Jenny Lewis has been making music for more than 20 years, on her own and with bands like Rilo Kiley and Nice As Fuck. But she’s never recorded anything quite like On The Line. Her fourth solo album and first since 2014’s The Voyager sounds humongous: rafter-raising vocals, pianos that seem to ring out endlessly, and, on “Red Bull & Hennessy” and “On The Line,” an earth-shaking double-drum attack courtesy of session warhorse Jim Keltner and Ringo Starr. On The Line is the crispest-sounding entry in Lewis’ catalog, and the most emotionally complex, written in the wake of a breakup and the death of her mother. Yet, as she discussed by phone this month, the true nature of those songs is a little more complicated. The A.V. Club talked with Lewis about “summoning” a former Beatle, the links between The Voyager and On The Line, and whether knowing the recipe ruins the cake.
The A.V. Club: I’ve been listening to On The Line a lot, and I feel like every time I do, I come out of it with a new favorite among the songs.
Jenny Lewis: That’s the hope—that people listen to it all the way through, and maybe more than once. How much do people listen to one album now? I know I do, because I have to limit myself to fall in love with something—like one side at the time.
AVC: How do you listen to music these days? Is it streaming, is it physical media?
JL: I have a cassette player that I love, in the kitchen. I really like listening to cassettes because of the parameters. A couple songs, let me digest it, flip the side. I listen to vinyl. I also listen to a lot of Howard Stern [Laughs.] in the car. A ton.
AVC: So you’ve got that satellite radio hook-up?
JL: Yeah, I’ve got that Sirius. When I’m driving, I like Howard, and the Grateful Dead channel, and the Beatles channel, which is so fun to listen to, because it’s just like trivia.
AVC: And now you have a Beatle on your record!
JL: It’s crazy. It’s crazy!
AVC: How does that feel?
JL: In the words of Larry David: Pretty, pretty, pretty good.
AVC: How did Ringo Starr end up playing on “Heads Gonna Roll” and “Red Bull & Hennessy”?
JL: I feel like we may have channeled him from the East Village. We may have summoned Ringo without realizing it. A friend of mine [Nice As Fuck drummer Tennessee Thomas] had a shop called The Deep End Club on 1st Avenue, and one day this Frenchman drove up on a motorcycle, and he just rode it right up to the shop door, came into the shop—just the two of us in there, myself and Tennessee—and the guy was watching something on his iPhone. He showed it to us, and it was this video of Ringo in a blue onesie with a silver star on it, singing “Only You (And You Alone)” with Harry Nilsson on background vocals, and a giant spaceship made out of papier mâché on top of the Capitol Records Building. [Laughs.] And I became obsessed with this video. I must have watched it a hundred times.
And there’s a little shop down the street called Flower Power—it’s like a little witches’ shop—and they have this oil called Come To Me Oil. And it was for romantic reasons that I bought this oil, but then I think it sort of got crossed with this Ringo video. [Laughs.]
AVC: It’s not just Ringo—it’s the studio, too.
JL: I would have never considered Capitol Records as a place that I could record. Honestly. My motto in life is “One up from the cheapest.” I want that to be my headstone. It’s a great way to choose a bottle of wine. So to end up at Capitol, that was a real trip.
AVC: How do you feel like the studio wound up influencing the album? How is it heard in the final product?
JL: I think the part of record-making that is magical, and mysterious, and human—it’s in the air, it’s in the space. When you record on a computer, you’re recording in a vacuum. When you record on tape, it’s alive. The hiss is the room. So when you’ve got the tape—which, we recorded on tape—and then you’ve got a room like that, which is just resonating energy, sound, air. I think that’s where the magic is, in the air.
And then you’ve got someone like Benmont Tench, who plays on the record, whose specialty is fog. He adds a layer of fog to music. He is so amazing at creating tension—melodic tension. Sometimes dissonance. But the fog and the air, I think that is the space.
AVC: Is there anywhere on the record where that fog is particularly prevalent? Or is it throughout the whole thing?
JL: It’s in there, and you can just feel it. On The Voyager as well. It’s this pristine, modern recording, which is cool as well. That’s why I think Auto-Tune is so popular, because it adds an otherworldly element that you’re not getting in the digital form. It’s so tight, digital recording, that Auto-Tune is a little bit magical, mystical, and creates space and fog. I think it’s almost like a reaction to the sterile environment of digital recording. You can still make something amazing on your phone, but I think there’s this humanness that people are drawn to in music.
AVC: And tracking the songs live in the studio provides its own energy, too. “Red Bull & Hennessy” feels muscular and electric.
JL: We call that “the big boy pirate ship.” “Red Bull & Hennessy” feels muscular because there are two men drumming on the track—Ringo and Jim Keltner, arguably the two best drummers alive—and the power of that.
So we started in the studio at Capitol, and then I mixed the record with Shawn Everett, who’s a different kind of artist and technician. He changed the sound. He put the sail on the big boy pirate ship.
AVC: You’ve talked in other interviews about getting the drum sound on the record by taking the midrange out—in layperson’s terms, how does that affect the sound?
JL: That isn’t necessarily specific to the drum sound. The drum sound was an organic drum sound through Shawn’s filter, which is: He is on his own trip, and I was there to go on that trip with him.
What I meant by removing the midrange: That relates to the whole track and creating space in the middle for the vocal. With guitar music, guitars eat up the same sonic space as vocals. By scraping some of that out—in the same way that a hip-hop track would be produced, where it’s bass, vocal in the middle, and then cowbell or hi-hat—sonically, those kinds of productions are really clean and sparse, and you can hear what’s going on. So Shawn and I were referencing some hip-hop for a clean, but muscular, track.
AVC: That hip-hop influence really comes across on “Do Si Do.” The percussiveness of the lyrics, the way they flow—they could be rapped or sung.
JL: Beck produced that song, and it feels so Beck to me. Although it’s Jim, and it’s Capitol Records—you know, it’s, like, singer-songwriter music—Beck is really so great at finding the groove. I wrote the lyrics like I wrote my first lyrics as a kid: I wanted to be an MC when I was 10. And I think the first poems I wrote were actually verses. They were rap. I had a freestyle battle with Biz Markie when I was 17, in Hollywood at this place called The Gaslight. And I realized that I wasn’t a very good rapper—I was probably a better writer. So that was the end of my rapping career, but that’s my formative writing skill, in that form. And then I learned about indie rock later, and then country music. So I’m aping those genres, but through a hip-hop prism, because that’s all I kind of know how to do.
(In addition to Beck and Everett, On The Line was in small part produced by Ryan Adams; following the sexual misconduct allegations against Adams published in The New York Times, Lewis tweeted the following: “I am deeply troubled by Ryan Adams’ alleged behavior. Although he and I had a working professional relationship, I stand in solidarity with the women who have come forward.”—Ed.)
AVC: Another of the Beck songs on the album is “Little White Dove,” which is about your mother’s death, though that might not be immediately apparent because of the groove and the bounce that it has. Can you talk about writing and recording that song?
JL: I started that with a guitar, with a drum machine—I have a little music room [at home]. My mom was ill, and in the hospital, and I would spend the day with her and then come back home and I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. Nothing was working: The weed wasn’t working, and I didn’t want to drink tequila, or go on a hike. Really music was—it was just something to do. That song came out of those days I spent with her.
AVC: There’s overlap between some of the themes and subject matter of The Voyager and On The Line—both deal with the death of a parent—and the albums’ cover photos are similar. Do you view them as companion pieces?
JL: They are. The Voyager, I didn’t have a title track for it. I needed to write another song for it. And there was a motel in Van Nuys called The Voyager that burned down. And my mom was living in that motel. This is years ago. And I just happened to turn on the news and saw it on channel 5. And I wrote “The Voyager,” which isn’t really about that. But it gave me the idea of this song, which is about everyone’s journey.
So [On The Line]—life just happens. Shit happens. You keep going. It’s definitely linked to The Voyager. Which I just realized right now. [Laughs.] Interviews are so weird! I don’t even know why I make this shit, but then I have these conversations, and I’m like, “Wait a minute: This is deeply coded.”
AVC: And that’s inherent in your songwriting. There’s always an ambiguity: “Heads Gonna Roll” has that line “I’m gonna keep on dancing ’til I hear that ringing bell,” which rings of “for whom the bell tolls”—but it’s actually a reference to boxer Floyd Mayweather.
JL: That’s one of the things it could be. I like to write lines that have, like, five different meanings, where it really is open to interpretation. And the album title, On The Line, means so many things. To find the meaning underneath the meaning, it’s the true meta vibe of the song—or to just uncover some clue. Or listening to something over and over again, learning more about it. I hope I don’t blow it by talking about it so literally. I feel like I’ve opened up and I’m speaking about some stuff that I’ve never talked about before. When you know the recipe, is it going to ruin the cake? Or does it still taste good?
AVC: It’s all context. It’s all additional understanding. Hearing about the experiences that inspired these songs and these lyrics might strengthen people’s connection to them.
JL: But it’s also a little embarrassing. I feel really vulnerable. It’s easier to just have a poem. When you start addressing your own life, like your family and your relationships—but it’s my own fault. I’m just [Laughs.], “Blab, blab, blab.”
But the songs are not true, through and through. I take many, many liberties. They’re not not true, but they’re not true. You know what I mean.
AVC: They blend memoir and fiction.
JL: And I’m not consciously doing it—I’m just doing it. I just write every day. I live and I write, and hopefully I’ll always be able to write. Because if not, then I’d just have to live, and that’s terrifying.
AVC: From what I hear, that’s the best way to do it. I interviewed Paul Williams recently, and he compared his creative process to juggling: “I think you have to just throw the balls up in the air and catch them. You start thinking about it, they wind up on the floor.”
JL: Yeah, I don’t think you want to analyze too much. There’s a magical element to creation, if you’re an artist. Some people listen to a song, and then they write another song: “I want to write a song like this!” But the other part of it is pretty mystical. And I think you maybe follow the bread crumbs. It’s all right there in front of you, if you just open your eyes.