Singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis is Taking Ownership of Her Narrative

From Growing Pains and Troop Beverly Hills to her fourth solo album.

The most striking thing about speaking with Jenny Lewis is how she manages to make our conversation seem fluid and relaxed. As she answers questions with tiny, thoughtful details, she radiates the charm of California cool girl, but never comes across as aloof. 

“There’s a little bird making a nest outside my bedroom window,” she says. “It’s very cute, but it makes this repetitive squeak that woke me up at 6:45 in the morning.”

According to Lewis, her neighbourhood in Studio City, Los Angeles, is basically a bird sanctuary. “My neighbours are bird fanatics, and they throw like, raw meat to the ravens. There are so many different kinds of birds, so yesterday, I just decided to do a little bird watching.” But ravens feeding on raw meat? “Yeah, I didn’t know that either until I stepped onto a raw piece of ribeye,” Lewis says without missing a beat.

There’s something to be said about a person who can enliven the most mundane small talk with vivid imagery. Since her days as the frontwoman of cult indie-rock band, Rilo Kiley, Lewis has been a master storyteller, drawing from everyday hardships and heartaches. But for someone who once wrote, “You say I choose sadness, that it never once has chosen me,” Lewis is surprisingly warm and upbeat. “I’ve learned that positivity is a choice for survival. I wouldn’t characterize myself as happy or sad, but I do try to see the glass as half-full—on most days,” she says. 

As a child actor, Lewis began her career landing roles in TV shows like Growing Pains and Troop Beverly Hills. But it’s not a period she remembers fondly: forced to mature early, and she became the sole breadwinner to support her mother and sister. As to whether she’d ever return to the profession, Lewis says she’s open to anything “that feels right in the moment,” especially if the dynamic is healthy and the relationship is healing. 

“But that kind of performance gives me anxiety, and I don’t think I like playing other people. Or maybe I do. I don’t know. It was just such a big part of my life, and I pivoted from acting [to] take control of the narrative creatively. The idea of going back doesn’t feel as exciting to me because it’s not my story to tell.”

“There’s Frank Sinatra DNA in the capsule of this microphone at Capitol Records. And now my spit is with Frank’s spit forever on this Neumann mic. It’s pretty fucking cool.”

In writing music, she’s able to do just that. Two years ago, Lewis began recording On the Line, her fourth solo effort, at Capitol Records in Los Angeles. There, she had legendary equipment, including the piano that Carol King played on Tapestry and a microphone used by Frank Sinatra, at her disposal. “There’s Frank Sinatra DNA in the capsule of this microphone at Capitol Records. And now my spit is with Frank’s spit forever on this Neumann mic. It’s pretty fucking cool,” she gushes.

What’s more, Lewis assembled a backing band of renowned musicians, including Beck bassist and legendary hitmaker, Don Was, and Ringo Starr. It’s a far cry from early Rilo Kiley when she and her bandmates recorded music on four-track tapes in her living room. But Lewis says that she still felt at home playing with those big names on her album. “To end up in a studio with really seasoned musicians was kind of a logical step for me. I’m not making records in my home anymore. I’m free to explore different sounds and methods.” Recording as a solo artist comes with its insecurities, however, and Lewis admits to feeling mixed emotions when she tackles new work on her own. 

“Freedom, fear, responsibility. You’re alone, but you’re autonomous. You have creative freedom and choice, but there isn’t that one person you can turn to and say, ‘Is this okay? Am I doing the right thing?’ And [then being] single on top of that—in the past, my partner and I would bounce off each other.” But that experience, she concedes, was ultimately rewarding. “You get to make your own pure vision. It’s still collaborative, but at the end of the day I’m the one making the decisions.”

On the Line is a sweeping symphony of loss and rebirth. Written over multiple years shortly after her breakup with longtime partner, Jonathan Rice, it began as an album of self-exploration. But when Lewis’ estranged mother passed away right before recording, the album took on new meaning, and it became a way for the songwriter to process her grief. 

The barren piano ballad “Dogwood” acts as the “core and soul” of the record and reflects the overall theme of losing a loved one — romantic or familial. It’s Lewis’ favourite track from the album, and one she finds difficult to perform live. “For me, it’s very moving. And I guess some nights I don’t want to feel that way. Or I don’t want to remember feeling that way,” she confesses.

As anyone familiar with Lewis’ music knows, her fraught relationship with her mother has hung heavy over her songwriting. But it’s always appeared in oblique references, blurring the line between memoir and fiction. It isn’t immediately obvious, with its slick groove and almost mythic lyrics, but “Little White Dove” was written about Lewis’ time with her mother at the hospital. But in this instance, she and her mother had reconciled. 

“My mother is a great source of inspiration. She’s a very mysterious figure in my life and a complex person. I’ve always tried not to be too judgemental of her. My relationship with her is very personal and formative and something I’m trying to figure out in all areas of my life. It’s just been a constant, and now that she’s gone, I’m not sure that there’s anything more I can write, honestly.” She hesitates before adding, “It might be time to start writing about something else.”

It’s the beginning of a new chapter. Now the “heroine” of her own story, Lewis is in control and won’t let her past pain dictate her future.

 *This article was originally published in May 2019.