Jenny Lewis Discusses Heartbreak and Buying Her First Vintage Acoustic Guitar in Denton

Jenny Lewis plays in Dallas tonight.
Jenny Lewis plays in Dallas tonight. Autumn de Wilde

Jenny Lewis has endured her share of hardships, but as she puts it, she is still “stumbling through [her] own existence.” Her eyes are fixed upon the present, but if Lewis was so inclined, she could easily look back on a life of achievement.

As a child actor, she co-starred with revered Hollywood names such as Lucille Ball and Ed Asner. In her early 20s, she formed the band Rilo Kiley, and a few years later, joined the Postal Service after contributing to some early recordings. In 2004, she decided to pursue her solo career and recorded her acclaimed debut full-length Rabbit Fur Coat. She also formed the duo Jenny and Johnny with her then-significant other Johnathan Rice and formed the band Nice as Fuck in 2016.

With all this success came turbulence, which reached its culmination prior to the release of Lewis’ 2014 album The Voyager. Her father, who was not as present throughout her life, died. Rilo Kiley had officially split that year and, as she explains in this interview, she struggled with severe insomnia.

Following the success of The Voyager, Lewis encountered even more tribulation. Her mother died in 2017. Her 12-year relationship with Rice ended. Before the release of her 2019 album On the Line, it was reported that women such as Mandy Moore and Phoebe Bridgers levied against co-producer Ryan Adams allegations of sexual misconduct which, as Vanity Fair wrote, “changed the narrative around [the album] entirely.”

Despite all of this, she is still rolling with the punches. In support of On the Line and her spring tour, which stops through Canton Hall on Friday, she is engaging in dozens of interviews in which she speaks candidly about these struggles.

We interviewed Lewis while she was sitting in her hotel room in Lawrence, Kansas, on a day off. We touched upon the heavy subject matter, but topics such as THC-laced gummy bears and cannibalism seemed to be just as pertinent to the conversation.

There is a story I heard when I was working [at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios in Denton] about Rilo Kiley playing there. I think the last show was in 2003 with M. Ward and Statistics. What I heard about that was you were a pretty big fan of playing the venue, but the last time you played, the roof was leaking, and there was some water that hit some exposed wiring and shocked you. Do you remember this at all?
[Laughs] Well first of all, I’d like to begin this by saying that I love Denton, and it’s one of my favorite places. Like Lawrence, there’s a handful of places that I just like … I bought my first vintage acoustic guitar in Denton, an Alvarez.

But I do vaguely remember some water, and I have gotten shocked on several occasions. One being in Spain on an island called Mallorca with the Postal Service, where I got shocked, and [bandmate] Ben [Gibbard] canceled the show.

He was like, “We’re outta here, she got shocked.”

Do you remember where you bought your first vintage acoustic guitar?
It was in the square. There was a shop, I don’t know if it’s still there.

Was it a pawn shop?
Yeah, it was a pawn shop!

McBride Music & Pawn, that’s still around.
I’ve always liked playing Dallas, but Denton feels like older or something. If you’re not from Texas, you could get a different feel for the whole state being in a place like Denton or Austin. You think, “OK, this is a big state.”

"I’ve always liked playing Dallas, but Denton feels like older or something. If you’re not from Texas, you could get a different feel for the whole state being in a place like Denton or Austin. You think, 'OK, this is a big state.'" – Jenny Lewis

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I want to talk a bit about On the Line. You seem to allude to Michael Rockefeller (fourth-generation member of the Rockefeller family who disappeared during an expedition to Papua New Guinea) in the song “Hollywood Lawn.” Charlton Heston’s son, Fraser Clarke Heston, made a documentary about Michael Rockefeller that argued that he joined a tribe in Papua New Guinea. Dutch officials thought that he drowned, but the mainstream consensus is that Rockefeller got eaten by those cannibals. What do you think happened?
I just like to think of him as infinitely drifting.

I haven’t considered the conclusion, but wow. Well, that reminds me of something I say to my friends and lovers: “Don’t hang around cannibals if you don’t want to get eaten. If you don’t want to end up in a song, you probably shouldn’t date a songwriter.”

