Last summer, when Jenny Lewis left her Laurel Canyon home and hit the road for the Postal Service’s 10-year anniversary tour, she’d already been working on her third solo album for nearly half a decade. Her father had died in 2010, and Rilo Kiley — the band that saved Lewis from the reality-TV purgatoryreserved for most former child actors who appeared in episodes of Growing Pains and Baywatch as teens— had slowly fizzled its way into nothingness. Lewis was rootless. Apart from a Beck-produced recording of “Just One of the Guys,” a sun-kissed pop song about growing older in a world that reserves most of its attention for younger women, she didn’t have much to show for the album that eventually became The Voyager.
The Postal Service tour changed all of that. For the first time in years, Lewis didn’t have to worry about being a lead singer. That role went to Ben Gibbard, who spent his summer in front of a microphone singing “Such Great Heights” and “We Will Become Silhouettes” while his prettier sidekick bounced around the stage in a flurry of red tresses and black dresses, playing keyboards one minute and rhythm guitar the next. Those shows transported Lewis back to 2003, a time when music was still new and exciting.
She returned home with purpose, determined to finish the album she’d started years before. With help from co-producer Ryan Adams, Lewis recorded The Voyager as soon as the tour wrapped, finishing the tracking sessions less than two weeks after the Postal Service played its final show. Like Rabbit Fur Coat and Acid Tongue, The Voyager finds Lewis updating the California pop/rock sound of Fleetwood Mac for the iPod generation, mixing in some folk, classic country and singer/songwriter influences along the way.
We talked with Lewis at the start of her summer tour to see what the voyage has been like.
You’ve been on the road this summer. Who’s in the band this time around?
It’s a brand new band. We even have one woman, Megan McCormick, who’s been on Nashville before. When I found out about that, I was pretty starstruck.
So you watch Nashville?
Hell yeah, I do. I love it. I was a big fan of Days of Our Lives growing up. It’s kind of like that, but with music.
You were a big fan of country music growing up, too.
I grew up listening to Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris and Laura Nyro. I think regardless of where people are from, country music is a through line. Those older songs have definitely been an inspiration for me.
Is it easier to access those country influences when you’re recording your own albums, as opposed to working with a band?
It’s easier to get into character when it’s your own music. When you’re in a band, there’s a certain shared dynamic. We definitely did a little of [the country thing] with Rilo Kiley, but I think we were basically a guitar-rock band. With my first [solo] record, Rabbit Fur Coat, we could really play with the imagery of the singular country singer, flanked by the Watson Twins. That’s such a powerful image. It’s harder to do that with a band, when you’re like, “I’m in a band with four dudes… and here’s me!”
Albums can feel like a snapshot of the time in which they were created: where you were, who you were with, what you were doing. The Voyager took years to make, though. Does it still feel like a snapshot?
It’s always a snapshot. Not everyone has to know about the process. In the end, the music tells the story. People don’t know it’s been five or six years when they go out to buy a record. They’re just like, “Oh, this sounds good.” [The Voyager] did take a really long time, though. I’d gotten into the schedule of releasing a record at least every two years, so this was a long break. It felt weird.
These songs were inspired by death, breakups and insomnia. Does releasing the album help you close the chapter on those hardships?
Maybe, but I have to go out and play these tunes every night on the road for a year. I’m not distanced from them yet.
When you’re playing them every night, you really have to live with them, too. Night after night.
Yeah, and they take on a new life. Songs are really interesting in that way. Sometimes, they grow with you. Sometimes, you outgrow them.
Speaking of growing, “Late Bloomer” finds you flying to Europe as a 16-year-old and falling in with a music fan who’s stalking one of her favorite songwriters. Fact or fiction?
There’s always a bit of fiction in everything that I write. “Late Bloomer” is a fable, in a way, based on a woman I met in Paris in the Nineties. She was following Sebadoh. [Sebadoh lead singer] Lou Barlow actually sings on that song, even though the song is loosely based on him.
What did Lou think about that?
I told him [the story] right away, and he was really cool about it. I can’t believe he actually came in and laid down some vocals. I would’ve been scared to death.
The Voyager was partially produced by Ryan Adams. The guy can be unconventional. What are some of the more unusual things he would do in the studio?
In some ways, I felt like he was needling me. He was winding me up. I was somewhat agitated at times, and I think it put me in a really cool place to perform those songs. Ryan is the most unique producer I’ve ever worked with, in his approach and behavior… He made me listen to five or six Creed songs, really loudly on these beautiful tube speakers. My ears were bleeding. And it was Creed! He was like, “This is great music. I want you to hear it.” And by the third song, I was like “Huh. Umm. Yeah, I can maybe see that.”
What was the point of that? What was he trying to prove?
I have no idea!
Why choose him as your producer?
I just went into [Adams’ Pax-Am Studio] to record one tune, “She’s Not Me,” which was a song I’d been working on in this Keith Richards-ish open tuning. I couldn’t finish it, so I decided to go over there and cut it with him. We put together a band, including Griffin [Goldsmith, of Dawes] on drums and Ryan on guitar. By the end of the day, we’d recorded “She’s Not Me” live, two takes. And I was like, “Oh my god, Ryan is kind of a badass producer. And a great guitar player.” I had another song I’d just finished for this Anne Hathaway movie called “Song One.” Jonathan [Rice] and I were writing a bunch of songs for the movie, but they’d rejected that particular song, so I was like, “Ok, let’s do this one, too.” And when that was finished, Ryan said, “You should just come and recut your whole record at Pax. Next week.” And I said, “Ok!”
Ryan has a new record on the way, too. Have you heard “Gimme Something Good?”
I haven’t. Is it rad?
It’s a great rock tune. Big guitars, big hooks…
Well, I feel like he probably recorded it close to the time that we recorded my record at Pax. Maybe the rock vibe was in the air.
So he tapped into the Jenny vibe?
No, I’d never say that. Not about Ryan. I tapped into the Ryan Adams vibe.