Jenny Lewis: Travels with Insomnia

July 31, 2014

Jenny Lewis’ eyes are barely visible behind her sunglasses. It’s the tail-end of daylight and Lewis is nestled cross-legged on one of the old, battered leather couches arranged haphazardly behind The Observatory in Santa Ana, where she will perform the fourth solo show in support of her new album The Voyager. Although the sun is shadowed beneath some clouds, the Los Angeles- based musician talks from behind the shelter of these glasses, which seems ironic as Lewis is being more honest now than she’s ever been.

When she announced The Voyager, her third solo album and first since 2008’s Acid Tongue, Lewis also unleashed a strikingly candid statement about her state of mind while making the album: an unstable, insomniac condition ensuing from the breakup of Rilo Kiley and the death of her father. “I don’t know if I should have done that,” she says of the statement. “It’s a heavy thing to talk about— when you can’t sleep.”

But Lewis is also aware of her intense struggle, which began in 2010 when her father passed away. A year later, Rilo Kiley, Lewis’ longtime band, called it quits without ever really acknowledging the breakup to their fans. Although Lewis had already unveiled two solo albums by that point, the dissolution of the band landed with a heavy thud.

“It’s difficult to be in a band with your ex-boyfriend for a really long time,” Lewis says, referring to Rilo Kiley guitarist Blake Sennett. “But it’s tough because my whole identity was wrapped up in that band. And it was special. My feeling was always not to talk about it because you never know what will happen. In my book, I would never shut the door on anything. At the time, we had to because it had become difficult as these things do. It’s not a new story—things are tough in a band. People are mad at each other.”

The weight of everything happening around Lewis at the time became nearly unbearable. She stopped sleeping, almost entirely. The insomnia was so bad that Lewis didn’t really sleep for two years. She could still write music—some of which is on The Voyager—but she couldn’t record and she couldn’t tour. There were a lot of possible solutions but not a real, tangible one: Lewis underwent reflexology and neuro feedback, tried hypnosis and Reiki, went to therapy and tried every variance of pharmaceutical remedies. One night, Lewis even went to her sister’s house and attempted to fall asleep next to her. Nothing worked.

“With anything—a car accident, a broken bone—it happens really quickly and the recovery time takes a lot longer,” the musician explains. “There was a point where I was a year into not sleeping and I was like, ‘When the fuck is this going to end? When am I going to be able to get to sleep?’ And it would be another year before I would be able to sleep.”

There wasn’t a specific trigger, but for Lewis, the breakdown was inevitable. “It was just the perfect storm,” she adds. “It just fucking took me down. I could have been taken down by a feather duster. It was just that moment in my life, in my mid-30s, where it was going to happen. I tend to just look forward in my life, from record to record, tour to tour. I didn’t really stop to take inventory, which I think you kind of have to at a certain point in your life.

You have to reconcile the death of a parent, or the breakup of a relationship or a band, or your relationship with your own mother. I was just running until I stopped.”

But in the spring of last year, Lewis forced herself to get it together, no matter what. She was committed to touring with The Postal Service on their reunion run, which included stops at major festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza, and figuring out how to function for the sake of that tour was what Lewis calls her “impending goal.” She had also agreed to score the Dakota Fanning film Very Good Girls, a process that she admittedly struggled through. She also scored Song One, a film starring Anne Hathaway that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, with Johnathan Rice, her boyfriend and musical collaborator in Jenny and Johnny. “Scoring a movie is really fucking hard,” Lewis notes. “I’ve always made music for myself and my bandmates. Never for anyone else.”

But the work helped, and encouraged by the momentum of playing music onstage again, Lewis decided to book studio time immediately following The Postal Service’s tour dates, which wrapped in August. She sent a direct message to Ryan Adams, whom she barely knew, on Twitter and asked if he’d be willing to produce a few songs. Adams agreed and Lewis went into his Hollywood-based PAX-AM studio a day after she returned from The Postal Service’s tour.

“I showed up at his studio on the stoop with all of my fucking emotional baggage and he had no idea,” Lewis says. “He had just heard the songs as I played them for him in his office. I was desperate. The stakes were so low because I didn’t think I was ever going to finish this record. I was like, ‘Well, this is just another stop on the fucking subway line of this never-ending record.’”

