Juliette Lewis prioritizes art above all else and has dedicated herself to making music full of magic and fiery spirit. She explains what it is to be a Hard Lovin’ Woman, as well as the agony and the ecstasy of songwriting.
Episode 7: Juliette Lewis - LE
Shirley: The Jump is a podcast where I, Shirley Ann Manson, sit down with musicians and talk about the one song that changed everything.
Shirley: Juliette Lewis is a gorgeously eccentric, odd bird. She's a phenomenal actress and one of the true greats at playing weirdos and warped outsiders on screen. But despite what she herself seems to believe to be true, she also happens to be a bonafide rock and roll force. She truly is an incredible live performer with an astoundingly strong voice in the grand tradition of someone like Janis Joplin or a Steven Tyler. Juliette pours herself into her spandex and she lets rip. When we sat down, I expected her to be larger than life, a confident superstar and instead found her to be unbelievably self-effacing and lovably delicate and you'll see what I mean when you hear what she has to say. This is the incomparable Juliette Lewis. Juliette Lewis! I'm delighted to have you here and um, I don't really know where to start because obviously you're this ridiculously well-known, revered artist on screen.
Juliette: Well, that's nice to hear.
Shirley: [Laughs] Well, it's true. I mean you're very beloved, but we're here to talk about your music.
Shirley: Of course, but it'd be kind of daft for me not to acknowledge that you're this amazing actor.
Juliette: Well thank you. I always joked in the beginning like I'm the bearded lady. Whatever gets you in the door, you know, curiosity. I was, this is gonna suck. You know, we were on Warped Tour, so many people from other bands and people, “What is this going to be about?” And you know, they had these craz- low expectations, funny expectations ‘cause I came from film. So for me I was, I had no shame. I was just like, “Whatever gets you in the room, and we'll do the rest.” Cause I knew we'd put on, that was my whole objective-
Juliette: Was to put on a really ferocious, exciting live show.
Shirley: But before we get there.
Shirley: What was it that isn't getting exercised in your acting career that you felt you could find in music? ‘Cause you jumped in, like you said, that's a risk, yeah?
Juliette: Yeah. They've fueled each other. So you'll hear some actor people say like, “Oh, they listen to music to get into a scene or a character.” So like for instance, uh, Natural Born Killers, I listened to Jimi Hendrix, Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) for a month straight. That was morning, noon and night. That and Killing Floor, um, by Hendrix. Ea-each role had a sort of a song or thing that cultivated an energy, and, and I think it comes from early on, you know, I was, I had a single mom before I live with my dad and she left us alone a lot, worked. Uh, I guess the term, I don't know if you have it, is a latchkey kid, right? The seventies, eighties, and, and so I had lis- my ear was to the radio. That was my comfort. It was all top 40. And I just would go into my daydreams and fantasy world and life all through the... music. And I always wanted to be a singer when I was little, but I was really overly self-critical. I was like that for acting except for somehow I managed to be able to create characters. But I was, I had that horrible of voice, “Oh, you’re no good, that’s- oh you’re going to do it like that? Ugh, that fucking sucks, blah, blah, blah.” That awful, awful voice that through time and experience and through teachers in my acting world, like a Scorsese or Oliver Stone who gave me validation here and there, I could get bigger than that voice. Um, but with music, I was so- I was in the closet, so it wasn't until, uh, rolled around my 30th birthday that I… I was like-
Shirley: What happened on your 30th birthday?
Juliette: Well! I went, “Holy shit, you're turning 30! You didn't do- right any music? You didn't do your shit? Like what's happening?” So I did that. There was a bit of a, um, an alarm clock impetus and I wasn't working. I, uh, but that's not the reason why it was more, I, I said- Oh, I had a breakup and I was like, “Okay, you're not married. You don't have kids. You have no reason to not be fully invested in your art, in your creative selves.” And I did it in a very, I wrote down in a book like any musician I knew, anybody who knew a musician, and literally started making phone calls like, “Hey, do you know anybody who wants to write some songs?” It started with Linda Perry. She took a meeting with me. Um, ‘cause all I had was the gift of gab. What was sitting in my idea, I mean in my head, um, of what I wanted to exercise through music, a, a kind of energy and self. And so we traded listening to songs and it was stuff we liked.
Shirley: She's very nurturing that way, right? As a producer and-
Juliette: She's beyond. She, she, unlike other producers I sat with who have their idea of what you are, and they're going to put a stamp on you, or sort of their sound or something, she'll get you out. She'll go, “Okay, let me,” and then you just start having musical conversations and it just starts with those little chords, um, or beat it just started with you take a chance, you know, with egg on your face, you- someone start strumming a few chords and you just, it to me will untap as you know, melody or they'll write something and nothing happens. So you go, “Okay next”, ‘cause that's not untapping the stories. It felt like, um, like little fairy lights, like the cosmos let- you know the universe starts lighting up because it's your song. I always think that even every musician I ever played, I always- with, I always just think they're magic makers and they're just a gift. It's all if we can just get out of our own way.
