In Does Rock 'N' Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz a grizzled artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the booze, loud music and/or tour sweeties has knocked the knowledge out of them. This week: Jenny Lewis.
1: What is the name of the hidden track on the Rilo Kiley album ‘Take Offs and Landings’?
“(Takes deep breath) Oh my gosh! Um, ‘Annoying Noise of Death’? No, no, no – ‘Troubadours’?
WRONG. It’s ‘Spectacular Views’ – sometimes referred to as ‘Salute My Shorts!’.
“(Laughs) Damn! I know that song! We were very fond of hidden tracks – it was like new-school CD trickery! The theme of ‘Take Offs and Landings’ was plane crashes – there’s even a song called ‘Plane Crash in C’ – and we were set to release the album a month after 9/11. Talk about timing! We were going to send out airplane crashes on envelopes to college radio stations, so five of our friends were up all night doing elaborate puffy paintings. We didn’t play a lot of those songs for years until it wasn’t, like, too soon. I don’t know why I was obsessed with plane crashes – maybe it was intuitive.”
2: What are the names of the murderers in the 1994 ‘Murder, She Wrote’ episode you guest starred in, ‘A Murderous Muse’?
“(Laughs) I love these questions! Angela Lansbury is a really underrated, fantastic actress. I never watched the episode, but I do remember having to take lessons to pretend to be a concert pianist.”
WRONG. It was (Spoiler alert!) Vanessa Cross (played by Pamela Bellwood) and Steven Hoyt (Joseph Kell) – who fiendishly killed someone by building a contraption that fired a gun whenever a bung note on a piano was played.
“They both did it? Wow!”
As a child actress, you appeared in the likes of The Golden Girls, Troop Beverly Hills and Roseanne. Any surreal moments?
“Bea Arthur [Golden Girl Dorothy Zbornak] told me ghost stories sat on the couch of the living room set we can all picture in our minds from The Golden Girls. I was 10 – and these stories were horrifying! Things weren’t great at home, so a lot of these women became my role models, and I gleaned some diamonds of advice. Lucille Ball [Lewis played her granddaughter on Ball’s short-lived 1986 sitcom Life With Lucy]’s presence was terrifying. She was so strong, but also so sad, and it was unnerving being around her because she didn’t tolerate bullshit and expected everyone to work as hard as she did – which is absolutely necessary to make something great. Learning those lessons helped me be a strong leader in my weird, gypsy band existence.”
3: Which rapper once approached you in an airport to ask your opinion on tracks for his new album?
“This one I remember – Kanye.”
“I flew to Denver to play a show for the Obama campaign before he was elected for the Democratic National Committee with Zooey Deschanel, Ben Gibbard and Jonathan Richman, Afterwards, Kanye is sitting directly behind me in the airport waiting lounge. He looked over and said: ‘Hey, do you wanna hear this thing that I’m working on?’. I was like: ‘Yeah, sure. Do you wanna hear something of mine afterwards?’. So he played me a cut off ‘808s & Heartbreak’ and then I played him ‘The Next Messiah’ – from my then-upcoming album ‘Acid Tongue’. It’s an eight minute song! I probably should have chosen a shorter track, but he was very sweet and listened to the whole thing.”
“‘808s & Heartbreak’ was a record that changed music. At the time, autotune was such a choice to lean into and ahead of its time and – if I’m being totally honest – I don’t know if I totally got it when I first listened. Now I understand it as a very important album, but at that time, I stepped off the Kanye thing – I’d been a superfan up until that point and then I just didn’t understand that record.”
4: Who did you have a freestyle battle with aged 17?
“Oh that would be – (Excited) Biz Markie!”
“There was a club called The Gaslight in Hollywood and my hip DJ friends would sneak me in because I was underage. They’d have a hip-hop guest there – that night was Biz Markie. Before I wrote songs, I wrote poetry then raps. So I had a notebook full of poetry that I hadn’t performed to anyone. And we had a little freestyle battle and I did a little verse – and Biz Markie gave me props. My friends were there. They can corroborate this story. This actually happened!”
“I didn’t read a lot of books growing up – there’s no time to read on set. So I fell in love with the poetry of rap. It was perfectly timed because rap was the youth culture, outlaw music. If you grew up in southern California, that was like punk rock.”
Any unexpected rappers that are fans of your music?
“Too $hort did a verse on ‘Dejalo’ which is probably the most controversial Rilo Kiley song among superfans. I think it’s a fun Gloria Estefan jam about threesomes, but they fucking hate it! So Too $hort did a verse on a remix of ‘Dejalo’ – but he didn’t give me props! (Laughs)”
5: Anne Hathaway appears in drag in your ‘Just One of the Guys’ video. But which Rilo Kiley song did she once describe as “life changing”?
“Phew! I’m going to go for – oh shit! She’s my friend so what would she say? ‘Better Son Daughter’, maybe?”
“Yes! Knew it! Ha! I know my friends! That video was my directorial debut and I put together a mostly female crew – with a female Director of Photography. We all had a blast and there was so much fucking talent that putting them in costume – in tracksuits with moustaches – was enough that they could be totally free and improvise. They were so funny. I was in tears laughing when Annie did her fake breakdancing. When we put a moustache on her, she was like a dude I’d never met before!”
6: Complete the following lyrics: ‘Some people think that it’s best to refrain from the conventions of old-fashioned love…’?
