When Jenny Lewis was announced as support for Harry Styles’ 2020 North American tour, the pairing had some fans scratching their heads wondering what indie rock royalty might have in common with an ex-boy-bander — besides great hair. But beyond their latest albums sharing similar titles (On the Line for Lewis and Fine Line from Styles) and color schemes (cotton candy pink and blue for both), the two have more in common than you might imagine. Think of them as two like-minded artists caravanning down the highway in separate but parallel lanes.
Lewis and Styles both got their start on camera, although in different ways. Lewis was a child actress who took a turn as Lucille Ball’s granddaughter on television, and perhaps most memorably, sold cookies and did The Frug in Troop Beverly Hills.
Styles competed on The X Factor at age 16 as a solo artist, but Simon Cowell asked him to team up with four other lads in order to move forward in the competition. As you’re undoubtedly aware, One Direction hit the ground running, scoring a top 5 Billboard Hot 100 hit with debut single “What Makes You Beautiful” and earning a No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with first album Up All Night. Eventually, the English-Irish boy band shifted its sound thanks to the tastes of Styles and bandmate Niall Horan’s penchant for the sun-drenched rock of the ’60s and ’70s. When it was finally time for Styles to make solo music, he strutted on stage like a rock star of a completely different era.
Lewis, too, got her musical bearings in a group, forming Rilo Kiley in 1998 with then boyfriend and fellow child star Blake Sennett. They were bubbly enough for the Hollywood crowd and gloomy enough for the Saddle Creek crowd, and Lewis’ knack for wryly burying harsh truths in the sweetest melodies set her apart. When she made her debut solo album, Rabbit Fur Coat, in 2006 at the request of her friend Conor Oberst, she found the freedom she didn’t know she was missing.
On the Line and Fine Line emerged when both performers, who have already lived a thousand lives between them, were on globe-trotting paths to self-discovery. Styles, newly confident after realizing many One Direction fans would stick with him while he took risks on his own, let loose after nearly a decade of having his every moment scheduled. He spent some time in karaoke bars in Japan, getting into Transcendental Meditation and taking mushrooms in California, where he’d end up making most of his album.
Lewis also took some trips to find her footing after ending a 12-year romantic and musical partnership with singer-songwriter Jonathan Rice. She did a house swap with St. Vincent, trading her place in the Valley for Annie Clark’s East Village apartment for a time. After her stint in New York was over, she got to know the city she grew up in with a fresh set of eyes hopping neighborhoods in Airbnbs.
Styles went through a breakup as well, and came out of it with a collection of songs “about having sex and feeling sad,” which also functions as a tidy summary of the Jenny Lewis songbook. Lewis is a fitting guide for a guy who was once terrified he’d lose his record deal if he ever got arrested, because she already knows that the good news and the bad news is that you never really figure it out. But if you can emerge from the pitfalls of child stardom and band drama in one piece, it’s because you never stopped reaching.
Both managed to stay in one place long enough to hit the recording studio in Southern California. Styles later insisted on hosting a playback of his album at the former A&M studios in Studio B because Carole King’s Tapestry was recorded there. Lewis did him one better and played the very same piano King used on the record on her new songs. The classic rock obsessives both found ways to channel their inner Paul McCartney while making their albums. Styles, who knows a thing or two about being pegged as “the cute one,” cited McCartney’s post-Beatles work as a primary influence this time around, going so far as to purchase his own copy of Wings’ Back to the Egg to fill a hole in the collection of a vinyl bar in Tokyo he frequented (Fine Line, meanwhile, shares the name of the lead single from Macca’s 2005 solo standout Chaos and Creation In the Backyard); Lewis, going straight to the source, enlisted Ringo Starr to play drums on her record.
Biographical coincidences aside, the stage is where the singers’ kinship is most evident. Lewis and Styles ooze the ease of performers who have spent their entire adult lives onstage, balancing off the cuff stage banter and heartfelt moments with the glitz. The sequins and rainbow suits they’ve been known to don are secondary to the swagger.
But unlike many seasoned performers who show disdain for their earlier work, Styles and Lewis embrace and build upon their unique origin stories to draw new life from their mythologies. The Rilo Kiley song “With Arms Outstretched,” a singalong for lost souls, is a cornerstone of Lewis’ recent sets. In the self-directed “She’s Not Me” video, she dressed up as her past selves, wearing adult-sized versions of her costumes from The Wizard and Golden Girls. Styles has taken a rare stance for a fresh boy band alumnus: He thinks his band was really good. So he sings “What Makes You Beautiful” at his gigs as a reminder of where he came from for the Directioners and the new fans alike.
The future of their North American tour, currently set to kick off June 26, is uncertain with most concerts this spring either canceled or postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. For now, Styles is keeping busy during self-isolation by learning sign language and Italian because he is nothing if not a dedicated Gucci brand ambassador. Lewis, who has taken to publishing short poems on current events on Twitter, has some comforting words for anyone feeling downtrodden. For fans stuck at home right now, Styles and Lewis have a few songs about loneliness to serenade you through hard times until they’re back on stage where they belong.