Sippin' the Kool-Aid of the Cosmos with Jenny Lewis

Jenny Lewis opens up about her new album The Voyager, dealing with loss, and battling insomnia.

Jul 10 2014, 7:00am

Jenny Lewis has always felt a little cosmic. Her sultry voice launched Rilo Kiley, filled out The Postal Service harmonies, and gave her a solo career. But about two years ago, Lewis lost her father and her ability to get any sleep. Battling insomnia and grief, she tried everything from acupuncture to psychics in search of finally getting some shut-eye. Along the way, she reached out to family, friends, and fellow musicians for help. One call for help led Lewis to begin working with Ryan Adams, and those collaborations sparked a new record: The Voyager which is out on July 29. After joining Ben Gibbard and the rest of The Postal Service for their ten-year anniversary reunion tour, Jenny began working with Ryan at Pax-Am Studio in Hollywood. With the help of everyone from Adams to Beck and Blake Mills, she emerged with what will be her first solo album in six years.

When I spoke with Jenny over the phone about the forces that led to the release of this album, she was kind, funny and ready to unpack the complications of the cosmos that her new album tackles. I got the lowdown on the awesome rainbow suit she wears in the artwork and covered everything else, from dealing with grief to "Golden Girls."

First off, I wanted to ask about the amazing outfit on your album cover. What aesthetic are you channeling for this album?

Jenny: The suit was something that I wanted to do even before it became a Technicolor dream suit. The suit came out of a conversation with Autumn De Wilde, who I collaborate with on all my album covers. She's an amazing photographer and we've told many stories together for Jenny & Johnny, my records, and Rilo Kiley. Our art director Adam Siegel had been revisiting air-brushing and he had painted a couple of things for Autumn. We talked about him painting the suit for me. I gave him a color palette and we kind of went from there.

On the last Rilo Kiley record, I wore hot pants and we performed in front of a gold lamé curtain. The songs were about staying up too late and doing too much cocaine. This record and its themes are very different. I felt a little more androgynous.

Will you be wearing it on tour?

Oh yeah, that's my outfit. I don't think I can dry-clean it because the paint would come off, so I highly suggest no hugs after the show when I'm still wearing it!

Photo by Autumn de Wilde

You've also talked about how the album is very cosmic. Especially with the title The Voyager and the title track where you sing, "If you want to get to heaven / Get out of this world." What are your thoughts on the cosmos and space, physically and spiritually?

You know, I was struggling with insomnia for two years. That's part of the reason why this record took so long for me to finish. While I was awake, I would watch "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" the Carl Sagan show, and rotate between that and boxing. That's kind of what kept me sane during many, many sleepless nights. It sounds so hippie-ish and weird but I thought a lot about the universe.

I lost my father in 2010 and it was really strange because even though he was gone I felt closer to him, in some ways, than I had while he was alive. I felt his presence and, in that, I found comfort. So I really wanted to end the record with this idea of infinity-- it's about transcendence.

What spurred you back into this healthier place? Was the music you made from dealing with that loss and insomnia? Was it collaborating with other musicians?

It was everything! I was so desperate to get back to sleep that I tried everything. I tried hypnotizing. I spoke with a psychic on the phone. I went on a thousand hikes. I reached out to my family and my friends. But it was also the music-- that was something to look forward to. Going into the studio got me out of my own head. I think that music is something that has really saved me. It's not something that I thought I'd be able to do professionally but it ended up being the thing kept me out of trouble.

Why did you think you wouldn't be able to make music for a living?

I just never assumed that you could be a professional musician [laughs]. Coming from my background-- especially as an actor-- it was hard since people didn't take me seriously because I was on TV. So when it became a reality with Rilo Kiley and we were touring and getting respect from our peers, it was really very cool.

Touching on your acting career for a second, I'm a pretty big "Golden Girls" fan and I know you were on the show ages ago. What was that like?

I don't remember much but that is something that has really lasted. I just remember everyone being so sweet and particularly Rue McClanahan, passed away [in 2010]. She was so warm and funny. [Once] we sat on the set in their living room, when the lights had gone down because everyone had broken for lunch, and she told me ghost stories and scared the crap out of me! I think I was 11, pre-boobs. She was so cool and Betty White was also the sweetest.