“That’s not very catchy! It’s from a collaboration I did? That’s not my line. If I collaborate on a song and didn’t write the lyric, it’s just gone. But if I’ve written it, it’s somehow in my mind forever.”
WRONG. It’s from ‘Hard Enough’, your collaboration on Brandon Flowers’ 2010 album ‘Flamingo’. The next lyrics are: ‘Their hearts are filled with holes and emptiness/They tell themselves that they’re too young to settle down’
“Oh that’s pure Brandon! That was really cool. I went to Vegas on my birthday and got to sit on a piano bench next to Brandon Flowers and work on that song you quoted – prett-ay good for a birthday! We had some red wine later on to celebrate, but otherwise, it was more like a soda pop scene – lots of Slurpees from 7-Elevens.”
“Vampire Weekend happened in a funny way. A friend of mine had borrowed a keyboard from Ariel Rechtshaid, their producer, and left it in my garage. I went over to drop it off and he was finishing up the Vampire Weekend record and Ezra [Koenig, Vampire Weekend frontman] said: ‘Hey, do you want to sing this word for our new record?’. I was like: ‘If you take this keyboard from out of my hands, sure!’”.
7: What is the first word spoken by Sarah Silverman in the ‘Rise Up with Fists!!’ video?
“It’s a joke – it’s like ‘Bananas!’ or something. Sarah did three or four takes of that with different punchlines. I can’t remember.”
WRONG. It’s ‘semen’.
“It’s Sarah – of course it’s semen! (Laughs) She’s so cute! Humour is crucial to me. Even in my songs – and maybe this comes from hip-hop – I try to make jokes. During a serious discussion or break-up, I’ll default to making inappropriate jokes.”
Talking of comedy, what was it like filming your star-packed ‘On The Line Online’ spoof telethon to promote your latest album ‘On The Line’?
“I’m a big Tim Heidecker [one half of comedy duo Tim & Eric] fan so reached out to him to see if he wanted to make something for the album. He wasn’t interested in music videos at all, so he said: ‘How about we do a 12-hour telethon instead? Because your name is kind of like Jerry Lewis! (Laughs)’. We were envisioning it as a 12-hour program – but it ended up being three and a half hours instead, because of the budget alone.”
8: Who once sent a cease and desist letter to your band The Postal Service?
“Oh, the United States Postal Service sent one to us. And we didn’t cease or desist! We just broke up. (Laughs) It’s a truly organic name – they [band members Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello] sent music back and forth in the mail. There’s nothing else they could possibly call it.”
“At that time period, they sounded truly new and were just what everybody needed. When I first heard them, I was blown away. When we first toured, it blew up faster than anything I’ve ever been part of. It felt great at our 10-year reunion [in 2013] – the songs still felt perfect.”
9: In 2014, you contributed the track ‘Completely Not Me’ (a collab with Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij) to HBO’s ‘Girls’. Can you name two other artists that appear on the ‘Girls Volume Two: All Adventurous Women Do’ compilation?
“No – I can’t even name one! (Laughs) Okay, this is just from the era but is one of them ‘(Sings Icona Pop) I DON’T CARE! I LOVE IT!’?
WRONG. You could have had: Vampire Weekend, M. Ward, Lily Allen, Miguel , Beck, Oasis, Jake Bugg, Father John Misty , Daniel Johnston, Christina Perri, Zero DeZire, Aimee Mann, Cat Power or Michael Penn.
“Well, I remember my song! (Laughs) That’s actually a werewolf song. When I wrote it with Rostam, I synced it to a scene from Teen Wolf and said: ‘This is what the song is actually about – becoming a werewolf!’.
10: What is the number you could call before the release of ‘Acid Tongue’ to hear its title track?
“Oh fuck! It’s like 1-888-777-ACID. I should have kept that number! Dammit! (Laughs) The label stopped paying for it or I would use it today!”
WRONG. But very close – it’s 1-888-717-ACID. What do you remember from that album?
“Making it was like rock’n’roll summer camp. We rented out Sound City in Van Nuys which is an iconic studio where they recorded ‘Nevermind’ and part of ‘Rumours’ for six weeks. You can still sort of feel the cocaine on the console. We produced it as a team – myself, Johnathan Rice, Farmer Dave Scher and Jason Lader – and had all our friends come down to guest on it like Blake Mills, Zooey Deschanel, Elvis Costello, Benji Hughes, Chris Robinson. And my father played on a couple of songs which was the only time we worked we worked together in the studio.
Did your father ever mind you talking about your difficult childhood in songs and interviews?
“Who knows? Don’t hang around cannibals if you don’t want to get eaten. When you’re a musician, there are no rules. My parents were artists and had a great deal of respect for me as an artist. Some of those things were probably uncomfortable to hear but they let it slide for the sake of culture. When you’re a gypsy, you can’t get mad at our gypsies.”
The verdict: 4/10
“That seems like my usual Pitchfork scores! (Laughs) I always want to place, like, seventh. You know, don’t aim for the top! Jesus – I suck at competitions, it’s true! I did an episode of Card Sharks as a kid and I was terrible at it. I’ve got the makings of a fine gin and tonic in front of me – so that score has given me a reason to get to work!”
Jenny Lewis’ latest album, ‘On the Line’, is out now.