How Tracy Chapman, DeBarge, and a Fateful Glass of Wine Inspired Jenny Lewis’s Joy’all

Photo: Bobbi Rich

Jenny Lewis is reminiscing about the first concert she ever went to: Love and Rockets, Pixies, and the Cure at Dodger Stadium. Lewis was barely a teenager then, fresh off her role in Troop Beverly Hills and just beginning to write songs. But that night, a switch flipped. “I walked into Dodger Stadium and saw Kim Deal playing bass,” she says. “I was like, Oh, wait — you can do that if you’re a girl. That’s a possibility. I want to do that.

Years later, during the 2000s, Lewis became one of the most visible women fronting a rock band, with Rilo Kiley. But she never limited her ambitions to rock music, either. Specifically, she’s always flirted with country music, from sneaking a folksy swing into Rilo’s “Gravity,” to collaborating with Nashville singers the Watson Twins on her 2006 solo debut, Rabbit Fur Coat. “Don’t Tell the Indie Fans: Jenny Lewis Likes Country Music,” read a New York Times profile headline around that album. Now, her fifth solo effort, Joy’all, puts her “secret” out in the open. Lewis recorded it in Nashville, where she’s had a home since 2017. Produced by the in-demand neo-traditional maverick Dave Cobb, the album revolves around springily strummed acoustic guitar, pattering percussion, and Lewis’s crisp singing — fittingly sunny music for the final days of spring and first of summer.

For all the country legends Lewis name-checks on “Love Feel,” Joy’all is more than just her Nashville album. Many of the songs began when Lewis was living in Los Angeles during the pandemic, some as part of a virtual writing camp organized by Beck (who worked on her previous album, On the Line). Lewis, who’s always preferred the Bakersfield sound to Nashville’s output, found herself drawing on everything from folk classics to ’90s R&B. “I think that when you put something really joyful in the title, it has a different effect,” she says. “If I had called it Chain of Tears, it would be a whole other thing. I hope that people experience some joy.” She spoke to Vulture about the wide, specific influences behind Joy’all, from Skeeter Davis to her dog.

Two-stepping in Nashville on Christmas Eve

I live in Nashville now, so if there were going to be an authentic time for a Jewish girl from the Valley to make an Americana album, that was the time. When I turned 40, I moved to New York, which is something I had always dreamed of doing. I wanted to go to Tisch as a kid, but I didn’t get in. So at 40, I moved to the East Village, sharing an apartment with St. Vincent, a rent-controlled spot. My friend Tennessee had a shop on Second called the Deep End Club, and we started a punk rock band, like ESG, in the shop. Then I met someone who invited me to spend Christmas in Nashville, and I flew down and two-stepped on Christmas Eve, and met one of my best friends, who was actually dressed as Santa. I’d been coming to Nashville for years on the road, and the Watson Twins lived there, but there was something very romantic about being there at that moment. Then the sort of New York dream died for me. You know, Trump was elected [laughs], and I realized I couldn’t really afford to be in New York. I went and found a place in Nashville in late 2017, so I’ve been going back and forth.

It is Music City compared to growing up in Hollywood. It’s everywhere and everyone can rip on their instruments, everyone can write, everyone’s doing all of this music business–y stuff. But there’s also a punk scene and an art scene and a hip-hop scene that’s amazing. It’s not just Broadway, when you think of the honky-tonks — which are also so fun to go and learn how to two-step. Now, I could teach you how to two-step.

Beck’s pandemic songwriting workshop

It was super fun. Very stony. I’d like to thank marijuana for getting me through that week. I did not leave the house, at all. It was a little bit intimidating at first, but then really fun to be inside other people’s processes, hearing how they interpreted the assignments and what they would deliver to the group. Or not deliver. It was such a great character study. You’re like, Artists are so cool that we can just make something out of a suggestion. It’s magic. But it’s also homework, which is part of it.

