Jenny Lewis Is Still Figuring It Out

The singer-songwriter’s new album follows a major breakup and her mother’s death.

Prada headband, $240 at Miu Miu top, $1,400; socks, $185; and shoes, price upon request at Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello shorts, $4,990 at Photo: Kelia Anne
Prada headband, $240 at Miu Miu top, $1,400; socks, $185; and shoes, price upon request at Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello shorts, $4,990 at Photo: Kelia Anne

“I feel like I’m living the Laurel Canyon version of the movie Big,” Jenny Lewis says, as she fires up her pinball machine and puts on a hot pink trucker cap that reads “BEST FRIENDS” in black lettering.

The comparison to the 1988 Tom Hanks film — in which a seventh-grader wakes up one day in the body of a 30-year-old man — feels apt when it comes to her décor. Her house, affectionately nicknamed “Mint Chip” for its brown and green exterior, has a full drum kit and a pink girl’s bike (a recent eBay purchase) set up in the entryway to the living room. She’s projecting The Adventures of Mark Twain, an obscure claymation fantasy film from the ’80s, onto a blank white wall. Across from the pinball machine, in her guest room, hangs a oversized promotional cutout for The Wizard, featuring Lewis’s beaming 13-year-old face next to Fred Savage — her thick, red bangs unchanged in the 30 years since the movie came out.

The distinct vibe of kids’ clubhouse–meets–bachelorette pad is most pronounced on her bedroom walls, which a friend recently convinced Lewis to paint a pale, blush pink. The 43-year-old singer-songwriter was so pleased with the color — Benjamin Moore Teacup Rose 2170-50 — that she plans to use it as her stage backdrop when she hits the road this spring to promote On the Line, her fourth solo album.

Lewis has spent decades in the public eye, or at least in its peripheral vision. Her child-actor days gave way to a musical career in 1998, when she formed the band Rilo Kiley alongside fellow former child actor (and then-boyfriend) Blake Sennett. The couple broke up, but the band stayed together, making a handful of moody, memorable records. As Rilo Kiley’s front woman, she sang with an assertive candor, revealing her deepest vulnerabilities around sex and heartbreak and familial relationships through soaring, irresistible power-pop choruses. Her personal style, comprised of vintage baby-doll dresses and an array of rompers, landed on the enviable side of mid-aughts twee. She reclaimed elements of a male-dominated rock scene and made them accessible for openhearted young women. Lewis released her first solo album, the country-tinged Rabbit Fur Coat, in 2006, giving her credibility with millennial indie fans as a stand-alone artist.

Her influence from that era is best summed up by the actress Kristen Stewart, a paragon of blasé self-presentation, who told James Corden that Lewis was the one celebrity she was most nervous to meet. “I couldn’t breathe,” Stewart said of her now-friend. “I literally just completely caved in front of her.” Lewis is touched by this sort of sentiment from early fans, women who heard her music, she says, “just at the perfect age.” It’s an intense fandom, if limited to a certain demographic.

“I get recognized at Whole Foods,” she concedes. “A lot.”

Lewis has always maintained an outward image of alluring self-sufficiency, repeatedly reinventing herself — from child star to alternative front woman to thriving solo act. Now, the indie rocker is figuring out what this new version of independence looks like. Inside her charmed house, underneath her cheerful exterior, she’s working through a heavier chapter in life. That bedroom paint color, the one that she likes so much that she’s hauling it with her across the country, was introduced after her boyfriend of 12 years, musician Johnathan Rice*, moved out. Shortly after her breakup, she was dealt another seismic blow: Her long-estranged mother, who frequently appeared in Lewis’s songs, died of liver cancer.

Rodarte jumpsuit and bracelets, price upon request at Photo: Kelia Anne

As far as cathartic albums go, On the Line is pretty upbeat. It has a more robust and straightforward rock sound than her previous work, but still hews to her signature style of combining gentle melodies and syrupy, shining vocals with accounts of darkness and desperation, all topped off with a reckless shrug. The new songs are thrillingly unfettered. On one track, she sings about getting “wired on Red Bull and Hennessy,” on another, she sits “in a black Corvette, getting head in the shadows.” Today we’re in for a far more wholesome, laid-back scene: On Lewis’s suggestion, we’re going for a nature hike.

As the two of us trudge up the dusty canyon trail near her house, I’m struck by how much Jenny Lewis looks like Jenny Lewis, even when she’s hiking. Her trademark long red hair is set in soft waves, and her bangs — the bangs that launched a thousand trims — are swept slightly to the side. Before I have the chance to mention it, she calls herself out for wearing “truly the weirdest hiking outfit.” Her tight, ’70s-era burgundy track pants, John and Yoko T-shirt, snug navy fleece, and electric blue sneakers are decidedly out of place among the slew of sweatpants and practical Merrell boots. A miniature gold pot-leaf necklace that she bought on tour dangles at the collar of her T-shirt. Lewis loves weed. “I didn’t smoke weed for two weeks, which was really good,” she tells me. “And then, I did smoke weed. Honestly, I prefer being stoned.” A typical day for her involves waking up around 8:30 a.m., going for a hike or to yoga class, getting some work done, and then getting stoned and playing music, before she settles in to FaceTime her friends, whom she’s leaned on heavily during these past few years. (I’ve caught Lewis in the afternoon, so, do the math.)

