Jenny Lewis Battles Loss and Insomnia With Ryan Adams’ Help on ‘The Voyager’
"I was totally open because I was desperate," singer says of recording process
Jenny Lewis has built a deceptively sturdy body of work over the last 15 years. To date, the 38-year-old’s oeuvre includes four albums with the now-defunct band Rilo Kiley; a lone LP credited to Jenny and Johnny, the duo she plays in with boyfriend Johnathan Rice; a pair of film scores; and two solo full-lengths, which will soon be followed by a third. On July 29, the Los Angeles singer-songwriter will finally release The Voyager, the long-awaited successor to 2008’s Acid Tongue.
“I am a late bloomer,” the former child actress tells SPIN over the phone, joking about the record’s prolonged gestation. “It takes me a while.”
Set to arrive via Warner Bros. Records, The Voyager came together after a period of personal turmoil for Lewis — a time marked not only by lengthy stretches of insomnia and the dissolution of Rilo Kiley, but also by the death of her estranged father, who passed away in 2010. “I felt completely rudderless,” Lewis says. “My father was gone and my band was gone and I really didn’t know what I was going to do.”
“Losing your parent is unlike anything,” she explains. “I sort of walked away from it with the intention of not looking back at all, and I think a lot of things caught up with me, and that’s why I wasn’t able to sleep: There was a lot of unresolved stuff in my life that I had been running from.”
Lewis achieved some clarity last year, while on the road with the Postal Service, who booked a high-profile reunion tour to celebrate the tenth anniversary of their sole, beloved album, 2003’s Give Up. All throughout the spring and summer of 2013, Lewis performed alongside and sang backup vocals for her friends and collaborators Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello, the digi-pop project’s core members.
“It was the perfect way back to myself,” the singer says. “Re-learning Ben’s musical tendencies and his harmonies that he wrote for me to sing on that record. It was such a great way for me to get back somewhere. And he’s one of my best friends, and so is Jimmy, and they both knew exactly what I was going through and they were there to support me.”
Lewis felt so enabled from her run with the Postal Service 2.0 that she immediately booked time with alt-country eccentric Ryan Adams at his Pax Am studio. “We played Lollapalooza and the next day I was in the studio,” she says.
The yield from that first session, the AM Gold-dusted “She’s Not Me,” was so potent that Lewis agreed to record the rest of The Voyager under Adams’ tutelage. His no-frills producing philosophy — “You do it live and you don’t look back,” according to Lewis — made for quick work. After years of difficulty, the ex-Rilo Kiley leader had banked the majority of her third solo LP in little more than a week’s time.
“I was so afraid of myself as an artist,” she says. “I had forgotten how to do the thing that I love doing. And [Adams] agitated me just enough to get a performance out of me. I let him into my songs, and I let him rearrange parts… I was totally open because I was desperate.”
Not every song on the 10-track effort features Adams’ fingerprints, though. Lewis produced opener “Head Underwater” and dusty yarn “You Can’t Outrun ‘Em” with help from Johnathan Rice, and the shambling “Just One of the Guys” was assembled by Beck roughly a year-and-a-half ago. “But the essence of Ryan and [his partner] Mike Viola, that is the core of the record,” Lewis says, adding, “but, really, the record is about me.”
“Sometimes you don’t understand what you’re going through until you’re on the other side of it,” she says. “I’m starting to maybe understand a little bit.”