"You know, some couples, they buy matching Hawaiian shirts and hang out in Waikiki," says Jenny Lewis. "Or some couples, they rent an RV and drive across the country. We made I'm Having Fun Now."
Lewis, whose catalogue of work as frontwoman of indie rock quartet Rilo Kiley and two highly lauded solo albums have made her a regular hometown hero for the Silver Lake set, is speaking of her most recent studio effort, a collaboration with boyfriend Johnathan Rice released late last year under the straight-shooting moniker Jenny and Johnny. Both Lewis and Rice (who signed with Warner Bros. when he was a teenager) are industry veterans at this point, part of a "creative cocoon of a group of people," as Rice puts it, that includes Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward of She & Him, Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, and Elvis Costello, to name a few.
I'm Having Fun Now, on the other hand, was a side project of sorts for the couple, with intentions that can pretty much be summed up in the very title. After several years of playing on each other's solo albums and tours, whittling out tunes together in their time "on the [tour] bus or at home," Lewis and Rice figured they might as well lay down the tracks.
The result is nothing short of phenomenal. The sincerity behind songs like "Big Wave," in which Lewis laments the economic downfall of her beloved California, or "Scissor Runner," which Rolling Stone named No. 18 of its 50 Best Songs of 2010, lies deep in the witty lyrical banter — more repartee than perfect harmony — and upbeat, poppy melodies unique from either of their solo efforts.
944 spoke with the power pop couple about the nature of their collaboration, and of course, having fun.
944: I hear you guys just got back from Australia.
JOHNATHAN RICE: That's true.
944: How was that?
JR: It was really fun. It was my favorite time ever going to Australia.
944: How many shows did you play over there?
JR: How many did we play, Jenny, like seven?
JENNY LEWIS: Yeah.
944: That's great.
JL: We were a part of the traveling music festival called Laneway that had an amazing lineup: Beach House and Ariel Pink and Deerhunter, Warpaint. And so typically when you play a festival, you're kind of in and out, but this traveled over two weeks so we really got a chance to hang out with some of the other bands. It was kind of like a summer camp for rock 'n' rollers.
944: So you guys have been working together for a while now, but how much were you actually involved in the writing process on one another's latest solo albums, Acid Tongue and Further North?
JR: Those particular two that you mentioned —
JL: Quite a bit.
JR: Quite a bit, yeah. I mean it certainly wasn't as involved as I'm Having Fun Now — that's the most involved either one of us has been in each other's songs, where at that point they just become our songs. We started writing songs together about five years ago and it's kind of something you get more comfortable with the more you do it. We do still write our own songs separately. There are songs on Acid Tongue and Further North that are just mine or just Jenny's, and same with I'm Having Fun Now.
JL: But on Acid Tongue I sang one of Johnathan's songs, "Carpetbaggers."
944: Oh, really? So that was one of his songs?
JL: Yeah, he wrote that song and that was, I think, the first time I'd ever done that. So they're all different variations on how you write, and it's actually kind of great to be able to sit down with someone if you have kind of a sketch, you know, an idea, as to what you want to say in a song, and to be able to talk about the outcome, you know, what'll happen in the third verse or what gets said in the bridge. It's great to be able to have that dialogue, because then you can always go lock yourself in a room and write a song by yourself, but to have that dual perspective is refreshing.
JR: And also it's like a super intimate thing to write songs with somebody. It takes a long time to become comfortable. You have to really trust the other person, trust their taste, you know what I mean? I remember when I got signed to Warner Brothers when I was very young, they would literally like call me and say, "Hey, we're sending over these songwriters to work with you there. They know where you live and they're coming! They're coming to write songs with you — like it or not." And that was always just such a wrenching, awful experience for me. And nothing ever good came out of it because I didn't trust the people that I was writing with and it was just a fuck thing to do I think. Anyways, writing with Jenny hasn't been like that at all [laughing].
JL: She's coming!
JR: You do know where I live though.
944: She's not as scary?
JR: No. I mean ... No. I would say no.
944: So in the songs that you write together now, is the process pretty integrated or does one of you take the lead on any given song?
JL: I think the idea will often come from one person, whether it be the melody or just the idea for the song, and then it becomes collaborative. But I think the seed isn't often something that comes from two minds.
JR: And sometimes it's just a case of luck. When I hear Jenny working on something and we're within earshot of one another, like if we're on the [tour] bus or at home or whatever, I'll just be like, "Oh man, I have a harmony for that" or "I have a guitar line for that," and I'll want to kind of get my hands on it in some way. And sometimes, at least in our songwriting partnership, we've found that that's kind of a measure of whether something's good or not, if the other person really wants to get involved in it.
JL: And then there's always the one song that either of us doesn't like that I think we kind of covet for our own records: "Well, you didn't like that one, but it's great! It doesn't like you either!"
