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Jenny Lewis began her career as a child actor in kid-friendly '80s movies like Troop Beverly Hills and The Wizard, but around the turn of the millennium she moved into a bigger, brighter spotlight as the frontwoman and co-songwriter of the much-loved indie-rock band Rilo Kiley. The tiny-framed, big-voiced, frequently adorable Lewis blossomed into something of an indie goddess over the course of the first three records she wrote and recorded with Blake Sennett for Rilo Kiley. But it was her glowingly received 2006 solo debut, Rabbit Fur Coat, that cemented her status as a captivating songwriter and performer in her own right.
Lewis returned to Rilo Kiley for the band's 2007 major-label effort, Under The Blacklight, which landed atop several year-end best-of lists and earned the band the most popular notice of its career, but also alienated some longtime fans with its buffed, pop-friendly sound. Seemingly undeterred, Lewis has veered into yet another direction on her sophomore solo disc, Acid Tongue. The new album replaces Rabbit Fur Coat's old-school country-gospel vibe and backup vocals from the Watson Twins with a livelier collection of tracks that draw from a rock, soul, and country influences, fused together in a live-tracked studio setting and assisted by a stable of guest musicians. The A.V. Club spoke to Lewis the day before her new album's release to talk about touring, the pros and cons of Pro Tools, and how Elvis Costello stacks up against a tone-deaf puppet.
The A.V. Club: You wrote a lot of Acid Tongue during the Rabbit Fur Coat tour and while you were doing Under The Blacklight with Rilo Kiley. Were you writing with another solo record specifically in mind, or did it just grow out of the material that you had accumulating?
Jenny Lewis: Yeah, it wasn't the same process as Rabbit Fur Coat, because I wrote those songs in a relatively short period of time and thematically I wanted all the songs to relate to one another. With this it was really a different approach. A lot of the songs came out of a live context. We played them on the road 100 times, so we knew that we could walk into the studio and record them the same way. So the record had a different intention from the outset. It wasn't really a studio record, but more of a live record in some ways. It was about getting the band together and creating an atmosphere that lent itself to good chemistry between the band members and trying to capture as much of the record live as we could.
AVC: You seem to have a very collaborative mentality when it comes to your solo stuff: You worked with the Watson Twins on the last one, and then your band and all your collaborators are a really big part of Acid Tongue. I take it you're not a big control freak?
JL: I'm a control freak with regards to certain aspects. I think you just have to be when you're making stuff in the world. You have to have a clear idea what you want. But I'm also fortunate to have friends that are great and I trust them musically. So I think with this record that it was matter of having guest musicians, but not having them overpower the songs. I think if you listen to the record, sometimes it's difficult to pick people out, but they're definitely there and I think that their presence is definitely more supportive than anything else.
AVC: Originally you wrote the title track from Acid Tongue as a potential Rilo Kiley track, right?
JL: No, that's not true. I wrote it on the tour for Rabbit Fur Coat. So it was first performed with that, and then recording for Blacklight I had all these songs. We [Rilo Kiley] tried "Acid Tongue" and it didn't really work. So I tried it again for my record and it worked really well, immediately. We recorded that one live actually, in a room with myself and the male choir.
AVC: The live recording of Acid Tongue is really striking, that analog-y sound. Why did you to want to record like that?
JL: I am a child of digital generation. I have done most of the records with Rilo Kiley on computers, on Pro Tools or other digital programs. On my last record we did half of it on tape and then we dumped it into Pro Tools. Then we tweaked things and we comped the vocals together and we doubled and tripled the [Watson] Twins. So it was very much a record that Mike Mogis and I tweaked out on for a long time after making it. With this record I really wanted to go in and capture the live spirit, mistakes and all. I wanted to limit myself to 24 tracks, so that the songs did breathe and all the parts could be heard. Just returning to the studio and recording on tape I think it puts you in a different mindset, and I really wanted to try something new. I think that Pro Tools is a very valuable resource and you can use it in some interesting ways. Tape is very expensive. That's why we didn't really take a long time recording this record. You can use Pro Tools in the same way where you go into the studio and you limit yourself to 24 tracks and you make a rule that you're not going to comp the drums together and fix all of the mistakes. I really love hearing those moments on some of my favorite records. It's fun to pick out the songs that speed up and slow down and all those little flubs and strange harmonies. I think you kind of lose the human aspect when you make things too perfect.
