'You have to do your homework," says Jenny Lewis of the long and arduous creative process that led to her new album, The Voyager. "You can't just get stoned, write a riff, and expect that to be the full song."
Instead, Lewis wryly adds, "You have to get stoned, write a riff, and then work on it later."
With the song "Late Bloomer," for example, it ended up taking several years for Lewis to carefully tease out the story of a "furious and restless" young woman who gets lost in Europe, meets a headstrong woman named Nancy and searches for a songwriting hero.
It was Beck who helped persuade her to finish it up. While recording tracks at his studio in Malibu, Lewis played him the unfinished song, which was then called "Searching for LB," the title referring to Sebadoh bandleader Lou Barlow.
"I didn't have a last verse, so Beck instructed me to go into one of the guest bedrooms and not come out until I had finished it," she recalls. "It's funny how a song can start in your mind, and then when it goes through all the filters, it ends up in a totally different spot.
"I tend not to know what I'm writing about while I'm writing," Lewis admits. "Often I won't understand for years, and then a line will strike me, 'Oh shit, that's what I mean by that. Now I get it.'"
It's been 16 years since Jennifer Diane Lewis, a former child actor turned songwriter, co-founded the L.A. indie-pop act Rilo Kiley, and it's been seven years since that band's last album, 2007's Under the Blacklight. Although nothing specific has been announced, that group appears to be either defunct or on indefinite hiatus, with each of its members moving on to other projects.
Meanwhile, Lewis has been releasing solo albums exploring different facets of West Coast pop, beginning with 2006's Rabbit Fur Coat, on which she shared billing with the Watson Twins. A country-rock opus, its sound is defined by steely Bakersfield guitars, dusty Laurel Canyon harmonies and the kind of wry L.A. songwriting most often associated with Randy Newman and Jackson Browne.
And while Beck and additional collaborator Ryan Adams influenced the sound of The Voyager, ultimately it's still Lewis' album. Her bright alto and sharp wit are obvious on every song. And perhaps more crucially, her personality shapes the album as a whole, specifically her fascination with West Coast pop — from the buoyant melodies of the Beach Boys to the exacting lyrics of Joni Mitchell, from the character sketches of Newman to the emotional candor of Fleetwood Mac.
All in all, The Voyager is one more step in her evolution from Rilo Kiley frontwoman to self-sustaining success.
"That is the true joy of being a solo artist," says Lewis. "I can do whatever I want. I can go where I want. I can show up with my guitar and my songs and it can sound a hundred different ways. That's the freedom of being on your own. The flipside is: That's you on the cover. If it sucks, it's your fault."
A version of this article previously appeared in Paste Magazine.