If you and your bandmates were surrounded by cannibals, which one of you would be eaten first?
Oh gosh, who would get eaten? Well, when you’re talking on those terms, you’re thinking of like, the best cut of meat, right?

Yeah. I guess whichever one is the heartiest, or whichever one is the least gamey. I don’t know the criteria for cannibals.
I imagine what you think would be delicious wouldn’t necessarily be delicious. Who is the purest individual? Who has had the least intoxicants in their body? That’s the one that I’d want to eat.

So, probably not you then?
Not me! I’ve eaten far too many Twizzlers.

I’ve read previous interviews in support of On the Line, and everyone seems to be asking you about working with Ringo Starr and obviously Ryan (Adams). But Jason Falkner is somebody that caught my attention. He’s one of the most important power-pop artists of all time. Just want to ask about how he got involved. (Falkner contributed bass and guitar to the tracks “Do Si Do,” “Rabbit Hole” and “Little White Dove.”)
Oh, I love that you’re asking about Jason. Jason has been in Beck’s band. Aside from (The Grays and his solo career), he has also been part of Beck’s band for over 20 years. One of the greatest rock 'n' roll backing bands, I think in history. Jason Falkner, Joey Waronker, Justin Meldal-Johnsen. Beck is like, the cherry picker of other musicians. He’s such an incredible coach, you have to have the best team.

I think Jason was the first singer-songwriter I saw in a casual setting. I must have been 15 or 16. He was in the grand lobby playing piano and singing one of his songs, and I was thinking, “You’re allowed to do this with your life?! Holy shit!”

His work is still very fresh. I think he’s such an underrated artist, so I was stoked that he was working with you on some of those tracks.
Beck brought him in to play bass with Jim Keltner, and he fucking killed it. He’s an all-around great musician, too. He can play everything so well.

I love that you keep On the Line and the 2014 full-length The Voyager open-ended. “Love You Forever” seems like it would have closed out The Voyager perfectly and cohesively, but the following title-track left it open-ended and unresolved. You said in a 2014 interview with KCET that was done intentionally. You seem to achieve the same effect in On the Line, as the title-track closes pretty nicely, but then you follow up with “Rabbit Hole,” which leaves that open-ended as well. Was that intentional.
Yes. Everything is intentional, although the creation process is a little more mysterious. The songs come, and I’m just following the breadcrumbs with the song, then it makes sense in the context of the story. So yeah, “Rabbit Hole” is a post-mantra that I needed to tack on at the end.

Do you remember eating gummy bear edibles while listening to Tame Impala’s Lonerism at all?
Do I remember eating edibles while listening to Tame Impala’s Lonerism? Yes. [laughs]

How are you sleeping these days? I know you had a bout with insomnia way back when. Has that been resolved?
Yes. That was a sudden thing that took over my life for two and a half years, and then (knock on wood) it has been resolved. I still have a little paranoia thinking that it could happen again, because when you can’t sleep, you’re debilitated.

Have you seen the Al Pacino movie Insomnia? The remake of, I think, a Swedish movie or something [author’s note: the movie is based on a Norwegian film, but she was correct in guessing a Scandinavian country.] Being in that movie for two and a half hours was like my life for two and a half years.

I’ve been going through that on a spiritual level.
You have to implement a lot of things and improve your hygiene, and not look at your phone. There’s a lot of things that you can do that will help you out with that. It’s hard to combat the side-effects of meds.

You talk about some pretty heavy subject matter in On the Line about your mother and about the end of a relationship. Do you have any advice for those who are trying to make peace with some heartbreak, grief or emotional trauma?
I don’t if I have any advice except show up. I don’t know much. I don’t think I know anything. I’m just kind of stumbling through my own existence.

But I will say this about heartbreak. It does have a physical manifestation. When you’re heartbroken, you can feel it in your chest. When you feel like it’s never going to end, you talk to your friends about it, or you don’t talk to your friends about it. But then one day, you realize that you haven’t thought about that person at all. Then the next day, a little more time passes between, and before you know it, you forget what heartbreak feels like.
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Garrett Gravley was born and grew up in Dallas. He mostly writes about music, but veers into arts and culture, local news and politics. He is a graduate of the University of North Texas and has written for the Dallas Observer since October 2018.