AVC: What are some of those favorite records of yours that have that not-perfect sound?
JL: All the things I grew up listening to that were made pre-mid-'90s, and the records that were made in the studio where we worked, Sound City. Tom Petty recorded there, Neil Young, Nirvana, Fleetwood Mac. We were in the same room that Nevermind was recorded in, which was pretty exciting. And that record, I know that they worked on it for a while, but you really hear the room. You can hear the space and everything. It's so rocking but so clear. I mean you can hear the distorted guitar and the background vocals, and I think when you layer stuff in Pro Tools you lose that clarity a little bit.
AVC: Because of the way it's recorded, the record has this kind of freewheeling, off-the-cuff vibe, but many of the songs, like "The Next Messiah," are way too complex to be spontaneously hashed out during recording. How much did you bring in and how much did you work out in the studio?
JL: We spent a couple of days arranging the songs before we went into the studio, and we put together a Band A setup and a Band B setup. The Band B setup was for the ballads and the Band A setup consisted of Jason Boesel, Davey Faragher from Elvis [Costello's] band, myself, Johnathan Rice, and Blake Mills on guitar. We kind of gave the more complex, rock 'n' roll songs to Band A, and then we kept the ballads for the other configuration. So we had a pretty clear-cut idea of what we wanted. But with "The Next Messiah," we arranged that song in an afternoon and it took us a while to get it right. Then when we got to the studio it took us all day to remember the parts and get to where we not only remembered all the transitions, but where the energy and the tempo were right. We had to choose the one with the right kind of singing because I wanted my vocals to be live, as they are for the entire record. So it took us about 10 or 15 takes of the mix to get it.
AVC: That track is interesting in that it's a medley. Were those just scraps of songs that you put together or was it composed as a whole?
JL: Actually, those were three separate songs that Johnathan and I wrote together. We just played them around the house for six months as different entities, and then we just started talking about stringing them together. I'm a big Barbra Streisand fan, and I think the first time I ever heard a medley was on one of her records. So we just put them together and it was so fun coming up with the transitions, because if you're slowing down to get to the second part, we had to speed up to get to the outro. It was just totally exhilarating arranging that song and then recording it in the studio, because if one person messed up at the seven-minute mark, can you imagine the dirty looks he or she got from the band?
AVC: What's your writing process like? Do you sit down and say, "Okay, I'm going to write a song now," or do they come to you fully formed, or are you always writing down lyrics?
JL: All of those things. I'm always jotting things down on little scraps of paper that I sometimes lose, but if I've written something down that's noteworthy I'll remember it. Some of the ones that I don't need to remember I'll end up losing. Like last night we played at the Ryman in Nashville and I reached in my pocket and I had a movie stub from Pineapple Express, which I had seen weeks earlier, and I borrowed a pen from the night security guard at the backdoor of the Ryman and wrote down some bullshit and lost it, luckily. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did the duet with Elvis Costello, "Carpetbaggers," come about?
JL: We had met each other a couple of times. He actually called me when [Rilo Kiley's] More Adventurous came out. My phone rang and I didn't recognize the number. I picked it up and it was Elvis on the other end of the line. I truly thought it was a prank. Johnathan wrote "Carpetbaggers" for us to sing on some of the Rabbit Fur Coat tour, because Rabbit Fur Coat, the songs on that record are not exactly rocking. There are some mid-tempo numbers, but we wanted something that was a little more upbeat. We sang that song as a duet on the road for about a year. Johnathan sang it in a very low register, and when Elvis came in he basically took it up an octave and changed the intention of the song, which I really like. I think he made it less country. Wait, you asked me how it happened. Sorry, I'm rambling on and on, I haven't had my morning coffee yet. [Laughs.] I e-mailed him, basically, and I sent him a YouTube video of myself and Johnathan singing that song with a tone-deaf puppet.
