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Jenny Lewis on child fame, Rilo Kiley, and seeking out the joy in life: ‘I was in a very live or die kind of situation’

Jenny Lewis: ‘I’ve been earning since I was a tiny kid, so this was the first time that the stage went dark’  (Bobbi Rich)
Jenny Lewis: ‘I’ve been earning since I was a tiny kid, so this was the first time that the stage went dark’ (Bobbi Rich)

Jenny Lewis’s house looks like an ice cream parlour. So much so that the singer – and her legion of fans – refer to it as Mint Chip. “Look, it’s very minty!” she trills, taking me on a virtual tour of her longtime place in LA. It’s full of confections, too. There’s a menagerie of instruments, the lagoon-like pebble stone flooring, and the kidney bean-shaped pool outside. That the place was once owned by the Disney animator behind Fantasia and Peter Pan is no surprise; it has an air of magic to it. So too does its current resident, copper-haired, loose-limbed and cross-legged on the brown and turquoise chequered floor.

Her world has always been like this: captivating, colourful, a little off-kilter. Lewis, 47, began her life as a child star, and was always finding herself in fantastical situations. There was the time Lucille Ball called her family home in Van Nuys, Los Angeles, a “dump”, or when her friends and fellow child actors Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio came round to witness a paranormal investigation being led by Peter Aykroyd, brother of Ghostbusters star Dan. “I lived a whole first life before I turned 18,” Lewis laughs now. 

After which came her next incarnation: as the insouciant, blunt-fringed lead singer of Rilo Kiley. A staple of the Noughties, the LA four-piece traded in indie rock and sad country confessionals. “Hurray, hurray I’m your silver lining,” she purred drolly back in 2007. Leaving the band sharpened her lyrics still; each solo outing since her 2006 debut Rabbit Fur Coat has gained more clarity, more candour. Take any point in her discography and you’ll find an invisible string tying it to a time in her life, like the death of her mother, say, or the dissolution of a 12-year relationship. Her latest, though, titled Joy’All, is less about a moment than it is a realisation: “Life is hard,” she huffs now. “And it gets harder – but you still gotta find your joy.”

In some ways, the record – and its “take the good with the bad” mantra – is 47 years in the making. But even for an artist who has regularly wrung happiness from despair, Joy’All represents a further step in pushing that ethos. On the album, she sings of “the essence of life” as “suffering” in one moment and “ecstasy” the next. Against the laid-back folk-rock of “Psychos” sit “Jesus Christ and the devil” side-by-side, like “yin and yang”. Today,  Lewis recommends yoga and walking to me as ways to cultivate positive mental health, but notes “that doesn’t mean you can’t get stoned and drunk!” That attitude skips cheerfully across her new country-tinged album; the memorable, melodic kinks settling into the easy grooves carved out by the pedal steel and acoustic guitar. Lewis sounds buoyant, vulnerable and tongue-in-cheek.

The clarity of Joy’All emerged from the quiet of the pandemic. “It was a respite from my entire life,” recalls Lewis. “I’ve been earning since I was a tiny kid, so this was the first time that the stage went dark. And I was there by myself, thinking what do I have to work with? How do I reflect on my life?” More and more, Lewis has been looking inward. “Y’know, I grew up as a child actor; my mom was my manager, so that was her dream for me – not that I didn’t enjoy aspects of it – but then I left home at 16 to find my autonomy, and then found myself in a band where I was not autonomous.” She pauses for a moment. “I think I have been searching for this voice inside of myself and figuring out a way to get it on to the page.” It’s a big deal, she says, to have written these past two albums on her own. 

This album belongs to Lewis in other ways, too. For once, the songs are about her. “So many of my records have been about other people,” she says. “Rabbit Fur Coat is about my mom. “The Next Messiah” is about my dad. The Voyager is about my mom,” she smirks and shoots me a knowing look. “A lot of mom records…” (On the Line  channelled, among other things, her mother’s death). “But this record is about me and so I dedicate it to no one, and everyone.” Lewis does add, however, that “the spirit” of her godfather and best friend, Jerry Cohen, a music editor and amateur musician who died suddenly last spring, is all over Joy’All. 

Family has always loomed large in her music. Lewis’s parents met at an audition in Las Vegas. In the Seventies, they sang covers as part of a lounge act called Love’s Way. They divorced soon after Lewis was born, and she had little to no communication with her father, who pursued a career as a harmonica virtuoso. Against the odds, they reunited for Lewis’s second solo release Acid Tongue. Her dad played harmonica on the eight-minute country-rock opus “The Next Messiah”. On it, Lewis sings, “Now he’s living in the woods/ The dark and dank woods/ With a cocktail waitress/ Who thinks she’s an artist.” He died shortly after. “That was my, I don’t want to say ‘revenge’, but having my dad play on a song that’s a little bit about him…” Lewis brings her thumb and pointer finger to her lips and puckers up. “That’s just, ah chef’s kiss!”