JR: That's true, yeah.
944: Do you know immediately when you start writing whether it's going to be a Jenny and Johnny song versus a Jenny Lewis or a Jonathan Rice song?
JR: No. I mean, Jenny and Johnny songs I would say, if there is a rule, it would just have to be something that we can both wrap our voices around and collaborate vocally on. I think that Jenny and Johnny — at its very core — it's kind of like a harmony group.
944: How would you describe the differences in your collaborative efforts versus your solo ones?
JR: As we've hung out so much over the years, that stuff is kind of starting to merge into one thing, but I think where we began were two different places. I was raised on classic rock and the touchstone classic records — like the holy trinity people, the Beatles, Stones and Dylan kind of people — but Jenny's influences were much more unique and obscure, which I've always thought was a good thing. I don't know, you can elaborate more, Jenny.
JL: Yeah, I grew up on hip-hop, show tunes and female singer/songwriters, and because we weren't on a label, my band [Rilo Kiley], initially, we just put out a collection of some of the weirdest songs ever. Like they were always very poppy, but they were always very strange and we never had anyone telling us you shouldn't put this on the record. I think quirky might be the right word to describe the early songs that I wrote.
JR: But it's cool because you started out with the quirks and then you worked your way to a song like "Silver Lining" or "Acid Tongue," which any of the classic female singer/songwriters ... it's a truly good song, but it doesn't sound like it came from the mind of a little quirkster.
JL: A little rapping weirdo.
944: Yeah, you haven't rapped yet.
JL: Well I had one moment in the '90s when there was a freestyle thing going on in the back of this club that I used to hang out in called the Gaslight and Biz Markie was there and I did like a freestyle verse, and Biz kind of gave me a high five — this was pre-pound, but I think today he would've given me a pound.
JR: I think you mean like a terrorist fist-bump.
JL: And so that was kind of the beginning and the end of my hip-hop career.
944: It didn't make it onto any of the albums?
JL: It didn't.
JR: But she has an MC name.
944: What's the MC Name?
JR: It's MC Strawberry Court Case.
JL: And occasionally I'll tweet verses, or no, lines. I've only tweeted like five times, but I've tweeted as MC Strawberry Court Case.
944: Is that your Twitter handle?
JL: No, that's just my hash tag.
944: What came first for you guys: your involvement romantically or your involvement making music together?
JL: First we were friends. Then came the songs. We didn't hang out, I mean, we hung out because of music, we met through friends in Omaha, Nebraska, but we initially —
JR: Actually, that's not true — we made music first.
JL: No we didn't.
JR: Yes we did.
JL: No we didn't.
JR: Yes we did.
JL: No, we met and then we —
JR: But hold on though.
JL: Oh, 'cause we played with Bright Eyes?
JR: No, no, even before that, though. No, it was after that you sang on my first album in the studio in Lincoln and you played percussion on that suitcase.
JL: Oh, I forgot about that.
JR: See. So we played music first.
JL: And then we played with Bright Eyes?
JR: No, that was all within the same three weeks.
JL: Oh. That's when Bright Eyes kind of had a rotating lineup.
JR: It was before their current lineup.
JL: So we found ourselves on stage with Bright Eyes one evening.
944: And that was before you were really friends or started hanging out?
JR: Yeah, but we met in New York in 2003 in an apartment in the East Village.
JL: But I think with regard to collaborating musically, really, we were friends for a little while before. I mean that's not why we started hanging out.
JR: Yeah, we definitely had no intentions of getting involved with each other on that level. Because I'd met Jenny right at the time where she was considering whether or not she was going to make a solo album. And that was around the time that that kind of dialogue within herself and with her friends was beginning. And I remember finishing my first album in a studio in North Hollywood — and that was the same studio that she made Rabbit Fur Coat in — and playing on that album with her and her doing some vocals on mine and that being the beginning — basically the beginning of a whole new musical life for you, right?
JL: Yeah, I mean, when I made Rabbit Fur Coat, I mean when I started making it, I didn't even know if I was going to put it out. And I certainly didn't think of myself as a solo artist. That was never my intention.
JR: Yeah, there was a lot of trepidation along with that — all the kinds of things you could imagine for someone who's been in a creative cocoon of a certain group of people for a long time.
944: Well I'm glad you made it because Rabbit Fur Coat is one of my favorite albums. I love that album.
JL: Oh, thanks! Well I wouldn't have made it if it weren't for Johnathan and my friends encouraging me to do so. I mean, Conor [Oberst] suggested that I make a solo record. I was like, "Are you crazy?"
