Back in the wilds of 2021, while everyone else was still drudging onto Zoom to do quizzes with their mates or to try and feel something other than existential dread, some of music’s modern greats were also dialling into a video call meet-up. Their purpose was slightly different, though – convened by Beck, the group of artists was taking part in a virtual songwriting camp, with their leader setting them different tasks each day.
Beck invited Jenny Lewis to be part of the project, having previously asked her to participate in similar sessions in the past. “I always chickened out because it just made me so nervous,” she explains now, sitting cross-legged on the floor of her LA house. When the latest invitation made its way to her, her first instinct was to reject it again. “But I really had zero going on, and I wasn’t leaving the house. So if there was any time for me to just be brave and show up…”
Courage mustered, Lewis logged on and found it was the perfect distraction to pull her out of the pandemic lows. “I really needed community, and I needed friends,” she says. “It was so much fun and exactly what I needed to just think about songwriting in different ways. It was another opportunity to learn some tools and different ways of baking the cake.”
The songwriting camp also helped her build the foundations for her brand new album and fifth solo record, ‘Joy’All’. “Four or five” of the songs on the album were written for the initiative, taking on Beck’s challenges to write a song with 1-4-5 chord structures or made up of clichés. ‘Love Feel’, a twanging country-rock banger, was what Lewis came up with for the latter, with her singing: “Black truck, Pontiac, Plymouth and Cadillac / Radiotelephone, telephone and radio / Phone booth, top 40, jukebox honky tonk.” “It’s basically just a laundry list of things that have appeared in Top 40 country hits,” she laughs. “You wouldn’t necessarily hear me singing about the honky tonks [otherwise].”
Even with all of her experience in music and the varied pursuits she’s followed – from defining intelligent, emotional indie-rock in the noughties with Rilo Kiley to carving herself out as a curious voyager through sound in her solo career – taking part in the group project opened up the musician to new ways of approaching writing. Letting herself be receptive to fresh ideas didn’t just help her to create new songs but also allowed her to look back on old drafts with a new perspective. ‘Apples And Oranges’, a slow, swaying song that fittingly opens with “I found your first draft in the trash”, was originally written for her 2019 album ‘On The Line’ but was eventually cut from the tracklist. After taking part in “the songwriting thing”, Lewis returned to it and reworked it from a waltz into its current iteration.
Although it got its start in a period of darkness for the world, ‘Joy’All’ – as its title suggests – tries not to get caught up in that bleakness. Its title is a word its creator made up to mean “bliss for the world – but a little catchier than that” and is a reaction to not just the last few years but the ups and downs that we face throughout our lives. “Just as a human being, there are so many challenges that keep coming up, and it only gets more insane the older you get,” Lewis explains. “Finding some space for joy and happiness – and learning how to maintain that centre when the world is on fire – [is really important].”
The album does have its more melancholy moments, though, like ‘Balcony’, the tender pop cut written in tribute to someone Lewis lost during the pandemic. “Some of my friends did not make it through the pandemic,” she says sombrely. “That’s about my friend who jumped off his balcony out of a 27-storey window. So it’s about learning how do you get through this and how do you live, allowing yourself to experience joy and spreading that.” She catches herself and bursts into laughter. “This sounds so hippie-dippy, I’m just gonna stop there!”
Over the last few years, Lewis has been finding joy for herself in the things that most people might consider annoying chores. Then again, most people haven’t been touring since they were 19 years old. “I finally had a moment to learn how to do stuff, like how do I make a meal for myself, how do I clean the gutters in my house? How do I take care of this animal that I’m now responsible for?” she says excitedly.
In the lead-up to ‘Joy’All’’s release, the artist has spoken about finding autonomy in her songwriting, but as she talks to The Forty-Five, it seems that there’s more to it than that – that she’s been finding autonomy in her life as a whole. “Yeah, absolutely, like being totally cool,” she agrees. “I don’t need anyone, I’m good. I’ve got my own thing going. It feels like I’m as autonomous as I’ve ever been.”
‘Joy’All’, as well as being about finding happiness, is about relationships and Lewis’ relationship with herself. Making it, she says, didn’t teach her so much as it did raise a question. “Am I a psycho?” she laughs. “You ever ask yourself that? You’re like, ‘Wait a minute, am I the narcissist in this room?’”
The album opens with a song called ‘Psychos’, which finds her refuting that question: “I’m not a psycho / I’m just trying to get laid.” The track itself tackles online dating, something Lewis has only just started grappling with after becoming single a few years ago. “I was in a relationship from my mid-twenties until I was 40, so it’s interesting,” she explains. So far, she’s been on one app date, for which interesting definitely sounds like the keyword. “We ended up at a strip club where the door guy knew the guy I was with. [My date] was like, ‘Do you know how to make it rain?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know, I was making it rain when you were, like, eight.’”
Online dating might not have led to love for Lewis yet, but she still sees there being value in the experiences she’s had with it. “Even if you’re not going to meet someone on the app, it at least opens you up to the idea that there are people out there, and then you’re opening up the channels to then bump into someone at Trader Joe’s or wherever you’d meet people.” She laughs at her suggestion but then shares some tongue-in-cheek LA dating advice: “Apparently, there’s a dating scene at [bougie grocery store] Erewhon. It sounds like the worst place to meet someone, but go to Erewhon and stand in, like, the chia seed section – if you can afford that there. You’ll buy three juices, and it’s $4,000.”
The topic of advice is something the musician brings up on the slinky hush of ‘Giddy Up’, singing: “It just trips me out, living against my own advice.” Right now, the guidance she’d give herself is something we could all learn from. “Don’t sweat the small stuff, and certainly don’t sweat how you look at any given moment because you will always look better then than now as you get older,” she says. “You know when you look back on pictures that in the moment you were like, ‘Oh, I look terrible’? Now you’re like, ‘Wait a minute, that’s amazing’.” That’s exactly what happened with the photos Lewis took for the cover of this album – two years ago, she thought they were awful, but now looks at them and thinks: “Damn, girl.”
What happens if you look back at the things you’ve made in your life and feel worse about them than you did at the time, though? The musician says we shouldn’t give ourselves a hard time about that. “Sometimes you have to make something that’s not your best because you can’t always be at your best,” she reasons. “Allowing the process of being an artist and expressing is zooming out.”
Those moments of not being at your best, too, can lead to the moments where you are at the shining peak of your game. “There’s a Rilo Kiley song called ‘Smoke Detector’ that’s not the best song in the world – it’s maybe in the bottom five of our catalogue – but without it, there’s no ‘Silver Lining’,” she explains. On this album, she describes coming up with one line on ‘Cherry Baby’ as “torture”. The previous lyric she had written in its place was “lazy”, but by digging deeper, she was able to craft something better and sign off on ‘Joy’All’ in triumph. That is what this record is, after all – a bright, beautiful portrait of humanity and another reminder of Lewis’ formidable talents.
Joy’All is out on Friday 9 June.