Interview: Juliette Lewis
Sat, 05 Sep 2009 09:47:59
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Soul can't be bought or taught.
It's either there when you're born or it isn't. The artists that have soul really have it—especially those heroines of the stage and screen that we all marvel at.
Janis Jopin had it. Patti Smith had it. Meryl Streep had it, and Juliette Lewis definitely has it.
Her fire has burned bright in films ranging from Cape Fear and Natural Born Killers to Old School and From Dusk Till Dawn. She's always had an entrancing cinematic presence, but Juliette is at her fieriest and fiercest on stage and on tape.
Juliette's brand new solo album, Terra Incognita, is alive. It breathes, bleeds and beckons. On the record, she brandishes a raw punk vitality and a classic psychedelic sensitivity, and she creates a rock n' roll journey unlike anything that this generation has seen.
Terra Incognita is the place to be, and after one trip, you'll keep coming back. Juliette invited ARTISTdirect.com editor Rick Florino into her Southern California home to dig deep into Terra. In this exclusive interview, Juliette discusses her creative process, writing lyrics, working with Omar Rodriguez-Lopez of The Mars Volta and the secret to livin'…
Did your creative process change with Terra Incognita?
The whacky world that is my creative process…well, when you make music it comes from where you just were, where you are in the moment and where you're going in the future. Some of these songs came from lyrics I'd written years ago, like "Hard Lovin' Woman." That was this blues track, and it's like a declaration. There was this lyric in "Suicide Dive Bombers"—the album's last track—that I wrote when I was 21. The line is, "They were selling tickets at your funeral." It's a very dark line. Yes, to answer your question in a very short way, my process totally changed [Laughs]. I started writing songs alone on the piano. Normally, I would write with a guitar player. On Terra Incognita, I wanted to go deeper and figure out who I am and what I sound like musically. I wanted to make the melodies richer and really explore the different facets to my voice. There are a lot of pretty songs and a lot of haunted songs. The writing on piano was key. I wrote about five songs that way. Finding an incredible producer who could navigate through my visions was so crucial as well.
Do you feel like you were completely unbound creatively?
Yeah, it's funny because people may or may not know much about me as a musical artist, but I'm completely independent to the core. I've never been a major label artist, and I don't have some big corporate manager conglomerate to answer to. I'm not a "radio" artist. Knock on wood—I wouldn't mind being on radio. The point is I have nothing to answer to except for what drives me, what I need to say and, also, the amazing people that show up to my concerts. I feel like I understand them. With my old band, The Licks, it was almost like the weirder I got live, the more personal I got. If I was doing something like spoken word over a guitar riff, the audience just opened up more to me. There was this energy, and it gave me the confidence to make a record with no rules. On Terra, there's a pop song called, "Uh Huh." There's a completely avant-garde backward drums track called "Female Persecution" that I wrote on piano. I wanted to make a full record. Omar Rodriguez-Lopez [Producer, The Mars Volta] and I decided that. People pull songs anyway online and download individual tracks. But, I made an entire album I'm really proud of.
"Fantasy Bar" feels like the culmination of numerous emotions bubbling over. It also has a "pulp" feel. The song is extremely visual.
Yeah! It's wild because this is my most cinematic record in a way. The cover art was inspired by a riff. How Omar speaks through his instrument is very unique. Omar is the trip master. I saw The Mars Volta the other day, and it just blew my mind.
He's like some kind of space commander…
He is! [Laughs] He made this one riff, and I immediately came to life. I thought of a bull and this whole relationship with a pixie, who fell to the forest. This whole story came to me through a riff that Omar wrote. That's the cover of the record. The relationship between sound, vision and drama is amazing. It's a really visual record! "Fantasy Bar" is like searching in the night. It's chasing that elusive perfect night, but it's about so many other colors and textures as well.
Lyrically, this feels like your most poetic record. The lyrics resonate on so many levels, because you cover an entire spectrum of emotions.
That's very nice…I can't believe you're understanding me [Laughs]. Wow, you're talking about my lyrics—that's cool [Laughs].
