Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice sit in a Park City lodge sipping spicy Bloody Marys. They partied hard last night celebrating the Sundance premiere of Kate Barker-Froyland’s Song One, starring Anne Hathaway, which the rocker couple scored. (“Many hot toddys,” Lewis says. “Plenty of powder,” Rice jokes.) In the film, Hathaway plays Franny, an anthropology grad student studying in Morocco who is called home with news her Brooklyn-based busker brother has been hit by a car and is in a coma. Distraught, she finds her brother’s journal and traces his steps, eventually befriending his favorite singer-songwriter, the fictional James Forester — played by real life musician Johnny Flynn — and becomes equally infatuated. Rolling Stone spoke with Lewis and Rice about writing an album for a fictional musician, Lewis’ latest track for Girls and her first solo album since 2008, due out this spring.
How did this project come about?
Lewis: With our own music I was on a little bit of a sabbatical, which is unusual, so it was just perfectly timed that I had about a year off to work on the songs. It took a really long time, and there was a lot of back and forth and a lot of collaboration.
I know you collaborated with director Kate Barker-Froyland, did you also collaborate with Anne Hathaway?
Lewis: Yes, she was listening to all the songs as they were being written and so was Jonathan Demme, and we would demo on garage band at home and send the songs out and wait for feedback. They asked us if we would try writing some of the songs for the film, and within 24 hours they had a song in their inbox. That first song, “Little Yellow Dress,” I think got us the job, and then it was like one down seven to go.
And how did you conceive of differently than last year’s Very Good Girls, where you performed the songs on the soundtrack?
Lewis: It was, harder in some ways, and easier in some ways. When you remove your performance from the equation it’s easier to listen back from the song, because you’re not listening back to the tone of your voice, but in other ways you have to make the lyrics specific to the character. The thing that excited us is we could tell the back-stories of the characters the stuff that wasn’t in the pages of the script. So we could talk about James Forester’s relationship with his parents, relationship with his ex-girlfriend, we asked all of these questions of [director Kate Barker-Froyland], so we could write about him. Before the camera started rolling the songs had to be all recorded. James Forrester, who Johnny Flynn plays, has an album.
Rice: So there is a possibility for it not to just be a conventional sound track but for it to be a found album of sorts.
So you might release a more studio style album for this fictional character.
Rice: That’s out of our hands, but it could be non-conventional and interesting. Jenny and I produced the sessions in New York, but then we mixed them specifically with Rob Schnapf, who helmed the first Elliott Smith records, because we used Eliot as kind of a touchstone emotionally and sonically, and that was definitely a jumping off point for the character of Johnny Forester. Bill Fox was also a huge influence on this character, and Neutral Milk Hotel — just those records that don’t have a studio sheen, but have an intimacy and an idiosyncrasy.
Had you ever done anything like this before?
Lewis: No, and there were a couple songs where I was like, shit, I’m about to record a new record, I wish I hadn’t given that song away.
You are working on a new album, did this project push you forward at all, being on a bit of a sabbatical?
Lewis: It did, and I think any song writing challenge is a good one. And sometimes it take an experience like this to get you out of your own head and to get you out of your own routine as songwriting, so I found it really inspiring, and it made me want to get back to myself and that sort of news-ticker in my head and my own inner monologue.
This is your first album since 2008, what’s the status?
Lewis: I’m mixing next week and this is all I’ll say, until it’s mixed I don’t really want to talk about it, but it took a village.
And I understand you are looking to release it this year?
Lewis: Yes, sometime this spring. I just had this song on Girls that my friend [Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmangli] wrote the music for, and he sent me a track to write over and I did. He wrote the music, and I wrote the melody, and the top line as it were, and I just learned what a top line was, and the music, and we spent a day with his friend Ariel at his studio in the Valley. We weren’t able to do more than one song I originally wanted to do more songs with him but the Girls soundtrack was originally a great outlet for this one collaboration.
Will that go on your album?
Lewis: I don’t know. I’m not sure. It depends on how the rest of the songs turn out, and see if it fits. It exists in it’s own right.
Any inspiration or themes for the album?
Do you write the songs when you can’t sleep?
Lewis: Yeah, some of them. I was awake for a while. I’m superstitious, until I start mixing, I feel like when I start it then I will be able to actually speak of it. But I’m done recording, and I’m just mixing in LA.