Shirley: Sure. And did you know that you had the kind of voice that you have? ‘Cause you've got phenomenal- you're a phenomenal singer.
Juliette: When I got with Linda, she helped me untap, what do I sound like?
Shirley: But also I would imagine, or correct me if I'm wrong, did you have an idea of what you wanted to pursue musically? i.e. I want to make this kind of music. I want to present it this kind of way, or was it literally just what came out of you in the writing sessions?
Juliette: No, I was very much, I wanted to do rock and roll. Like For me it was sort of like a guttural purging. This is what I described, but, but I was very into- with Linda, eighties rock and kind of, for lack of a better expression, we didn't fall on cock rock, you know?
Shirley: You did, yeah.
Juliette: It was my… somewhere this lived in me and it had a spirit of defiance cause that's, to me, I'm sort of being a superhero version of whatever my strengths are, but also my weaknesses. Like if my pain is onstage, there's going to be times a thousand.
Shirley: My interpretation of what you were doing was you were taking these male tropes and you were turning them inside out.
Shirley: That's what excited me. I was like, wow, she's delved into the boys club and she's playing them at their own game, but she really excited me. So why did you pick this particular song? What is it representing for you that is so important in your creative, sort of, landscape and you've picked Hard Lovin’ Woman?
Juliette: Yes, it was a turning point and it's a turning point in every set. It's a turning point for me as a songwriter, and it's something I arrived at through all my young musical experience. I was finally able to live in my truth and have a purity to it. All stripped away, no production, no drums, no, uh, ruckus and just own my, my pain and my heart. And that's, that's what this song is to me.
Shirley: ‘Cause I mean it sounds like a classic, right?
Juliette: Aw, thanks. Yeah. I always wanted to write a blues song. How do you write your blues? What is that? How? And you have to be able to be flattened, and sitting there and be able to tell your truth as purely as possible.
Shirley: Were you in Los Angeles when you wrote this song?
Juliette: I was in LA, my band had split up. Uh, I had just gone through breaking up our, uh, everything was in tumult and I called an old friend of mine. I was like, “Hey, do you want to write?” And he just played these weird, twisted- He was very Pixies influenced, but he also loved the blues. So it's a very dissonant kind of blues chords he was playing with. And the song just came out. This song was my declaration, like, “Fuck you and fuck it all. I'm down to dig so hard into things, whether it's my art, my love, my pain, everything- there's no easy ride in the Juliet show.”
Shirley: Did you know immediately that you were- this was something that was going to be brought into your, to your record and into your life set? Did you know it was good? Were you excited?
Juliette: I was so excited. Um, and I had always wanted, ‘cause now, like, whenever I do a set list, this is always the middle point. It's always the middle point.
Shirley: It’s the core.
Juliette: Other people when they say, “Oh you remind me of this or you remind-
Shirley: Janis Joplin?
Juliette: Janis- [Laughs].
Shirley: I mean, it is so Janis Joplin, it's kind of crazy.
Juliette: It's really cool! That's a huge compliment. I guess ‘cause it's a pain song and-
Shirley: It's raw.
Juliette: The rough- The rougher your voice is, the better, you know? It's all of that.
Juliette: Sometimes even when I play this live and my voice isn't properly shredded, I'm kind of- [Laughs]
Shirley: Bummed out.
Juliette: I'm sad about it. If it's too smooth.
Shirley: So when you recorded the song, where did you record it?
Juliette: I started writing a handf- some songs with my friends and then Omar Rodríguez López.
Shirley: Oh wow!
Juliette: Of, uh, Mars Volta.
Shirley: From At the Drive-In.
Juliette: Yes. He knew my tour manager and I was like, “Who could produce?” He was down, he listened- I had also written these songs on piano, just like my seven year old piano playing. And he was like, “Oh, you should put this out.” He was like into me putting out demos, just like, rough and raw as possible.
Shirley: And you didn't want to do that?
Juliette: No, I thought it was too, too sparse and radical, but that's him and he's awesome like that. For better or for worse, this- the recorded version like I was telling you is, is okay, but it just captures like the first seed of what the song was.
Shirley: But so would you-
Shirley: So if you could record this again today, would you do it differently?
Juliette: Yes. Well, I did try with different- another band that wasn't quite right. It was so hard. The only way to record this song would be to get one of those live versions and have it where I actually recorded it. But some of our best versions have never been recorded. They're not even on an iPhone.
Shirley: So, why do you think, and I think this is an issue for a lot of recording artists. Why do you think it's easier when you're on stage in front of an audience to perform than in the cold clinical…
Juliette: I know…
Shirley: Isolation of the studio?
Juliette: I do it best, usually when I'm- have the collective, I don't, I need to be with my musicians. That's the other thing is I'm so plugged in to- I always think that I'm a conduit or a, um, exercising what they're playing as well. That feeds me so much. It- so where music and acting collide is that as an artist I'm searching for the same thing.
Shirley: Which is what?
