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.”