Folk Singer Jeffrey Lewis on His New Album, the Lower East Side, and Native Americans

Photo: Courtesy of Rough Trade Records

Homegrown singer-songwriter and comic-book artist Jeffrey Lewis has amassed a devoted following among music nerds and critics (not to mention one Jarvis Cocker, who’s called him "the best lyricist working in the U.S. today"), thanks to his wild, rapid-fire delivery and fascinatingly weird live shows. In an effort to spread the good word, Vulture talked to Lewis about his new covers album, 12 Crass Songs, his cultish popularity, and the violent gentrification of his native Lower East Side.

Let’s talk about the new album. What inspired you to cover songs by an obscure band like Crass?
The finished copies of the album have this whole illustrated history of my introduction to Crass and my decision to make the album. I think they wrote some really fantastic songs, and this album represented an opportunity to share these just tremendous gems of songwriting with a broader audience. When I first started, it was a complete bedroom recording, just playing solo, acoustic, lo-fi folk versions of the songs, and they sounded so good in that format that I decided to take it further.

Sweet cover art, too.
I’d made most of my previous albums on as little a budget as possible and sold them for three bucks, but really trying to give people as much as I could for their money with all the original artwork. I was making a good profit on them also! But then once I started making quote "official" albums with Rough Trade, I realized that my little black-and-white artwork would end up costing people the same as fancy packaging would have in the end, so it might have just seemed like I was ripping people off. I decided that for once I’d take full advantage, so I really went to town.

Did you grow up in a really artsy household?
Both of my parents are very into the sixties political-folkie thing, but neither of them are artists. The biggest influence in terms of that was probably my Uncle Victor, who’s a political rapper who goes by the name Uncle Louie. People totally go nuts for his stuff. Pete Seeger said he was a genius.

Critics and musicians love you, too — is it frustrating to still be playing tiny venues?
Well, you know, whenever we play those venues there are like 10,000 people lining up around the block, but we really prefer playing for an audience of 42. No, but honestly, people — especially in the music industry — seem to think that if you're not playing huge venues, then you’re not successful, but there is this complete middle ground. I’ve got an apartment to live in, and I’m able to eat, make my comic books, and make my music. I’m doing fine.

You were born and raised on the Lower East Side. Any changes to the neighborhood you found particularly egregious?
Oh, absolutely — the closing of Tompkins Square Park. Of course now the neighborhood’s been completely yuppie gentrified, but when that transition happened, it was a really violent one. When I was young, someone might mug you or take your walkman, or you’d be playing video games on St. Marks Place and someone would walk in and shove you off, so there was that element. But the neighborhood had a very neighborly feeling. You knew everyone on the block, and tons of people had permanent homes in that park. There was a band shell where they put on shows each week, a soup kitchen; it was just a nice little place they’d made for themselves. Then the police and the mayor’s office crack down, impose a curfew on the park, kick everyone out, and there’s riots on the streets! Plus, all the people who’d been living in the park just dispersed across the street to our doorways. Nobody in the neighborhood could believe it. It was totally outrageous.

And sad…
Yeah, but I’m sure it was sad for the Native Americans in the first place when they got kicked out. There are all these waves of human history flowing through different places; it just kind of sucks when you’re the one getting uprooted.
—Sara Cardace