Thursday, September 2, 2010

My Interview with Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice

Me and J.Lew I got to interview THE goddess of music, my favorite singer, ruler of my iPod and biggest musical inspiration, Jenny Lewis. Cross that one off the bucket list.

After two previous solo albums under each of their belts, Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice have finally decided to join forces on a full-length alum entitled “I’m Having Fun Now.” I, for one, could not be more excited. Each of them is an established artist in their own right. Jenny Lewis (who happens to be my favorite singer) is the lead singer/frontwoman of beloved, semi-defunct, LA band Rilo Kiley and she also earned critical praise on her two solo albums, “Rabbit Fur Coat” and “Acid Tongue.” Virginia-bred Johnathan Rice brought his Dylan-esque attitude to his past solo albums, “Trouble Is Real” and “Further North.” After previously collaborating on each other’s records, they’re taking it to the next level performing as Jenny and Johnny.

I had the incredible opportunity to interview Jenny and Johnny about their new album and asked the real-life couple about the collaboration process.

Johnny: “We've developed a pretty easy working relationship. For this album, anyway. There were no Fleetwood Mac levels of strife.”Jenny: “It wasn't fraught, but I think the more you play music, the more you learn the language of music and being able to express what you hear. It's one thing to hear it, it's one thing to play it, but I think you have to be able to communicate what you want. With this, we worked with Pierre de Reeder from Rilo Kiley and he is very open. So, we were actually able to get our hands on the controls in the studios, plug stuff in, where in the past it was a little more hands off.”

The finished product is pretty extraordinary. This is a fun album (as the title so aptly states)! Serpents, sharp shiny objects, withering relationships, and the seemingly unending recession are all motifs thoroughly explored and exposed on the eleven-track collection. The laid back and upbeat sound is juxtaposed with the lyrics, which offer a more dark, brooding, ominous tone. When I asked if they were going for a specific sound on the album, Johnny told me, “I think the sound kind of emerged into its own thing. We didn't want to make something that sounded like it was from another time. We wanted it to sound like it was from right now.”
“Right now via the ‘90s rather than the ‘60s,” Jenny added.

Some songs on the album have a kind of beach-feeling sound to them. The kick-off single, “Scissor Runner,” and the catchy and relatable “Big Wave” (which is all about lack of money and self-medicating) are prime examples of that. Johnny explains, “We made a concerted effort to spend much more time at the beach because this is the most time that we've had off. We spent a lot of it at the beach.”

“Renting bikes,” Jenny added. “We had actually gone bike riding in Venice. And I actually have a tan for the first time since I was in ‘The Wizard’” (alluding to her fair skin and her acting past).

The album is full of memorable tracks. “Switchblade” is all about what happens when you go from being broke to finally getting some money in your pocket with lines like, “It was poverty that kept you sweet / And dreams that kept you young. The money started rolling in / You stopped having any fun.”

“My Pet Snakes” is a thrashy, beat-laden number about a conflicted relationship (whether personal or professional). Once the NRE (new relationship energy) is over, what comes next? Do you stay and keep at it or do you bail? While in “New Yorker Cartoon,” we’re taken for an acid trip of a ride complete with vampire bats and saluting paper bags. “Committed” is a song I appreciate for personal reasons. Being a huge Michael Jackson fan, I got a kick out of the line, “For God and for country, for Michael Jackson’s monkey…” -- an homage to the singer and his chimp, Bubbles.

“I’m Having Fun Now” is transcendent, reaching every level of emotion, making it easy to listen to no matter what kind of mood you’re in. Johnny (sporting a spiffy new haircut as a result of losing a bet) easily blends his raspy, growling voice in with Jenny’s hypnotic, rich, honeyed vocals.

The two of them have the ability to create something beautiful. Their personal relationship is balanced perfectly with their professional relationship as they both seem to have genuine respect for each other’s work. I asked what Jenny’s favorite Johnathan Rice song was. “Animal,” she responded. “But it’s hard because songs change... your perception of them.” And Johnny’s favorite Jenny song? “Silver Lining.”

Working with each other hasn’t stopped them from branching out and working with other people. I asked them whom they would love to collaborate with the most.

Johnny: “We’ve both been so lucky and serendipitous. I feel like we'll probably get to collaborate we everyone we want to. Almost. Jenny has sung with Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, all these great artists… and it all happens very naturally and beautifully and you couldn't ask for anything more, really.” Jenny: “Well, when you get a chance to work with Elvis Costello, at that point you’re kind of like ‘OK.’ But actually, I'm a fan of collaborating with people who are just kind of beginning their musical careers in a way. I love working with women who are just starting to embark on that journey. It's always great to have a bunch of girls in my band that are on their first tour. Like the [Watson] twins when we toured “Rabbit Fur Coat,” it was so much fun.”

As for Jenny’s band, Rilo Kiley, many are wondering what will become of the cherished group. I asked Jenny if I witnessed the very last Rilo Kiley concert at the Greek two years ago, or if they had something in the works. She told me, “I don't know. I know we don't have any plans to make a new record right now but we are putting together a compilation of B-sides and rarities, which is taking a bit longer than we originally expected, so we're hanging out and compiling a bunch of stuff. So, we'll see what happens with that.”

Jenny and Johnny kicked off their tour in Jenny’s native Los Angeles on Sunday night at Three Clubs in Hollywood to a crowd of about 200. The intimate show is just the first of many over the next few months. I asked them what is their favorite city to which to play. Jenny loves playing in Los Angeles and Austin, while Johnny likes D.C. and Chapel Hill.

Be sure to catch them on tour in your city! If it’s anything like Sunday night’s show, you’re in for a great time with artists who genuinely love what they do.

5 Quick Questions with Jenny and Johnny:

What is the song that made you want to become a musician?
Jenny: “Pass the Dutchie.”
Johnny: “ ‘Cinnamon Girl’ by Neil Young and Crazy Horse.”

What is your biggest guilty pleasure?
Johnny: “Sleeping when everyone else has to work.”
Jenny: “I don't really have any guilty pleasures…Mum's the word.”

Something you want to try that you’ve never tried before?
Jenny: “Uni. Sea Urchin. It looks so gross.”

Favorite location to get away from it all?
Johnny: “Big Sur”
Jenny: “The back yard.”

What is the one thing you can’t live without on tour?
Jenny: “A soft pillow.”

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