Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice: Painting Portraits All Over Our Hearts
Jenny and Johnny. One of the most highly anticipated alternative rock projects of the summer.
Jenny Lewis has consistently released amazing music for the last decade. Jonathan Rice, seven years younger than Lewis, released his first EP in 2005. The two met that year, and have been working together ever since.
After they each released two separate albums, they finally came together to record I’m Having Fun Now and follow it up with a world tour. Considering how great the two sound together on songs they have co-written in the past, such as “The End of the Affair” (from Rice’s Further North, 2007), it may be a surprise to fans that this project was largely unplanned.
The couple had ample time to create new songs on Lewis’ Acid Tongue tour. After recording some demos with Rilo Kiley member Pierre de Reeder, they realized they would love to make a whole album as a new band. Jenny and Johnny packed up their car and drove to Omaha Nebraska, to record their eleven tracks with studio-whiz Mike Mogis.
“It was really cool to work with Mike again,” explained Rice. “He built a gorgeous new state-of-the-art studio in Omaha. Before we had only worked together in Lincoln. We had been working with different people over the last few years and we missed him as a friend. We have a lot of respect for his talent…
Omaha is the city that connects me to most of the people I play music with to this day. I left home in Virginia at eighteen and went to New York City, where I met a lot of people who had moved there from Omaha. Both Jenny and I have the majority of our musical ties there. It is a lovely city in the middle of the country.”
I’m Having Fun Now also features Rilo Kiley member Jason Boesel on drums; “I have been working with Jason ever since I made my first record. He is very good friend. And Pierre provides a cool environment; it was good to work on our songs with him in their early form. The members of Rilo Kiley have been mighty good to me.”
The album’s title comes from a bumper sticker on a blue station wagon that Rice had bought from an estate sale. Although the car was impounded, Rice has since found a similar car and the phrase has lived on. Not only did they name the record after it, they also made their own bumper sticker to recreate the glory of the last car.
The snake image known as an Ouroboro found on the album also came to the pair unexpectedly. The people who had previously lived in their house left behind a book on the concept of the snake eating its own tail, which fascinated the pair. “We both liked the circular serpentine image,” Rice said. It represents self-satisfaction, but brings forth the question of how long the cycle can last.
“All I can see is Ouroboros,” sings Lewis on their new song “My Pet Snakes”. Rice is particularly fond of that song because, “The way the vocals play with each other is original and interesting. It is a good representation of what we both do, together and separately. It conveys both of our perspectives chasing each other. It’s like two puppies running around the house.”
Although Rice grew up partially in Virginia, his parents are from Scotland and he lived there part time as well, “My family is very into music, since Scotland has a very musical culture. I grew up listening to all sorts of good records that belonged to my parents. Everyone is expected to be able to carry a tune.” After leaving New York to record his first album, Trouble is Real, under Warner Bros Records, Rice began to find his footing as a musician and proceeded to come out with a second successful solo album.
Rice has always wanted to be a musician, “In some form or another. Last night at our show in Washington D.C., this security guard approached me saying ‘Someone wants to apologize for kicking you in the nuts in middle school,’ and this girl told me ‘I just want to say I’m sorry for kicking you in the nuts. I also wanted to say I respect you for saying you wanted to be a musician when you were fourteen, and now you are.’” Oh how much sweeter respect is when it comes with an apology for bodily injury.
Lewis was no stranger to collaborating on songs, as she and Blake Sennett co-wrote lyrics for many songs on Rilo Kiley’s past four albums. This was the most Rice had ever written with anyone else: “We wrote almost all songs together. It did make me feel less alone and more supported—it’s like a gang, we have each other’s back. It is a wonderful and meditative thing to write songs on your own, and the intention is not diluted in any way. For the moment, I’m having a good time writing songs with Jenny. This is a new period for me.”
Jenny and Johnny are one of many lauded alternative rock bands to take part in Sound Strike, the coalition of artists boycotting the anti-immigrant law SB 1070. They did this by cancelling their show in Arizona. “We know we are small in the grand scheme of things,” Rice said. “We are not arrogant enough to assume that if we come out against something it will change the course of legislation. But we did want to say something that we knew would bring attention to it.
The law’s primary purpose is to intimidate Latino people, and so many of our friends are Latino. It’s a disgusting law and we want to shed some light on it. We are sorry to friends in Arizona, but until the government changes the law, we can’t play shows and pay taxes on it. A boycott is an imperfect and blunt instrument, since there are lots of kids who want to see us. I am sorry about that, but we decided on this with like-minded artists.”
Critics have noted that although the songs on their album are decidedly more upbeat in sound than any other releases by the two of them, the sunny sound does not mask the darker lyrical themes. The two tracks on the album which have stuck with me with me the most seem to contrast greatly because of their sound, but both deal with harsh concepts.
In the catchy and sharp “Big Wave” Lewis sings of the recession and the two play off each other as they brilliantly did in Lewis’ “The Next Messiah”. And in the slow and emotional “Switchblade”, the song bridges into a hypnotic and harmonious end, which showcases their collaborative talent.
Lewis and Rice are a prolific and inventive pair, so although the band is unsure whether they will continue with this project, fans and critics alike know that whether it is a solo release or another new project, more good things will be on the way.