There are differing accounts online of how Lewis was discovered aged two by the legendary Hollywood agent Iris Burton. Lewis is unsure of the details herself. “Regardless of the location, I met this woman who repped Kirsten Dunst, Fred Savage, all of the Phoenix actors. Every big kid was working with Iris.” Lewis got her start starring in commercials, which she parlayed into acting gigs on the small and big screen opposite stars like Lucille Ball and Angelina Jolie. “I wasn’t always doing huge stuff, but I was Iris’s secret favourite,” she grins. Lewis was 13 when she realised that her family depended on her financially. “It hadn’t occurred to me before because when you’re a kid, you just do what you do.” 

‘I’m a survivalist and there was something in me which suspected that if I stayed behind, I might not make it’ (Jenny Lewis)
‘I’m a survivalist and there was something in me which suspected that if I stayed behind, I might not make it’ (Jenny Lewis)

Even then, Lewis knew acting was a detour. “I was born a musician,” she says decidedly. The TV shows and the movies were just a job; a means to support her sister and mother. “When I retired from acting, it was frowned upon in my household because that’s how we paid for s***.” At 16, Lewis moved out and “that was that”. It was a quick decision but not one without a “tremendous amount of guilt” attached to it. “But I’m a survivalist and there was something in me which suspected that if I stayed behind, I might not make it.” As in, she might not be alive now if she hadn’t left when she did? “It was a very live or die kind of situation. It was so dysfunctional, so I had to leave and…” Lewis appears as though she might continue speaking but instead grows quiet and trails off. “So yeah.”

Lewis has always been the type to show her cards more in her music than any conversation. In 2006, she wrote the title ballad of her solo debut Rabbit Fur Coat, laying her mythology bare for all. “I became a hundred-thousand-dollar kid/ When I was old enough to realise/ Wiped the dust from my mother’s eyes,” she sings. “Is all this for that rabbit fur coat?” In the moment, Lewis felt no trepidation releasing something so personal. “But afterwards? Certainly.” She doesn’t play the song very often anymore. “Mostly because it’s really long and hard to remember, but also because it’s very naked to stand on stage and play that by myself. It’s pretty raw, but maybe it’s time to bring it back.” 

It’s very naked to stand on stage and play ‘Rabbit Fur Coat’ by myself. It’s pretty raw, but maybe it’s time to bring it back

A few years ago, shortly after her mother died of liver cancer by hepatitis C, Lewis expanded on the turmoil that fed into her formative years, revealing in an interview with Rolling Stone that her mother had been a long-time heroin addict. “I’ve said a lot of things in interviews that I regret but that’s not one of them,” Lewis replies when I ask whether she ever regrets divulging that particular detail. “I don’t want to talk s*** or make people feel bad. With my mom, I couldn’t not write about her in the songs. But before she passed, I didn’t want to open up about that stuff [in interviews] because I didn’t want her to read it.” 

Now, Lewis feels it’s her responsibility to speak about those harder parts of her youth. “There’s a lot of human stuff in there, a lot of lessons… and it’s part of my story; my mom’s story and my story are enmeshed. I’m just talking about the way I grew up, which was really, really wild and amazing and dangerous.” She considers this for a moment, casting her eyes toward the ceiling. “And I think at this point, my mom is OK with it wherever she is.” Lewis grins, raising her voice as if shouting out to some invisible presence somewhere in the ether. “Because she knows it’s all true!”

Lewis regularly visited her mum in the months leading up to her death. She taped hospital stickers from those visits to her fridge. On each one, she had scrawled a little phrase her mum had uttered that day (“You are sunshine in a fruit,” read one). Are the stickers still there? Lewis shakes her head, looking a little guilty. “No, I took them down,” she says. “But yesterday, I took out this poster board from my dad’s memorial. I kind of rotate between them because they were both such cool artists, so now I’m in the dad reverence mode.”

‘I do think choosing sadness is a thing’ (Bobbi Rich)
‘I do think choosing sadness is a thing’ (Bobbi Rich)

Empathy is something Lewis is evidently not short of. “I don’t blame my parents anymore,” she says. “They were dealt the hand they were dealt, and they did the best they could at the time. Addiction and things like that, they just happen, so it’s not even about forgiving, it’s about accepting it. I don’t have a lot of resentments now.” She sniggers. “I mean, I have some! There are some lingering things going on, but I’m working on it.”

It’s safe to say, then, that Lewis isn’t the same person who co-wrote the perennially angsty 2002 Rilo Kiley hit “The Good That Won’t Come Out”. When I quote one of her most famous lyrics back to her – “You say I choose sadness/ That it never once has chosen me/ Maybe you’re right” – Lewis cackles and then shudders. “Those were my emo days! You could only write that in your twenties,” she says. “But yes, I do think choosing sadness is a thing.” She certainly does not choose sadness now, it seems. “Well, sometimes you can’t help it. I wake up at three in the morning and I’m like, ‘Oh God, what have I done with my life?’ Sadness is the default, and you have to work your way out a bit. Exercise helps.” She spins the camera around to show me Bobby Rhubarb, her glossy black cockapoo patiently waiting on the sofa, rearing to go in a bright yellow harness. “And so does having a dog.”

‘Joy’All’ is out now via Blue Note/EMI Records