Jenny Lewis Starts Over
There are 19 white stickers arranged across Jenny Lewis’ fridge. Each one carries a stamped date, the logo of Providence Holy Cross Medical Center, the word VISITOR and, in Lewis’ handwriting, a different beguiling little phrase: I taught him how to 2-step; Rosey posey put your snake finger on; You are a sunshine in a fruit. “Every day that I visited my mom in the hospital,” Lewis says, “I’d get one of these and write down something she’d say to me. She got more and more psychedelic as we kept upping the meds, and she’d say the most amazing things.” Lewis points at one — Glue me to the ceiling so you never leave — and sighs. “She had liver cancer. From untreated hepatitis C. She was a lifelong heroin addict and also mentally ill and . . . just a really sad situation.”
It’s a drizzly evening in early January, and Lewis is at her home in Los Angeles, drinking gamay wine and discussing things she’s never discussed publicly before. Some listeners over the years may have noticed scattered allusions in her songs to her mother’s troubles and the painful outlines of their relationship. In 2002, on an early album by her first band, Rilo Kiley, she described a mother who was “insane and high.” In 2006, on her debut solo album, Rabbit Fur Coat, she sang, “Where my ma is now, I don’t know/She was living in her car, I was living on the road/And I hear she’s putting that stuff up her nose.” But Lewis has always been careful to let these lyrics speak mostly for themselves. When people ask about them, she’s frequently emphasized that the line between memoir and fiction in her songwriting is a slippery one. “Sometimes I don’t even remember what actually happened,” she says now, “and the song takes on its own life.”
On Lewis’ new record, On the Line, her mother appears again. This time she is in a hospital bed “under a cold white sheet,” and there’s no fiction at work. The earliest sticker on the fridge is dated August 20th, 2017, and by the end of October, at age 70, Linda Lewis was dead.
“We were estranged for 20 years, so this was the first time we’d hung out in two decades,” the 43-year-old singer-songwriter continues. “She was very sick, but I think she held on so we could have time to reconcile, and it created an opportunity for forgiveness. She didn’t have to say, ‘I’m so sorry’ —she said it by saying, ‘You’re a sunshine in a fruit.’ That was her way of saying ‘I love you.’ ”
Lewis started out as a kid actor, appearing on Eighties-era sitcoms like Life With Lucy, opposite Lucille Ball, and in movies like Troop Beverly Hills and The Wizard, opposite Fred Savage. By her twenties she’d all but quit acting and become a burgeoning indie-rock icon instead, known for her clarion voice, her killer ear for melody and her knack for evocative storytelling in a tweaked Americana style. Whereas Lewis’ last musical project, an ad hoc collaboration from 2016 called Nice as Fuck, was stripped down and upbeat, On the Line contains the most lush and melancholy music she’s ever made. The album has a grand rock sound — stately pianos, swelling strings, fuzzy electric guitar. Lewis cut its 11 songs at the venerable Capitol Studios in L.A. over just a few days last year, but she began writing them in this house in 2014, not long before her 12-year relationship with the Scottish-American musician Johnathan Rice deteriorated. She finished writing them after her bedside reconciliation with her mom.
Lewis gives the fridge a final look before turning out of the kitchen. “I wonder how long I’ll leave these up here,” she says.
Addiction, sobriety and self‑medication are running themes throughout On the Line. There are references to red wine, weed, grenadine, heroin, bourbon, Paxil, Marlboros, cognac, Candy Crush and, on the song “Party Clown,” a hallucinogenic Fuji apple. “Somehow I think the worst one of them all is Candy Crush,” Lewis says with a grin. “My mom started taking heroin when I was two or three, probably. So, growing up like that, there’s a realization that nothing is for free, and everything catches up with you — if you try to numb out, eventually you’re gonna have to face whatever it is you’re running away from.” She pauses. “I don’t have any judgment about it. Even with my mom: She did whatever she had to do, and she wasn’t able to kick it. Most people don’t make it out of heroin addiction. I don’t really blame her for it.”
Wine in hand, wearing a satiny cowgirl shirt and a bandanna tied around her neck that’s nearly the same shade of red as her hair, Lewis shows me around the house. Situated near leafy Laurel Canyon, it was built by a Disney animator in the Forties, and his touch is everywhere — delicate, hand-painted flowers on a wall here, trompe l’oeil flagstones on the floor there. In the living room a projector is playing the X-rated 1968 film The Girl on a Motorcycle, which stars Marianne Faithfull and is alternatively titled Naked Under Leather. Lewis has been on a leather kick recently, she says, showing me a photo-heavy 1977 book called Hard Corps: Studies in Leather and Sadomasochism that she recently scored on eBay. “I keep my whips and chains out in the pool house,” she says with a cackle.
