Jenny Lewis Keeps Finding the Magic

Though she’s pegged as a country-tinged folk rock songwriter, Lewis’s keystone is still hip-hop, reggae, soul and funk — “finding the story in rap-style verses and picking up an acoustic guitar, and kind of marrying the two worlds,” she said. A printout of the Wikipedia entry for “3 Feet High and Rising,” the landmark album by De La Soul, rested on the music stand in her studio; she was paging through it to understand all the samples they had used.

Her references for “Joy’All” included Tracy Chapman, whose conversational delivery she admires, Portishead and Frank Ocean. About half of the tracks for the LP were created over two years in Los Angeles. The rest she made in Nashville, where she has also had a home since 2017. It’s her fifth studio album as a solo artist — she started out in popular indie bands, Rilo Kiley and the Postal Service — and her first release on Blue Note Records, the storied jazz label. (After her own tour, she’ll be joining the Postal Service on the road this fall.)

Dave Cobb, the Nashville producer (Brandi Carlile, John Prine, Chris Stapleton) who worked on the album, was awe-struck by her ease and perennial good moods. “If you don’t like Jenny Lewis, you don’t like people,” he said. Their sessions, tracking instruments like pedal steel and Mellotron, along with birdsong from Lewis’s Nashville backyard, flowed easily. “To say she led is absolute, because we all played to her,” he said, adding: “Everything she writes about is true. She literally showed up every day with the puppy and her truck.”

She has the openness of someone who has spent a lifetime cheerfully talking about herself, and the staggeringly eccentric stories of a showbiz veteran. Sitting on the midnight blue couch in her minimalist living room, Lewis, in a sweatshirt, sunset-hued corduroys and a single gold hoop earring inscribed with her last name, touched on being Jewish; the spiritual guru Ram Dass; the female Elvis impersonator who was her childhood babysitter; the time her mother convinced Lucille Ball to have a sitcom wrap party in their ramshackle house (“Lucy walks in, and she goes, ‘What a dump!’”); and the swap meet in Atlanta where she buys knockoff Gucci socks by the armful. “I would never buy a real Gucci sock — that’s so silly,” she said.

Telling stories about Cohen, she cried. When she was a child, he took her to his job on the Universal Studios lot and let her draw and animate her own movies using giant old film machines. Being with him when he died “was probably like the most important moment of my whole life,” she said.

Lewis’s parents, itinerant lounge musicians, split when she was a toddler. Her acting career in the ’80s changed the family’s fortunes, for a time, but her mother’s drug addiction and instability outpaced her sitcom earnings. She was estranged from her parents for decades, then reconciled with each late in their lives. Her father’s bass harmonica sits on a stand on her mantle.

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