Juliette: And that's honesty. Transcendence, if you can get it and getting out of your head. I don't want to be living and breathing in thought. Um, and so this, when I was singing it, I felt connected to what I was saying and I wasn't thinking about uh, how I was singing.
Shirley: ‘Cause this is a simple- isn’t it?
Juliette: This is simple, this is just where I- you don't want any words to get in the way because you don't want them to sound thought or contrived. So I went really, really simple. For me, I love the way songs start. So even at the beginning, what's your first thing? It- so even saying, “I'm in a whole lot of trouble. I've been here before,” that- I wouldn't- ha-had my head gotten in the way. I would have been too thought out, but that I was just feeling that and needed to say it.
Shirley: But, do you believe in yourself as a writer?
Juliette: Oh, that's so tricky, isn't it? Um…
Shirley: ‘Cause here's what I'm feeling.
Shirley: I’m feeling that you don't, but I mean you blow so many of us who slave over our words and our singing and our performances for years, and years, and years, and you kind of effortlessly it- on the surface effortlessly look like you can just do it all.
Juliette: I can't believe what you're saying, and nobody can know- How did you read me so well? Intuitor? Intuit, uh medium? No one can see that I'm welling up with tears.
Shirley: I can see that you're cry- like, crying.
Juliette: Because I've been struggling of late ‘cause early on I used to give my- I'd finish everything within a month and, and now I've been not finishing, I have a bunch of half written songs and I'm like, “What is happening psychologically that I'm not finishing stuff?” And so I think that's the journey I'm on now is just owning myself as a songwriter and that exploration, ‘cause before it was all about being a performer. And I never even sat well with the word singer ‘cause I'm like, ah, well, I'm sort of a, an exerciser of emotion. Oh, I had this joking term. But it's very true. An emotionalist.
Shirley: That's good. [Laughs]
Juliette: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Shirley: But it must be difficult when you're known, you're so, I mean, you are a famous actor, you know, I know that that makes you uncomfortable. She's literally, for those of you who can't see her, she's looking to the side and trying to avoid eye contact.
Juliette: No, no, I'm fine. I- some people… Yeah...
Shirley: But you know, you’re, you're really highly regarded, well-known, visible actor and still to be taken seriously in a genre, in an entirely different creative genre is- has its challenges. I know this myself with my own bigotry. Um, and it takes a lot of courage to break out of a cage that has been set for us, you know, for you- I would imagine it takes a lot of courage for you to pursue music and keep pursuing it.
Juliette: Yeah. It's, um, well as I said I have a, uh, partial sadness if I'm not doing music that I only realized. I was like, “Oh, that's why you're, kind of, have this subconscious sorrow.” It- You're not, you know, you know, when you’re playin’ music, you have to be connected to that. To me, it's a God channel, music. Different than, than a storytelling actor work. But, um, I still love, I love that. I don't, um, denigrate either, although what served me is even though you're saying you're accomplished this and that, um, in the acting business, there's so much bullshit that is thrown your way of- that you have to be sort of, or you try to be invincible from people mar- telling you where you belong.
Shirley: Juliette Louis, you're wonderful. I wish you well in finishing an idea-
Shirley: Which I know, you can do.
Juliette: Oh my God. Well, I didn't expect to get a psychic reading today. Well, you're saying- I thought I’d tricked you. I was talking about myself as a songwriter, but you're saying, “There's something I detect here.”
Shirley: I detect it in myself. So I detect to all, all other artists, you know, especially women, I'm really tuned into other female, you know, creators. ‘Cause it's not often that you get to talk. You know, it's funny like because bands and you're, you were a band girl, we travel separately we’re in these little microcosms you don't get to really talk about the challenges of being someone that puts out something creative basically under your own name and, and you're responsible for it and you're questioned about it and you're criticized for it. And peo-
Shirley: I don't know if people who don't do, you know, art for a living understand the power of criticism.
Shirley: It can give you wings or it can like stick you in mud for years.
Juliette: Yes. Um, but let me ask you, how do you finish songs? With the-the lyr- you finish it.
Shirley: I just-
Juliette: You got your verse, now okay we need a bri- you’re sort of, and now finish it. Finish the damn thing, Do you give yourself limit in the studio? Do you finish it at home, or you know?
Shirley: See it’s interesting cause I work with a band of producers, yes?
Shirley: So they, they will work on something literally for all time.
Juliette: Yes. Um, great ones do. They can tinker, tinker, tinker, right?
Shirley: And I'm always the one who comes and goin’, “That's it. That's enough,” you know? Because I start feeling something starting to get lost.
Shirley: You know what I mean? Just starting to squeeze it too much. You have to let it go.
Shirley: You're all right, Juliette Lewis. You're all right. Go get ‘em!
Juliette: Thank you! Thanks for having me!
The Jump is an original series from MailChimp, and I'm your host Shirley Manson. It's produced by Lyra Smith in partnership with Little Everywhere, executive produced by Dann Gallucci, Jane Marie, and Hrishikesh Hirway. Original music composed by Hrishikesh Hirway.
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