Jenny Lewis on "Golden Girls"

As far as getting back into the music, what was going on tour with The Postal Service like? Did that help you realize you wanted to do music again?

I had toured for a couple of years when I got the call from Ben, a year out that, we were going to do the reunion tour. I was still struggling with sleep and it gave me a time frame to get back to sleeping [regularly]. I was like, 'Well I've got a year'-- and it took that long to get back to sleep. It was such a wonderful way to get back to live performance and touring because I was the side person-- I was there to support Ben. So it was such a great way to be able to dip my toes back into it, where I didn't have to carry the whole show. And it was so easy anyway because people were so stoked to hear that record again!

The Postal Service at Coachella

We all were! Give Up was such influential record to me when I was growing up! That was the music I used to cope with my own loss. I think a lot of people listened to that, and even Rilo Kiley, to soothe themselves. Do you see The Voyager functioning in a similar way?

I don't know how people will receive the music, that's up to the listener. For me, the record served that purpose. Every record that I've made has gotten me through a period of my life. My teens, my twenties and now my thirties! It's all very therapeutic. And the Postal Service record, I'm just such a fan of it! Which is funny to say about something that you sing on, but it was just such a pleasure to hear those songs every night.

Do you have advice for someone dealing with grief?

I couldn't do it on my own. I asked for help from my friends and my family and my coworkers-- and that extended through this record. I just couldn't do it all. As a woman sometimes I feel like I really want to prove myself. I want to be able to do everything. I want to be able to write and record and produce, and clean the house, and look great. And sometimes it's just too much and you need to reach out to people. To bring it back to the record, that's what I did with Ryan [Adams]. I went into it with a pretty open mind and I think I really benefitted from that.

I read that Ryan wouldn't let you go back and listen to the songs after you recorded them. How do you think that changed the shape and the structure of your work for this record?

I think it was exactly what I needed: to really not dwell on what we were creating and trust someone. I had stopped trusting myself in a way, and so I needed that strength from him. I needed the parameters and I needed the rules in order to move forward.

There are a couple songs on the album-- "New You" or "She's Not Me"-- that feel like they're leveling critiques at someone else. How do you address how someone let you down in a song while still making it relatable to a wider audience?

I think I never want to be the kind of writer that's like 'You're an asshole, here's why' specifically'. I think I level the criticism at myself quite a bit as well. So hopefully that balances out some of the other stuff. But I also think it's fun to get into characters. In the "New You," I liked creating a little world about a longer hesher. It's about a guy who is obsessed with like Metallica.

Photo by Autumn de Wilde

Of all the different things you tried when you did have insomnia, the acupuncture, the psychic, the massages, the hypnotism, was there one of those things that you actually had a good experience with that you would try doing again?

All of them! Honestly, there were some really weird experiences in there. I did cupping, which is part of acupuncture, where they put these glass hot cups on your back and it leaves like a bruise. I was just open! It was all new experiences from me. the thing that I benefitted from the most was probably just the physical activity. The thing that really saved me and got me back to sleep was hiking in the mountains and doing yoga.

Is it difficult after coming out of two groups that had such immense success and popularity?

I think for anyone, getting caught in comparisons is dangerous territory. You know, when you're comparing yourself to yourself in another creative incarnation, it's weird! All of the bands that I've been in, they serve different purposes. And people are going to like one more than the other, that's just the way it goes. But for me, I'm always the most excited about the newest creative endeavor. As a solo artist I can do whatever I want and I can work with whoever I want to and I can keep switching up the personnel, and that's really exciting for me.

After six years of not doing the press and the touring cycle, is it difficult to jump back in? Did you miss it?

Well I love touring! I love waking up in a new place every day. And I love playing shows and I love hanging out with my band. I feel like I'm in my element when I'm on a tour bus. And I actually get great sleep on a tour bus! I was struggling to get a sleep and I was like if only I had a little bunk here in my room! Maybe I should set something up. Like babies, getting driven around. It's nice to take a break too because it can become a little tiresome talking about yourself too much, in interviews and stuff. I mean, it's great, but it's also nice to not think about why you wrote something.

Caitlin White is also a fan of "Cosmos." She's on Twitter - @harmonicait


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