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Jenny Lewis Sees Your Pain

Music
Photograph by Autumn DeWilde.

The musician talks about her new album, why she doesn't dream very much, and getting romantic revenge in her songs

Anyone who thinks it's boring to listen to people talk about their dreams hasn't listened to Jenny Lewis talk about hers.

"I had a dream two weeks ago that my basement flooded, and guess what happened a week ago?" Lewis said to me, leaning in closer, and nodding her head. "Yeah. And I didn't remember the dream until my basement flooded, so I was ignoring my intuition." She paused, then said, "This happens to me all the time, and then I always remember, Oh my gosh. I had a dream about that. Or, I felt something. I knew."

Lewis doesn't dream often. When I asked her if she keeps a dream journal, some place to record all the things that escape her subconscious in the middle of the night, she said, "No. I smoke a lot of weed, so I don't dream a lot—this is a phenomenon with people who smoke weed. So, when I stop smoking, that's when the dreams come back, or at least I can remember them and then I'll write them down. But I should write them down every day, because it would just be a road map."

But then, Lewis doesn't need a dream journal to use as a road map, a book to bind all her unfettered thoughts and wild emotions—she has her music. And whether or not she sees her songs as a road map for her life—a way of tracking where she's been, where she is, and where she's going—there is no doubt that her fans see her music that way. Only, they see her songs as maps of their own lives, as ways to track their own mountains and valleys, their detours and the many, many places they've stopped along the way.

***

Lewis and I were talking about dreams and intuition and all things uncanny at a nail salon in a strip mall in Studio City, California, not far from Lewis' house; it's a part of the Valley that Lewis called the "Shallow Val." We were getting mani-pedis, and Lewis arrived in coveralls the same blue as the L.A. sky, plus a neon pink baseball cap with the words "Best Friends" scrawled across the front. She brought her own nail polish—an iridescent blue that matched her high-tops—and told me that she was "living in this color scheme right now... Color-blocking is very important to me, and having a palette to define an era."

That Lewis has chosen blue and pink to define this new era seems like indication that she sees herself as going through a rebirth ("Today I realized, I was like… blue and pink… it's a boy, it's a girl, it's both!"), and that the release of her new album, On the Line, is a deliverance of sorts. Certainly the last few years have been a time of great transformation in her life: Since releasing her last solo album, The Voyager, in 2014, Lewis broke up with her partner of more than a decade, the musician Johnathan Rice; spent time living in New York and Nashville, leaning on close friends to get through that transitional period; and reconnected with her estranged mother, who died of liver cancer late last year.

"The whole thing tells a story," Lewis said about On the Line. "It's like a play, where it opens in a relationship and kind of begins with a breakup, and then it cycles through: breakup, rebound, death, rebirth, a reminder at the end about the rabbit hole."

A lot of lighthearted stuff.

She flashed a grin at me: "As per usual. That's kind of what I do... Macarena vibes."

There are no '90s earworm vibes in On the Line, but there is a subversive sunniness that highlights the pain, casting it in relief, as there always is in Lewis' music. In "Wasted Youth," Lewis inhabits the voice of her mother, whose decades-long heroin addiction led to the distance between them, and sings about how she "wasted my youth on a poppy... just for fun." Punctuating the chorus is a string of deadpan doo-doo-doos, Lewis' way of sending up the seriousness of her lyrics, making clear she knows the weight of her words, but that she's working to rise above them, to get out of the darkness by going through it. She employed a similar chorus on the song "Just One of the Guys" on The Voyager, letting loose with a knowing "dah-dah-de-dah-dah" after she sang about being "another lady without a baby."

"I write to the big stuff," Lewis told me, "and the big feelings. I have to in order to survive them, and I've learned to rely on that to help walk through it. I can't really help myself while it's happening. So, the writing process is often very emotional—and private."

