How Jenny Lewis found happiness where she least expected it

Tribune Content Agency

LOS ANGELES — It turns out that Jenny Lewis — former child actor, widely respected songwriter, avatar of sophisticated L.A. cool — is a mall walker.

“I go down there and I get my steps in,” she says, shrugging matter-of-factly. “I’m also a massage-at-the-mall person.”

Lewis, whose talent and effortless charm have made her an object of fascination since her days fronting the beloved early-2000s indie-rock band Rilo Kiley, pursues these activities at the Opry Mills shopping center in Nashville, Tennessee, where the lifelong Angeleno bought a second home in 2017. Opry Mills also boasts a “mediocre Mexican chain restaurant,” per Lewis’ description, called Chuy’s, which she’s heard inspired the song “Margaritas at the Mall” by the Silver Jews’ David Berman, a poet and songwriting hero of Lewis’ who died in 2019.

So in addition to the mall walking and the massages, she’ll sometimes throw her black cockapoo in her Chevy Colorado — the stars of her own song “Puppy and a Truck” — and hit Chuy’s for an afternoon drink on the patio.

“You know,” she says, “in honor of Berman.”

Finding happiness where perhaps you least expect it — that’s one of the secrets of life that Lewis, 47, explores on her enchanting new album, “Joy’All,” which puts her sweet, sly voice over funky and laid-back country-rock arrangements that split the difference between the musical traditions of her two hometowns. Recorded in Nashville with producer Dave Cobb (known for his work with Chris Stapleton and Brandi Carlile), the LP follows a series of personal losses for Lewis, including her mother, who died in 2019; a couple of show-business mentors in film-music editor Jerry Cohen and album-cover designer Gary Burden; and her social life for much of the year 2020, which she spent isolated at her place in the Studio City hills thanks to a history of serious childhood asthma that left her especially vulnerable to COVID.

Yet “Joy’All” exults in having survived hardship to inherit the wisdom of middle age. “My 40s are kicking my ass/ And handing ’em to me in a margarita glass,” she sings against a shuffling groove in “Puppy and a Truck”; later, the jazzy-soulful “The Essence of Life” defines that elusive state as both “suffering” and “ecstasy.”

Lewis’ new album also comes as she’s embraced her role as a kind of godmother to a younger generation (or two) of rock artists, many of them women, writing with wit and acuity about the details of their emotional lives.

“Without Jenny Lewis there’s no Phoebe Bridgers, there’s no Soccer Mommy, there’s no Boygenius,” says Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, who’s been close with Lewis since he recruited her to sing background vocals on “Give Up,” the 2003 debut by his electro-pop side project, the Postal Service.

Curled in an armchair at home in Studio City — her little dog, Bobby Rhubarb, tucked next to her — Lewis smiles when asked on a recent afternoon how that hallowed position makes her feel.

“Stoked,” she says. “And old.” The sound of vintage reggae drifts from a cassette boombox in the kitchen; out back by the pool are dozens of small stones Lewis hand-painted during the pandemic to evoke Salvation Mountain near the Salton Sea. “Once you realize you’re at the age where not only can you write a memoir but you can be a mentor, that’s a pretty big moment,” says Lewis, who’s wearing gold corduroys and a Grand Royal Records sweatshirt, her long red hair beneath a beat-up ball cap. “I do consider myself a pioneer. But a lot of these women that have looked up to my music, they’ve eclipsed my record sales or my streaming numbers, if you pay attention to that s—.”

Indeed, there’s something of an underground-legend quality to Lewis, whose many other admirers include Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee and the L.A. sister trio Haim, whose Danielle Haim once played guitar in Lewis’ live band. The singer has been thinking lately about the things that didn’t quite happen in her career to bring real-deal pop stardom — like Rilo Kiley’s buzzy 2004 single “Portions for Foxes” not becoming an “actual hit,” as she puts it, or the time the band was in the running for a coveted performance on “Saturday Night Live” in 2007 only to see the show go dark amid that year’s Hollywood writers strike.

