Jenny Lewis Wrote Her Album, On The Line, While Dealing With A Major Trauma

Courtney E. Smith

There’s a problematic narrative that keeps springing up in music, where critics take credit away from the woman at the centre of a project and shift it to her male collaborators. It’s annoying and unfair — and women have been stamping it out. Jenny Lewis, who has been a working musician and songwriter for 20 years, is well past the point of staying quiet about it.

This shift in perspective is, Jenny Lewis recognises, something in the zeitgeist. Women are giving themselves more credit, asserting themselves as artists, and staffing their teams with more women. Though she thinks of herself as a pure artist, Lewis says she has put in the work to understand the business, the gear, and the studio out of necessity. And she isn’t giving away the credit she’s owed on her fourth solo album, On the Line. “This record is mine. It doesn't belong to anyone else.”

She tips her cap to the men she invited to work on the album, which is a formidable list: Beck, Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers, Don Was, Jim Keltner, Jason Faulkner, and even a Beatle — Ringo Starr — who stopped in to join a session on drums. But, Lewis says, “Throughout my career, I feel like, gosh, I've been waiting on men to help me finish my music, and I don't want to do that anymore.”

“Honestly, I’ve been taken advantage of,” Lewis says, taking care to note that she’s also had plenty of positive collaborations. “People have stolen my words without me knowing and use them and their songs. And then sort of like gaslit me — I don’t like to use that word, gaslight — [or said], ‘Oh, I thought you’d be happy that I used your words’ or called it a romantic gesture. I’m like, no motherfucker!”

Too much of the chatter around this album and Lewis’s previous album, The Voyager, focused on one male collaborator in particular: the now-disgraced Ryan Adams, who produced and played on songs from both. She declines to discuss her reaction to learning about the allegations against Adams, saying she’s said all she wants to say about him for the time being. Previously, Lewis tweeted that she was “deeply troubled” by the alleged behaviour and that she “stands in solidarity” with the women who spoke out against him. Before that, focus was frequently on her fraught relationship with Rilo Kiley bandmate/collaborator and ex-boyfriend, Blake Sennett. “Collaboration is very tenuous,” she says with a weary chuckle, “especially if you're also in a romantic relationship.”

What she does say makes it clear we can all stop fretting about these men. “It was very important for me to assert myself as a fully formed artist, a writer, a producer, and a fair person,” Lewis explains. “So yeah, I have a production credit on this record. It was important for me to make that known: I produced this fucking record. I worked my ass off on it for years.”

Lewis started by writing “Red Bull and Hennessey,” the album’s first single, and not long after stopped work to deal with her mother Linda contracting liver cancer from untreated hepatitis C. The two were estranged for some 20 years following a complex relationship in which she became the family breadwinner as a child actor. Her mother passed in 2017. Lewis charted the intense experience in the song “Little White Dove.” She worked on the song in the hospital, day after day. At first, she wondered if it was appropriate to write, but ultimately decided that she needed the outlet to cope with a lifetime of feelings about their relationship and the forgiveness she wanted to offer.

“As a woman, from like a feminist perspective, and as a daughter [it’s about] being able to reconcile the past, show up, be present, forgive, and repair these relationships with other women,” Lewis says. She took the song to Beck, who she explains brought a groove that is “so Beck” to her bleak lyrics. “That's back to the collaborator thing, where the story is mine, but to be able to work with someone who alters the vibe and supports it with like this groove, what a cool way to tell a story like that.”

For Lewis, the heart of the record is the dark and mournful “Dogwood,” a track about families and falling out of love, or perhaps just losing your manners along the way. “You cannot choose your family, oh / there's nothing we can do but screw and booze and amphetamines, oh,” Lewis sings in the opening verse. Lewis cried at the piano while writing it, not an uncommon occurrence for her. “It was recorded soon after I completed it, which is always the most raw time for a song, where it's like a little baby in the universe,” Lewis says.

Writing the album helped Lewis reconcile her past. And, she found a path into repairing relationships with other women, — not just moms, but musical peers, too.

"I think we feel sometimes like there's only one job for a woman in any given situation, so we vie for it." Lewis says. "We're like, 'Well, if there's one indie folk lady that's doing well, then there's no place for me.' And that's not true."

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