Jenny Lewis on songwriting, doggy phone calls, and new album ‘Joy’All’

Ahead of the release of her new album Joy’All, singer, songwriter, and onetime child actor Jenny Lewis sat down for a conversation with Stacy. They talked about music videos, a songwriting workshop she took with Beck, Jenny’s dog Bobby Rhubarb, her upcoming tour with the Postal Service, and recording the album with producer Dave Cobb in Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A.


After the pandemic, how does it feel to be back in the process of promoting a new album?

It’s weird coming out of the last couple years of not doing much, just getting back into having a schedule. But it’s great and I feel so much more grateful now than I was in 2018. I feel like there’s been a cultural reset, but for me, I just feel like, let’s do this.

You’re doing a tour to support your new album Joy’All, but after that you’re going be a part of the Postal Service tour. What will that transition be like?

I think it’ll be great. Sometimes at the end of my own tours, I’m a little bit sick of myself, so it’ll be fun to go sing Ben and Jimmy’s songs and be supportive. I love just being a musician and supporting musically on stage. So I think it’ll be a very nice shift for me.

I know you also act, and have done so since childhood. When you went from that into music, what was that decision like for you?

It was a big one, and I didn’t have a lot of support from my family to make that jump. I’ve actually retired, I really haven’t been an actor for 20 plus years. I kind of left that behind in search of my own storytelling.

Did you feel you were kind of pushed into acting as a kid?

Yes, totally. I mean, showbiz has been the family business for many generations. My grandparents were on vaudeville. My father was a harmonica-playing prodigy, and he was on the Ed Sullivan Show when he was 15 with his harmonica troupe. My parents had a lounge act in Las Vegas, so my mom put me in commercials when I was 3 years old.

I loved it until I didn’t. And once I could sort of make the creative decisions on my own, I gravitated towards writing music. But I’m so grateful for that experience, because it really primed me for all of the things you do in music. I feel like that experience just led me to this moment.

Did you produce the video for your single “Puppy and a Truck”?

We shot that on the road. Yeah, my tour manager had a drone and an iPhone, and we got all of this footage just kind of filming our little experience on the road. And then afterwards, I put it together with an editor. So I’m involved in all of my videos. I directed [the videos for] }Just One of the Guys” and “She’s Not Me.” But I love collaborating as well, I love working with other people and having that collaborative visual experience.

Of course I want to ask about the dog in the video. Is it yours?

Yes, she’s a cockapoo. Her name’s Bobby Rhubarb. She was a gift during the pandemic. My friend brought her to me from Chicago, because I was feeling a little bit down, and she has just totally changed my life.

During the show, is she side stage? Or does she get a part?

She doesn’t love the drums, so she stays in the dressing room. But during the tour, she would call me from backstage. A phone would ring on stage and I’d pick up the phone, and it would be like, “ruff, ruff, ruff,” I’d be like, “Bobby Rhubarb, come on, I’m on stage right now, playing for thousands of people,” and she’d go “ruff, ruff, ruff.” And I’d say, “wait, you want the audience to bark? No, I can’t ask them to do that,” and then everyone would start barking.

jenny lewis bobby rhubarb
Photo credit: Bobbi Rich

I am so intrigued about the Beck Songwriting Workshop you participated in during the pandemic. How did you get into that project?

Beck put together this workshop with 10 amazing artists, and every day for a week, we were given an assignment, and we would write, record, and send it to the group. The assignments would vary, like freeform song, or write a song with these particular musical changes, or write a song with all cliches, or with a piece of something that had already been written. So every day you would get to submit your song, and then hear the songs that everyone else submitted to the group.

That’s awesome. And were they people you had worked with before? Were they new people to you? Is it a safe group?

I don’t know if it’s like Fight Club, where the first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.

Can’t talk about it.

But they’re mostly my peers. I just felt so honored to be able to hear their works in progress. It was cool to just be open enough to share these things that weren’t necessarily finished with other artists.

And was it meant to be collaborative? Or was it simply, show me what you have?

We were all on an email thread together. So inevitably feedback came through, mostly just positive reinforcement. But the first day was a freeform songwriting day, and I wrote “Puppy in a Truck.”

In one day?

I mean, I had been sort of thinking about the song. I sent it to the group and then a friend of mine, who was a part of the group, he was like, “I left after ‘Puppy in a Truck.’ I dipped.” Like, what?

