Singer Jenny Lewis has a new focus: Joy


Jenny Lewis recorded her new album in Nashville with the producer who has helmed some the decade’s most exciting country music, but don’t call “Joy’All” country.

“That’s the thing,” Lewis says over Zoom from her home in Nashville. “It’s not an Americana record. It’s not a country record. It’s got elements of rock-and-roll, rhythm and blues, soul. … I’ve been writing songs like this since the ’90s.”

So instead of thinking of “Joy’All” as the product of a longtime Angelino heading to Music City searching for down-South reinvention, think of it as the next chapter in the same novel that Lewis — who had decamped to Nashville in 2018 with no designs on getting into the city’s idiosyncratic music biz — has been writing for years.

“This is just my life; it’s totally serendipitous,” Lewis says. “Wherever I go, there’s music.”

For Lewis, life has equaled music for more than two decades. After spending her youth as a child actor, Lewis pivoted in her early 20s, co-founding beloved indie band Rilo Kiley in 1998. After the group broke up, she committed to a solo career that kicked off with the folky gospel of 2006’s “Rabbit Fur Coat” and has seen her follow her various muses through a handful of solo and collaborative projects since.

Lewis, now 47, has defined “Joy’All” as “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness,” and while the album has its moments of exuberance and celebration, it’s not all rainbows and sunshine.

As with most music released in the last few years, the shadow of the coronavirus looms over its production: Lewis had begun work on the album before the pandemic shut down the world, and didn’t hit the studio until the spring of 2021. In that way, the title nods to the gratitude she felt being able to work on her craft.

“It was still pretty dicey out there, and I hadn’t done any shows yet or eaten inside a restaurant,” Lewis says of the recording period. “So it was really wonderful to be in the room making music with people.”

Unlike her previous two albums, “Joy’All” was recorded quickly, due in part to producer Dave Cobb’s speedy style. But Lewis welcomed the challenge and didn’t feel the same pressure as, say, when she cut two songs live with Ringo Starr for 2019’s “On the Line.”

“If I’m prepared going into a session with my songs, then I’m pretty much ready for anything,” she says.

Lewis returned to the road in the fall of 2021, opening for Harry Styles on the pop star’s raucous “Love on Tour” effort. The pandemic had provided Lewis her first break after 20 years on the road, and she returned to the stage with a perspective informed by having some distance from a lifestyle that is “completely bananas.”

“What musicians do out on the road, it’s insane,” she explains. “It just doesn’t make any sense for mental health and physical well-being, and all the vices are there. I’m wading back into touring and putting out music, but trying to set things up in a way so that I feel okay, and I can sustain it.”

Since then, Lewis has returned to the road in earnest, with festival gigs giving way to a “Joy’All” tour before she’ll support a Beck and Phoenix co-headlining effort and then reunite with the Postal Service this fall. The “Joy’All” jaunt features a two-night stand in D.C., at both the Anthem and the Atlantis, the recently opened venue that pays tribute to the original 9:30 Club. Lewis is looking forward to paying tribute, too.

“My roots are at the 9:30 Club, and they have supported me over the years, treated the artists with kindness, food, cupcakes, a washing machine, a great staff, a great sounding room,” she says. “At that level, it’s an anomaly, so to be able to pay all my homage to that and play the Atlantis, I’m just honored, truly.”

When preparing for a tour, Lewis has the blessing and curse of a deep catalogue that spans more than two decades. Making the set list is a balancing act between her own needs and a “responsibility” she feels to play older songs that she might not otherwise reach for.

“It’s entertainment. I’m there to create a mood, and hopefully one that’s uplifting, and I want to make people happy as well,” she says. “That’s always challenging: the puzzle of making it all fit.”

That puzzle is complicated by occasionally performing what she self-deprecatingly refers to as the “obscure, indie emo ballads” of her Rilo Kiley days. Not only are they difficult to play, technically, but there’s a strange effect produced by playing songs that she wrote during what seems like a lifetime ago.

When revisiting that material, Lewis focuses on “honoring all the messy bits and the wordiness and the youthfulness and the hope and the despair and mostly just the sadness, because all that stuff from my 20s, it’s so sad. You’re so sad in your 20s, you’re so emo!”

So even if sadness isn’t her dominant mode these days, Lewis finds something like joy in reaching back and singing those old songs.

“It’s like giving your younger self a hug.”

July 21 at 8 p.m. (doors open) at the Atlantis, 2047 Ninth St NW. Sold out. July 22 at 8 p.m. at the Anthem, 901 Wharf St. SW. $40-$75.


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