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Jenny Lewis: Travels with Insomnia

July 31, 2014

Lewis initially went in with two numbers—“She’s Not Me” and “The New You”—and ended up re-cutting almost her entire album with Adams and his collaborator Mike Viola at PAX-AM over the next week. One of the stipulations in the studio was that no one was allowed to hear the songs after they were tracked. Each song got two or three takes live to tape and then Lewis was forced to move on. She and Adams battled over issues like backing vocals—Adams’ argument is that if Morrissey doesn’t need backing vocals to express his narratives, then no one does— and song structure, but in the end, Lewis was glad to have a producer who kicked out the crutches and forced her stand up on her own.

After Lewis finished working with Adams, she added two older songs that she had co-produced with Rice and one that she had recorded with Beck. Lewis, explaining the background of The Voyager, appears bemused by the level of musicianship involved with the album. She seems almost in disbelief that Beck was involved in the creation of “Just One of the Guys,” a buoyantly sparkling indie-pop track that appears third on the record.

Of this song, she explains, “There were a couple of these outlier tunes, like ‘Just One of the Guys,’ which I had worked on with Beck previously. It was on the eve of my weird sleeplessness. It was like I was working with Beck one day and the next day, I was just completely dusted. It’s weird, I haven’t really talked about this yet, so I’m trying to get the timeline straight. I had an entire record I recorded with Ryan and Mike at PAX-AM, and then these other songs from previous sessions, [and] I kept going back to them. It really felt like they needed to be represented on the record. At the last moment, while I was mixing, Beck sent the song over.”

By this point, Adams had already produced a version of the song. “He completely flipped it, changed the key and turned it into almost a Springsteen tune,” Lewis recalls. “It was almost unrecognizable but really fucking rad. I was so open to hearing the song in a different way. But in the end, it didn’t feel like the proper representation of that song. But it still exists and I’m happy to have the version of it—to have a song with two different producers and two different feels. I’d like to do a 7-inch.”

Once the album was finished and tracks were arranged cohesively, Lewis hit up Adams. “I texted him: ‘Hey, Ryan. I’m done with my record. Thank you so much. You helped me so much. I’m so grateful. Can I send it to you?’” she says. “And he said, ‘I’m good. No thanks.’” Lewis pauses, her eyes visibly glinting behind the tint of her lens, and dissolves into laughter. “No producer has ever said that to me,” she says, trying to compose herself. “Not one person I have ever made music with has ever said, ‘I’m good. No thanks.’ He doesn’t look back. And he helped me so much. He was there in the moment. He gave me his entire attention for the week and a half I was at his studio.” Still laughing, she adds, “I don’t think he has heard it. I don’t know if he will ever listen.” The album, as a whole, doesn’t sound dark or tortured. The first track, “Head Underwater,” is a document of the two years that Lewis spent lying awake, trying to reconcile the first 30-something years of her life. But the song itself is a bouncing pop number—its shimmering chorus bounding with sonic optimism. Even the most introspective tunes, like the closing title track, reflect a glimmer of pop-tinged lightheartedness. Lewis attributes much of that instrumental resilience to Adams, who helped balance her heavy sense of impending doom with a weightless optimism.

“I couldn’t believe I actually got through it,” Lewis admits as she recounts the past few years. For her, this album is a miracle. “It was a document of a really tough time I got through. It was this tangible thing. Like, hey, that was really rough, but I’ve got this thing as a kind of snapshot.”

So is the suffering worth it if you emerge on the other side with a good piece of art? “Well, isn’t that the question?” Lewis replies. “I think we self-inflict pain on ourselves. This was not that, exactly. But I think you can write when you’re happy. I feel pretty good right now and I’m writing. I don’t think you have to be miserable. And if that’s the path, then I don’t know if I’m down. I want to be happy sometimes.”

At the end of the interview, Lewis takes off her sunglasses. Not because the sun has set but presumably because she doesn’t need to hide behind anything now that the conversation has ceased. Except during these interviews promoting The Voyager, Lewis is finished looking back, finished trying to reconcile the events that have brought her here, to this moment behind The Observatory, where she will play new songs with a new backing band. The album will take Lewis on tour for the remainder of the year, including dates with Ryan Adams and Ray LaMontagne, but that’s as far ahead as she can see. “I’m just looking to the immediate future,” Lewis shrugs. “I’m looking forward, but I’m taking it as
it comes.”

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