Jenny Lewis has spent almost her entire life lingering at the edges of everyone’s collective consciousness, first as a child actor, then as indie pop’s mid-’00s queen.
She has one of those faces. If you were to run into her in her natural habitat — a vintage clothing store or Whole Foods — you might recognize her, even if you’re not sure from where.
“People think they know me personally, or we’re related, or from commercials that I was in as a child,” she says. “I just have a familiar face, because I’m weirdly Zelig-y.”
A few years back, Lewis and her longtime boyfriend, fellow singer-songwriter Johnathan Rice, broke up. It had been the formative, defining relationship of her life so far — they were practically married — and its dissolution forced her to look at the world in a new way, and to reassess the way the world looked at her.
She couldn’t either, until it happened. She’s 43 now, just starting to find her footing, to figure out what she wants in a partner, and what the rest of her life might look like.
Many regular guys are afraid of her, rich guys seem unappealing (“I don’t date for the money. What’s the opposite of that?”), and she’s more famous than most of the artists she knows, which is potentially a problem. She reluctantly attended a JDate speed-dating event once because her godfather wanted her to meet a nice Jewish doctor. “It was way too weird,” she says, but at least no one recognized her.
The breakup and its painful, hopeful, way-too-weird aftermath are among the main subjects of Lewis’s new album “On the Line,” her best work since her 2006 solo debut, “Rabbit Fur Coat.” “It’s kind of like a play,” says Lewis, over lunch at the L.A. Farmers Market, over the hill from her Studio City home. “It begins with the breakup, and it’s rebound, rediscovery, rebirth, death, autonomy.”
In person, Lewis is vulnerable and disarming and warm. She won’t answer every question, but she seems like she’s at least considering it. She wears a mechanic’s jumpsuit and a trucker hat atop her familiar curtain of Marianne Faithfull bangs. She looks like the world’s sultriest gas station attendant.
After her breakup, Lewis moved to New York City. She stayed at her friend St. Vincent’s place in the East Village, and hung out with her girlfriends Erika Forster and Tennessee Thomas at Thomas’s venue, the Deep End Club. (The women formed a trio, played their first show at a Bernie Sanders rally, and released a self-titled album, “Nice as F---,” in 2016. It was probably a one-off.)
Lewis remembers watching a video of Ringo Starr and Harry Nilsson playing on the roof of the Capitol Records building circa 1974, with Ringo wearing a bright blue onesie with a star on the front. She must have watched this video a thousand times back then, because God, she loves Ringo, and she’s also partial to onesies.
During this the time, Lewis had taken to wearing Come to Me oil, an herbal compound she’d bought in a neighborhood potions shop. After acquiring the oil, you’re supposed to set an intention, something you want to happen — “You have to be very careful with it” — and then you wait.
She wasn’t trying to bring forth anyone in particular, she just wanted a good thing to happen; Ringo wound up playing drums on “On the Line” not too long after that. “I feel like I conjured Ringo,” she says. (Note: Maybe! But Don Was, the super-connected super producer who contributed to the album, also might have brought him aboard.)
“On the Line” was made in stages, and features production by Ryan Adams and Beck, working separately. In the days before this interview, Adams was accused of emotionally abusing and harassing female musicians.
Lewis says her relationship with Adams was strictly professional and is reluctant to say much more, but this is basically what happened: Adams began work on Lewis’s last album, 2014’s “The Voyager,” but could not be persuaded to finish. Lewis reenlisted him to produce “On the Line,” hoping things would work out differently. They didn’t.
“We began the record together two years ago, and after five or six days in the studio we stopped working together,” Lewis says, carefully. “I took the record and finished those songs without him, and then went in the studio with Beck to record the rest of the songs.”
It was not an amicable break.
The juxtaposition between Adams and Beck, one of rock’s all-time reasonable men, was stark. “There are these figures that come along when I’m engaged in these unhealthy creative relationships,” Lewis says, “and they appear just long enough to say: ‘You can do this on your own. You’re good. I can help you, but it’s yours.’ ”
“On the Line” is slower and more muted than Lewis’s past albums; there are gently swinging retro-country ballads, mostly sad, with an emphasis on pianos and organs, the latter provided by Benmont Tench, former keyboardist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Petty died during a break in the sessions, followed weeks later by the death of Lewis’s mother. Lewis had a complicated relationship with her mother, who struggled with heroin addiction and mental illness, and from whom she had been semi-estranged.
