Jenny Lewis - My private traumas

A former child star from a broken home, Jenny Lewis is the voice of Rilo Kiley who had a cult hit with the Watson Twins. Her new solo album sees her dig ever deeper into the dark side of her past. Nick Hasted meets her in LA

There's a fantasy Jenny Lewis that has grown in fans' minds over her four albums with Rilo Kiley and two solo records (the second of which, Acid Tongue, is out this week). This is the ballsy, lusty Lewis of songs such as "15" (in which she revels in portraying Southern jail-bait), who flashes her knickers in sultry photo-shoots and gigs, and once felt moved to record a song nude. Put out to work by her mother as a child-actress in Hollywood, aged four, she worked alongside Lucille Ball, and Angelina Jolie. This glamorous CV has made major labels think she'll make it big any day now, with or without Rilo Kiley, who've toured with Coldplay. Friends and fans including Elvis Costello, the Black Crowes' Chris Robinson, Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward are on Acid Tongue.

The fantasy falls apart when the five foot-nothing Lewis meets me in North Hollywood. She's wearing a black mini-dress, little belted boots, and white socks. But what's more striking is her wariness as she lets her defences down inch by inch. The same process has been under way musically since her 2006 solo debut Rabbit Fur Coat, which clarified her sound, putting her crooning country-soul voice at its heart. Rilo Kiley's last album Under the Blacklight (2007) and the rough and ready Acid Tongue continue her growth.

I meet her down an alley one sunny lunchtime, in a hidden, funky studio from the early 1970s, a little past Muddy Waters Drive. Tree-stumps, lanterns, old sofas and a rocking chair litter the place. When her band turn up later, the pet-names they use for her are jokily star struck ("Like, what is this, J-Lo?"; "Ready for your close-up, Mr DeMille"...).

Though she has just finished a tour with Rilo Kiley, that band have an uncertain future. Yet their ability to make her songs sound like uplifting pop has been crucial.

"That's what we do best," she agrees. "They've always brought this really poppy, upbeat sensibility to these weird lyrics that I don't think even they really understood all these years. I don't know if they really heard most of them."

"The thing about Rilo Kiley," she continues, "is there are three people in that band who have struggled with depression over the years. And when the three of us are together, we kinda take it south. I've gone through terrible periods of depression. But, at the core of my being, there's a strange, out-of-place optimist. Despite what I'm feeling, I'm always able to get up and do my job. Which means the world to me. It sounds cheesy, but music has saved me in a lot of ways. If I had just continued acting, I don't think I would be alive."

This depression suggests itself in ambivalent songs set in a godless, loveless world. "How sad!" she says. "You know I've felt how I feel today since I was eight years old. I've always felt lonely, even if I'm in a great relationship, or surrounded by my friends and family. I don't know what happened prior to that that made me feel that way. But I've been the same person since 1982."

That was when she became a full-time television actress, five years after her parents divorced. They were a double act in showbiz's twilight zone. After divorce, dad disappeared. Mum, unemployed in LA, put her toddler to work on TV; treating "your daughter as your spouse", as the mother in "Rabbit Fur Coat" is advised. The raunchy matricide fable "Jack Killed Mom" develops that theme on Acid Tongue. More songs are about her dad, Eddie Gordon, a surprise guest-star on harmonica.

"He was ill last year, so we started speaking to one another," she explains. "There were no hard feelings. He just wasn't around. Every couple of years I'd get a postcard from the road – a picture of him standing next to a giant ice-sculpture of a crab, in Alaska. He was a very mysterious character. But I thought this was the right time to bring him in."

The first hint of change with her parents seemed to come in Rabbit Fur Coat's "The Charging Sky": "Have I mentioned, my parents are getting back together/ 25 years of spreading infection..."

"That verse [which begins "Still they're dying on the dark continent"] is just as much about Africa as it is about my parents. But sadly no, it's not true."

