When you grow up in a household with an addict,” says Jenny Lewis, fixing the fringe of her auburn beehive, “there’s this thing that kids do where we try to pretend that everything’s fine, and it’s not. I’m like that little kid trying to make out like everything’s cool, you know? But those were the circumstances, and they’re pretty outrageous.”
The 43-year-old, holed away in the austere, wood-panelled room of a London hotel, is discussing her dysfunctional childhood – a topic she “didn’t talk about for 20 years”. Before she was a revered musician – first with her raw, adored indie-rock band Rilo Kiley, and then as a solo artist, collaborating with the likes of Beck, Brandon Flowers, Bright Eyes, Au Revoir Simone, Ringo Starr and (the since disgraced) Ryan Adams – Lewis was a child actor whose mother was a heroin addict and whose father was barely ever there.
From the age of six, she was the breadwinner of the family. She starred in TV shows such as Murder She Wrote, Baywatch, The Golden Girls and Roseanne, and by the time she was 16, her career had paid for two houses in Los Angeles. “We lost all that,” she said vaguely in a New York Times interview in 2014.
Throughout her music career, which began in 1998 when she formed Rilo Kiley with then-boyfriend Blake Sennett, Lewis has been unflinching in documenting her relationship with her parents. “And your mother’s still calling you, insane and high, swearing it’s different this time,” she sang through a muffled microphone on 2002 track “A Better Son/Daughter”. “And you tell her to give in to the demons that possess her / That God never blessed her insides.” The two were estranged for most of Lewis’s adult life.
But while the Las Vegas-born musician was making her new album, On the Line, and coming to terms with the end of her 12-year relationship with fellow musician Johnathan Rice, she found out that her mother was dying. The subsequent record – an opulent Americana masterpiece rife with grief, lust and decaying glamour – chronicles those two losses. “Little White Dove” was written during visits to see her mother in hospital. “In the middle of love,” sings Lewis, with a melody that hopscotches over funk-led bass riffs, “I’m the little white dove, I’m the heroin.” By the time she had finished the album – which was recorded in a vocal booth built for Frank Sinatra, and features Ringo Starr on drums – her mother had died.
“When you get the call that someone’s not well, you have a choice to be there or not,” she says now. “I decided to be there, and I’m so happy that I did. You feel their true essence in that setting, where they can’t get up and bounce. In those moments, you just see people for who they are, and they’re just like you. They are you. They’re just souls in a body that’s done. They’re just humans. They’re your parents. They tried their best.” There’s a long, heavy pause. “They weren’t great at it,” she adds with a husky snigger. “But we all have our issues with our folks.”
She has mixed feelings, though, when it comes to talking about her mother in interviews. “I feel a little raw and creeped out by myself,” she says. “If you’ve had any experience with mental illness or addiction, it’s beauty and joy and love and pain. My favourite people are addicts. They’re the most interesting, complex people. It’s not one-sided. And so in talking about it in the press, it doesn’t reflect the whole story. And today, I felt bad about it. I was like, ‘God, I hope I’m not presenting this really negative picture of my mum, who was an addict, but also a human.’
“I’ve been in many uncomfortable interview situations,” she continues, “where it’s been brought up in not such a warm way by a male journalist, in a way that pissed me off and felt intrusive and weird, and I didn’t say anything. But at that time my mum was alive. Talking about it now she’s gone,” she adds with a quiet sigh, “I hope that it will become part of the healing process for myself, and other women.”
In making peace with her mother, Lewis found that her female friendships took on a different form. “I think if your relationship with your mother is strained,” she says, “your relationships with other women will reflect that in some ways. So in repairing that with her, I really connected with my female friends.”
In 2016, she formed indie rock trio Nice as F**k with two fellow female musicians: Au Revoir Simone’s Erika Forster and The Like’s Tennessee Thomas. Before then, her collaborators had been largely male. “Having grown up in an indie rock band with all men,” she says, “and generally just being a tomboy throughout my adolescence, and really connecting with men in that way on a platonic level, there’s a little bit of a lack of accountability, because there’s always, on some level, an underlying sexual component. Or a little taste of something.”
