Jenny Lewis returns with her new album, The Voyager, on July 29th. The Los Angeles artist’s first solo LP since 2008’s Acid Tongue, The Voyager is Lewis’s most deeply personal, and her most musically robust. Featuring production work from Ryan Adams, Beck, as well as Lewis and her longtime collaborator Johnathan Rice, The Voyager finds Lewis at her sharp-witted best, singing about her recent life with honesty and incisiveness. And then there’s her voice, which was already a force to be reckoned with, but sounds even richer, more nuanced, more powerful. Lewis says The Voyager was the hardest album she has ever made, documenting her struggle to cope following the death of her estranged father in 2010 and the subsequent break-up of her band, Rilo Kiley. In the three years she worked on it, there were moments she thought she’d never finish. But, more than ever before, she knew she had to. The story is best told in Lewis’s own words:
Making The Voyager got me through one of the most difficult periods of my life. After Rilo Kiley broke up and a few really intense personal things happened, I completely melted down. It nearly destroyed me. I had such severe insomnia that, at one point, I didn’t sleep for 5 straight nights. Many of the songs on The Voyager came out of the need to occupy my mind in the moments when I just couldn’t shut down.
I asked for help from a lot of places. The first song on the album, “Head Under Water,” is about some of that. I really did get hypnotized. I tried everything. I got acupuncture. I did neurofeedback. I did massage therapy. I looked in the phonebook for a healer in Studio City and I met this woman who barely touched me for an hour and then wrote on index cards about what I was going through. All this just to try and get to sleep! I was ready to call the psychic hotline, “Tell me when this fucking thing is gonna be over.”
I recorded through my father’s death and terrible insomnia and all of the related fall-out. I just kept recording. Some of it was good and some of it wasn’t, but it took my mind off what was going on. Over the course of a couple years, I recorded dozens of demos, often trying multiple versions of the same song. I knew I had to finish it. And every single one of my friends helped me get there. This record took an entire village of musicians, including Ryan Adams, Beck, Johnathan Rice, Farmer Dave Scher, Blake Mills, Benmont Tench, Jason Boesel, Nathaniel Walcott, Alex Greenwald, Lou Barlow, First Aid Kit, the Watson Twins, Z. Berg, and Becky Stark, among others.
“Just One Of The Guys” was one of the tunes I’d tried a few different ways before I finally recorded it with Beck, at his home studio in Malibu. He ended up producing the song and contributing backing vocals. The whole experience was super laid-back — walking on the beach, talking about movies and the Rolling Stones and French pop music. It was just very mellow and lovely. But that was on the eve of my meltdown, and I didn’t go back again for a year.
I took a break from recording last spring and summer to tour with The Postal Service, for the tenth anniversary of our album, Give Up. It felt so good to play those songs. Every night I got crazy chills. I’d look down and the hair on my arm would be standing on end during “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight.” After having been a front-person for most of my career, it was an amazing time to just be there on the side, to support Ben and Jimmy. It was a great path back to myself, in a way. But the whole time I was out there, I was thinking, “This is wonderful, but I need to be playing my songs. I need to finish up this album once and for all.”
I was searching for a spirit guide. With everything that was going on in my life these past few years, I wanted to try ceding control. It can be a relief, at a certain point in your creative life. You let in a bit of criticism and it frees you up. And Ryan Adams and his partner Mike Viola were the final piece of the puzzle. Ryan and I didn’t know each other very well before this album — we had hardly even listened to one another’s music, to be honest. But I’d heard he built this awesome studio, Pax Am, at Sunset Sound, so I hit him up and asked if I could come in and record something. We put together a band — Ryan on guitar, Griffin Goldsmith from Dawes on drums, Gus Seyffert on bass, Mike on guitar and piano — and booked time for the very next day after I got back from the Postal Service tour.
I had this song, “She’s Not Me,” and I wasn’t really happy with any of the versions of it I’d tried. We ended up doing it in a different key, with a different tempo, with a part cut out. The biggest change was doing it live. There’s just something palpable about a group of people playing music live in a room together. The session was so fluid: I taught the band the changes, we did two takes, and that was it. I thought, “Well, that was awesome,” but Ryan wouldn’t let us listen back to it. The entire two weeks we were in the studio, we never listened to playback of anything, we just moved onto the next song.
Some of his methods infuriated me at the time, but I thrive in that environment — having some conflict to resolve, or having to prove myself. I was showing Ryan that I had something to say, and he knew how to annoy me into that perfect spot. We would get into these philosophical arguments about how to make records. Every time I wanted to put a harmony on a song, Ryan would ask me, “Do you come from a musical theater background?” His argument was that great songs, with great stories, don’t need background vocals. He would say, “Morrissey doesn’t use background vocals.” And I would yell: “Well, I do!”
I trusted the vision, and Ryan ended up being the person to get me over the fear of finishing something I’d been working on for so long. He found me when I was in a weird, tough spot, and he really helped me. And then we got to know each other as friends: You’re singing these songs and you’re weeping in front of your new bro who’s producing your record, and it’s heavy.
While I was in it, I couldn’t see my way out. But eventually, I started feeling better and the insomnia passed. I can sleep again, but I’m certainly a different person now. This record was the hardest one I’ve ever made. I truly thought I was never going to finish it, but I did. The Voyager tells that story: the longest night of my life and the journey to finally getting some rest.