Because of its green-and-brown facade, Jenny Lewis’ house in L.A. is known as Mint Chip. Not only is Mint Chip where the singer-songwriter lays her head, it’s also where Lewis and her friends congregate to jam and write. “Sometimes I have to kick people out,” says Lewis, 32, who is also the singer for indie-pop quartet Rilo Kiley but first found fame as a child actor on sitcoms and in B movies. “Things can get a little wild.” It was inside these walls that Lewis wrote her second solo album, Acid Tongue, in which she confidently delves into folk, rock and country. Lewis’ delicate vocals are boosted by guest spots from a fat Rolodex of acquaintances that includes Zooey Deschanel, Chris Robinson and Elvis Costello, who also asked Lewis to cameo on his latest record, Momofuku. Harmonizing with Costello, says Lewis, “was one of the coolest moments of my entire life.”
When you were a baby in Vegas, your parents had a revue called “Love’s Way.” What are your memories of that?
I don’t have too many, because their marriage ended and, sadly, the band broke up. My dad played harmonica and my mom played bass, and they had an early drum machine. They’d play soft hits of the Seventies— the Carpenters, Sonny and Cher. Supposedly, my mom went into labor with me while onstage. My baby sitter was a female Elvis impersonator.
Sounds like a very musical childhood.
Yeah. In California, my mother, sister and I had a group that would perform in our kitchen. We’d sing Barbra Streisand, Lou Reed and old country songs. I was obsessed with Annie, but nobody would sing those with me.
And the name of your girl group was…
Oh, gosh. We referred to ourselves as the Valley Girls.
Who are your country-music heroes?
The first songs I learned how to sing were by Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. The darker the tale, the more I was drawn to them. Songs like “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” — that one definitely appealed to me. Later, I gravitated toward the California country —— Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, even the Eagles. They looked at the darker sides of Los Angeles.
I read somewhere that you were once a big hip-hop fan.
I was just rebelling against my mother’s record collection. I loved narratives like N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton” and, of course, “Fuck Tha Police.” l can hear that influence on “Fernando,” a song on my new record. It’s got a Lil Wayne–inspired flow.
The album’s called Acid Tongue. You like to drop acid?
When I was 14 or 15, I took acid, and it culminated in a scene like one from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas —— the scene where Hunter S. Thompson has to lock the lawyer in the bathroom. I was the Hunter character, because my friend decided to pull out a butcher knife and chase me around the house.
When and where do you write songs?
In line at the post office, convenience stores, stuck in traffic… I write a lot in public restrooms because the acoustics are great. “Happy,” from my last album, I wrote in a bathroom. I’ve talked about installing a proper bathroom in the house, with a urinal and stalls.
Does your former life as a child actor ever intersect with your life as a musician?
Not really, although I remember about five or six years ago, Rilo Kiley was playing a gig at the Troubadour. And afterward I got this note that said, “Dear Jenny, I’m sure people always ask you what it was like working with Fred Savage. Love, Fred Savage.” [The two starred in a kiddie flick, 1989’s The Wizard.] That’s as much contact as I’ve had with my previous life.