Were you surprised by anything you came up with?

There was one challenge where you were to take something that already existed, something from a newspaper or a poem, and then use that with music. I’m not a very referential songwriter. It all sort of comes through kind of mystically. But this challenge, I took an ad for a Triumph sports car from a 1972 Playboy.

Awesome.

And then put that to music. My friend Cass McCombs, who was also in the group, submitted a musical piece, and without his permission, I just put the ad basically over. And now we have this amazing song that is about a sports car, but you would never know it.

And is it on Joy’All, or tucked away somewhere?

That one didn’t make it on the record. But it will surface at some point, as all of these things eventually do.

Speaking of live, I don’t know if you remember your show in 2019 at the Mishawaka near Fort Collins. It’s right on the river, and it was a very cold night.

Beautiful venue. That is one of my favorite shows I’ve ever played. Because the stage is on the river, you can feel the power of the water while you’re playing. it’s pretty intense actually. And it’s a dead cell zone, so no one was on their phone all day, and we were all just watching movies and hanging out. And then we soundcheck, when it was a little bit warmer during the day, and we were all just moved by the power of the river. Really incredible. I highly recommend that venue, if any of the listeners haven’t gone out there, it’s really special.

You’re known for your wardrobe, outfits, costumes…you always look fabulous. But for that particular show, did you come out and go, boy, I wish I had a coat.

This is why we have plenty of undergarments. We are prepared with long underwear under our sparkly gowns.

Speaking of sparkly gowns, I read that you were at the Vintage Shop in Nashville, and you got a dress previously owned by country singer Skeeter Davis.

I was shooting the album cover with my friend Bobby Rich, aka Mama Hotdog. And we were referencing a Skeeter Davis album cover, and a lot of these classic Nashville album covers, where the song titles are on the front of the record. And magically, we were in the vintage shop, and there was one of her costumes, and it said on the tag, ‘this belonged to Skeeter Davis.’ And I was like, well, we found the outfit.

When you tour, how big of a wardrobe do you bring?

I usually have about four or five looks that I rotate. And then there’s always one that’s my fave, because I feel the most comfortable in it. I found that if I am completely covered, either in a suit or a sparkly gown that covers my arms, somehow then I can be truly free.

jenny lewis joyall album cover

You’re hanging out in Nashville, you’re visiting Lucius, and you meet producer Dave Cobb. Are you thinking, I’m going to meet him because I want to work with him?

So that was early 2021, and it was still very…they had a nurse COVID testing in the studio. I had just gotten Bobby Rhubarb, and my friend Jess from Lucius, she was like, “get out of the house, bring the puppy, Dave loves dogs, just come and say hello to us and hang out.” And so I took Bobby Rhubarb and immediately hit it off with Dave, and then Bobby peed on the front lawn at historic RCA Studios. I was like, OK, this is a good sign.

We just kind of hit it off. And then after the songwriting challenge, I texted Dave and I was like, “hey, I just wrote these songs for this songwriting thing, do you by chance want to record them?” And he was like, “yeah.”

I have heard his style is very laid back, and he sort of lets you do your thing. Did you find that to be true?

He’s very present, and he’s got great ideas. I think he lets the song kind of happen first and wants to capture it on the floor, at least for my record with the band. But he had some great ideas, some amazing arrangement ideas, some lyric ideas. My biggest thing is a key and range. I’ll write a song, and sometimes it’s too low for my voice or too high. So I really was relying on Dave to help me find the right spot for me to sing the song, and he was really great at that.

Did he give you any ideas that you were like, that’s an interesting twist?

Yeah, totally, but then it feels very natural. And then we would play on the floor together. He’s a great guitar player, so we cut all the songs live on the floor, just kind of looking at each other. Two acoustics with Nate Smith on drums, one of the greatest drummers of all time. Brian Allen on bass. He’s so amazing. And we were just locked together.

Jenny Lewis’s album Joy’All comes out Friday, June 9.


Related pages:

The Colorado Sound Music Awards – meet the 2024 nominees

Top 850 Cover Songs – see the complete list of songs based on your votes

Soundboard Newsletter – subscribe to get music news, presale codes, other goodies every Thursday morning

Become a Colorado Sound member – join our awesome community of passionate music lovers

Instagram – follow us on Instagram for fun Stories, Reels, and posts