Weeks after her mother died, Lewis recorded the album standout “Little White Dove,” a bottom-heavy ballad about her final days. “I’m still afraid of a lot of things, but I don’t know if I’m afraid of dying,” she says. “Having been through that with my mother, that’s not as scary to me as it once was, which I think is a really liberating thing to go through. I’m afraid of cancer, I’m afraid of the archaic medical tools, but I’m not afraid of the other stuff.”
Growing up, Lewis’s home life had been tumultuous. She had worked fairly steadily as a child actress since the age of 3; in a Jell-O commercial, the Shelley Long comedy “Troop Beverly Hills,” the 1989 Fred Savage nerdfest “The Wizard.” She shared the screen with everyone from Angelina Jolie to Lucille Ball. “There was this normalcy on the set, and there was a meal, and the routine of it. Every time I’d start a new project, there would be a new family.”
Lewis’s father wasn’t a presence in her life, but his role was played by a series of reassuring ’80s television dads. “Corbin Bernsen, David Strathairn, Peter Scolari,” Lewis remembers. “These guys that played my dads, they were the best guys.”
Lewis found the same stability in Rilo Kiley, the band she and guitarist Blake Sennett (who was also a child actor, and her future ex-boyfriend), formed in the late-’90s. Bands, like film sets, were a makeshift source of shelter. When Lewis later heard that inmates in women’s prisons formed family units on the inside, she immediately understood — it was kind of like that on tour.
When Lewis recorded “Rabbit Fur Coat” with female backing duo the Watson Twins, things in Rilo Kiley were already rocky. The album, a country-gospel-soul mash-up that she estimates took five days to make, became a cultural sensation that changed the course of her career. At 30, she felt free for the first time. She and the Twins wore matching outfits onstage, and, unlike in Rilo Kiley, nobody yelled at each other. She couldn’t believe how easy it was. Rilo Kiley released one more album before disbanding.
Lewis has always felt that her songs are prophetic somehow, like they knew things that would happen to her before she did. She is still struck by the naivete of many of those early songs, but she wonders if she was setting intentions she didn’t know about. “I’m always surprised by my songs, at either how irrelevant or relevant they feel,” she says.
When Lewis was in her 30s, she wrote the “Voyager” track “Just One of the Guys,” a song about a perennial Cool Girl beginning to doubt her life choices (“When I look at myself all I can see / I’m just another lady without a baby”). The song wasn’t a hit, but it was a big deal, and it was accompanied by a buzzy video starring Kristen Stewart, Brie Larson, Tennessee Thomas and Anne Hathaway, a friend from her acting days.
Lewis says the song wasn’t biographical (“My songs aren’t the paper of record. There’s a lot of wiggle room in there”), and isn’t meant to seem sad — just matter of fact. But pop music is short on songs about women confronting their empty uteruses, and it struck a nerve with fans, who still ask her about it.
The further Lewis gets from the track, the closer she feels. She’s “a career girl and a survivalist,” on the road so much she can’t even get a dog. But she’s back living in Studio City now, in the house she lived in with Rice, a green and brown house called Mint Chip. Mint Chip has seen countless late-night jam sessions and dissolute ragers. Mint Chip is a vibe.
But the people Lewis rented it to during her time in New York had a baby there during her absence (they asked her first, it’s fine), and the idea of a baby in Mint Chip seems strangely not awful. At the very least, it’s a means of exorcising the house’s dark breakup juju.
Children aren’t something Lewis needs, or are something she is even sure she wants. But she wonders about them, especially lately, and she feels the weight of other people wondering, too.
“There’s so much anxiety around the subject,” she says, tapping meaningfully at an imaginary watch on her wrist. “This is all I talk about with my girlfriends. There’s biological pressure, there’s this sense that you aren’t a complete person. People kind of look at you weird, like, Auntie Mame-style. It’s not whether I want it or don’t want it, we’ll see where life takes me. My time ain’t up yet.”