Off the living room is the wood-paneled chamber where Lewis rehearses and writes. There’s a drum kit, a Wurlitzer organ and a little gas stove in the corner. Outside, near the pool, there’s a koi pond and a rose garden, all of it put in by the animator. Down the hall, there’s a roller-derby-themed pinball machine from around 1990 that periodically flashes the words WINNERS DON’T DO DRUGS in LED lights. Opposite the pinball is an enormous old promotional cutout for The Wizard, depicting Savage as an adolescent wearing a Nintendo Power Glove and an adolescent Lewis in acid-washed denim overalls. “This was at the movie theater in Van Nuys where I grew up — my mom made me go in and ask for it,” Lewis says. “My sister had it in storage, then had it framed for me and rented a truck to bring it over here. I wasn’t OK with this for many years, because early on in the history of my band, people would yell video-game references at me from the crowd. Now I just can’t believe that this is part of my weird story.”
She says she loved being on Hollywood sets as a kid, for complicated reasons. “I guess I liked being in that environment because it wasn’t home — it was this pretend-family vibe. My dad wasn’t around, so every time I got a job I kind of fell in love with ‘my father’ on set. I would just want that relationship.” (Her real-life dad, a musician named Eddie Gordon, was absent for most of her life, though he came back into Lewis’ orbit shortly before his own death, playing harmonica on her second solo album, 2008’s Acid Tongue.) Lewis’ off-set life in that era was consistently chaotic: “I think my mother was selling coke in the early Eighties,” she says. “She may have been Ricky Nelson’s dealer. And she was using the money I was making and parlaying it into her business. I’d come home from school and there’d be racks of fur coats, Krugerrands, boxes of Vuarnet sunglasses. All these bulk items in the house, drugs cooking on the stove, people coming in and out. Really interesting characters. I remember we had a Honda Civic, and one day it disappeared. Years later, I learned that someone had torched it as a warning to my mom. There was crazy shit going on.”
Lewis says that her elder sister, Leslie, became something like a proxy mother to her in their actual mother’s stead, and when Jenny co-founded Rilo Kiley with some L.A. buddies in the late Nineties, “that was my first chosen family.” Over the years she’d host jam sessions at home, inviting over members of like-minded acts such as Haim, Dawes and Conor Oberst, here and elsewhere in L.A. “I’ve always brought that jam vibe with me wherever I go,” Lewis says. “I feel compelled to play music, to play with people, or I’ll go crazy.”
In 2015, having split up with Rice for reasons we don’t get into, Lewis went to New York, crashing at the empty apartment of her friend Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent. “I couldn’t stay in this house,” Lewis says. “Johnathan and I were basically married. When you’re with someone that long, you share consciousness with them. I didn’t finish any of my stories — Johnathan finished every story for me. So part of the reason I went to New York was to find my inner monologue. I wanted to know what that voice was.”
The result, some three years later, is On the Line. Lewis made it with a particularly impressive surrogate family whose members included not only Beck and Ryan Adams, with whom she’d worked before, but also an older generation of studio pros: Rolling Stones producer Don Was, Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, session drummer Jim Keltner (sideman for John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Steely Dan) and — to her delight and surprise — Ringo Starr. “He was cool — he just showed up one day with a smoothie and did double-drums with Jim on two songs,” Lewis says, adding that she’s not totally sure why the former Beatle came aboard. “I think Don Was showed him some of the songs, invited him to come down, and he was into it.”
[Editors’ note: This story went to press before the February 13th publication of a New York Times report on accusations of sexual misconduct by Ryan Adams. In a February 15th tweet, Lewis made the following statement: “I am deeply troubled by Ryan Adams’ alleged behavior. Although he and I had a working professional relationship, I stand in solidarity with the women who have come forward.”]
A decade-plus into her solo career, Lewis found herself trying new things in the studio. Keeping things spontaneous was a priority: She recorded all her vocal tracks live while playing her instruments, rather than tracking them in later. When Beck inserted a bit of placeholder Auto-Tune on a song called “Little White Dove,” Lewis decided she loved it and kept it in unchanged. (It reminded her of the Detroit rapper DeJ Loaf, whose single “Try Me” Lewis adores.) When it came to mixing, she says she took inspiration from Kanye West’s Ye — clearing out the midrange, focusing on the low end and the highs.
She sits on an oversize armchair in her living room and looks around the house. These days she splits time between L.A. and Nashville, where she jams with a whole other group of friends, including Karen Elson. Three years since her breakup, Lewis says, “I know how to take care of myself. It’s been really lonely, and really hard at times, and to go through the stuff with my mom alone—”
She starts to cry, untying her neckerchief and using it to blot her tears. “This is why I wear a bandanna,” she jokes. “But that’s the thing: I had to visit her, then come home and be alone and process my life with her.”
On the wall in front of her, Marianne Faithfull is making love to Alain Delon, but Lewis isn’t paying attention. “Life is crazy, but it’s incredible,” she goes on. “How amazing to see someone pass over. It’s magical. It’s the most intimate. It’s like a poem, and you don’t know the last line until you get there. But you show up.”