There are days when she wonders what she’s doing with her life, but, despite that, Jenny Lewis seems perfectly at peace when reached in the hard-partying mecca of Las Vegas. Part of this has to do with feeling a deep, almost spiritual connection to Sin City. Even though the 43-year-old singer-songwriter is generally associated with Los Angeles—due to her past as both a child actor and the frontwoman of onetime Silver Lake darlings Rilo Kiley—Vegas is where she was born.
“I woke up in Vegas on the tour bus, I’m playing here at the casino, and it really just made me think of my parents again,” she says thoughtfully, speaking on her cell. “They had a lounge act here and they really struggled. They were poor, working-class musicians, and they worked their fucking asses off. So to be able to come back here and do it for real professionally—I feel super grateful and kind of charged up. And, honestly, a little melancholy. My parents aren’t here to see me do this, but I carry with me their spirit and their attitude. So yeah, it’s a good day.”
Not all days were as good when she was growing up, something Lewis explores on her triumphant new record, On the Line. The themes of addiction, sobriety, and the struggles that come with both run through the record, from the kickoff track, “Heads Gonna Roll”, through to “Red Bull and Hennessy” and the closer, “Rabbit Hole”.
As uplifting as it is musically—think lush indie rock loaded with soaring strings, delicately distorted guitars, and tough yet vulnerable vocals—On the Line deals with some considerable trauma. First, there was the breakup of a 12-year relationship with fellow singer-songwriter Jonathan Rice in 2015, giving her something to work out in songs like the piano-centred comedown “Dogwood”, whose lyrics include: “Oh, in the springtime, in a little house/The neighbors heard us scream and shout” and “There’s nothing we can do/But screw/And booze and amphetamines.”
Even more devastating was the death of her mother from liver cancer in 2017. Lewis has written about her mom—from whom she was estranged for years—in the past, nowhere more brilliantly than in 2006’s “Rabbit Fur Coat”. That song served as a window into the singer’s childhood, starting with the opening line, “I was of poor folk,” and continuing with “Where my ma is now, I don’t know/She was living in her car, I was living on the road/And I hear she’s putting that stuff up her nose.”
The story of their relationship is complicated. Before Lewis gravitated towards music she was a child actor in Los Angeles, appearing in everything from commercials (hawking Jell-O at age 3) to movies (Troop Beverly Hills, with Shelley Long) and TV shows (including the Lucille Ball sitcom Life With Lucy). Hollywood spilled over to home, where her then-divorced single mother was famous for throwing parties that attracted an endlessly diverse cast of characters. (Think everyone from Fantasy Island’s Hervé Villechaize to Exorcist novelist William Peter Blatty.)
Indications are that Lewis’s mom wasn’t exactly careful with her daughter’s money—an early-’90s Los Angeles Times story ran with the headline “A Teen-Age Actress With 3 Mortgages”. More emotionally damaging was that she somehow managed to raise Lewis and another daughter while maintaining a heroin habit, to the point where it seemed like the partying—and occasional dealing—never stopped. Lewis had every reason to stay estranged, but chose to take the high road when she got the call that her mother was dying. Countless hours at the hospital would eventually inspire one of On the Line’s most devastating songs, the stuttering, low-key soul jam “Little White Dove”.
On the Line can be heavy thematically, with lyrics referencing heroin, whisky, pot, Paxil, wine, and, most addictive of all, Candy Crush. What shines through, though—especially on “Little White Dove” and “Dogwood”—is Lewis’s sense of empathy for those around her, from her mother to her ex-boyfriend.
That empathy can be traced to some serious reflection on the past, as well as to her willingness to open mental doors through therapy. Going into On the Line, she decided to start thinking of herself as a pure solo artist again. (In addition to collaborating with Rice under the banner Jenny and Jonny, Lewis released a 2016 record as part of the indie supergroup Nice as Fuck.)
“I decided to write my own narrative, and that was a moment of clarity for me,” she reveals. “I don’t want to put the past in a negative context, because I’ve really loved all of my collaborators, but I was out to refocus my warrior artist’s energy. It was about moving forward on my own, and trusting my own voice.”
A big part of this was accepting that the past can’t be changed, but that the future can be whatever you want it to be.
“If I went dark in my life, you’d never see me again,” Lewis says. “Throughout my songwriting career, I’ve always tried to balance the reality of my feelings with either an optimistic melody or at least something uplifting. I’m really just here to tell the stories that I’ve experienced or processed or imagined. In order to keep living, there has to be a positive spin on things. Cynicism is, for me, something I don’t have a place for in my life. And I do understand why people go there—I know what it’s like to feel hopeless. And I know what it’s like to feel you can’t get ahead and you are stuck. That’s when it’s important, for me at least, to remain somewhat positive.”
And that, more than anything, explains why Lewis can look back today and see the good in it all, even though her parents struggled as a covers act in the lounges of Vegas, and things didn’t get any easier in the years that followed.
“We are our parents, and if our parents were alcoholics and addicts, chances are that it’s a genetic thing and a disease,” she says. “I’ve always struggled with that—it’s a part of my makeup, a part of my DNA. So what are we going to do about it? We can’t change the way that we were raised, so maybe you look at the positives and go, ‘Maybe that’s what made me write songs.’ The key is not to repeat the cycle. With parents, it’s important to put yourself where they were. Not an ideal way to grow up and not ideal things to witness, but you have to ask yourself ‘Could I have done any better given the circumstances?’ ”
Jenny Lewis plays the Commodore on Monday (May 20).