Juliette Lewis: Natural born singer

Rock goddess with attitude is a movie role Juliette Lewis has always wanted to play. Alexia Loundras meets her
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The Independent Culture

From the pop curiosity that is David Hasselhoff to Keanu Reeves' tireless but rubbish grungesters Dog Star, recent cultural history offers a roll call of cringe-worthy actors-turned-musicians. After all, "How many actors do you know who have ever made any good music?" This is a question put by Todd Morse, the guitarist in Juliette & The Licks and a punk rock veteran. A twinkle in his eye, however, suggests that his lead singer, the Hollywood actress Juliette Lewis, is different. "Juliette," he says, "is a dude."

After an 18-year movie career, the Oscar-nominated actress, 31, who is best known for her turn in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, has reincarnated herself as a strutting rock chick in the tradition of Chrissie Hynde. And she has been winning over the sceptics with her infectious pop punk ever since.

Rock goddess with attitude is a role Lewis was born to play. On stage, she is a captivating front woman, hurling herself about, consumed by her music. And today too, dressed in sprayed-on denim and apple-green stiletto boots, she looks the part. She exudes a tousled sexiness, exaggerated by her pouting lips.

But joking around with her "band of brothers", as she calls the four-piece group, there's not an ounce of diva about her. Posing for pictures, she patiently indulges the photographer's requests, including one to take off her cap. "You kidding? I didn't wash my hair!" she protests, before exposing a greasy barnet.

Last night was the band's final show of a month of playing scuzzy club dates across Europe to spread the gospel of The Licks. It was hard and unglamorous work. The band are knackered, but their enthusiasm runs deep. Even Lewis, who takes the brunt of promotional duties, remains relaxed, friendly and pleasantly normal (photo shoot over, she scampers up to her hotel room to change her shoes; the rock-star boots are killing her, she says).

"I've wanted to do this forever," says Lewis. "It's something I should've been doing all along, but before now, I didn't have the vision," she smiles coyly, "or the balls."

As a teenager, her idols varied from Janis Joplin to Grace Jones, and Blondie to Patti Smith. In her twenties and between films, she took to singing Billie Holiday songs in smoky clubs. Then a friend put her in touch with Pink and Linda Perry, Christina Aguilera's gold-fingered hit maker. Perry and Lewis wrote three songs together, two of which made The Licks' mini album, ...Like a Bolt of Lightning ("Comin' Around" and "I am My Father's Daughter", her "first emotional breakthrough song"). Despite their short collaboration, Perry, formerly of the Nineties alt-rock outfit 4 Non Blondes, made quite an impact. "Working with Linda was a special experience," says Lewis in her Californian drawl. "She taught me to play with words, to get out of that head-space of singing everything correctly and pretty, and not to be afraid to come from a place of uniqueness. She made me bold."

Perry's advice bubbles through Juliette & The Licks' full-length debut, You're Speaking My Language. Lewis's voice - either fierce and snarling or aching and sultry - is expressive, raw and passionate. Though her lyrics may not be quite as revealing as her skimpy stage suits, she does lay bare her emotions. "If you don't expose yourself, what are you doing?" she says. "I'm not making music to look cool. I don't want to be nihilistic and not give a shit like other rock 'n'roll artists. I'm doing this to inspire people." Lewis radiates self-esteem, but this has not always been the case. By the age of 22, she had a drug addiction. With the help of a rehab programme, she cleaned up and embraced Scientology, which she was raised on but had rejected. The singer now ardently espouses healthy living, though it is "very un-rock'n'roll".

Her marriage to Steve Berra, a pro-skateboarder, ended in 1999, and Lewis admits that relationships still faze her. "I still don't know how that shit works," she shrugs. But she refuses to be negative, which is pretty much how she deals with her detractors who, she says, can't see beyond her acting work. "We're not trying to be Pink Floyd. We're a fun rock band. But when I'm on stage, I feel like a superhero. I feel comfortable being an underdog and I want to make other people feel the same." Although she's still acting (she will be filming this summer) she's sold on making music. "If I had to pick between actress or musician, I'd say musician through and through. With music I get to be myself 100 per cent.

"I want to show people you can be wild and passionate, go crazy and feel amazing without being chemically induced." Juliette & The Licks are not about to change the world with their bubble-gum energy and infectious riffs but that's not going to stop her. "I'm loud and I'm proud," she says. Her cherry-red lips crack into a big, self-satisfied smile. "And you can't shut me down."

'You're Speaking My Language' is out 16 May on Hassle