JR: Yeah, Conor suggested it, M. Ward showed you a new tuning, and I remember Conor and I being in a bar in New York, and being like, "Lewis gonna make that solo album?" And like, we both called her from the bar, "You gotta make that thing!" Or, you know, something like that. And I think the first time that you sang with the [Watson] twins was at one of my shows, right?
JL: Yeah, well we put together that kind of hoedown. And that was our first time singing together. And the rest is history!
944: Do you consider any of your songs love songs?
JR: Some of them, I do.
JL: I think "Scissor Runner" is a love song.
JR: Yeah, I would say rather than it being a hard and fast love song, in our canon, I would say that there are more moments of love songs within songs that are not love songs. You know what I mean by that?
944: Yeah, definitely. So how did you come up with the name for the album, I'm Having Fun Now?
JL: That is based on a bumper sticker that was on the back of a 1979 Mazda wagon that Johnathan bought at an estate sale for 900 bucks.
944: What a deal.
JL: And we were mastering our record up in Ventura County, and this father/son mastering team, the father always types up [the card for the mastered CD ] on an old typewriter. And he was like, "OK, what's your band name?" And we were like, "Uhhh, Jenny and Johnny?" And he was like, "OK, and the album title?" And I just said, "I'm Having Fun Now," thinking of that bumper sticker, and it sort of stuck.
944: Well it's a great bumper sticker and a great album name.
JL: And a great — and it doesn't imply that we weren't having fun before, because we were indeed — but it's kind of a good mantra. Keep it light.
JR: Yeah, and the idea of Jenny and Johnny is we're not like this institution, we're not like here to stay or whatever, it's not like the end of either one of our own careers. It's just something we did because the songs existed and we felt like they deserved a new band just to try it. It's like an experiment — Jenny and Johnny's like our little experiment and it was extremely fun. And we've definitely done way more with it than we thought we would — so much so that we're going out on more tours and doing all that stuff. Like we thought we were just going to do a tour and that would be it.
JL: You know, some couples, they buy matching Hawaiian shirts and they hang out in Waikiki, or some couples, they rent an RV and drive across the country. We made I'm Having Fun Now. It's our retirement plan.
944: Well hopefully you're not retiring yet.
JL: No, not yet. But we're totally like, whatever comes along, we try to keep it fun and exciting. We got a chance to open for some of our favorite bands — we opened for Pavement.
JR: We opened for Belle & Sebastian.
JL: And Vampire Weekend. And we've been all over the world and we've dipped our toes in the Indian Ocean.
JR:Yeah, we swam in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean in the same week — which was one of the coolest things we've ever done.
944: Yeah, that's even cooler than when you can stand in those four states at once.
JL: I've never done that.
JR: Oh, is that in Moab?
944: I don't remember exactly where it is, but I know you can stand in four at once.
JR: Isn't it the continental divide? I believe that it's right outside of Moab, Utah.
JL: Well, what are the four states?
JL: Utah. Wyoming? No. Anyway, we should check that out when we go to Boise.
JR: Is one of them New Mexico?
JL: I think so.
JR: Yeah, maybe we should do that.
944: Apparently none of us are very good at geography.
JL: None of us are, clearly.
944: But let's talk about LA a little bit. Jenny, you grew up in LA, and Johnny, you grew up between Glasgow, Scotland and Virginia, but call LA home now.
JR: I've lived in LA for like five years now.
944: And both of you are clearly very influenced by the city. So how does LA inspire you?
JR: You go first, Lewis.
JL: Well, LA is an interesting place to grow up. I've never lived anywhere else, but I've had so many different kinds of living experiences in this city — it's so vast and you can really find your niche, but it may take 20 years to find it. I've lived in like the shittiest apartments and now we live in an amazing place out in the woods. I was in Silver Lake for 10 years and I watched the neighborhood change. I think it's a place you can live for cheap and pursue your art or your work and, you know, you can find a way to make some scratch that isn't necessarily a traditional job. You can kind of be on your hustle in LA. And if you have a car, you can drive 20 minutes outside of LA and have a totally different kind of experience that might make its way into one of your songs. I personally love the suburbs and I love going out to the Valley and driving around. I grew up in Van Nuys, and I'm like a homing pigeon. Whenever I'm stuck and I'm working on a song and I can't think of something, I'll get in my car and drive out to the Valley. And something about like the parking lots and I dunno — there's something about how similar it all looks out there that is really inspiring. That was my speech about LA.
JR: Yeah, for me, living where I was living as a kid, there's nothing that could have prepared me for just the way it looks and feels in California. Period. I think California's magical. I've driven all over it and, to me, it just seems like, I know the pilgrims stopped at Plymouth Rock, but it just seems like the really weird and wonderful people kept going till they got here. It seems like the conclusion of America. It's so cool.
944: Your song "Big Wave" is about California's current fiscal crisis and its effect on your psyche. How do you think that's effected your songwriting in general? Do you think in ways it's been darker?
