Jenny Lewis first met David Cohn, a.k.a. Chicago rapper Serengeti, at a Berlin music festival in 2018. The two became fast friends, but their hectic schedules initially prevented them from working together. Once the pandemic took hold, that all changed: Their isolation became a catalyst for collaboration.
Last spring, the duo began trading beats and vocals back and forth via text. “Unblu,” a French New Wave–tinged ballad featuring verses of Cohn’s spoken word paired with Lewis’ ethereal hook, was the first track to result. “All my songs are demoed on my phone, but to have someone on the other end who is not only listening but contributing, it really inspired me in a way that I hadn’t been before,” Lewis says.
The pair recently followed up their debut single with the more avant-garde “Vroom Vroom,” and they say they’re just getting started. “We’re working on six [songs] right now, assuming they’ll all end up on something eventually, but I don’t know exactly when,” says Lewis. With Cohn just north of Chicago and Lewis in Nashville, the duo discussed their pandemic collaboration and process over Zoom.
Jenny, last year, you were supposed to be on tour opening for Harry Styles. That was a big moment for you — and then Covid-19 happened.
Lewis: Yeah. It’s been the longest lead-up to a tour of my life. It’ll be like two years of just, “This thing is going to happen,” and the anticipation. It’s still pending, so I guess we’ll see.
When did you two start sending each other musical ideas, and how did you go about doing that?
Cohn: I asked Jenny if she could send me some chords because I remember her playing some chords and she had a wealth of them. I asked her, “Hey, J, can you please send about eight to 10 of these chords? Because I want to do this thing with voice and your chords.” And she never did. She wouldn’t answer the email. She would answer emails about other things. Then one day she sent me the beat for “Unblu.” I recorded it, and then it just went from there. She would send something a little later, and then, boom: The second song was “Vroom Vroom.” J just does her thing and she sends [the music] to me.
Lewis: That was in April of 2020. Previous to that, at the festival [we met at], both Christian Lee Hutson and I sang on one of Dave’s songs about if Tom Selleck had been Indiana Jones. That was my first impression of Dave, who I didn’t really know a lot about. Dave has made so many records and the whole world of [his alter ego] Kenny Dennis, I had no idea. By singing on that song, it just cracked wide open.
How have you both had to alter your creative processes during the pandemic?
Lewis: This year is when people have learned how to do stuff technically because they have to. I think it’s really informed the kind of art people are making. In some ways, it’s more lo-fi, but it’s also more intimate. Dave, you’re so prolific. I don’t know if that tap just got turned on one day, and it just flows. I go through periods where words are always somewhat accessible, but not like I have an idea, and I sort of craft it and work on it. You just must have a ton of stuff.
Cohn: Sometimes it’s really flowing. It used to be a problem; it wouldn’t turn off [and] it makes you go sort of crazy. But then once it’s gone, you’re like, “Wow, that will never come back again.” The joy of putting words together can be very fun sometimes. It’s like a puzzle. When it’s there, I’ve got to just enjoy it.
Lewis: You lament. All my friends who go through periods of not being able to write, some of them think they’ll never be able to write again. With my friends who made a lot of records, I can clock the process. Right when they’re done with an album, or whatever, it’s like,” I’ll never write anything ever again.” Then, six months later, you’re like, “Hey, what are you up to?”
Cohn: And they’re like, “You’ve gotta hear it.”
How much of your collaboration was done via text versus email?
Lewis: For me, 100 percent via text. Dave doesn’t have an iPhone, so it makes some of that stuff a little bit challenging. Once he finally gets the version from my phone, it is way glitchier than when I sent it. I think the first version of “Unblu” was super lo-fi because it had to go from iPhone to Samsung, and then compressed and decompressed or whatever.
Cohn: That’s tricky because I fell in love with that version because it was so lo-fi and perfect.
Lewis: But [it’s] interesting to send stuff with limited tech knowledge and support. I can do my thing on my phone, but I’m by no means good at sharing this file. If you ask [co-producer] Andrew Broder, I send him each isolated MP3 of the track via text. I’m like, “Solo bass.” I send him an MP3 of that [and] he has to compile it all into the computer and then create a session based on these texts.
So far you’ve released two singles from a forthcoming EP, “Unblu” and “Vroom Vroom.” How did they come together?
Lewis: In March or April, we were all at home and my sleep schedule was really weird. I started working on these songs between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. for Dave’s stuff. … I’m working on this stuff all night long, send it to Dave and sometimes before I got up from the next [sleep] cycle, [this verse] would be there. If you’re an artist, it’s just the process that is the interesting part. To connect with someone who’s your friend, talk about the music, become better friends, be engaged in the process, it’s a real lifesaver, especially during a time when you can’t leave your house and you’re alone for months on end. I was actually alone. Some people feel alone even when they’re with their partner. [It’s] very extreme circumstances that made me really appreciate the process. The back and forth was so compelling.
After you both went back and forth, how did you flesh out the production?
Lewis: Once the music was done, I’d send it to Dave. He’d send it back to me. I’d tweak and send it to our friend Andrew Broder in Minneapolis, who has a computer and a proper setup. He would add to it. Andrew and I would go back and forth 30 times on versions in texts all back and forth. Then, [we’d] get it to a point between us and send it back to Dave. Then, [we’d] begin the process all over again. It’s like I’m talking to Andrew, I’m talking to Dave [and] we’re talking about the music and current events. It’s like, “Wow, what a cool thing to happen in a really weird moment.” Did I yammer on too long? Damn. My gummy just kicked in.
Cohn: It’s just so exciting to get the beat. I would try to hit it from my first impression, to make it a collaboration. I don’t want to ponder it too much, just want to try to get down what I’m inspired to do when J sends a beat. It’s always so exciting to download it and put it in the thing. “You only get one shot/Do not miss your chance to blow/This opportunity … ” I’m sorry [laughs].