Acid Tongue's nine-minute centrepiece "The Next Messiah" meanwhile offers a sprawling portrait of footloose masculinity, and bitter relations between a "con-man" and a "cocktail waitress who thought she was an artist". This hustler sounds very like the dad who sent her postcards from the edge of the world.

"When someone isn't around you create what you imagine your father might be – 'a race-car driver, a four-leaf clover'," she quotes the song.

She encrypts her confessions. "I try to protect myself," she admits. "I will often go back and change the names..." To protect the guilty? "Exactly! Including myself."

What role, then, do her parents play in her songs? And suddenly, as if a key has been turned, her defences drop. "I write mostly about my parents," she says. "Because I just don't know them very well. And I'm still trying to understand what happened [with the divorce] and why. It's this blank slate, I can't even remember what happened. But for some reason, these two people are so incredibly strange and funny and beautiful and messed up, that I want to keep writing about them... and maybe figure out who I am in the process."

The cameras that stared at Lewis through her adolescence perhaps explain her shyness since. It took more than a decade as a musician for her to release a record under her own name. It's as if some vital emotional growth was held back, in her Hollywood childhood. "I feel like I never got a chance to be a child," she agrees. "I wouldn't change it for the world. But when you're a kid supporting your family, you're forced to keep your eye on the prize. I have a great work ethic, from watching Lucille Ball, not necessarily my own family."

For all the Hollywood surrealism of that line, the dream factory powering Lewis's songs is a decidedly more private affair. "I've consistently tried to create an alternate reality," she says. "I'm removed in my real life, and unable to express certain things face to face. So I have always found myself in this fantasy world. That's why I started writing songs and stories from a very young age. I'd much rather walk around anonymously cooking up tales than face the people that I have known forever."

"The Angels Hung Around" (on Under the Blacklight) shows her typically ambiguous attitude to LA, where she sings of being "whored" and "gored". But, outside Hollywood, in the San Fernando Valley suburban sprawl where she began, is a different story. "There's a class distinction," she explains. "Growing up in the Valley, the goal is to move over the hill. I did when I was 16. And last year, at 30, I moved back. I needed to get closer to my upbringing, to continue to write about it. I don't feel comfortable in Hollywood, I never have. I went to Beverly Hills High School for a year on a fake address, and got kicked out for living in the Valley. I was so relieved. Now I wander the car dealerships and the air-conditioned malls and the parking lots, and get inspired."

The deepest, darkest theme in her lyrics recurs on "Badman's World", one of several songs partly about suicide, in which a man's face turns blue, and she decides: "I'll never forgive what you put us through." I ask where these lines come from.

"I don't know where that comes from. Perhaps it goes back to post-1982. Being around people that had lost their will to live. Which is really heavy when you're a little kid. To really not understand what's going on, but to be faced with someone who has clearly given up hope. It left me with this weird, skewed perception."

Exactly what shocks to her child's system 1982 contained, Lewis hardly seems to know herself. "Traumatic moments," she suggests, buried deep. "I'm sure tons of people have experienced them. But things that changed me, forever. That being one. My only LSD experience being another, which is why I wrote 'Acid Tongue'." She sidesteps eagerly, to an acid nightmare when she was 14. "I found the psychedelic experience to be totally terrifying. My friend was chasing me around the house with a knife. It was actually like a scene out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

"I don't need psychedelics. I've lived a good and strange life. I'm a late bloomer, in every aspect. I'm a slow-moving train. But I'll get there eventually. I like people, that's the thing. I'm the most negative optimist you'll ever meet. And making this record is the freest I've felt."

Her band are filing in, and for the next few hours, I'll watch the other Jenny Lewis, eyes closed and hair swinging, abandoned to a thunderous blues beat. But the clues in her remarkable songs still bug me.

What did her parents think, I finally ask, of that line about "25 years of giving disease"? It sounds a plain, bitter statement of their divorce's effect. "It's also about Africa," she reminds me, almost keeping a straight face, shutting the book on her secrets.

'Acid Tongue' is out on Rough Trade

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced