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Jenny Lewis talks about the joyful path to 'Joy'All'

Jenny Lewis talks about "Joy'All" (interview with The Current) The Current
  Play Now [10:00]

by Ayisha Jaffer

April 14, 2023

Joy’All, Jenny Lewis’s first full-length album since 2019’s On The Line, releases June 9, 2023. Ahead of the release, Lewis connected with The Current’s Ayisha Jaffer to talk about the making of the new album — and so much more!

Lewis opens up about adopting her puppy Bobby Rhubarb, and how it led to the single, “Puppy and a Truck.” She also shares a special connection she felt with the late Skeeter Davis, and the importance of having a community of creative musicians around her.

Watch and listen to the full interview above, and read a transcript below.

Video Transcript

Jenny Lewis: I once knew someone who said that he didn't believe in the pursuit of happiness. And I thought, wow, how unfortunate.

Ayisha Jaffer: I am so excited to be sitting down with you. I'm Ayisha Jaffer, I'm a weekday host here on The Current. And I'm hanging out with Jenny Lewis. Thanks for being with me.

Jenny Lewis: Hello, Ayisha.

Ayisha Jaffer: So today is an exciting day; you announced a new album, the first one since 2019, since On The Line, it's called Joy’all — is it pronounced JOY-ALL?

Jenny Lewis: "Joy all," you got it.

Jenny Lewis Joy'All album cover
Jenny Lewis, "Joy'All" releases June 9, 2023.
Blue Note Records

Ayisha Jaffer: So I'm taking that title, and I'm feeling like, you know, it's either something about choosing a path of joy or a guide to choosing joy, or maybe a combination, or something completely different. But you tell me, what is the theme if there is a theme to this new record?

Jenny Lewis: Well, you nailed it right there. And, you know, I think, in choosing that path, you kind of accept all of the things that come along with it. But I once knew someone who said that he didn't believe in the pursuit of happiness. And I thought, wow, how unfortunate. 

Ayisha Jaffer: Yeah. Yeah, what do you say to that?

Jenny Lewis: You're like, "By-eeeeeeeee!"

Ayisha Jaffer: “See ya! Sorry for your life.” Well, I think, so we take that title, and then you also drop the single, in contrast, it's called "Psychos." To me, it feels like a perfect road-trip song. But can you tell me a bit about this piece? And why you chose it to be the first introduction to this album?

Jenny Lewis: Well, it's a bit of an existential take on dating in the modern age. So on the surface, it's kind of about this character, but really, it's about me, and I'm, you know, questioning, "Am I a psycho?" throughout the song. And then at the end, it's, you know, how bad do you really want it? You know, is it the ego? Is it the id? So a lot of the songs on the record are kind of on the surface about relationships with other people, but really, they're about relationship — the relationship with yourself the relationship with your higher power — so they kind of have triple meanings.

Ayisha Jaffer: Yeah, wow. OK. I like that. I feel like that's relatable to so many people, especially on their journey in that world, so that's really fascinating.

Well, OK, so this I think is so interesting: You did this virtual workshop for a week with Beck, and I'm just curious, you said it was a whole bunch of different musicians together. How did that kind of come together?

Jenny Lewis: Well, Beck has always been one to bring artists together to either, you know, cover records — he did the Record Club for years where he'd get a group of people together and they'd cover like a Skip Spence record — so he's always just creating an environment for people to be creative. And he had asked me to participate in one a year previous, and I kind of chickened out.

A man in a hat and sunglasses stands in a church
Mikai Karl

But this came at the perfect time. I was in Nashville, and they were about — I don't know if it's like Fight Club where you're not supposed to talk about Fight Club; number one rule of Fight Club is you don't talk about it — but amazing artists, and then every day for a week, he would give an assignment, and everyone would write and record, and then send the song to Beck, and he would compile the songs on a SoundCloud playlist. So the first day of the week was a freeform writing assignment. And I wrote "Puppy in a Truck" and sent it to the group. 

Ayisha Jaffer: I mean, I love that. And I want to come back to that song because I have some questions. It is my favorite song that you've ever written. You've written a plethora of songs, but that one feels, well, I'm gonna just ask about it now: It just feels vulnerable. It feels like a new step. And just, I mean, I have to ask you, I need to know the story about Bobby Rhubarb.

A portrait of a fluffy little dog
Bobby Rhubarb, Jenny Lewis's dog.
via Instagram

Jenny Lewis: Bobby Rhubarb is the joy of my life. And she was a gift from my friend, Serengeti, he's an amazing poet and rapper from Chicago, and we became friends. We met at this festival that Justin Vernon [of Bon Iver] and the Dessners [Aaron and Bryce from The National] threw in Berlin in 2018, which I often refer to as "the last great time we all had"; it was like this artist free-for-all. We lived in a hotel in Berlin, and collaborated on these short sets together, and lived and played and hung for a week, and I became friends with Dave — Serengeti — in the lunch hall. And we just kind of sat next to each other kind of Freaks and Geeks style, and became really good friends, and then we made some music during the pandemic. We sent some music back and forth, and released a couple of songs. And then early 2021, I was really down, like so many people, and he said, "J, do you want a dog?" I was like, "What?" He's like, "I'll bring you a dog. If you want a dog, just tell me, give me the word." And so I said, "Give me 48 hours to think about it." And then he drove Bobby Rhubarb down from Chicago to Nashville, and showed up at my doorstep with her in his hands. She was eight weeks old. And then the rest is history.

Ayisha Jaffer: Oh, my goodness. So Bobby Rhubarb was already a traveler at the very beginning of all of this. And then you took Bobby Rhubarb on tour.

Jenny Lewis: I took Bobby on the Love On Tour with Harry Styles for almost three months; she was seven months old.

Ayisha Jaffer: Oh my gosh! So she's a traveler. She's a legend already. And, well, and then was that what inspired Harry Styles to essentially — I don't know if Harry is playing a different dog? Or is Harry playing Bobby? Because he looks different than Bobby Rhubarb in your video.

Jenny Lewis: Well, Harry definitely has met Bobby Rhubarb. And they know each other. And at the end of the tour, he gave me a lovely gift bag of mostly dog treats, which is very cute as a thank you. And, yeah, I mean, that was just kind of a fun thing we made on the road. My tour manager had a drone that he bought for the tour, so we would drone on our days off. And then he would set his iPhone up on the edge of the stage for those amazing shows. And yeah, Harry was just so cool to like, be a part of the gag.

Ayisha Jaffer: That's incredible. I love that.

Jenny Lewis: Also, I may or may not be a furry.

Ayisha Jaffer: Your life has changed since Bobby entered the picture, huh?

Jenny Lewis: Yes!

Ayisha Jaffer: Look, no judgment, whatever you're into, that's all good.

Jenny Lewis: Whatever works.

Ayisha Jaffer: Yeah. It's all about choosing joy, right? So, well, I want to get back to that. I want to get back to talking about this amazing Fight Club workshop, if you will. Because I have heard in the past that the way that you kind of do songwriting is it kind of comes through you, it's almost like a magical channeling experience, right? So having this workshop where there are prompts mixed with kind of knowing that about you, how did those two methods go hand in hand? 

Jenny Lewis: Well, I like parameters. With art, like, I think it's really helpful, you know? Like, four-tracking is amazing, because you only have four tracks. So you can't, you know, all the permutations of modern record-making like Pro Tools, sometimes it can kind of complicate the matter. So the parameters and the prompts kind of allowed me to be free within the very basic, you know, guidelines like, you know, “Write a song with I, IV, V as the changes.” So having the structure and then being able to let the poetry kind of flow through the structure was very helpful. And I had a bunch of songs that I had been working out on the road. So I kind of put those aside, and then this new batch, and then I got to go back to those old songs and kind of reimagine them.

Ayisha Jaffer: Yeah, that's awesome. Sometimes structure like that, it can change the game too, which is exciting. Well, in this in this process, too, I'm wondering, did you, like, in doing this kind of camp, if you will, did you take anything away from it that you hadn't used in your songwriting process that you're now going to keep for the future?

Jenny Lewis: Well, I think having been alone for the pandemic — I mean, I did all of that alone before I got Bobby Rhubarb — it reinforced the need for community. And my peers are such an important part of that process. So being able to participate you know, with like — Adam Green was a part of it, and Soco, and I brought in Cass McCombs — and being able to learn from their process; like some people would submit a fully produced song in 24 hours. Some people, it was just an electronic piece. So kind of trusting wherever you're at in the moment, and having the courage to present that to the group. You know, it's intimidating if you're like, "Oh, my God, these people are listening to my music," but yeah, just the openness to share what you've got.

Ayisha Jaffer: Then can I ask, on that topic of having your peers around, you talked about this hotel in Berlin. Does that still exist? Is that a place you can still go to? 

Jenny Lewis: Oh, yeah. The Michelberger.

Ayisha Jaffer: What a beautiful space that you're kind of surrounded by these amazing peers and people, people who will drive so many hours to bring you Bobby, and like the inspiration around you is pretty magical, which I think for this record, it feels like all the stars aligned really, right? Because you met your producer, Dave Cobb, and then he brought on — he has this incredible house band; you got Jess Wolfe [of Lucius] back on the record, Greg Koller was brought in as an engineer, and Jon Brion, too, who all contributed.

But my favorite thing about this, like magic galaxy story is what — I feel like just everything, you've just created this galaxy record, I haven't even heard it, and I'm already calling it, it's probably amazing — but my favorite part of the story is that you went to Black Shag Vintage [in Nashville], and you had the idea of Skeeter Davis in mind in this record, and you found her exact outfit, and are wearing it on the cover. And I'm just wondering, when you found this, it's just feels like another dot connected. But also how did you know how did you know that that was Skeeter Davis's outfit? Did they tell you? Or how did that kind of come together?

Three people standing together outdoors for a portrait
Skeeter Davis (1931 - 2004) in 1970.
Getty Images

Jenny Lewis: Well, it was on the tag.

Ayisha Jaffer: Oh! Very straightforward!

Jenny Lewis: But I think with these things, you know, and I don't want to get to New Agey about it, but when you're present in the moment, and you kind of practice you know, this presence of mind and manifestation, that things just line up. And if you're open to the signs, you'll be guided in the right direction. And that doesn't mean that there isn't, you know, pain and suffering along with the joy. But I felt very open in that moment. And I kind of just followed, you know, I just followed the muse and it led me to Skeeter's amazing, silver and green sparkly outfit.

Ayisha Jaffer: Beautiful and perfect. And a great reminder, honestly, because we do kind of get lost. It's being open and manifesting is, I mean, I believe in that as well.

On the point of Skeeter Davis, what is, I mean, where are we going to hear the influence? Or what is the type of influence that Skeeter Davis has on this record?

Jenny Lewis: Well, her directly, the cover is a reference to one of her records, and really just for me finding the autonomy in my songwriting, where I've always been a songwriter, writing on my own since I was 10, but I've been lucky to have these collaborative relationships as well, like in Rilo Kiley, Blake and I wrote together; I also wrote on my own. My partner, Johnathan Rice, for many years, we would write together. But I think I've just been seeking total autonomy in my storytelling. And so this record, yeah, I wrote on my own, and it feels like "Puppy in a Truck," very almost conversational. I feel like I've really just gotten to this place where I feel comfortable just telling my story how I want to tell it.

Ayisha Jaffer: Yeah. And I feel like, at least from the listener side, we feel part of the conversation. We're like, interacting with it that way. "Psychos" is definitely a relatable track, and "Puppy in a Truck," like I said, affected me in a big way. Even just hearing Bobby's voice at the end, there's some beauty, I feel like I'm on that journey with you. And I really love it. So thank you for bringing this incredible music to us.

Well, we're excited because you're coming on tour, up here in Duluth, with Trampled by Turtles, we're really excited to have you at Bayfront Festival Park. I have heard some interviews in the past where you mentioned Duluth, and I'm wondering, do you have a connection to Duluth in some way?

Jenny Lewis: Well, I have a deep Minnesota connection. My brothers live, my half-brothers, live in Hastings and in Menomonie, Wisconsin. And my father, when he got sick and before he passed, my half-brother took him in. And so the most time I've ever spent with my dad was, you know, while he was living in Hastings, and then in the hospital in St. Paul. So I've always had just deep connections to Minnesota, and I have a lot of friends in Wisconsin and in the [Twin] Cities, and it's really one of my favorite places. And TBT, I love those dudes, and I was supposed to play last year, but my godfather passed away.

Ayisha Jaffer: Oh, I'm so sorry.

Jenny Lewis: So I had to cancel the show. But I'm so looking forward to coming back and being back in Duluth.

Ayisha Jaffer: Oh, well, we're so excited to have you, and really, sorry for your loss. That's hard, and important when those days...

Well, here's something kind of funny that I wanted to bring up is at The Current, we do this thing called March Music Madness where we do the brackets and we choose a year, and we have all of our listeners vote for the favorite record of that year. And 2003 was that year, and the Postal Service's Give Up was number one! So we're not just going to see you in Duluth; I hear we're also going to see you for this huge anniversary, playing that album from top to bottom in the fall. I mean, what does that feel like to go back 20 years? I mean, you're not on the tour yet. But like, just to think about that?

Jenny Lewis: It's crazy that so many of the records that I've been a part of are now turning 20. I mean, it's bananas. But it's going to be great. I, you know, I love singing those songs. We did the 10-year anniversary 10 years ago, and that was just overwhelming and incredible. But it's all sort of linked, because Death Cab, they're gonna play Transatlanticism, and then we're going to do Give Up. And Rilo Kiley, we had just put out The Execution Of All Things when I went on the initial tour with the Postal Service for Give Up in 2003, and my band Rilo Kiley, we were on Barsuk Records because I was such a huge Death Cab fan; I sent our demo to the label because I was a Death Cab fan. So it's all part of this one thing, you know, this community of people, we've been playing and touring together for 20-plus years.

Related: Ben Gibbard talks to Jill Riley about Death Cab for Cutie and the Postal Service

Ayisha Jaffer: I mean, that's the heart of what we've been talking about in this conversation, it seems like it is that community, right? And that's, it's so beautiful to have that. And it just brings and fosters more creativity, and it all comes up together. So, well, in saying that, I mean, are you going to do, are you talking about a reunion at all with Rilo Kiley?

Jenny Lewis: You know, we haven't talked about it. But, you know, I'm open to whatever happens. I think it would be unfair to not play those songs together again, just for us, because we, they're so, those songs are so important to us. We just have to find the right moment to you know, bring it out. You know, when you're in a band, it's like family, so it's like, you gotta work stuff out so you can have like a peaceful, you know, time together, so we're sorting it.

Ayisha Jaffer: Yeah, everybody come to the table. Have a meal. Have a conversation. Absolutely.

Well, we're so excited to have you. I'm so excited about this new album. Is there anything else you want to share before I let you go?

Jenny Lewis: No, I mean, I love The Current, and I'm not just saying that. It's just, and I love the Cities and I can't wait to come back and see all my friends.

Jenny Lewis
Jenny Lewis performing with Rilo Kiley in the Forum at MPR in 2007.
Leif Larson | MPR file

Ayisha Jaffer: Oh, my goodness. We can't wait to have you. I'm so excited. Thanks so much, Jenny Lewis, for hanging out with me today. 

Jenny Lewis: Thank you.

Jill Riley: The Current is public media made possible thanks to member support.


Guest - Jenny Lewis
Host - Ayisha Jaffer
Producer - Derrick Stevens
Video Producer - Erik Stromstad
Graphics - Natalia Toledo
Digital Producer - Luke Taylor

Jenny Lewis - official site