It’s been 11 action-packed years since the release of Rilo Kiley’s breakthrough debut, Take Offs and Landings. In the time between, frontwoman Jenny Lewis has put her name to three additional Rilo recs, two lauded solo efforts, and an album alongside longtime boyfriend Johnathan Rice as Jenny and Johnny. She’s also sat in with and recorded alongside everyone from Elvis Costello to The Postal Service to Bright Eyes. A seasoned professional long before her music-making days, Lewis grew up in the spotlight, having spent most of her childhood occupying roles in film (Troop Beverly Hills), television (Life with Lucy), and commercials. And today, at 36 years old, Lewis is still showing no signs of slowing down. This Tuesday, she returns to Santa Barbara for a semi-acoustic show at the historic Lobero Theatre, and in the coming months she’s aiming to finish her third solo album. I caught up with Lewis last week to talk new homes, self-recording, and thoughts on motherhood.
What have you been up to lately? Well, after we finished touring for [Jenny and Johnny’s] I’m Having Fun Now we got home and I found that I really needed a moment. I’d been going pretty much nonstop for about a decade between Rilo Kiley and The Postal Service and my own records and then Jenny and Johnny. I needed some time to just ground myself and write some songs, so I’ve been writing over the past year and working on scoring a friend’s film. … And eventually I got bored with the idea of staying home and I started working on a new record of my own.
How far along in the process are you? I’m about five songs in. I started writing during the Jenny and Johnny touring. We’d come home for a couple of days, and I’d go into the studio. I was kind of just demoing ideas, and then I went back in more seriously earlier this year to finish and flesh out those ideas.
You recently bought a home. How has it been treating you as a creative space? It’s interesting. For me, I wrote so many songs in my old apartment — I lived in this rent-controlled apartment in Silver Lake for 11 years — so that was kind of my zone. There wasn’t much at stake in that apartment; I could go away for months, lock it up, and not worry about it. It was so incredibly cheap and I felt so incredibly safe writing there. When I moved out of there and moved into a house I was shocked by the creative process, just because I didn’t have that safety net, that comfort zone. I think it’s always an adjustment for me, but I do feel like ultimately I can kind of write anywhere. It just takes a second to get back in to the groove.
Collaboration has played a big part on both your solo records. Is that something you’re hoping to continue on album number three? I think so. I hope it will be the best of both worlds. I demo all of my songs on Garage Band, where I pretty much play everything — not very well, but I manage to hammer out a drum beat and a bass idea. There’s something really personal about those recordings, so I kind of want to take that feeling and bring it into more of a hi-fi setting, and then bring in some of my friends, like Blake Mills, who’s an amazing guitar player, or [drummer] Jason Boesel, whose instincts I really trust.
Your last record was done all to tape and had this really live, off-the-cuff feel to it. Do you think you’ll return to analog recording? You know, I’ve made digital records, I’ve made analog records, but I don’t think I can ever afford to make a record like [Acid Tongue] again. It was so expensive. For me, it’s a matter of combining the two. I definitely want the drums and the bass and the vocals on tape, but I also have to not be afraid to embrace ProTools at a certain point, just to keep the cost down, at least until I can build a studio at my house and have a tape machine and stuff. Then I can take the time that I need to take to make something right.
What’s the best part of going the analog route? It’s visceral — you can feel it. When something is coming off of a Neve board and being laid down on tape, it’s like a warm blanket for the brain. When you’re working in a digital form it’s so harsh; it’s almost painful. Your ears get more fatigued if you’re mixing all day. It’s really important at some point to turn off the screen and listen without staring at it.
A decade in, what do you feel like you’ve taken away from your music-making experience? I’ve learned a lot, particularly about communicating with people in a creative setting. I learned a lot with Rilo Kiley. We were so young and there was a romantic relationship and things got really tough. I think the communication really broke down within the band, so I’ve learned to just talk to people about what I want musically. But I’ve also learned how to express what I want because now I know what I want, and I know what I write and what I expect from myself and the people who are playing with me. It’s finding that balance.
Are those lessons factoring into the new material? You know, it’s interesting. A lot of the themes in my new songs I’m not really aware of until I record them and listen back. There’s this song called “Just One of the Guys,” and the bridge is: “There’s only one difference between you and me / When I look in the mirror and all I can see / Is I’m just another lady without a baby.” When you’re in your mid thirties, the cult of people who have children around you all want you in their cult, and they constantly ask you, “So when are you going to have a baby?”
Is a family next? I feel like, at this point in my life, the records are my children, and I want to be able to make more music and go out and tour it. If I were to decide to pursue that other part of my life I wouldn’t be able to do that. I’ve kind of decided where my priorities are at — but they still want me in their cult. They won’t leave me alone. People with newborns are so bummed out/happy. I’m all for it if that’s what you’re into, and maybe at some point I’ll be able to do that, but not now.
Tell me a bit about the tour. I originally set up this tour when I was going up to the Bridge School Benefit, and that’s an acoustic show, so you’re not allowed to have any electric instruments. I put the band together and built a little tour around that with this acoustic idea in mind, and then I had to cancel my shows because of a family emergency. So when I rescheduled I just thought I’d stick with that idea and work within this acoustic thing. I’ve done a couple of shows acoustic and it was really interesting to kind of break down the songs like that. So this is kind of that — there’s an acoustic element, but we have some drums and some special guests. It won’t be full rock-band style, but I think it will rock in a sort of skiffle sense, like early ’50s and ’60s rock ’n’ roll.
Jenny Lewis plays the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Tuesday, June 19, at 8 p.m. Call 963-0761 or visit clubmercy.com for tickets.