Six years after her last solo album and seven years since the dissolution of her former band, Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis is returning with The Voyager, a collection of West Coast pop reminiscent of her earlier work that’s due out July 29th. Not long after announcing its completion, Lewis took Rolling Stone through the four years that the record required: the sleepless nights that inspired the first songs, the Postal Service tour that put her back on schedule, the breakneck sessions with Ryan Adams and the colorful cover shoot that capped it all off.
You’ve said that you wrote a lot of these songs when you were struggling with insomnia. What was that like, creatively?
This is something that happened to me over a two-year period. I think these things sort of creep into your normal life and then suddenly you find that you can’t sleep, and then it takes a really long time to get back to baseline, to where you were. So throughout that process, I started songs, I threw them away, I basically occupied my mind with the lyrics while I was lying down trying to get back to sleep, the words kept flashing before my eyes like a news ticker or something. Every little syllable was ironed out because I had enough time to really think about it. I’d truly be up for hours every night, and I would watch the Gatti-Ward boxing trilogy on repeat over and over and over again, that and the Carl Sagan Cosmos series. It got pretty psychedelic.
When did you bring these songs to Ryan Adams?
I started working with him two days after the Postal Service tour wrapped at Lollapalooza. And I DM’d on Twitter – I am on Twitter, which is really weird, I never thought I would be – but I said, “Hey, I know you built this awesome studio, Pax-Am, can I come in and cut a song? I’ve got something that I wrote in a Keith Richards open tuning, are you in?” And he was like, “Yeah, sure.”
How did getting back with the Postal Service change your mental state? Being on this arena tour all of a sudden?
That will change your mental state.
I can imagine.
It’s funny because when the Postal Service first appeared in my life, it came at a time when I really needed a break from my band, and Ben [Gibbard] was really the first person who believed that I could be a lead guitar player and an auxiliary keyboard player and a sideman and a background singer and a person to share the stage with. I never really considered myself any of those things before playing in the Postal Service. I was a songwriter with a Stratocaster in an indie rock band – screaming.
So 10 years later I got a call from Ben and he said, “We’re going to do the Postal Service reunion, but it’s a year out.” And that was kind of my timeline to get back to sleep, essentially. It was difficult at first, but I got through it and by the end of the tour, I was myself again.
And you went straight to Pax-Am.
When I got there, I was completely open to any of Ryan’s suggestions. Songs that I had already cut three times, we totally rearranged on the spot. We’d change the key, he’d cut a verse and we’d cut it live with the band. And we never looked back, and we never listened back. I’d want to keep going until we got it right, but he’d say, “Nope, you got it, we’re moving on. Take the tape off the tape machine, put a new reel on and let’s keep moving forward.” Then at the end of the night I’d say, “Can we listen back to what we did?” “Nope, not allowed.” I had no idea what was happening until the end pretty much. He didn’t let me!
How weird was that for you?
It was kind of great in a way. I think a lot of musicians play for the playback. I mean, that’s the joy of recording – you want to hear what you’ve done and what you’ve contributed – but never listening to that playback kind of removes the intellectual part of making music, and it removes the tendency to be revisionist. And I think Ryan really wanted to protect that kind of sacred thing that happens with musicians when you record live.
So you finish the record and then pose for the cover in this amazing rainbow pantsuit. Is there a story behind that?
I’ve been calling it my graffiti Gram Parsons suit. I’ve always been a big Gram Parsons fan and after taking four years to make the record, I was so tired and I didn’t feel particularly feminine or sexy. I felt somewhat androgynous. So I wanted to wear a suit for the cover. And Autumn de Wilde – she’s a photographer and she’s shot my last four or five album covers – her art director, Adam Siegel, was a graffiti artist in the Nineties, and we talked about having him brush a design to sort of mirror the cosmos on my suit jacket, so that’s what went on the cover.
What about this album made you feel androgynous?
Well, I think every record that I make, when I’m finished with it, I kind of conceptualize the tone for the fashion. And with Under the Blacklight, a lot of the songs were about L.A., the underground, the sort of underbelly of Los Angeles, and so I wore hot pants for that entire tour cycle. Every single show, I wore a gold lamé belt, I performed in front of a gold lamé curtain.
With this record, it just didn’t feel like that. It didn’t feel like a character-driven album of songs – a lot of the songs in Under the Blacklight were written from the perspective of various characters in Los Angeles, including myself – so this one just felt like an extension of me. And I didn’t feel particularly sexy at the time, having struggled with insomnia for a couple of years, so I just wanted to put on a white suit and have my friend graffiti all over it.
That sounds like a fun end.
And a colorful end to a kind of dark period of time.