Jenny Lewis is a Very Good Girl
When Mike Abu and I arrived to meet her, Jenny Lewis was leaning over the wooden counter top in the kitchen of her hotel suite in Park City, Utah, hovering quietly over a plate full of cheese. The first thing my eyes fixated on was her famously red hair. The bangs floating above her eyes turned her hair into the long red curtains of a theater that have been drawn back to give her glittering eyes and award winning smile their chance on stage. A brown detective hat, which seems to be a staple in Lewis’ wardrobe as of late, rested neatly atop her head. She wore bright purple tights that led up to her plum colored dress and she walked over to us with her arm extended. Being fans of Jenny’s for years and feeling a little weak in the knees since we had first laid eyes on the beautiful singer, the entire experience from the get go seemed a little surreal.
Milk Made: Where are you from originally?
Jenny Lewis: Las Vegas, but I grew up in the San Fernando Valley. I haven’t been back to Vegas in years. I’ve played a couple shows but I haven’t spent any quality time there in a long time. It’s more of a three-day rule type of thing. Where are you from?
MM: We’re based out of New York but we grew up here in Utah – in Salt Lake City.
JL: Oh great, I love Salt Lake City! I don’t know if it’s still around, but there used to be this little place—what was the name of it? It had a tiny little stage, like a 100 person capacity max…
MM: Kilby Court?
JL: Kilby Court! It’s a great spot, it was one of the first places that Rilo Kiley sold out on the road. We were like, “Yes! We sold out Kilby Court! Fuck all y’all!”
We made our way to the couches in her front room. The suite seemed to be decorated to match a mock up living room inside of a Pottery Barn, with lots of brand new things made to look like they were old. From her window you could see the base of the mountain where the sun was shinning brightly down on skiers as they boarded the chairlifts. It wasn’t skiing that had brought Jenny to Utah though. She was here for the same reason we were here, the Sundance Film Festival.
This year at the Sundance Film Festival would mark Jenny’s entrance into the film world as a composer and music supervisor for the film Very Good Girls. A film staring Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen, written and directed by Naomi Foner. Jenny has built herself up from a young age to live under the spotlight, so we were very interested in learning about her new role that put her in a more ‘behind the scenes’ role.
MM: So what drew you to writing the soundtrack for Very Good Girls?
JL: It really never occurred to me to score a film. I’ve just been so obsessed with making records. With the exception of the last couple years I’ve almost put out a record every year for the past 15 years. This was kind of a still period for me where I lyrically had a hit a wall. So to be asked to compose a score which includes a lot of instrumental work came at a great time for me. But really I did it because my friend was the director and she asked me to do it. [laughs]
But there really are so few women who do this and I’m not sure why. Naomi Foner was the one who first approached me to write a couple of original songs for the film. One of the characters in the film is a young songwriter just starting out, so I started writing songs for the character, and once I started working on that she said, “Hey, do you just want to do the score?” I said, “I’ll do it…"
Jenny raises her hand "… I’ve got this.”
You’ll notice as you talk to Jenny for a while that everything seems to begin to feel like home. The way she speaks is warm and inviting and her casual attitude speaks volumes about a woman who hasn’t been tainted by her success. It wasn’t long before it stopped feeling like we were talking to a celebrity that had basically written the soundtrack to every single one of our heartbreaks.
MM: Do you relate to the character you had to write the songs for?
JL: I do. I know what it’s like to start writing your first songs and to be kind of afraid to play them out. I know what it’s like to discover your own voice as a writer and a singer.
Jenny was speaking about Elizabeth Olsen’s character in the film, a young, free spirited, bohemian who at the beginning of the film has recently begun taking the music she’s written out of her bedroom and into the bars of New York City.
MM: Did you watch any scenes from the movie before you wrote the songs or were they created separately?
JL: Well, I read the script, and I worked a little bit with Elizabeth Olsen and then submitted a bunch of songs. I kind of based it on Harold and Maude, just because that’s such a great song-based film. The songs bleed into the score perfectly! So I submitted a bunch of songs and once we had a rough cut to the film, we started placing the songs. A lot of them didn’t work, like what I was writing seemed to interfere with the story. When it comes to music in film, you’re really there to support the story and emotion. You can’t be all like, ‘Hey, look at me, this is how I feel about your movie.’ So we stripped back a lot of the songs and looked into my back catalog. I gave them free reign from my entire catalog of music.