What themes resonate throughout the two tracks you’ve released?
Lewis: It’s a feeling when you’re not writing a full song. I’m making the music, the drums and the bass, and I’m writing the hook. But it’s very open. The first song ,“Unblu,” I asked Dave and he’s like, “What is this about?” But it started with my feeling, and you’re putting words to a feeling.
In terms of the visuals, Jenny, you said in a statement that you were editing under your covers at night.
Lewis: I’ve been making video art on my phone since basically the birth of Instagram, which was right around the time of the Postal Service reunion tour. Jimmy Tamborello, my bandmate, he’s incredibly artistic — we just get along great and we hang out all the time. Part of our day-off thing would be to go make an experimental film and put it up on Instagram. I actually went to film school at LACC, Los Angeles Community College. I didn’t graduate, I just did two years, but I learned enough about editing. If you look back on my Instagram, there’s years of these weird films; I somehow convinced my friends on tour to do the most absurd things. With this [project], having the music, sending that off to Andrew and Dave, I just felt this hole where I needed to create. I could just see [the visuals] while the music was happening. I’d either go through my phone and find something I’d shot on the road and not used because I’m constantly shooting. But then I was like, “How can I use myself because I’m the only one here?” So, I learned how to film myself on a stand in a way that I feel more free than I ever have in front of the camera. Then I told Dave and Andrew, “I think I’m just going to make all the videos for all these songs.”
You’ve each tapped into almost every genre in your work, from ballads and psychedelia to hip-hop. Did you have a particular direction that you wanted to take the sound with this collaboration?
Cohn: It was more like, we became friends, and she does music and I do music, so you can just do music. There was no “let’s try to go for this,” at least in my book.
Lewis: I think you, me, and Andrew have a lot of crossover as far as the stuff that we listen to. Hip-hop, Nineties hip-hop — I can talk to Andrew and Dave about these references that some of my other friends wouldn’t necessarily get. We’ve listened to a lot of the same records. Dave, you have a pretty deep indie-rock knowledge. Then there’s all the other stuff like Len, we were talking about. How can we make a song that feels good like a Len song? The final frontier is Len: That’s the genre we haven’t done yet. We’re going to do it. I just don’t know how to do it.
A “Steal My Sunshine” moment would be great.
Lewis: Doesn’t it make you feel good just saying the song title?
Cohn: Instant happiness, just like “Unblu.” You feel it instantly when it comes on.
Lewis: We just like the same things. We were talking about an idea for a video, where you preview the next single at the end of the video. I was like, “Can you send me a reference for that?” You sent me “They Reminisce Over You” [by Pete Rock and CL Smooth], which is a song that was my favorite song when it came out. I was like, “Oh, shit, I love that song.” It was just the reference, [and] I got it. In making music with people, you have to have a language in order to express what you want. It happens more organically than intellectually because it starts with a feeling and access to — because of where we’re at right now in the world — whatever you have in your house that makes a sound. Or, it’s like, I don’t have Pro Tools, so I use my phone, and I’ve got a little drum machine and a drum kit. Sometimes when I’m doing my vocals, Forensic Files is on in the background. That makes it onto the track. That’s just what’s happening in the room.
Can you say anything more about your plans for the upcoming EP?
Lewis: For me, it’s been really exciting to release one song at a time when it’s ready. It’s like, “Is the track done? Is the video done? Let’s get it out there.” … The vibe on the songs are pretty varied. There’s a couple of songs that stretch out a little bit. There’s a song called “Gltr” that we’re very excited about. Really, they’re just Dave’s stories over these three-minute musical ideas.
Cohn: I’m excited about “Gltr.” It’s a great hook. I like all of Jenny’s beats, but this is one that I was like, “Yes” when I heard it. Great chorus, a little dance-y, still sort of short, but longer than “Vroom Vroom.” Very sparkly, like glitter. I’m excited about all of [the songs]. I can’t wait to compile them all together on one piece of vinyl. That’s my ultimate goal. And we have possibly a name for it, but it’s not for sure.
What’s the title you have in mind?
Lewis: When people are talking about our project, they’re always like: “unlikely duo, Jenny Lewis and Serengeti.” You’re like, “Why are we an ‘unlikely duo’?” It’s just funny to be called an unlikely duo, so maybe we’re going to call our record Unlikely Duo.
Cohn: I get that all the time doing a collaboration: “unlikely duo.”
If not for the pandemic, would you two have started collaborating?
Cohn: Who knows. I mean we did “Not Supposed,” the “Tom Selleck was supposed to be Indiana Jones” [song]. The pandemic might have just kickstarted it because what else are you going to do?
Lewis: Yeah, I would have been on tour with Harry Styles.
Cohn: Right, so maybe not.
Lewis: It’s very like me to work on this stuff in the hotel room and in the bunk. That’s one of my favorite spots to work on video editing — in the bunk.
Is a full-length record on the table?
Cohn: Let’s see what’s up with these six songs and put them on wax. To me, that’s mission accomplished. I don’t know about anything in the future.
Lewis: Yeah, we’re not planning really for anything. We don’t even know how many songs we’re going to have.
Are you each respectively working on solo records at the moment?
Cohn: My friend sent me a couple of things that I recorded, but not really much shaking, just the stuff with Jenny and videos for me. I did a Kenny song.
Lewis: I’m writing stuff and demoing on my phone, but what am I going to do, go to a studio? That seems so sketchy. I feel like I just put out an album, but then it was out for a year and everything got shut down. That’s the second year of an album cycle, you’re kind of like, “We’re going to play these songs and then start working on some new stuff.” But without that period, it’s like, “Damn, now I have to make a new album, too?” Who could keep up? I have zero motivation. Zero.