to have a little something to drink. For years I drank a little sip of whiskey, but now I have a little bit of red wine to calm my nerves. I have played a couple of sober shows, which has been great as well, so you know, I just do it. I kinda just roll out there and let the moment take me. And like I said earlier, the room really determines how the show is going to go. You can play your ass off, and the crowd can just stand there looking at you, and the crowd really has the potential to elevate the mood of the performance.

UPROXX: So do you get stage fright? I know the red wine helps.

JENNY: You know, sometimes I do get scared, and sometimes it’s for a tiny little show. With my other band, the Postal Service – rest in peace – we played for 40,000 people, and I wasn’t scared at all. I think it’s how you feel on that day about yourself. You have to work through the nerves and the discomfort. You know those days where you put on a weird outfit and you’re like, “Oh man, I wish I hadn’t worn this today.” It’s like that feeling, but you’re standing on the stage in front of people.

UPROXX: Does the rainbow suit (which she wears on the cover of her new album) give you a lot of confidence?

JENNY: It does. And it gives me consistency. When I wear that suit, I’m in character. It helps me get into the vibe of the show. If you’re wearing a rainbow suit and you’re in a bad mood, that’s on you.

UPROXX: Have you had any really weird fan encounters?

JENNY: For the most part, people are so cool. There’s sometimes one person who bums me out every couple of years. And it’s never threatening, per se; it’s just intense or rude. I’m on Twitter now. I’ve never been on social media in my entire life. Well, I was on Friendster once for a month. But if I look at the “@” I’ll get some hate, which I tend to re-Tweet if it’s really negative. I tend to re-Tweet it because it’s funny.

UPROXX: If you’re being negative to someone in a rainbow suit, then that’s a personal problem, so I wouldn’t worry about it.

JENNY: [laughs] Yeah, you’ve got a personality disorder, clearly.

UPROXX: Is there anything you’re currently reading or listening to that’s giving you more inspiration?

JENNY: I just bought a record yesterday by this woman named Cate Le Bon, and it’s really beautiful. I’ve also been listening to St. Vincent on heavy rotation.

UPROXX: Is there anyone you would get starstruck by?

JENNY: Yes. Bobby D. Bob Dylan. If I ever met him, I think I’d probably faint. I’ve met lots of cool people over the years and it’s surprising who makes you uncomfortable. I met Neil Young last year at the Bridge School [Benefit, an annual fundraiser in California], and he was the sweetest ever. I didn’t feel nervous around him at all.

UPROXX: I’d probably faint around him, too. I was asking some friends what they would ask you if they could talk to you about topics besides your career, and one of them really wanted to know how you keep your bangs so perfect. 

JENNY: Thank you to your friend for that. I travel with a little pair of shearing scissors. Is that what they’re called? They’re not like real scissors; they’re like kid scissors. You can’t really f*ck up your bangs because it just cuts half of the hair. If you were to straighten my bangs they would be uneven, but because my hair is a little wavy, somehow it works out.

UPROXX: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

JENNY: That’s a tough one. That’s like a question you ask on the last page of Vanity Fair, in the Proust Questionnaire. That’s like what you answer when you’re 85 years old.

UPROXX: What advice do you have for younger artists who are just starting off the industry?

JENNY: I think if your art is pure, your intentions are good and your will is strong, you’ll do all right.