KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Jenny Lewis was one of those child actors you might have seen on shows like "Growing Pains" or "Mr. Belvedere." But then she started making music and in the late '90's, that started taking off. Once her band Rilo Kiley scored this hit in 2004, it's kind of hard to go back to sitcoms.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PORTIONS FOR FOXES")
RILO KILEY: (Singing) And it's bad news, baby I'm bad news.
MCEVERS: Jenny Lewis founded "Rilo Kiley" with her boyfriend Blake Sennett. But when they broke up, the band broke up too. Her new solo album "The Voyager" took five years to make. Five long, hard years. And I started my conversation with Jenny Lewis by asking her how she said making "The Voyager" got her through one of the most difficult periods in her life.
JENNY LEWIS: Way to put it all out there, Kelly.
MCEVERS: Oh, sorry (laughing).
LEWIS: And I actually direct that at myself as well. My band broke up, my father passed away and I started experiencing insomnia for the first time in my life.
MCEVERS: I read at one point that you didn't sleep for five days or something like that? I mean, how is that even possible?
LEWIS: I don't know how I survived that. Your memory goes, physically you don't feel well, emotionally you're all over the place. You know, if you miss one night of sleep - if you can only imagine five nights of not sleeping. It's sort of unnerving.
MCEVERS: I sort of can but I mostly can't. I mean, yeah - I've done some work that's kept me from sleeping, obviously had a child - that keeps you from sleeping. But that much prolonged sleeplessness - I mean - were you just kind of delirious and tripping sometimes?
LEWIS: Yeah. I was in an alternate state of reality.
MCEVERS: In that altered state, were you also creating things, writing songs?
LEWIS: I was. I worked on my lyrics while I was lying awake.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAD UNDERWATER")
LEWIS: (Singing) I've been wearing all black since the day it started. When I stopped and looked back, as my mind departed. I've been losing sleep and I cannot sit still. I'm not the same woman that you were used to. I put my head under water baby, I throw my clothes away in the trash.
MCEVERS: You know, one of the things that had sort of brought this about was the death of your father. I mean, you didn't grow up with him in your life but you got close to him later. Can you just tell me about that a little bit?
LEWIS: Yeah, my parents divorced when I was three years old. They had a lounge act in Las Vegas, where I was born. The band broke up and the marriage dissolved and my mother, my sister and I moved to California - southern California. And I didn't see my dad a lot growing up. He was on the road a lot. I'd see him every couple of years and when he got sick, I reached out to him and that's when our relationship really began. And we talked a lot during that time and, you know, just those basics things that you don't know if you don't spend time with your parent. You know, like what was my grandmother like? What was it like growing up on the road? He was a really special, special person.
MCEVERS: The song on this album "You Can't Outrun 'Em" is a song about that. It's a song about getting to know him.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU CAN'T OUTRUN 'EM")
LEWIS: (Singing) And I guess two souls will meet again when the universe thinks they should. Even if there own bloodlines don't run as deep as they could. What your momma put you through, I wouldn't wish it on my enemy. Now that I am a living proof that history repeats. You can't outrun 'em.
LEWIS: You know, my father was very special. He was a musical genius, he joined a group called the "Harmonicats" when he was a kid. And he traveled his entire life. So, you know, flash forward to my life on the road, where I wake up in a different city every day and I'm not the best at maintaining, you know, some of my relationships as well. So I kind of - I let him off the hook.
MCEVERS: You identify with him.
LEWIS: I do. In the end though, despite all the running, he found himself surrounded by all of his children, you know, in the last week of his life. And the love in that room was immense.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU CAN'T OUTRUN 'EM")
LEWIS: (Singing) You better talk quickly 'cause my sister's at the door. Because I want to know everything, who I am and what it's for. What the Lord has planned for you, I guess that it was meant. Wanted to get to know you before you were dead. You can't outrun 'em.
MCEVERS: I'm talking with Jenny Lewis about her new album "The Voyager." It comes out at the end of the month. Do you think a song is better if you write it while you're going through the things you're writing about, or is it better to sort of wait until you get some perspective on it first.
LEWIS: That's a really interesting question. You know, I thought about that while writing this record. In particular, with regard to my father and his passing. You know, I write music really to make myself feel better. But in attempting to express grief, it felt really cheap sitting down to write about something that I had just gone through. That was devastating - the loss of a parent is devastating. And I couldn't write about it in the moment. I really needed time to reflect. And I needed time to reflect on how I felt because I - I didn't even understand how I felt. So I think, you know, it depends on the subject, it depends on the song. But I think life is the most important thing and you have to live that first and then you're art comes second.
MCEVERS: You know, it's funny, I read the lyrics to the songs on this album before I listened to the songs. And I have to say that they seemed a lot darker on the page than when I listened to the music.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "THE VOYAGER")
LEWIS: (Singing) I used to think you could save me. I've been wandering lately. Heard she's having your baby.
I've always just had sort of a dark take on life, I suppose. And hopefully the music transcends that in a way. I've been singing this "Rilo Kiley" song on tour the last couple months called "A Man/Me/Then Jim" and the opening line is about suicide. And I'm opening for this guy called Ray Lamontagne, this artist and, you know, playing to his audience every night. And I'm like - what are these people thinking? Who is this maniac up here in a rainbow suit singing about suicide?
MCEVERS: (Laughing) That sums it up - wearing a rainbow suit, talking about suicide.
LEWIS: Just like weird adult party clown bummer, performer.
MCEVERS: That's singer and songwriter Jenny Lewis. Her new album "The Voyager" comes out on July 29th. And starting on Monday, you can sample every track from the album at our exclusive first listen. Go to nprmusic.org. Jenny Lewis thank you so much.
LEWIS: Thank you.
MCEVERS: This is NPR News.