***

What do you know about Jenny Lewis? Probably a lot. Privacy is a tricky thing when you've lived most of your life in public. But the things you know about Lewis—that she was born to parents who had a Las Vegas lounge act called Love's Way, that she was a child actress (yes, that's her on The Golden Girls, and in cult classic movies The Wizard and Troop Beverly Hills), that she transitioned into music in the late '90s, first as the frontwoman for Rilo Kiley, and then embarked on her own solo career—are the kind of biographical facts that fade in importance compared to the things that you feel about Lewis. Because for people who love Jenny Lewis—who would recognize that suede-soft voice anywhere, understanding that its clarity is sharpest right before it breaks—the mere act of knowing things is not really the point. The point is how Lewis makes you feel: like you've been seen.

There are a lot of songs, a lot of lyrics, in which a listener can see themselves, but what makes Lewis' work feel singular is the way in which she makes it feel like she sees a very specific version of you, the version that only you've seen before. She sees the version of you that stares back at your reflection in a dirty bathroom mirror at four in the morning; the you with smudged eyeliner and smeared lipstick; the you that lies in bed all day, pulling the covers up over your head when the sun gets too bright; the you that ignores the 19 missed calls and 47 texts on your phone; the you that plays Candy Crush so you don't have to think about the crush of the world.

Feeling seen this way is a powerful thing, and it's what makes Lewis' fans so ardent, so ready to approach her and tell her about all the ways she means so much to them. Lewis told me what happens when she encounters women who listen—really listen—to her music: "When I talk to them, it feels like we've been on the journey together, because we have been. And that kind of feedback makes me feel a little shy because I don't think of myself in that way. I'm just living my life, I'm trying to get through it the best way I can. But then I meet someone who's like, 'Oh my gosh, "A Better Son/Daughter" really helped me out. I really needed that song!'" Lewis laughed, then, and said she tells these women, "Me too, me too."

***

Having so much projected upon you by so many people is an almost impossible burden to bear—many have fallen under that weight. And Lewis told me that she is, by nature, "extremely sensitive. I'm a redhead." She laughed, "I'm allergic to everything... I break out into a heat rash, just hives before every show. Born a redhead, inflamed. I just came out like, Ahhh!"

Music is a difficult industry for a sensitive person—especially a sensitive woman—and Lewis' experience navigating its treacheries has not always been easy. Lewis and I were talking a couple of weeks after her longtime collaborator, including on this album, Ryan Adams was accused of sexual misconduct and emotional abuse. Lewis responded to the allegations in a tweet, saying that she was "deeply troubled" and that she "stands with the women who have come forward."

When we spoke of the reckoning happening in the industry, Lewis said to me, "It's very important to believe women, and I think that's where we begin, and then we do our due diligence and we try to figure out the truth and define it and correct it moving forward and redefine what is okay and what isn't."

But she acknowledged that things were very different for her when she came up in the industry:

What I'm interested in, is the dialogue moving forward and defining what it is that we will not accept any more. And there are so many layers to this conversation. And there are generational gaps. There's my generation. We didn't even talk to our parents or our girlfriends about what happened to us. That was not something we shared. My friends who are in their late 30s and early 40s only now are we opening up to one another. That is a process that everyone comes to; you have to let people come to that reckoning in their own time. I know I didn't engage in any of those behaviors. And I've done the best that I could do to feel safe, and also keep doing my work.

Maintaining the primacy of her work is what's important to Lewis; it's how she defines herself, telling me, "I'm an artist. I'm a poet... Sex and power are so, oh man, it's just such a dynamic that has been in place for so long. It's hard to know, I guess until you know." And she doesn't, she made clear, "love talking about my politics or feeling like I have to comment on things that have nothing to do with my music":

At the same time, as a woman—I'm in my 40s, I've been playing music for over 20 years, and I'm engaging in this dialogue with my friends. Sometimes I feel a little bit of pressure to speak up about things that I don't feel necessarily qualified to speak to. However, I do have the unique perspective of being a woman in the music industry for 20 years surrounded by men. I have a lot to say about it.

***

If you want to know what Lewis has to say, you just need to listen to her lyrics. It's where, she joked to me, she gets her "revenge... romantic revenge." She continued, "I'm writing for myself, but I really am writing for other women... I don't write to get someone's attention. I don't do that, but I write sort of an addendum: And furthermore, fuck you!"