“That might’ve changed the course of history for us,” she says of the “SNL” spot. “But I actually wouldn’t change anything. Not being on ‘SNL’ kind of led me to this moment where I’m in control of my art on every level.”

In a funny twist, the serenely satisfied “Joy’All” — Lewis’ fifth solo album and her first for the venerable Blue Note label — could be one to expand Lewis’ audience. On the road in 2021 she played in front of hundreds of thousands of potential new fans as Harry Styles’ opening act. The demand for a Rilo Kiley reunion seems to grow louder with every year. Even Lana Del Rey wrote a song about her, or so Lewis is pretty sure: “In ‘Blue Banisters,’ I’m assuming I’m the Jenny that jumped into a pool,” she says of a line from the title track of Del Rey’s 2021 LP.

“A friend of mine was staying in the back house,” Lewis explains, nodding through a set of glass doors, “and Lana came to visit. We were hanging out and swimming, and throughout our conversation, she was sort of speaking into her voice notes [on her phone]. Later, she texted me — like, ‘Hey, do you mind if I use this in a song?’ Our conversation had made its way into her song, which is very beautiful.” (Among Lewis’ other high-profile pals is Jimmy Buffett, with whose family she’s vacationed. “The Buffetts really know how to do it,” she says. “Even if you’re not a beach-y person, they make you get in the water every day.”)

Don Was, the Grammy-winning producer and Blue Note president, says Lewis “is pretty blase about pop stardom. She’s not doing stupid s— like chasing Justin Bieber.” But, he adds, “Jenny’s a very savvy person. She wants to reach people with her music.”

Says Gibbard: “I’ve always gotten the sense that a spirit of anti-fame fame is appealing to her.”

Lewis was born in Las Vegas, where her parents performed in casinos as a lounge act; her mom and dad split when she was 3, and her mom took her and her older sister to Van Nuys. Lewis spent the ’80s working on sets: a Jell-O commercial, a gig on “Growing Pains,” a role playing Shelley Long’s daughter in “Troop Beverly Hills.” Her memories of those days are shaped by her complicated relationship with her mother, who was addicted to heroin and used Lewis’ earnings to buy drugs.

“This is sort of embarrassing, but I wet the bed until I was 8 or 9,” Lewis says. She remembers driving to an audition in her mother’s copper-colored Honda Accord when she “accidentally peed in the front seat. My mom was so mad at me. But I booked the job.”

Lewis quit acting in her early 20s and formed Rilo Kiley with Blake Sennett, a fellow child actor. The band, which flexed an encyclopedic knowledge of rock history in tunes about ambition, sex and depression, spent a decade creeping right up to the big time before drifting apart around 2011. By the time she was 40, Lewis had solidly established herself as a solo act adored by in-the-know millennials and classic rockers alike.

Yet she’d also broken up with her longtime boyfriend, singer-songwriter Johnathan Rice, and decided “it was time to get out of the Valley.” So she went to New York, where she lived for two years in her friend Annie Clark’s East Village apartment while Clark, who performs as St. Vincent, lived in L.A. “We ‘Freaky Friday’-ed,” Lewis says. She and a couple of friends formed a scrappy, politically minded post-punk trio, Nice as F—, that played shows until late 2016, when one of the members was eight months pregnant. “And then Trump got elected and the mood just shifted,” says Lewis, who recalls election night in Clark’s fifth-floor walk-up. “You could hear the screams of the people in the building.”

At the time, Lewis was dating someone who lived in Nashville and decided to give the town a try. “I’m not immersed in the music business there at all,” she says. “I can do a little cowgirl cosplay, which is fun. But ultimately I’m not cut from that cloth. And according to the allergy test I took yesterday, I’m allergic to horses.”

Even so, she’s enjoying educating herself on the history of country music. She’s been covering Keith Whitley’s “Miami, My Amy” in concert; often she’ll drive out to the cemetery in suburban Hendersonville, Tennessee, where Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash are buried. “There’s also this guy Merle Kilgore, who wrote ‘Ring of Fire,’ ” she says. “His headstone is so flashy — like, it’s totally upstaging Johnny and June. It’s so Nashville, I love it.”