MM: Whoa, the must have been weird.
JL: I was reading a lot about Harold and Maude and The Graduate—Simon and Garfunkle and Cat Stevens—and in both films they submitted a bunch of songs that were rejected. They ended up going through back catalogs and they chose songs the either had existed or would appear on later records. You don’t really think of that when you see those films.
MM: Yeah, they fit perfectly, especially in The Graduate.
JL: It’s perfect. For this film, we sort of started there and then it turned out the instrumental work was more supportive then the lyrical stuff. There’s still a few songs that are in there, but the majority are instrumental pieces.
MM: How different is it to write songs for movies versus songs for albums?
JL: It’s huge. With scores, you’re writing without yourself in mind, which is kind of a luxury and a respite from your own narrative. When you’ve been writing for so long, it get a little boring and dark. I was trying to write light, which is something I don’t have a lot of practice with.
MM: I (Mike Abu) know this sounds dumb, but I’m actually a big fan of yours. There’s something about the level of honesty that you present that really stands out to me.
JL: It’s all I know. It’s hard to write about outside things for me but I try to write what’s true in the moment, which isn’t always true five years later. When I listen back to so many of the song that I wrote in my twenties, I think they’re just so sad. I’m like, “You have nothing to be sad about!” [laughs]
MM: So is it difficult to have to remove yourself from the music?
JL: It’s different. It allows for a different tone, which is helpful for me. I think some of the songs that I wrote for the film that they didn’t end up using might make it on one of my records later on.
MM: Are you planning on releasing the soundtrack as a standalone album?
JL: I think so. I’m excited about it because I can include my full scored pieces. In the film, they used elements of the songs in different parts, so it’s not the full thing as I would mix it if it was going on an album.
MM: That’s rad.
JL: My early concept was using female vocals to kind of act almost like synths. I worked with Becky Stark from Lavender Diamond—one of the most incredible voices in the universe—and Z Berg from The Like, so a lot of the vocals in the score aren’t my voice.
MM: Is that weird to hear?
JL: No, it’s the best. For me when I hear my own voice in any context, it’s like hearing it on an answering machine. When I’m in the studio, all I can think about is how annoying my voice is to me, so to hear someone else’s tone is the best.
It was about this time that my mind wandered off and I began thinking of Jenny’s voice speaking into an answering machine saying "It’s almost Christmas" for the intro to Rilo Kiley’s song "Xmas Cake".
MM: When you look back on films that you did, is it the same thing as listening to yourself sing?
JL: No, it’s more like a previous incarnation of my life. I was just a child. I don’t really watch my movies but if I’m flipping through channels and The Golden Girls happens to come on, I’m like, “Hey, there’s that little kid. That’s me.”
I’ve lived two lives.
MM: How did you meet the director Naomi Foner?
JL: I’m friends with her kids (Maggie & Jake Gyllenhaal). Years ago when Rilo Kiley was touring around in a van, she would put us up outside of Boston and let us stay at her place. Those were carefree times. Now everyone is watching what I do, texting and tweeting, but back then there was a level of anonymity. We played for years and nobody came to our shows as we honed what we did. We were able to just play. We would make flyers at Kinkos and hand them out, and still no one would come. It’s definitely a double-edged sword, but I think things were easier back then.
MM: Do you think you’ll make another soundtrack for a movie?
JL: I hope so. If people don’t hate this one, maybe they’ll ask me again.
After seeing the film the following night, it’s obvious now that Jenny can do no wrong. Her music seemed to echo the emotions inside of the film and although her voice might not be present in most of the songs, every note is Jenny Lewis through and through. It’s no wonder why during the Q&A session proceeding the film that Naomi Foner described Jenny to be the "Janis Joplin of her generation".
Jenny has talked in recent interviews about the possible regrouping of Rilo Kiley, she also left us with a few details about solo work she is planning on releasing in the upcoming months. As we left the interview and wandered downstairs to our car, it really hit me that we had just interviewed Jenny Lewis and I could now die a happy man.
Interview by Mike Abu and Kalvin Lazarte