“I just stumbled out of my Ford Focus in these mules,” says Jenny Lewis, pointing to her purple-bowed footwear. Settling into an airy cafe near her Laurel Canyon home in Los Angeles, the one-time child actor who turned indie rock “It” girl evokes a glam version of Seinfeld’s Elaine: retro shades, straw boater, Pippi Longstocking braids, slinky dress.
“I almost wore a tracksuit, but I wore a dress for you,” she adds, quickly correcting herself: “I wore a dress for me.”
For Lewis, the clothes make the woman. On the cover of her new solo album, The Voyager, she rocks a super-’70s white pantsuit airbrushed with psychedelic rainbow motifs that might have made even The Beatles pause.
“I feel strong and mighty in that rainbow suit, like a little Elton John,” says Lewis, 38. “I thought about wearing all black during the first half of my show and then changing into my rainbow suit like, ‘I’m back!’ ”
The Voyager is Lewis’ long-awaited return to recording, and it isn’t quite like anything she has done before. It follows 2006’s offbeat, rootsy masterpiece Rabbit Fur Coat and 2008’s looser Acid Tongue. But The Voyager stands alone, in many ways. For one, it’s Lewis’ first release under her own name since the 2011 breakup of Rilo Kiley, the beloved, L.A.-based alt-rock band that launched her musical career.
“I needed to be free creatively,” says Lewis. “I recently directed my first video for [the single] ‘Just One of the Guys.’ That couldn’t have happened in Rilo Kiley — everyone would be like, ‘We want to direct, too!’ ”
What The Voyager shares with the rest of Lewis’ discography is its combination of catchy pop with soul searching. “From the very first song Rilo Kiley wrote, that was the idea — very upbeat, with lyrics that are dark as night,” she says.
But in between all the catchy, sing-along hooks, The Voyager’s emotionally wrenching material is particularly intense. It encompasses a grueling period during which Lewis’ father passed away, her band of more than a decade broke up, and she conquered two years of chronic insomnia.
“All these things pushed me over the edge,” she says. “In your mid-30s, you have to take inventory, or you’ll stumble.”
Characteristically, Lewis found catharsis through work. She appeared on alt-rock supergroup The Postal Service’s era-defining 2003 debut, Give Up, and when Postal Service/Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard invited her to play lead guitar and sing on The Postal Service’s 2013 reunion tour, it provided a perfect impetus to face her issues head on. “I got the call from Ben about a year before the tour, so I gave myself a timeline to get myself healthy again,” she notes.
The Voyager is the perfect album title, considering the singer’s long, winding journey. She grew up in a bohemian family that moved from Las Vegas to the L.A. suburb of Van Nuys. There, Lewis began acting on TV shows like Growing Pains and Roseanne. “My first memories were of my babysitter, who was a female Elvis impersonator,” recalls Lewis. “Then I went to Beverly Hills High School. I’d hitchhike there from the Valley until I got kicked out when they discovered I had enrolled under a fake address.”
In the late ’90s, Lewis teamed up with fellow child actor Blake Sennett to form Rilo Kiley, which released its final studio album, Under the Black Light, in 2007. Along the way, Lewis became a role model for a new generation of left-field female artists who saw themselves in her contradictory persona: kind of emo, sort of detached, sometimes wounded, ultimately defiant. It’s no coincidence that Lewis was asked to compose a new track with Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij for Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls, or that actresses Anne Hathaway, Kristen Stewart and Brie Larson hilariously co-star in the video for “Just One of the Guys.” Meanwhile, two members of sister trio Haim played in the singer’s backing band. “It was amazing to go on the road with someone I admired so much growing up,” says Danielle Haim.
“Ten years go by, and suddenly I’m the elder person in the room! That sucks, but people love Rilo Kiley because we were around when they were coming into their own,” says Lewis. “I do find connections with the women that come to my shows. Those little moments when they’re really getting it are intimate, and kind of scary — but they also help me to keep going.”
Keeping going also meant saying goodbye to Rilo Kiley. “I was always trying to make something different,” she says. “I felt limited, like I couldn’t rock too hard because it would be like cheating on Rilo Kiley. Working on The Voyager was different; I was suddenly a free woman — single and ready to mingle! We weren’t afraid to rock out, which really reflects Ryan’s influences.”
The Ryan she’s talking about is roots-rock maverick Ryan Adams, who produced the majority of The Voyager. The two met through Twitter when Lewis direct-messaged Adams, requesting help with a new song, “She’s Not Me,” which was inspired by Keith Richards’ 2010 memoir, Life. “I was reading Keith’s book, and I thought I’d tinker with his open-tuning style,” says Lewis. “That ended up being the first thing we recorded.”
Together, Lewis and Adams laid down The Voyager in a whirlwind week-and-a-half session at L.A.’s famed Sunset Sound studio, where classics by Miles Davis, The Doors, The Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac were captured. Adams forbade Lewis to listen to the music she had just recorded, pushing her to move on after she had finished a take. Along the way, he provided plenty of blunt songwriting advice.
“He got really involved in the songs,” according to Lewis. “He’d say things like, ‘God, I can’t take this campfire bullshit — it’s so fatiguing. Put an E minor in there.’ I’d try it, and it would be the right choice. He really focused on making everything more universal. The song ‘Love You Forever’ became so much more vulnerable and direct. It was originally ‘Love Him Forever,’ but I made a mistake while recording it and sang, ‘Love you forever.’ Ryan said, ‘That’s the song!’ ”
“We all dug in,” recalls Adams. “Past the point where I press ‘Record,’ my job is to get people excited. Jenny was very much ready for that ride. Her songs were horses; we just kicked down the fence and watched them blast off across the horizon.”
Adams isn’t the only notable person who helped Lewis on The Voyager. Guests include The Watson Twins, First Aid Kit, Z Berg of The Like/Jjamz, Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark and singer-songwriter Johnathan Rice, Lewis’ boyfriend of 10 years and frequent musical foil. Plus, the song “Late Bloomer” features artists one would never expect to hear together: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench and singer-instrumentalist Lou Barlow of Sebadoh/Dinosaur Jr. And Beck produced “Just One of the Guys,” giving Lewis a needed jolt.
“I didn’t have the last verse and Beck said, ‘Go in the other room and write it,’ ” she remembers. “It was pretty cool to have Beck tell you to go finish something — because you know you will.”
Despite Lewis’ casual, self-effacing persona, the impressive collective she put together speaks of an ambition that The Voyager’s artful expanse makes abundantly clear. “Jenny is a great record maker,” says Lenny Waronker, the legendary Warner Bros. Records executive who helped bring out big records from such icons as The Everly Brothers, Randy Newman and R.E.M.; he also served as Lewis’ A&R mentor on The Voyager. “She’s more than a voice and a good songwriter; she’s a big musical brain capable of almost anything. She’s always going to make something special, real and a little unexpected.”
In that unpredictable spirit, Lewis is already planning her next move. “I’m a huge reggae fan,” she says. “I want to go to Jamaica and make, like, Bob Marley ‘One Love’ positive songs. That’s what the world needs.”
Describing the idea out loud makes her laugh. “It would be nice to create something that’s healing,” she says, “rather than slightly creepy and darkly judgmental!”
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 2 issue of Billboard magazine.