Lewis initially went in with two numbers—“She’s Not Me” and “The New You”—and ended up re-cutting almost her entire album with Adams and his collaborator Mike Viola at PAX-AM over the next week. One of the stipulations in the studio was that no one was allowed to hear the songs after they were tracked. Each song got two or three takes live to tape and then Lewis was forced to move on. She and Adams battled over issues like backing vocals—Adams’ argument is that if Morrissey doesn’t need backing vocals to express his narratives, then no one does— and song structure, but in the end, Lewis was glad to have a producer who kicked out the crutches and forced her stand up on her own.

After Lewis finished working with Adams, she added two older songs that she had co-produced with Rice and one that she had recorded with Beck. Lewis, explaining the background of The Voyager, appears bemused by the level of musicianship involved with the album. She seems almost in disbelief that Beck was involved in the creation of “Just One of the Guys,” a buoyantly sparkling indie-pop track that appears third on the record.

Of this song, she explains, “There were a couple of these outlier tunes, like ‘Just One of the Guys,’ which I had worked on with Beck previously. It was on the eve of my weird sleeplessness. It was like I was working with Beck one day and the next day, I was just completely dusted. It’s weird, I haven’t really talked about this yet, so I’m trying to get the timeline straight. I had an entire record I recorded with Ryan and Mike at PAX-AM, and then these other songs from previous sessions, [and] I kept going back to them. It really felt like they needed to be represented on the record. At the last moment, while I was mixing, Beck sent the song over.”

By this point, Adams had already produced a version of the song. “He completely flipped it, changed the key and turned it into almost a Springsteen tune,” Lewis recalls. “It was almost unrecognizable but really fucking rad. I was so open to hearing the song in a different way. But in the end, it didn’t feel like the proper representation of that song. But it still exists and I’m happy to have the version of it—to have a song with two different producers and two different feels. I’d like to do a 7-inch.”

Once the album was finished and tracks were arranged cohesively, Lewis hit up Adams. “I texted him: ‘Hey, Ryan. I’m done with my record. Thank you so much. You helped me so much. I’m so grateful. Can I send it to you?’” she says. “And he said, ‘I’m good. No thanks.’” Lewis pauses, her eyes visibly glinting behind the tint of her lens, and dissolves into laughter. “No producer has ever said that to me,” she says, trying to compose herself. “Not one person I have ever made music with has ever said, ‘I’m good. No thanks.’ He doesn’t look back. And he helped me so much. He was there in the moment. He gave me his entire attention for the week and a half I was at his studio.” Still laughing, she adds, “I don’t think he has heard it. I don’t know if he will ever listen.” The album, as a whole, doesn’t sound dark or tortured. The first track, “Head Underwater,” is a document of the two years that Lewis spent lying awake, trying to reconcile the first 30-something years of her life. But the song itself is a bouncing pop number—its shimmering chorus bounding with sonic optimism. Even the most introspective tunes, like the closing title track, reflect a glimmer of pop-tinged lightheartedness. Lewis attributes much of that instrumental resilience to Adams, who helped balance her heavy sense of impending doom with a weightless optimism.

“I couldn’t believe I actually got through it,” Lewis admits as she recounts the past few years. For her, this album is a miracle. “It was a document of a really tough time I got through. It was this tangible thing. Like, hey, that was really rough, but I’ve got this thing as a kind of snapshot.”

So is the suffering worth it if you emerge on the other side with a good piece of art? “Well, isn’t that the question?” Lewis replies. “I think we self-inflict pain on ourselves. This was not that, exactly. But I think you can write when you’re happy. I feel pretty good right now and I’m writing. I don’t think you have to be miserable. And if that’s the path, then I don’t know if I’m down. I want to be happy sometimes.”

At the end of the interview, Lewis takes off her sunglasses. Not because the sun has set but presumably because she doesn’t need to hide behind anything now that the conversation has ceased. Except during these interviews promoting The Voyager, Lewis is finished looking back, finished trying to reconcile the events that have brought her here, to this moment behind The Observatory, where she will play new songs with a new backing band. The album will take Lewis on tour for the remainder of the year, including dates with Ryan Adams and Ray LaMontagne, but that’s as far ahead as she can see. “I’m just looking to the immediate future,” Lewis shrugs. “I’m looking forward, but I’m taking it as
it comes.”