Some of the songs on “Joy’All” came out of a virtual songwriting camp the musician Beck convened in early 2021 in which he’d give the participants various prompts, such as “Write a song using only cliches.” (Lewis’ response to that one was the twanging “Love Feel,” with its talk of “fire and lightning” and “sugar in the gas tank.”)

Lewis met the producer Cobb through her friends in the L.A. duo Lucius, who were in Nashville making their album “Second Nature” with Carlile. Lewis identifies the ’60s country-pop star Skeeter Davis as a crucial influence on her new album, though it’s easy to hear Lindsey Buckingham in “Psychos” and Tom Petty in “Apples and Oranges.”

The LP’s sound is considerably leaner than Lewis’ last few albums, which she attributes in part to the fact that she was trying to be COVID-cautious about how many people were in the studio at a given time. Says Cobb: “I just love her voice so much that I wanted to make that the thing.” To the producer’s ears, Lewis’ singing “has this ability to soothe even when she’s writing about some really deep stuff,” he adds. “I hear real happiness in her voice on this record.”

For her previous album, 2019’s “On the Line,” Lewis hired Ryan Adams to produce — a decision she grew to regret when, just weeks before the record dropped, Adams was accused by several women of sexual misconduct. (At the time, Adams denied the claims against him.) Lewis said then that Adams didn’t abuse her, though today she’s still “haunted” by something he told her in the studio, “which was, ‘Enough of this campfire bulls—,’ ” she recalls. “But this record is a return to that campfire bulls—, because I want to be able to take my guitar and play these songs anywhere by myself.”

A sense of self-sufficiency is important to Lewis in both her music and her life. In addition to Clark, she let other friends stay in her Studio City place while she was away, including a family with a newborn, which she thinks “cleansed the house” of whatever energy remained from her years there with Rice. “Then I had to come back and go through s—,” she says. “It’s way sparser now. I got rid of all the pictures on the walls — they were all of Johnathan.” She looks around the living room, which is virtually empty beyond a chair, a sofa and a marimba sitting in the corner. “This is my space, and I love it. But I’m really happy that I have the luxury of going back and forth between here and a new place — making new memories somewhere else, having new romantic experiences in a different bed.”

Lewis will spend much of this year on the road, playing festivals, headlining her own shows and opening arena dates for Beck and Phoenix before joining Gibbard for a tour marking the 20th anniversary of the Postal Service album. (That tour will wrap in October with three nights at the Hollywood Bowl.)

For her current live band, which includes only women, “I want to create an environment that’s safe, fun, not too serious — but serious in the work,” she says. “I want to rehearse, and I want to get it right. Learning how to have these talks before you embark on a journey — like, ‘Here are the ground rules’ — I think that’s really positive.”

Did the experience with Adams make her feel responsible for more closely vetting the people she works with? “Yes,” she replies. “I’m in charge of 12 people on tour — they’re my responsibility. Whatever behavior was going on in 2004 does not fly now. I mean, it didn’t fly back then, and I was uncomfortable with a lot of stuff. Hooking up with random fans in the bunks? That sucks. I hate that.”

Lewis doesn’t want to get into the specifics of who was doing what in 2004. But it’s clear she’s talking about some of the personality conflicts that eventually drove apart Rilo Kiley. And yet these days she seems more open to that longed-for reunion than she ever has.

“Playing those songs together would be really fun,” she says. “Giving people the satisfaction of hearing songs that were a part of their formative high school experiences — that’s a very special thing to provide. It’s certainly something that’s in our consciousness, and I think if the time is right in our relationships, then the music will be easy.”

So: Coachella 2025?

“I feel like that’s…,” she says, trailing off with a laugh. “I don’t think 2024.” For now she’s willing to “keep disappointing people” by withholding what they want. “They’re always like, ‘We miss how you were then!’ ” she says.

One wonders if encountering that attitude makes her want to dig in her heels regarding Rilo Kiley.

“Of course,” Lewis says. “We’re never ever ever getting back together, to quote Taylor Swift. But that’s not true. I’m not a person who closes the door.”