JR: I think if you have an affinity for California and an affection for it as we do, you can't help but personalize it and feel what's going on, even though we spend a lot of the year touring and stuff like that. It's at times even more informative, because when we come back, we're able to see the difference, you know? I just had jury duty last week and it was just ...
JL: Less than efficient.
JR: Less than efficient, and just the stories — because you have to give some personal information on your background to be a juror, and everybody stands up and what some people are going though — you know, all these people were telling the judge, "You know, I want to do your jury duty for you, but you have to understand, I have to go back to my job or else my boss is gonna fire me." You know, all this kind of stuff, and it's not as simple as that, but I think, we've said it a bunch in different interviews, but when Ronald Reagan was governor of California and then he became president and, you know, there's this sort of political myth or belief in America that so goes California, so goes the nation. And so it's kind of whatever has happened out here, it's probably going to happen in the rest of the country in the next 10 years in terms of, you know, it's already happening in Wisconsin and different places like that. It's just a very pivotal time in America in general, and I guess that's kind of what "Big Wave" is about.
944: I've heard you guys mention in some of your live shows that "Just Like Zeus" is about legendary strip joint Jumbo's Clown Room. Can you tell us a little bit about that inspiration?
JL: That was the first strip club I went to.
JR: I mean, I understand calling it a strip club, but really it's a pasties club. But it's a good entry level.
JL: Because they serve alcohol there. You can't have booze and full nudity.
JR: Right, you can have topless, but you can't have bottomless.
JL: So it's kind of the best of both worlds, if you're not looking for, you know, looking for bottomless [laughing]. Yeah, that Jumbo's is a real classy place. And there's a Cheetahs reference as well in that song.
JR: Yeah, "Cheetahs or Jumbo's."
JL: "Cheetahs or Jumbo's." And in a couple of cities, I've kind of learned about the local clubs — strip clubs — and put the names of those clubs in the song. I don't know if anyone noticed.
JR: Yeah, well, strip clubs are ... they always have like a place in my heart because, you know, it's one of the few establishments that's open after you finish your show.
JR: So I think that a lot of bands find themselves in strip clubs. I mean our bands have always kind of frequented strip clubs — in a non-ironic way. And at the end of the day, what we're doing is not that different. I mean, we're still up on the stage trying to make a dollar on a Tuesday night in Portland, Oregon. You know what I mean? And so, I have a lot of respect for strippers.
JL: [Laughing] Me too. And the names of the clubs, they always sound so cute: Jumbo's Clown Room. Spearmint Rhino.
JR: Yeah, Spearmint Rhino — I've always wondered about the origin of that name.
944: Yeah, that's a strange one. So what other bands do you think we should all be listening to? Besides Jenny and Johnny, of course.
JL: [The] Whispertown . That's our friend's band.
944: Are they on a little hiatus? They haven't put put a record in quite a while, huh?
JL: I think they are going to make a new record very soon.
JR: Whispertown is Morgan's band. Whispertown is the songwriting vehicle. I mean, I think it's helpful to think of it as like Bright Eyes, kind of. That's whatever Conor is doing at the time. And you know, there's some steadfast collaborators, but for the most part it's Morgan Nagler's songwriting vehicle. So whatever she does will be Whispertown. But she's great, she consistently writes incredible songs. Ummm, who else? I was really impressed with the Warpaint girls in Australia. I thought they sounded amazing live.
JL: Really great live. Not too hard on the old eyes either. I have a lady crush on the bass player.
944: Does she know that?
JL: Gosh, I hope not. That would be a little embarrassing.
JR: Well, it's all over now.
JL: But she's got a Chelsea Girl haircut, which I wanted to get in Jr. High School, but my mom wouldn't let me.
JR: What other bands ... ummm, it was a talked about record last year, but I loved the Tame Impala album. It's a really awesome record.
JL: Ariel Pink, too. We met him in Australia.
JR: Even though he's from Los Angeles.
JL: We went to the same high school.
JR: We're all homebodies so we never hang out in LA. We go to Australia to hang out with a bunch of people from LA.
944: So do you guys have any plan for what's next? Another Jenny and Johnny record or solo projects?
JL: I don't think we'll make another Jenny and Johnny record for a little while, if we do at all.
So I think we'll probably end up making our own records next.
JR: Yeah, I think so.
JL: And Rilo Kiley, we are putting together a collection of B-sides. Just stuff that has been lying around for many, many years. So we're getting a bunch of songs together and old photographs and sifting through the past.
944: Do you have any idea when that will be released?
JL: I hope this year.
944: Wow, great. I know a lot of people will be very happy to hear that.
For upcoming tour dates, visit jennyandjohnnymusic.com