“Puppy and a Truck” was the first song. That was one of my best. The first assignment was free-form, and I just wrote the whole song. And everyone was so nice. They’re like, “Oh my God, we love this so much.” That was so cool, and I don’t know if it would’ve happened without the workshop. After that, “Love Feel,” “Chain of Tears,” and “Balcony” were all from the camp. Beck’s coming in your email inbox. You’re like, Oh my God, it’s Beck. For “Love Feel,” he’s like, “So this one, I want you to write a song of all clichés.” I was like, How do you do that? I started looking up tropes that had been in Top 40 country songs: radio, telephone, honky-tonk, whiskey, beer. Then I compiled them with a couple free-form lines in there. I had to give Justin Timberlake a shout-out. I threw John Prine in there.

I think in modern times, we’re a bit in the weeds with so many choices. Too many choices in Pro Tools, computer recording. It’s like infinite, Just do another pass, we’ll comp it together later. No, four-tracking is so amazing because it’s four tracks. You really have to be economical about what works. You don’t just add shit on top of shit. For me, the limitations of, like, “You’re going to write a song with 1-4-5 as the progression,” which is pretty standard and straightforward, but how great to sit down and have that as a jumping-off point. Rather than, What am I going to write a song about, what time signature, what key?

‘Real’ songs like ‘Fast Car,’ by Tracy Chapman

We weren’t being overly referential, but I came in and I was like, “I want to make something like Tracy Chapman. Like ‘Fast Car.’” I’ve just been obsessed with that song and that record since I heard it. I was 11 or 12. It just reached me so deeply, ’cause her guitar playing is really rhythmic, but her storytelling is at the forefront. It is, in a way, a country record. It’s just these incredible stories. It’s like a blues or a country record in its directness. I wanted my music to be pretty real and not ironic at all.

Those forms are so ready for stories that have a beginning, middle, and end. You can really tell an amazing little short story in a country song — like that Kenny Rogers song, “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” Have you listened to the lyrics? He had this girlfriend before the war called Ruby, and then he comes back and he is disabled, and he can hear her leaving to go out to the bar to meet dudes at night. It’s like, Wow, that’s happening in country music. You could say some outrageously sad things and get away with it.

Throwback R&B like Monica and DeBarge

Nate Smith played drums. He’s one of the greatest drummers in music, period, and he’s an incredible jazz drummer. He can do so much, but we had him do so little. On “Joy,” it’s a Bernard Purdie reference, who’s this amazing drummer, and he’s playing the snare with his fingers, and it’s very rhythmic. “Giddy Up,” it doesn’t sound like it, but I was pretending to be Monica in “The Boy Is Mine.” In my mind, I sound like Monica! There’s something about this melodic outro — so, like, the end of a DeBarge song. They’ll vamp out on the [sings “Rhythm of the Night”], and then the little ad-lib vocals [ad-libs vocals]. Whatever is happening in those vamps, in that era of R&B songs, it’s so free and fun and cool.

Adopting her dog, Bobby Rhubarb

It’s opened my heart in ways that I didn’t think were possible. I feel like my work has opened up too because I have a capacity for pure interaction and caretaking and love and devotion, and not with my partner. Sometimes you don’t have a partner. Having a dog has been the coolest thing, just getting outside of yourself and your routine, if you were stuck at home, like I was. I did so many cool weird things by myself. Trip out and take mushrooms in the living room. I grew two giant weed plants. I painted all these rocks in my backyard, so it looks like Salvation Mountain.

I am a runaway. I ran away. There’s a Nice As Fuck song about it called “Run Away.” Coming back and being in L.A. and being responsible for myself and my own health — I think when you take care of an animal or a plant, you’re like, Oh, I should also take care of myself. I should drink more water.

Dave Cobb saying no to more takes

Cobb is a great leader and a great listener. I come in with a song in the morning that we were going to cut that day. We sit on the couch and I play it, and he’s like, “Let’s open this part up. Maybe we’ll change the chord here.” On the fly, I’m changing. He’s like, “Let’s speed it up. Let’s put a capo on fret three. Nate, what are you hearing?” Then we go on the floor, cut it just like that, that fast. And take one or two is the one you use. You’re like, “Wait a minute! Can I do it over? I could do a better job if you let me do it over just right now.” Dave’s like, “Nope, moving on.” He’s the producer. He knows better than I do. I’m in it. I’m haunted by every syllable. I’m a little bit edgy. I can’t believe I’m playing these songs for these dudes that I’ve never met, and it’s so intimate. I’m like, “I’m not a psycho / I’m just trying to get laid.” I look over to Nate, who I just met, who’s on the drums. I’m like, Ahh!

