Jenny Lewis: ‘It’s scary to share this stuff, but it’s true’

She’s one of the world’s pre-eminent songwriters – but Lewis didn’t feel she could tackle the subject of her mother’s heroin addiction until now

‘I just had to blab it all out there,” Jenny Lewis says, with a sigh. “Right at the beginning. First interview. Blab, blab, blab. I regret it, but I put it out into the ether, and maybe I’ll learn something.”

As Lewis began the promotion for her brilliant fourth solo album, On the Line, she began to talk publicly for the first time about her upbringing. About how her mother, Linda, had been a heroin addict since Lewis’s early childhood. About being estranged from her for two decades. About the rapprochement they had in 2017 as Linda was dying of liver cancer caused by hepatitis C. Now she’s facing the reality that everyone who comes to talk to her about the record has to ask her about it. So why did she do it?

“I guess I thought sharing it might be part of the healing process,” she says. “And maybe I’ve been waiting to talk about it – not in public, necessarily. I was waiting for my mom to pass, but maybe I should have waited until my book – if I ever get around to writing a book. But this has been my experience, and maybe I do have a little experience, strength and hope to share. That’s the feeling I get out in the world when I bump into people who have been listening to my songs for 10 or 15 years. There’s a warmth and a love and an emotional rawness that I feel, from women in particular. So it’s scary to share this stuff, but it’s true.”

You can listen to Lewis’s music in many ways, for many reasons. You can listen to it for the rawness of her lyrics about real lives. You can listen to it for her wit, the barbs in which the truths are wrapped. You can listen to it for the richness of the music – west coast soft rock par excellence, with not a note misplaced and melodies rolling in like breakers on to the beach. She is an extraordinary writer and singer, and quite how highly her peers think of her is evident from the cast list on On the Line – Benmont Tench, Beck, Don Was, Jim Keltner, Ringo Starr.

Lewis has been in showbiz for 40 of her 43 years, first as a child actor, before getting into music seriously with the indie band Rilo Kiley in 1998. As she notes, given that she has been performing since infancy, her whole life has been “so meta … My first kiss was on camera.” She buries her head in her hands, and makes mock sobbing noises at the memory of how awkward it was.

At first, she thought hers was a normal childhood, “until I started interfacing with other families. Like at sleepover. It would be, ‘Wait a minute, their mom’s awake?’” She was eight when she understood that Linda was an addict. “But it wasn’t a sad realisation. When you’re a kid, that’s just it.”

Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley performs at Coachella in 2008.
Lewis on stage with Rilo Kiley at Coachella in 2008. Photograph: Barry Brecheisen/WireImage

Her musician father left home when she was very young. As a successful child actor, she sometimes resented the responsibility of being the family breadwinner, but her expression of anger was limited, at first: “I had a Chelsea girl haircut, which is not cute. It’s a kind of punk hairdo that is a shaved head with fringe and a tail. That was how I rebelled. So if you’re auditioning for roles and you have like a skinhead haircut, you’re probably not going to get them. You catch my drift?”

And then, reaching adulthood, she left and didn’t look back. She drove out of the San Fernando Valley for LA proper. “I bounced. I went over the hill and I never went back. It was getting out of control. It did not feel good over there.”

Listening to On the Line, once you know about the family history, it’s hard not hear Linda Lewis haunting the songs, in the references to drugs and hospitals and untethered lives. The album is dedicated to her, after all. That’s true, Lewis says, but she has been present “in every song I’ve ever written. My very first songs were, ‘What is she doing in the kitchen?’ She’s the best subject. The coolest person. And the most complex person I’ve known. She assumed all of the songs were about her. She was very aware of my work.

“It’s very fluid, [the line between] the music and the life, and I feel she’s the only one who really accepted that, as far as the subjects of my songs go,” she continues. “Although there’s a rule when you’re a songwriter – say you’re dating another songwriter, you can’t ask who their song’s about. Even if you think it’s about some other woman, you just have to dig your nails into the sofa.” Lewis is perhaps speaking from experience – she dated a songwriter, Johnathan Rice, for 12 years.

Her mother isn’t the only presence haunting On the Line. Ryan Adams did some early production work on the album. And then, just before its release, allegations surfaced that he had serially manipulated women and had exchanged thousands of sexual text messages with a teenage girl. Lewis issued a statement when the news broke, but she wouldn’t be human if she didn’t also think about what his behaviour might mean for perceptions of her album.

“He was a part of the initial process,” she says. “I finished it by myself and it’s been years. This is my life and my work. I poured my soul into my work for this to coincide? But it happened and I can’t go back in time and erase it. I am extremely upset about it and disappointed and sad. However, if it happened to fuck with my record, well, I’ll make another record. I’ve got a bunch of new songs and my music isn’t about my male collaborators. I have worked with men throughout my career and in some ways my career has been characterised by going over the hill and moving away from these relationships that are creatively exciting but ultimately unhealthy. So again, we need a bill of rights. We need to know what is OK and what isn’t.”

A few days later, we speak again, after I have been wondering why these creative relationships were unhealthy. She doesn’t want to go into it. But, she says: “All these moments have led me back to where I started as a writer – writing poetry in my bedroom at home. That’s the vision in my head, and it’s a very clear narrative. When you collaborate there are different approaches to songwriting, but that thing in my head has been there since I was a little kid. And I’ve been finding my way back there.”

• On the Line is out today, 22 March. Jenny Lewis plays the Latitude festival, 18–21 July.


Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

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