About a year and a half ago, singer-songwriter and former Rilo Kiley principal Jenny Lewis was in a difficult spot. Crippling writer’s block had stopped her in her tracks right in the middle of work on her third solo album, the follow-up to 2008’s Acid Tongue. Her father had just passed away. Her love life was complicated. All kinds of emotions were swirling in her head, but she needed time to process it all before attempting to turn it into song. She needed to just live life for a while, and find something else to work on.
Fortunately, her long-time friend Naomi Foner — a screenwriter-turned-director, and the mother of actors Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal — had a project for Lewis. Foner had recently written a film script — a contemporary coming-of-age story about two teenage girls in Brooklyn desperate to lose their virginity in their final summer before college. One of the two characters, “Gerri,” was a budding songwriter who performs at local open mic nights, and Foner enlisted Lewis to write the batch of songs that Gerri would sing. That quickly evolved into Lewis writing more original songs for the project, as well as composing the entire score and taking on the title of “music supervisor” for the film, called Very Good Girls starring Elizabeth Olsen as Gerri and Dakota Fanning as her best pal, Lilly. The supporting cast includes Ellen Barkin, Richard Dreyfuss, Boyd Holbrook, Demi Moore, and Peter Sarsgaard.
“It was really just me, alone in a room with my computer and a bunch of instruments, watching the film and coming up with music, and because I was writing for a character, there was a lot more freedom there than when I’m doing my solo stuff,” Lewis said over the phone Tuesday night from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where she was in the midst of Very Good Girls‘ premiere. “To be able to put aside the things I was going through personally and just think about the mood and the tone [of the film] and supporting the story and the emotions was great.”
Part of the initial appeal of the project for Lewis — aside from loving the script “written and directed by a woman about young women,” she said — was the opportunity to “put myself 10 years back to a place where I just started writing songs. Themes inevitably change as you get older, so it was kind of fun to revisit that old headspace, and I guess I wrote some lines that are maybe a little funnier or dark or just young that I wouldn’t necessarily let fly at this point in my life.”
Leaning on the sonic textures — twangy guitars, warm Wurlitzer organ, both bright and melancholy melodies — that have characterized the country-rock and ’70s Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter vibe of much of her solo material, and her work with Rilo Kiley and Jenny and Johnny, Lewis wrote a bunch of songs and spent time with Olsen prior to last summer’s shoot in Brooklyn.
“She’d come over to my house [in L.A.] and we’d talk about music and I played her some of the original songs I was writing before I even played them for the director,” said Lewis, who also hooked Olsen up with a guitar instructor. “Lizzie was great, I was so impressed with her and she took it very seriously.”
Lewis spent some time working with Olsen on the Very Good Girls set, too — a comfort zone for Lewis, given her well-documented past as a successful child actor. “I grew up, from the time I was three years old, on movie sets, so I really identified with the camaraderie between the crew and the cast members,” she said, “but it was just really cool to be behind the cameras with a headset on, really thinking critically about the scene and trying to make it better.”
After seeing the rough cut of the film, Lewis and Foner realized that some of the songs didn’t quite work in the context of the scenes. “They didn’t really fit in the way we thought they would, so we scrapped the lyrics on a couple of them,” said Lewis. “Then I wrote more instrumental pieces than I actually thought I would in the beginning of the project. It’s just proof that you don’t know what you’re gonna get until you put it all together.”
Now that it’s finished, Lewis is looking back with a particular pride on the project, which marks really the first time, even including her solo albums, that she’s written and recorded a batch of music wholly and completely on her own (excluding “Barking at the Moon”–the song she penned for the 2008 Disney animated film Bolt).
“I’ve been collaborating for so long with various people, whether it be Rilo Kiley or the Postal Service or Jenny and Johnny, and this was just me,” she said. “Being in a band is great. I basically grew up in a band. I think that all of those collaborations created something really special and I’m grateful for it all. But I also think that as I’ve gotten older, just learning to trust my inner voice and my instincts and a writer and a player, just being able to know that it’s OK to say something and I don’t need to check with a couple of other people first to make sure that it’s cool, has been really important to me.”
As part of her music supervisor duties, Lewis is still crafting a Very Good Girls soundtrack album — neither it, nor the film, have scheduled U.S. release dates yet, but Lewis said both will arrive sometime this year.
Meanwhile, the experience — and generally being in a better state of mind — jump-started work on that delayed solo album, which she said is “a little more than halfway done.” Lewis hopes to have it finished and released in 2013, but there’s lots more on her plate: A spring tour. Putting the final wraps on a much-anticipated Rilo Kiley b-sides and rarities compilation (“Finally, after five years of compiling this stuff,” she laughed). And then there’s the just-announced reunion of The Postal Service (the duo of Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello) surrounding the 10th anniversary of 2003’s much-loved Give Up, which featured guest vocals from Lewis on a number of tracks. The band is planning some live dates–a Coachella appearance is rumored. Does Lewis know anything about that?
“I can’t spill any beans,” she laughed. “But I’ll just say that Ben and Jimmy are among my best friends and I think it would be a lot of fun.” And if they asked her to join them live? “I mean, you know, I wouldn’t say no,” she said.
Lewis can’t believe it’s already been a decade since Give Up came out — “that makes me feel really old,” she laughed — but between thinking back on that album, having the Rilo Kiley compilation album dredge up a ton of memories, and recently tapping into her early songwriting headspace to write the music for Very Good Girls, she’s in something of a reflective mood at the moment, and she shyly acknowledged her many artistic accomplishments so far.
“For a former child actor from the San Fernando Valley, it ain’t half bad.”