The things that don’t change in your 40s

I’ve been writing for so long. From when I was 10! So I just mine from my own experience in the moment. So what else am I going to write about in my 40s? I can’t write about being in my 30s anymore. The themes evolve, and sometimes they don’t, and you’re like, Oh my God, I’m still singing about this. I’ve got to get my shit together. It’s a little embarrassing that I’m on a dating app, but also it’s not. I don’t think I’m going to meet anyone. However, it is nice to just put yourself in the world. I think the energy of even being horrified, but still swiping, is somehow productive. It’s better than staying in your home and not doing anything.

Skeeter Davis

The cover of the album, I’m wearing Skeeter’s outfit. Which is so crazy. It wasn’t me personally, but my collaborator — Mama Hotdog is her name — was at the shop down the road, and I think she just saw it hanging on the wall. And when they took it down, it said this was Skeeter’s costume.

My friend Tennessee, who had the Deep End Club and was the drummer in Nice As Fuck, she was a New York DJ. She would roll in with a little ’60s box and these mixed CDs that she would DJ with. Skeeter’s music was always on her mixes, so in a way, hearing that stuff in New York leading up to going to Nashville, it was already in my consciousness.

I had been referencing those classic album covers, which a lot of them were hanging in RCA Studios, where we made the record. They all have the song titles on the front. It’s so Nashville. Then Skeeter’s cover was one of the references, and suddenly I’m wearing her outfit. I think these moments in life where it’s serendipitous, or you just can’t believe it’s true, are little signs that you’re on the right path. I don’t even think I picked Skeeter Davis. I think she somehow came down and was like, “Wear my outfit. It’s hanging on the wall down the road.”

Occam’s razor (or, a glass of wine from a French restaurant in Nashville)

Remember how I said that my songs were completely, 100 percent done before I went into the studio? I was lying. There was one outstanding line that I didn’t write, on “Cherry Baby.” I had some filler in there that wasn’t very good songwriting. It felt lazy to me. So I recorded the whole record, and then I was like, “I’m going to come back in and we’re just going to punch in that one. I’m going to write something better.” There’s a little French restaurant in Nashville on Gallatin, and it’s basically in a Publix parking lot. So I had a glass of wine and wrote the line, which was, “I’m having a hard time writing the last line.” Boom.

It was like, If you don’t finish this line, this thing is never going to come out. Everyone was waiting: “Did she finish the line?” “Is she going to finish?” “Is the line done?” I’m just like, Ahh! The line! I had 40,000 options for that. Oh, God, I had a couple ridiculous ones that I didn’t use. A couple of overtly sexual lines. I took those out and then I just opted for the thing that it actually was, which is, I think, Occam’s razor. The most obvious thing is the thing. Rick Rubin in his book talks about sometimes the first thing is the best thing, but you don’t know it ’til you’ve gone through all the permutations. I think when you’re open to the process, it happens.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Nice As Fuck, a band comprising Lewis, Tennessee Thomas, and Erika Forster. They released a self-titled album in 2016. “Radio, telephone / Telephone and radio / Phone, tube, top 40 / Jukebox, honky-tonk,” Lewis sings in one verse. The full list: “Marvin Gaye, Timberlake / Hank Williams, Johnny Cash / John Prine / Waylon and Willie.” “Sometimes when you do something that’s really great, you should probably just stop,” Cobb told GQ in 2020. “Because chances are, if you keep pushing through and try to do more stuff that’s really great, it becomes generic and not heartfelt. I think that’s the magic: finding the threshold.” Called Once Upon a Time in France.
How Tracy Chapman and DeBarge Inspired Jenny Lewis’s Joy’all