AVC: A puppet?
JL: A puppet, yeah. We did this thing backstage at Town Hall a couple years ago for this puppet show called Steve Paul's Puppet Music Hall. That was the only recording or reference that I had for Elvis. So I sent him that YouTube and told him to ignore the tone-deaf puppet.
AVC: And what was his reaction?
JL: He acknowledged the puppet's lack of skills. He was like, "Don't worry about it. I'm going to crush that puppet."
AVC: Acid Tongue is definitely, as you say, more rocking than Rabbit Fur Coat was, but it's still definitely nostalgic. It's just nostalgic in a different way, kind of a '70s California-country vibe. Was that a natural transition from the old-school country of Rabbit Fur Coat, or was that a sound that you've always wanted to explore and didn't really get a chance to until now?
JL: No, I really didn't plan out the direction of this album. I didn't say, "I'm going to create a California-country record." The songs kind of just came about, and my friends happened to be in Los Angeles and these are the sounds that we created as a group. I think you can definitely hear the influence of the producers on the record, myself included. Some of it might reference some older Rilo Kiley songs because that's where I come from, I kind of come from an indie-rock world. Farmer Dave Scher, one of the other producers, he was in a band called Beachwood Sparks. They're a Sub Pop band and they were and are huge fans of The Byrds, so you can kind of hear some of those aspects listening to some of the singles on the record. Johnathan Rice made a record in the same studio the year before and his record was heavily influenced by Tom Petty, so you can kind of hear some of those aspects, like some of the tones of the guitars. The whole thing kind of reflects the overall varied tastes within the group and within our production team. Between the four of us we make one really sweet human being.
AVC: It's interesting that this is what immediately followed Under The Blacklight, because that record has such a different set of influences—it's more dance-oriented, and just shinier.
JL: I like all different kinds of music, but that particular sound reflects Rilo Kiley. That isn't entirely my sensibility. It's about what the four of us enjoy listening to and playing as a group. So that's what you get when you throw us into a room at that particular time. This record wasn't necessarily a reaction to Under The Blacklight, but I think the process with which we made this record was. It took us a long time to make Under The Blacklight, and it was somewhat agonizing because of that. This record was made in under three weeks, which I think for me, I tend to work well within a deadline. If I know I have to get something in three weeks, I tend to A, enjoy myself a little bit more, and B, really work well.
AVC: Speaking of Rilo Kiley, fans of that band seem very protective of your so-called place in it. Do you ever worry with your solo material that how they're going to react to it, because it is in a pretty different direction than in the band, or are you like, "Screw you guys. This is what I want to do."
JL: I know. I mean I love all of our Rilo Kiley fans, but you know, that's a different band. I'm not trying to repeat myself or cater myself to one specific group of people. I think the people that come out to my shows, it's a different kind of audience. Certainly, some of the Rilo Kiley kids are there, but I think also there is an older factor in the crowd. So I hope with my records that we reach all different kinds of people. Senior citizens are welcome. Babies can come, too. I like babies, but not in the front row. I don't want to sing directly to a baby.
AVC: Acid Tongue seems to move away somewhat from the religious theme that was on Rabbit Fur Coat, lyrically at least, but there's still definitely kind of a spiritual vibe or some gospel overtones on some of the new songs. Do you consider yourself a spiritual person, or is it more of the aesthetic that appeals to you?
JL: No, I think I'm a person who is always looking for answers. I'm always questioning things and searching for clues. I tend to also to get bored with one subject, so I think I exhausted some of those ideas on Rabbit Fur Coat and I think I exhausted them in a way that's very, you know, in your twenties singing about these things. I'm sure as I grow and age I'll probably revisit some of these things later. But these are the questions that we all ask ourselves. We ask if there's a God or there isn't a God, if we're going to fall in love or get sick or follow our dreams or fail or succeed. All of these things tend to crop up.