Juliette Lewis on Terra Incognita
When Juliette Lewis first popped up in the music scene, she didn’t do it halfway. Flamboyantly dressed in feathers and/or coloured spandex and busting crazy-kinky rock moves (including crowd-surfing) ensured that more than a few people would come out to see what they thought was sure to be a trainwreck.
But the actress (Natural Born Killers, Cape Fear, and in theatres now, Whip It with Ellen Page) has persevered. Putting her acting career on hold, she’s worked hard, playing rock clubs all over North America, hitting all the towns in what Hollywood types jokingly refer to as “fly-over country”. If that’s not rock ‘n’ roll, what is? Hell, in my first interview with her, she was even able to identify Winnipeg as the hometown of The Guess Who.
With the release of Lewis’s latest album, Terra Incognita, Aug. 1, and a tour opening for Cat Power and The Pretenders, we caught up with the kooky Scientologist. We talked about her uphill battle for credibility, the new record, and touring with an indie darling and a punk-pop legend.
On tour with Cat Power and The Pretenders
Shawn Conner: I’m curious about this tour, because you come out, you’re high energy, Cat Power is lower energy and I guess The Pretenders are kind of a mix. How is that working out?
Juliette Lewis: Oh my gosh, it’s been incredible. Because music is music, and people want different things from it. And they want to feel different things. You take them on a journey. A lot of people are there to see all the different bands… What was I going to say? Oh, my new record has much more flavour, much more diversity, so I’m having such a good time because I get to play my blues song, “Hard Lovin’ Woman”, sometimes I open the set with “Romeo” which is this really slow psychedelic, there’s this other really fun Southern-rock-type pop song called “Uh Huh”.
So it’s a thrill for me, it’s the perfect audience to do all the different kinds of music I’m doing. Because The Licks, my old band, was very much one kind of rock ‘n’ roll, which was just one aspect of my musical personality. This new record, and me going out under just my name, was really so I could explore all the facets of who I am musically. Because they’re all true—the haunted lady is as true as the rock ‘n’ roll animal, or this soul, blues woman or this angst-ridden ranter. These are all my truths. [chuckles]
SC: Do you think that it’s because you’ve improved as a songwriter that you’re able to express these other facets?
‘I love the electric guitar’
JL: Oh yeah, one hundred percent. That’s exactly how I feel. It took me five years to really cut my teeth and understand who I am as a performer, and a songwriter, and also to develop a different taste of sounds that I wanted to hear. I love electric guitar, but now I get to explore the other flavours I want to hear. Like make the guitars much more atmospheric and expressive, and the groove is deeper, the drum sounds are phatter and they make you want to move your hips.
I tell people In the beginning I was really just set on developing the live show and I wrote a decent amount of songs really just for energy and to pack a punch and they had some hooky choruses. And that was about it. Each record, and all the songs that didn’t make the records, were all a growth and allowed me to explore different things in songwriting.
SC: And I would think Omar [Rodriguez Lopes, producer, of El Paso, TX prog-rock band the Mars Volta] must have had a tremendous amount of influence on the way the record sounds.
JL: Yeah. Well, here’s the story; I wrote the record last year. My band was breaking up, I was breaking up a love relationship that was going nowhere, I had a friend who wasn’t a friend at all – who the song “Ghosts” is about – there’s a lot of feelings of abandonment, feeling alienated and displaced, we were having our elections, change was in the air, there was a lot of uncertainty.
“Terra incognita” for me means going into the unexplored, into unknown territory. I wanted to go there sonically, emotionally and physically. From all my touring, every time I go to a new place, it’s my greatest pleasure to get the furthest away from home and go into the unknown ‘cos there are all these treasures there. My key thing for this record was, I wanted to break the mold on all counts – songwriting-wise, genre-wise.
SC: I’m thinking of how he strips everything away in “Hard Lovin’ Woman”, and the guitar riff in “Female Persecution”…
JL: “Hard Lovin’ Woman” is just me and Chris [Watson, Lewis’s songwriting partner and guitarist]. It’s how we wrote it in Chris’ practice space. Omar knew it should be done all in one take. We did that for “Hard Lovin’ Woman”, “Suicide Dive Bombers” and “Noche Sin Fin”. But “Hard Lovin’ Woman” is such a fun song. I feel it’s even better live. But “Female Persecution” – that’s the JL/Omar union in full force.
It’s the most weird, and I just love that he loved it. The piano notes I used to write it don’t belong together, but I just go with what I hear and like. But I love all the weird shit on there, the backwards drums, the riff… His riff on “Female Persecution” inspired the cover of the album, the bull on the leash. It came to me through Omar’s riffs.
A real bull. Only in L.A.
SC: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that cover. So that’s a lot of PhotoShopping, or a real bull?
JL: Yep, it’s a real bull. Only in Los Angeles can you actually hire a bull. I didn’t know! I love my naivete, I was like how are we going to get this bull, I have to have a bull on the cover. Anyway, you hire him. He’s a movie bull. His name is Willie. I was scared to death. We went out and shot in this wide-open, rocky place in California. I wanted to paint this picture, because to me it’s the most cinematic record I’ve made. There are all these visuals that come to life in sound. I imagine this little pixie that fell from the sky and learned to live in the forest and tend to her brood. She found a treasure chest of clothes, she has a bull, I made up this character. I could go on all day [laughs]. And she lives in this unknown territory.
SC: You’ve been doing this for six years now, so there must be a sense that most of the people who were coming out in the beginning just because of the novelty of seeing an actress onstage have dropped off, and you’re finally building an audience.
JL: Yeah, it’s so true. It’s wild when you feel that. I was so used to having to prove myself. I’ve done shows for all kinds of crowds, the more awkward the show the more fun. I’ve played a high school cafeteria, a casino, a Virgin store, on a boat, these are the weird shows I’ve played with the Licks and everything in between and really small bar venues. And we grew an audience. It didn’t matter, I could be juggling, and it would be like, “Let’s go see the girl from the movies and watch her juggle.” I always knew I was good for a handful of tickets. But that’s not going to keep people in the room or keep ’em coming back, you really have to stand on your own merit.
The Pretenders, and Guiness
SC: So you were about seven when the first Pretenders album was released . What memories do you have of the band?
JL: I don’t know. They were all on the radio during my childhood, “Brass in Pocket”, [starts singing “Don’t Get Me Wrong”]. So many hits. That was all through my teenage years and then later I got into “Precious”. I love that she’s playing that too. That is just a for-real punk rock song. I just love the range of the Pretenders. Her phrasing, the riffs, it’s so unique, it makes this flavour that’s so yummy.
SC: You’re a bit of a health nut, no?
JL: Pretty much. I’ll drink, I enjoy some Guinness. Sure do like my Guinness. I haven’t done drugs in 13 years. I’m really into soul power. [chuckles] What you put in your body matters. I’m in my 30s so I think about that stuff. It paid off that my mom was a health nut. I adopt all those things now. And I’m always taking supplements to support the immune system, especially when you have these government… Well, don’t get me started on conspiracy theories.