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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.’”

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