Lewis typically divides her time between Los Angeles and Nashville, but took off for the East Village in 2016 to crash with one of those friends — the musician Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent — after her breakup with Rice. The separation wasn’t dramatic or antagonistic, but after more than a decade the relationship had run its course. “It’s a trip coming out of that,” she tells me. “I was with someone for the second half of my 20s and my entire 30s, so to reemerge in a dating context … ” Lewis trails off, before clarifying that she’s not in any sort of rush to end her relatively new singlehood. She tells me she refuses to get on Raya, the preferred dating app for celebrities, mostly because she doesn’t feel like making the required video for her profile (which is actually just a slideshow of photos set to music). On her last album, 2014’s The Voyager, she sang teasingly about her biological clock and being “just another lady without a baby”; but as we amble along, she admits that she’s experienced a pull toward motherhood. Still, she’s leaving that up to fate, too. “There is this biological pressure that I have felt. Certainly it’s on my mind,” Lewis says matter-of-factly. “I’m not going to freeze my eggs, which is something that I’ve had a lot of talks about with a lot of friends. That’s just not my style. So, I guess we’ll see what happens.”

Right around the time she was reevaluating her feelings about partnership and parenthood, Lewis had to start dealing with other heavy family matters — the kind that make you think deeply about your choices around partnership and parenthood. “People wonder why you take so much time between records,” she says of the five-year lapse since The Voyager. “It’s like, people fucking die.” We stop to sit at a small outdoor amphitheater nestled in a shaded area off the hiking trail, where she tells me about her mother’s death.

Lewis had been more or less estranged from her parents, who were also musicians, since she was 16. Her father left the family when she was a toddler, but with the support of Rice and other musician friends, Lewis invited him to play harmonica on her 2008 album Acid Tongue. Their reconciliation happened shortly before he died in 2010. Her relationship with her mother, who raised her, was more complicated. In 2014, she told the New York Times that her family had lost all the money she earned from her acting career; her songs about mother figures frequently reference drug abuse and mental illness. (She recently revealed to Rolling Stone that her mother was a heroin addict.) They weren’t in contact for years, but Lewis says that her mother was her biggest fan. “She really got me. And that’s why we couldn’t be together, because it was just not healthy for me,” Lewis reflects, tearing up slightly. “It was not a good thing. She thought every song was about her.” This new album does devote a soulful, slow-burning song to “a mother-and-child emergency” in a hospital, which ends “under a cool white sheet.”

By the time Lewis found out about her mother’s liver cancer, it was terminal. She wouldn’t describe their reunion and reconciliation as giving her closure but, rather, “open-sure.” Lewis spent the last two months of her mother’s life visiting her at the hospital every day, until she passed in October 2017. “I would bring a smoothie that I made from home, like a health smoothie. And my sister would bring a Slurpee,” she tells me. “And we’d have a fight about it.” Whose beverage triumphed?

“The Slurpee won, duh! No one wants a stinking smoothie if they’re dying!”

Gucci dress, $12,000 at Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello shoes, $1,995 at Photo: Kelia Anne

Finding herself alone for the first time in years, Lewis says she’s “really open to experiences and adventure.” She’s comfortable talking about her parents, in a way she never was when they were still alive. She’s traveling more than she ever has — Lewis eagerly shares stories about a solo trip to watch Manny Pacquiao and Adrien Broner box in Vegas, about meeting a Catholic priest backstage at a Grateful Dead concert in New York City and a voodoo priest who spit rum in her eyeballs while she was on mushrooms in Haiti.

She’s experimenting with a sexier look onstage, replacing her 2014 tour wardrobe of rainbow, Nudie Cohn–esque suits with tight jumpsuits and ample cleavage. “I wanted to wear things that were a little more body-conscious,” she explains. “I feel like I’ve always covered up.” And she’s collaborating with people she hasn’t worked with before, including heavy hitters like Ringo Starr, who plays drums on On the Line. (The album also features contributions from Ryan Adams, whom several women accused of emotional abuse and sexual misconduct, including sending explicit texts to an underage fan. This news broke a few weeks after our hike, and when asked for comment, Lewis sent me the same statement she’d tweeted days after the news: “I am deeply troubled by Ryan Adams’s alleged behavior. Although he and I had a working professional relationship, I stand in solidarity with the women who have come forward.”)

All this openness has been healing and even a little transcendent. The night before our meeting, there was a much-anticipated lunar eclipse of the year’s first full moon — the Super Blood Wolf Moon Eclipse. Lewis tells me earnestly that it was important for her to look at the moon that night, to take in something that felt bigger than herself. “You see something like that and it’s just like, some force outside of yourself that illuminates the unknown factor,” she says, sitting cross-legged in the empty amphitheater. “Because when you see someone pass — or your parents, which, we all go through that — it’s a beautiful mystery. It’s such a psychedelic experience. And I guess you don’t know how that feels until you know how that feels.” And how, exactly, did that feel? “It’s a trip, man. A fucking trip.”

* This article has been corrected to show that Rice’s first name is spelled Johnathan, not Jonathan.

Jenny Lewis Is Still Figuring It Out