Jenny Lewis Puts Her Emotions 'On The Line': 'It Can Get Ugly Sometimes'

Mar 22, 2019
Originally published on March 23, 2019 3:20 pm

Throughout the course of her career, Jenny Lewis has worn many hats. She was a child actor who did cereal commercials and Barbie ads then moved on to films like Troop Beverly Hills and The Wizard. In 1998, Lewis became front woman for Rilo Kiley and when that band officially broke up in 2014, she went solo.

Lewis' latest album, On the Line, is her fourth project as a soloist and one that is intensely personal for the singer-songwriter. On the 11-track album, Lewis works through losing love and reconnecting with her estranged mother just before her death. On the Line features collaborations with Ryan Adams, who was accused by seven women in February of using his industry status to lure them into sexual relationships.

"This is part of the bigger conversation," Lewis says of the allegations against Adams in connection to her album. "I have to be clear in that I do not condone that behavior. It's just so upsetting."

Lewis spoke with NPR's Scott Simon about the catharsis of making On the Line, dedicating the album to her mother and grappling with the accusations against Adams. Hear the radio version of their conversation at the audio link, and read on for more that didn't make the broadcast.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Scott Simon: Who's playing those drums we hear [on "Red Bull and Hennessy"]?

Jenny Lewis: There are two drummers on that track, one being the great Jim Keltner, who played on [John Lennon's] Imagine. And the other being Ringo Starr.

Were you in the studio at the same time?

Yes, we tracked live at Capitol Records Studio B ... We cut those drums live with the two drums in the same room, and that was really the coolest rock and roll moment of my life. I've had some really amazing experiences over the years just watching from side stage or singing with someone, but to sit in the control room and watch those two play together, it was like a bullet train. I mean, the power, the sound, the feel is like a big boy pirate ship.

You dedicate this this album On the Line to the memory of your mother, who was a singer, I gather?

She was a lounge singer in Las Vegas, where I was born, with my father who was a virtuoso harmonica player. They met in Las Vegas and joined a band called Love's Way.

And she had challenges ahead in life.

She did, as we all do. But yeah, my mom she was an addict and struggled with the disease of addiction for her entire life.

Which has passed now, I guess.

Yeah, she passed in 2017.

What do you think of when you sing "A Little White Dove"?

These relationships with our parents are so potent and complex. And reaching the end of life and being able to see someone go through that process is so intimate. And really, the song is about the little white dove showing up with love and forgiveness and understanding and peace.

I hope you don't mind if I ask but when you say forgiveness, is it you forgiving your mother?

Well, also I think she forgave me.

Forgave you for what?

I guess for not being around. ... It didn't matter, and it wasn't as I imagined it would be with both of my parents when they passed. The conversations that we had weren't necessarily linear, but the feeling was there and it's mutual. When you're with someone, they're so vulnerable. Two weeks out from the end of their journey here on Earth, people are so raw and so open and it is so beautiful. So I think she forgave me, because I had to leave when I was a kid because of her disease.

Let me ask you about another song: "Heads Gonna Roll." This doesn't sound like a happy sitcom relationship, somehow.

But I view it as a success: "Even though we were just friends, I think of us as bookends and I'm going to love you 'til the day I die." That, I hope, is the takeaway. I mean, I think if you can spend four years with someone or five or 10 or 15 or 20, and you move on and go your separate ways, I view that as a success. I mean, what's forever anyway?

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Do some people find bad relationships addictive?

Absolutely. I mean, I talk about this with my girlfriends everyday. We're trying to decode it. We don't fully understand it but we're walking through it and we have each other to consult. I think the patterns emerge until you recognize them and make a conscious decision to try something else that's good for you.

Which brings up Ryan Adams.

Great segue.

Well, it just kind of presented itself. You made a statement recently. He's been accused of sexual misconduct. Your statement says in part, "Although he and I had a working professional relationship, I stand in solidarity with the women who have come forward." Do you regret working with him?

No. I can't change the past. We were co-workers. He is a part of the story of my music.

Do I condone that behavior? Absolutely not. Was that my exact experience? No. It's complex in that I happen to be putting out this record right now. So now, I'm a part of the dialogue which isn't something I set out to do in making this record, which is a reflection of my my life and my work and my creative autonomy as a writer. However, I understand that we need to have this dialogue moving forward.

This album has so much personal material. Was it fun? Was it fulfilling?

