The year and a half Jenny Lewis intended to take off has resulted in a second solo album being three songs shy of complete plus her first movie score. So much for time off.
Lewis spent a year working on "Very Good Girls," the directorial debut from screenwriter Naomi Foner, whose career began on the children's show "The Electric Company." Lewis met Foner about 10 years ago through her children, Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal. The former Rilo Kiley singer-songwriter was asked to create songs for a character Elizabeth Olsen portrays, a 20-year-old just starting to write.
Eventually they settled on the Rilo Kiley tune "Go Ahead," the first song on the first side of the first Rilo Kiley album. Lewis wrote it when she was 20.
"I've known her for a long time," Lewis said of Foner. " It's interesting that the Rilo Kiley song we chose for the film was the first song that I think moved her in a way. It was the first discussion we had about my songwriting, 10 years ago. So to return to that a decade later, with a song that sparked a creative friendship, was really cool."
Lewis, who records for Warner Bros., traveled to Sundance, a first for her, to support the film and sat for interviews in a condominium at the base of ski slopes above the madness of Park City's Main Street. The film is looking for a distributor and Lewis is confident a soundtrack will be released.
She spoke openly about everything -- how the writers of "The Way We Were" helped her deal with rejection, for example -- except a mystery tour she has coming up in the spring, details of which will be announced soon.
How many songs did you write?
I ended up writing five or six original songs. When we started working with the rough cut, some of those songs just didn't work. You can conceptualize all you want, watch 'Harold and Maude' (music by Cat Stevens) and 'The Graduate' (Simon & Garfunkel songs) forever, but if it doesn't turn out to be that kind of film, you have to tailor the music to support the story and emotion in the film. We started removing some of the original songs, keeping some of the instrumental versions.
When it came time to score the film, did you want it to blend with the songs or contrast?
I wanted it to feel like it was coming from me. I'm not necessarily an instrumentalist -- I'm a lyrically focused songwriter -- but I wanted the sound to reflect what you would have heard on my previous records with all my different bands. So those sonic textures are in there and hopefully it creates one continuous theme that weaves in and out of the songs.
Considering the assignment, did you have to look over songs you wrote when you were 20 to create new ones in a similar voice?
I did and I have changed so much since Rilo Kiley started. My perspective as a woman in my teens, 20s and now 30s, I just write in a different way. I was trying all these songs and then Naomi and I decided on 'Go Ahead.' It just fit the character, fit the story. The other songs I wrote for her I allowed myself some silly lyrics and some darker lyrics that I wouldn't necessarily gravitate toward now.
With film, you obviously have to respond to notes from the others involved in the film, something a songwriter does not have to do in their own work. How did that process sit with you?
I had to kind of take all of the direction from six people, assimilate it, make them happy and also retain the integrity of how I wanted it to sound or what I wanted to say. But it sucks when someone says 'this song is going to be cut.' But it's for you! What am I going to do with it?
It's on-the-job training. How did you get past that?
I really learned so much. I had the opportunity to have dinner with Alan and Marilyn Bergman, songwriters who are part of the Great American Songbook. It happened at a time when some of the songs I had written for the film had been rejected. I said to Alan, 'I just don't know what to do. I'm trying to figure out an angle - where do I write from?' He said you have to write from a different altitude. He was talking about 'The Windmills of Your Mind' (the Oscar winner from "The Thomas Crown Affair"). They wrote a psychological metaphor and it was so helpful to me to get that advice. It's not my job to tell the story. That's what the film is doing.
Was this one of those projects where the timing made sense?
I was in-between records and touring. I've put out record almost every year since 2003 and I had gotten a little sick of my own narrative. I was tapped just going between projects from Rilo Kiley to my solo record and then Jenny and Johnny, just the feelings were sort of stale. You have to allow yourself come change and then reflect and then you can write from that. To work on something instrumental was a great break for me from myself.
The entire process took a year, but perhaps you could take us through the recording of the score and songs.
It was super low budget so I demoed everything on Garage Band. And then Pierre (de Reeder) from Rilo Kiley opened a studio two years ago, where we made the Jenny and Johnny record ("I'm Having Fun Now" with Jonathan Rice), so I worked with him for a couple of weeks and then brought in strings, a drummer and background vocalists. Once I got the first rough cut, I did maybe three months of demoing. Then we got into Sundance and they said, basically you have two or three weeks to record the entire score. Stuff was still changing at that point so I had to just go in and focus, start from scratch and record as if I were making an album. We finished a week and a half ago with the sound mix. I'm still thinking about the technical aspects and this will be the first time I'm seeing it finished in a theater, sitting in a room with people talking about it.
How did you find time to ever think about a follow up to "Acid Tongue"?
I had started it but I had to put it on hold to work on the film. If I had a couple of days where I would send something off and was waiting for feedback from Naomi or the producers I would go back in the studio and overdub some guitar or background vocals. Now that I am done (with the film) I can get back to that.
Any idea when you'll finish it?
I have a spring tour I can't talk today about with one of my bands. You'll know soon enough. Then take a break and then a solo tour. I have to write three more songs and sometimes you have to write five shitty songs to get to the good one. Hopefully in between the tours I will get my record finished and get it out at end of this year or early next year.