Monday, 29 September 2008

Jenny Lewis Article

for the September Stool Pigeon

It’s eleven o’clock in the morning in LA, a week after Jenny Lewis’ cancelled European promo trip, and the lady in question is answering the phone. “Hello,” she says sweetly, “how are you?”

Hold on, you might think, this is not the sound of a spoilt LA rock star given to canceling interviews on a whim, and at this point you might want to peer down the mouthpiece to make sure she’s the right person, or call her PR to angrily demand the real Jenny Lewis, and not this super nice imposter, but that would be your mistake. This super nice voice on the other end, shyly admitting that eleven o’clock is ‘pretty early, depending on who you ask,” really is the right Jenny Lewis, Rilo Kiley Frontwoman, Postal Service collaborator, and solo artist with two records under her belt. Having been forced to postpone the trip because of admin errors, Lewis is now patiently taking calls from every interview that couldn’t wait. “I’m just in that phase you know, before the album comes out and when you’re not actually playing the music, but you’re talking about it,” she says, “and I do find the playing it bit easier.”

If Lewis is finding today hard, she’s masking it well. Maybe it’s because it’s the first interview of the morning, or maybe it’s a mark of 28 years in the entertainment industry (as an actress, she filmed her first commercial at age 3), but Jenny Lewis really is the picture of professionalism. You keep waiting for her to get restless or self-righteous. She doesn’t. In fact, after about ten minutes, when she gets deep into the mechanics of making records, you forget the 24 hours or so of music she’s contributed to your iPod alone, and start sparring with her about the ins and outs of analogue recording, her latest album having been recorded with a strict ‘no Pro Tools’ policy. “I think you can use digital technology with an analogue mindset,” she says, “like you’re still doing stuff live to tape, but with this record I didn’t want the opportunity for the producer to fix things in post. I’m a fan of precision and production but I just think it’s more fun to record things in the moment, especially as a singer, to be able to emote a couple of times while feeling the energy of the band.”

Lewis has, of course, earned the right to have a bit of fun. She’s been making music for well over a decade now, in so many guises she may be the only person to actually deserve the title ‘Emmy Lou Harris of her generation’. Her first solo record, Rabbit Fur Coat, released in 2006 as an experiment, was a runaway success, but when Rilo Kiley put a record out nine months later, nobody expected her to follow it up quickly. As it was, Lewis wrapped up touring in December, finished a couple of songs over the holidays and went straight back into the studio. Three weeks later, Acid Tongue was complete.
Brushing off suggestions of a superhuman work ethic, she says, “I’ve been working since I was a little girl. I need to have something to focus on, otherwise I’ll get into trouble.”

Anyone expecting a follow on from the country-tinged confessions of Rabbit Fur Coat will be in for an initial disappointment. A lot was made of its themes of Hollywood letdowns and religious disillusionment, as well as its sweetly intimate, almost acoustic, qualities of production. This album is clearly the sound of a band in a room, and the lyrics on many of the songs seem arbitrary, almost jammed out. Even the heart-wringer, Godspeed, has a general quality to it, as though it’s not specific to Lewis’s own experience. She herself is set on the notion that, at least this time round, ‘the words are not s important as the sound of a guitar, or the tone of a voice, or even the sound that the words are making’.

“My only real intention with this album was to capture a vibe and capture a live vocal sound,” she says, “These were the songs that presented themselves of course, but also I really just wanted to make a record of a feeling, instead of taking people through the songs step by step and pushing myself on them in that sense.”

The result is, even to an untrained ear, an exceptionally warm and energetic album. Recorded live and often in one or two takes, it also benefits from having about fifteen of Lewis’ close friends and family in backing, including her father, sister, boyfriend Johnathan Rice (Lewis also features heavily on his latest release), and old hands M. Ward and Farmer Dave. Replacing the Watson Twins’ on female backing are Zooey Deshcanel (of She & Him) and Vanessa Corbala (of Whispertown2000), but with a vital difference. Whereas Lewis’ voice towered ahead of her collaborators on Rabbit Fur Coat, on Acid Tongue the guest spots feel more like an equal billing. Every time you hear Dechanel, Corbala or any of the other singers make their contribution, it’s as though Lewis has stepped aside and offered them her own microphone. On the subject of friend and label boss Connor Oberst, Lewis says, “he is incredibly supportive and an incredibly generous performer. He is constantly shining the spotlight on other people.”

Listening to Acid Tongue, she might as well be talking about herself. "There’s nothing better than a group of people singing in a room,” she adds, shunning the compliment, “it just seemed logical to involve my friends in my touring band, and they are truly my dear friends in the world, and I wanted to reflect that.”

It’s not often you find an album made with such simple intentions; capturing a feeling and doing it with the people you love. Lewis says that without their encouragement over the years, she would ‘never have the courage to make it through a 45 minute set.” With Acid Tongue she has made a perfect tribute to their support, and had fun doing it. "The goal in playing music is surely to avoid the straight life," she says, "so you might as well make sure you have a good time.”

Why? Article

written for the September edition of the Stool Pigeon

Yoni Wolf, the thoughts, words and voice of Oakland’s Why? and a founding member of the Anticon collective, is pissed. Tonight’s show at Brighton Audio has been given a early curfew, and the band have less than ninety minutes between soundcheck and show in which to eat, regroup, prepare and be interviewed. “We gotta not play shows before clubnights,” he mutters, as they navigate the seafront to a restaurant recommended by the promoter. The interview will have to wait. Perhaps it could be done after the show?

No, that’s a weird time to do it.

Tomorrow morning before they leave?

Yoni will be sleeping tomorrow morning.

Next week at London’s Wireless Festival?

Let’s just see what happens later.

You get the feeling that, scenery aside, this isn’t an altogether unfamiliar situation for Yoni. Not the interview so much, but the treadmill-like routine of playing shows, filling your time before and after. Why? is a hard working band, Yoni is a lyricist who seeps you in realism until it becomes magical. Having listened to the band’s most recent album, Alopecia, with its landscapes of gas station toilets and European basketball courts, it’s not hard to imagine the songs taking root on a day like today.

“Um,” says Yoni, finally caught up with, “the lyrics are not always based on my life, the main character is based on me, but it’s not always directly from that. Sometimes it’s a, um, metaphor…” He has the look of a caged animal about to be experimented on, or someone who is being asked to hand over an internal organ. “I don’t write on tour at all,” he adds, “I do run out of things to write about.”

Yoni seems tired and defensive. He explains at the beginning of the conversation that he ‘really loses his shit on tour’. When asked about his life away from the band, he says, “I am fairly separate from most people at this point. I have some people I see in Oakland and I’ll develop friendships but they never, really, I mean, when I’m gone, I’m gone.”

This isolation is clearly something that has exacerbated from the first record to the next. Darkness has always been a component of Why? Records, but there was a buoyancy in the first that has now disappeared. Where Elephant Eyelash seemed like a celebration, Alopecia is sucked dry of optimism, bleak and self-destructive, as seen in songs about jerking off in a museum toilet to the handwriting of a distant lover, carving his new girlfriend’s age into the palm of his hand for her birthday, and sleeping on his back for ‘coffin rehearsal’. Through it all, however it has a grim humour that is nowhere to be seen in Brighton until he burps on stage two hours later. Halfway into a year of touring, who can blame the guy, but hey Yoni, the only question left to ask is – if you didn’t want to do the interview – Why? did you say yes?