Jenny: Well music, for me, is when I feel most connected to the cosmos or the best version of myself. It's not always light stuff, but I think when you're making your soul music, it can get ugly sometimes. But the joy for me, is in the creation and the collaboration and the process. Then, the catharsis on tour, being able to feel these songs and finally understand the meaning. Standing in front of a couple hundred people, sometimes it occurs to me what it was that I meant. ... And I think we, as artists, open that channel and it's a little bit magical.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Jenny Lewis was a child actor. She did cereal commercials and Barbie ads and films, including "Troop Beverly Hills" and "The Wizard," before she became frontwoman for Rilo Kiley. When that band broke up, she went solo. She's just released her fourth album under her own banner. It's called "On The Line."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED BULL & HENNESSY")

JENNY LEWIS: (Singing) I'm on fire. Come on and get next to me. I want to ride with you.

SIMON: The track is called "Red Bull & Hennessy." And if that's true, this could be quite a conversation. Jenny Lewis joins us now from the studios of NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

LEWIS: Oh, thanks for having me.

SIMON: So who's playing those drums we hear?

LEWIS: There are two drummers on that track.

SIMON: Yeah.

LEWIS: One being the great Jim Keltner, who played on "Imagine." And the other drummer is Ringo Starr.

SIMON: Were you in the studio at the same time?

LEWIS: Yes. To sit in the control room and watch those two play together, it was like a bullet train. I mean, the power, the sound, the feel is like a big-boy pirate ship.

(SOUNDBITE OF JENNY LEWIS SONG, "RED BULL & HENNESSY"

SIMON: You dedicate this album, "On The Line," to the memory of your mother, who was a singer, I gather.

LEWIS: She was. She was a lounge singer in Las Vegas, where I was born.

SIMON: And she had her challenges, I guess, in life.

LEWIS: She did, as we all do. But, yeah, my mom - she was an addict and struggled with the disease of addiction for her entire life.

SIMON: Which has passed now, I guess.

LEWIS: Yeah. She passed in 2017.

SIMON: I hope you don't mind if we listen to a little bit of the track "Little White Dove."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE WHITE DOVE")

LEWIS: (Singing) A mother and child - eternity. Under a cool white sheet, here we go. In the middle of love, I'm a little white dove, yeah. I'm the heroine.

These relationships with our parents are so potent and complex. And reaching the end of life and being able to see someone go through that process is so intimate. And, really, the song is about the little white dove, you know, showing up with love and forgiveness and understanding and peace.

SIMON: I hope you don't mind if I ask, but when you say forgiveness, you forgiving your mother?

LEWIS: Well, also, I think she forgave me.

SIMON: Forgave you for what?

LEWIS: I guess for not being around.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE WHITE DOVE")

LEWIS: (Singing) In the middle of love.

SIMON: Well, let me ask you about another song, "Heads Gonna Roll."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEADS GONNA ROLL")

LEWIS: (Singing) Since I haven't talked to you, I dream about your baby blues and wonder why you stopped getting high. Even though we were just friends, I think of us as bookends. And I'm going to love you till I die.

SIMON: Doesn't sound like a happy, sitcom relationship, somehow.

LEWIS: But I view it as a success. Even though we were just friends, I think of us as bookends. And I'm going to love you till the day I die. That, I hope, is the takeaway. I mean, I think if you can spend four years with someone, or five, or 10, or 15, or 20, and you move on and go your separate ways, I view that as a success.

SIMON: Do some people find bad relationships addictive?

LEWIS: Absolutely. I mean, this is - I talk about this with my girlfriends every day. We're trying to decode it.

SIMON: Which brings up Ryan Adams.

LEWIS: Great segue.

SIMON: Well, it just kind of presented itself. You made a statement recently. He's been accused of sexual misconduct. Your statement says, in part, although he and I had a working, professional relationship, I stand in solidarity with the women who have come forward. Do you regret working with him?

LEWIS: No. I can't change the past. We were co-workers, and he is a part of the story of my music. Do I condone that behavior? Absolutely not. Was that my exact experience? No. However, yeah, I mean, I understand that we need to have this dialogue moving forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE LINE")

LEWIS: (Singing) It used to be Bobby forever. We were together day and night.

SIMON: This album has so much personal material. Was it fun? Was it fulfilling always?

LEWIS: Well, music is - for me, that's when I feel most connected to the cosmos or the best version of myself. And it's not always light stuff. And I think we, as artists, you know, we open that channel. And it's a little bit magical.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE LINE")

LEWIS: (Singing) Listen to my heart beating. Listen to my heart beating. Listen to my heart beating on the line - on the line.

SIMON: Jenny Lewis - her new album, "On The Line." Thank you so much for being with us.

LEWIS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE LINE")

LEWIS: (Singing) You're not the only one. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.