While it might be cathartic to tell someone to fuck off in a song, Lewis takes seriously the loss of her loved ones. She told me:

I had a conversation with Johnathan, my ex-boyfriend of 12 years. I got off the phone with him, and I was just crying, almost in gratitude. Just having spent that much time with someone and then suddenly they're not a part of your daily life, when that's the person who knew everything about you and you shared every little detail about everything. How life is just… you never really know what's going to happen. There are so many surprises. There's so much beauty and pain and suffering, and life is suffering, so, therefore, is love.

She laughed, "That sounds so hippy-dippy."

Maybe, but it's sincere. Among the many things Lewis is allergic to is pretense; she said, "I can't stand ironic art or fashion. I don't have any place for that. Being around people who are too cynical, it's fucking toxic."

This doesn't mean that she does everything in earnest, or that she isn't always ready to offer a knowing wink or joke about how she is both "not a furry, but also not not a furry," when we find ourselves talking about the allure of a man in a Daffy Duck costume (it's easy to cover a lot of conversational ground in a nail salon; she also told me this about her favorite conspiracy theory: "I like the reptilian connection. I like the idea that all of the wealthy families are related and of a reptile master race and they've infiltrated and are in charge. I don't know if I believe that fully, but I think that I've met a couple of reptiles").

But what this disdain for cynicism does mean, is that Lewis attaches to things and to people with her full self, her full heart. She said, "I believe in soul connections, and the past life, whatever that means. I believe that the lessons that you need to learn, you meet the people that will teach you the lesson. Sometimes, we don't want to let go of the person, but you've learned the lesson, and it's time to move on. I get so attached to everyone. It's so hard to let go." She smiled and almost sang, "Letting go, here we go again."

***

There's a lot that Lewis has let go of in the last few years, but there are also a lot of connections she's made, and ones she's made stronger. She told me about the song circles she does in Nashville, with other female musicians, and what happens to her when she's playing live shows: "It's an opportunity to trance out—best-case scenario. When you are calm and free, you can channel the music. When you're not in your head and you're telling your story and singing your heart out, it's like floating. It feels so good, and it feels so good to connect with people." She looked down at her nails, and said, "I really like to look at the audience and connect with them. I didn't always do that, I looked down at my guitar for many, many years. Now, I look up. I really want to feel that connection."

What do you see when you look up?

Lewis looked up, then, tears coming out of her eyes: "I see people that are in a lot of pain. I can see all their suffering." She dabbed at her face with the corner of a towel slung over the arm of the pedicure chair, and said, "Then, I can feel the joy. It's really amazing."

***

The risk of being a fan, of having all that one-sided adoration for someone who might never know you exist, is the same risk that comes with any kind of love: heartbreak. Maybe the person whose work you adore will turn out to be a disappointment, a liar, a fraud; or maybe they will leave you, leave everything, and retreat into themselves.

Loving Jenny Lewis, listening to her songs over and over again until it feels like their words linger on your skin, a musky perfume that sinks into your cells, doesn't guarantee you won't experience heartbreak, it doesn't guarantee you won't feel pain. It's almost a promise that you will. But then, it's also a promise that you'll feel everything else that goes along with heartbreak and pain; you'll feel happiness and ecstasy, you'll feel pangs of longing and you'll explore deep wells of regret, you'll be lonely and you'll be listened to, you'll feel alive, and you'll feel seen.

And it will be by someone who knows what it is to listen to other people, and listen to herself—her dreams, her intuition, her sense of adventure and wanting to see what comes next, and caring about it all, caring so much that it hurts, but accepting that as the price of being alive.

Before leaving the nail salon, driving away from the strip mall, and deeper into the Valley, Lewis said to me, "Life is too real to pretend like you don't give a fuck." She stretched out her fingers, each tipped with a cerulean, holographic sheen, and said, "You don't want to be that person at the end of the road, at the end of the world, that's like, 'I told you so.' I get that it's hard, but it's hard for all of us."

Photograph by Autumn DeWilde.

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