It’s at this point that I bring up Ryan Adams. The musician produced most of her brilliant 2014 album The Voyager, and contributed (minimally) to the new record, too. He’s since been accused of sexual misconduct and emotional abuse by several women, including his ex-wife Mandy Moore, the singer Phoebe Bridgers, and an underage girl referred to as “Ava”. When the allegation first went public, Lewis tweeted: “I am deeply troubled by Ryan Adams’s alleged behaviour. Although he and I had a working professional relationship, I stand in solidarity with the women who have come forward.”
In interviews from around five years ago, Lewis spoke of her experience working with Adams. “It felt like he was needling me,” she said in one. “He was winding me up. I was sometimes agitated.” In another, she said, “He’d say things like, ‘God, I can’t take this campfire bullshit’.” She also spoke of having to “submit” to him. When I read these quotes back to her, she snorts.
Does she see this behaviour as a positive thing? “I think I did at the time,” she says. “Hearing you read that back now, it feels different to me. It’s interesting to have someone pull up something that you said years ago, because I think we’re all going through this together right now. This dialogue. And this movement. I think my perspective is evolving, and I’m understanding more about my place in the whole thing, as a woman.
“I haven’t really thought of myself as a female artist,” she continues, “I’m an artist and I’ve just tried to do my work and keep up. And I tend to like a little tension in the studio. When we recorded the Nice as F**k record, Tennessee was getting really riled up. In order to pull off that fast drumming, she had to punch the wall and cry a little bit, which was really intense. But this,” she points to the quotes I’ve just recited, “is not necessary to create great art. And this is not something I’ll ever tolerate again. Ever.”
Did she make a conscious decision not to let that kind of thing happen again? “No. I’ve had to go through a series of unhealthy relationships, where this masculine toxicity is just something that ends up in my orbit, until I make a decision to remove myself. And I’m always trying to combat it with love and care and understanding, and more love, and that is just not always practical. But I truly am still learning.”
She clearly doesn’t consider her relationship with Rice to have been a toxic one, though the pain and frustration of their breakup engulfs On the Line. “After all we’ve been through, don’t you wanna kiss me?” she asks on “Red Bull and Hennessy”. “Don’t you even wanna try to devour the moon?” On the hunched and haunted “Dogwood”, she admits, “I believe you will chase me away / So that you can prove love is not enough for you.”
They hadn’t broken up yet, she says, when she wrote “Dogwood”. “Maybe I manifested it with that song. Well, I don’t know what comes first, the song or the experience.” She lets out a “pfff” sound. “But that’s the magic of healing songwriting, it comes through in a way where I don’t know what the hell I’m singing about. And then it’ll either predict or… no it’ll always predict. Every single f**king time.”
The breakup wasn’t easy for Lewis. “You don’t know what it’s like until you’ve had your heart broken,” she says. “And it has a physical manifestation. You can’t get out of bed in the morning because it hurts your chest. Have you ever felt that?” I nod. “What is that?! That’s why Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the best movie ever made. Just the idea that you can erase someone. Because there’s no way out of that feeling. You think it’s never gonna end, you wanna erase the memory of the person, you’d do anything, you’d take a pill, you’d get surgery, you’d move away… and then one day you don’t think of them all day long. And the next day, you think of them less. And then you’re better. And you forget what it feels like to be heartbroken. And you like someone else. Hopefully. And certainly you can experience that in your twenties, but I think thirties heartbreak has a whole other level of weight. It hurts. It really hurts. Physically. I wonder if men feel the same heart hurt in that way.”
Still, she considers the relationship an achievement. “I think over a decade is a success,” she says. “I didn’t think I would be with anyone, for any length of time, let alone 12 years.” Why is that? “I never really had... I didn’t really have a lot of boyfriends, so this was really my first significant relationship, at 28. I always felt like a lone wolf in the world. Just buried in my notebook. So that was the first time that I really felt like a team.”
In her Rolling Stone profile, Lewis reflected that when she was with Rice, she “didn’t finish any of my stories. Johnathan finished every story for me.” “That’s not a negative statement,” she says. “You said that to me and it gave me a really nice feeling. But when you’re with someone for that long, you just become one thing. We were so connected that even our stories were connected. So re-emerging in the world, and learning how to finish the story, or tell the punchline to the joke, or do whatever it is that you’ve relied on someone else for… I think in pursuing that independence and autonomy, you just kind of get back to your own full story.”
She smiles. “We think of breakups as endings, but they’re beginnings.”
On the Line is out now