Terra Incognita is easy to get close to because it's a trip
It is a trip! It's a slightly psychedelic journey. I really got into the duality that lives within. I can be a total romantic but a complete cynic at the same time. "Suicide Dive Bombers" is about feeling disillusioned and feeling full of hope. There's a lot of juxtaposition on the record lyrically. "Romeo" is such a beautiful song. It begins with the line, "Across the sea, you followed me," but the guitars remind me of shimmering water and the moon. I get that vision, and that was Omar's brilliance. He emphasized my own melodies and my own lyrics. Our working relationship was so profound and special because of that. Having a producer who understood me and could take me there sonically was crucial. I really wanted to develop as a songwriter and not be afraid to be vulnerable.
As an artist you have to be honest with yourself first and foremost.
With my old band, I was always focused on the live show, packing a punch and having a lot of energy. I'm sort of known as the little rock n' roll animal, and that's definitely a facet to what and who I am, but it's not all of it. You can have a song like "Hard Lovin' Woman" that's blues or "Romeo" that's haunted and filled with longing. "Fantasy Bar" is celebratory, and "Terra Incognita" is rip-roaring. Those are all my truths. We have all of these aspects of who we are.
You're recording these moments of your life. You have to explore all of them equally. Why wouldn't you do that as an artist?
I don't know. That's the thing. Anytime I feel like I'm being a little too complacent or safe, I want to get unfamiliar. I want to step outside of feeling safe, and it's what I would do a lot with movies and acting as well. I just wasn't drawn to being "the girlfriend" or being "cute." I sort of spoke to the underbelly or the outsider in my movies. I was like the voice of the misfit in a way. I'm carrying that through to this music. I guess that lives within. I have a stuffed animal that represents exactly what this record could be. It could be a wombat in a panda suit [Laughs]. I digress…
What's the story behind "Suicide Dive Bombers?"
My band was breaking up, and people were going on to other projects. I was feeling really alone, and "Suicide Dive Bombers" became this love letter to all those audiences that kept showing up when I played. They really kept what I'm doing alive. It made me feel like no matter what, even if my world's falling apart and everything is caving in, I can come together with all of these people. It's sort of this twisted thing. The song is about feeling empty and at the end of your wits, but feeling a sense of surrender and togetherness. That song is many things, but it's mostly a love letter to all of my audiences.
It's a great sentiment to leave listeners with at the end of the record.
Exactly! There are some dark lyrics in there, but the music is hopeful. I love the guitars at the end. They're sort of uplifting, and they remind me of taking off and sailing away. You're feeling spent, glitter's pouring off of your face and we all lived it together. It's very visual and dramatic, because that's where I come from. It may be the end to a great movie.
Any great rock n' roll record will capture those feelings. You tap into the energy that bands in the '60s and the '70s had.
Yeah, and the live rock n' roll show is a place of theater. This was my ultimate fantasy record. I'm venturing off into the unknown, hence the title Terra Incognita. This was a very unique experience because I wrote half of it on piano, and I wrote the rest of it with my friend Chris Watson who I've known for eight years. He's in my band now. Omar helped us a great deal with completing the songs, arrangements, instrumentation and everything. He produced an incredible sound. Then I put a band together after the fact. I've never done that. I've always had the band first, so this is very unique. Now we've been playing the songs live, and I'm really proud of my band. It's such a group of different tastes and flavors. It's pretty exciting! We're going to be touring for the next year all over the U.S. and Europe. I want to spread the word all over the land. It's the new rock n' roll theater [Laughs]. I'm making music under my name because I'm not genre-specific. This is this record. This record has a very unique sound, but I might just do fuckin' jungle rhythms next [Laughs]. I've been listening to Curtis Mayfield a lot so you might get some funky bass on the next one. I'm not a loyalist to any genre.
What did you grow up listening to?
I really liked Van Halen. I always liked what my brother liked. My dad really was key in teaching me about good rock n' roll. I was listening to LL Cool J and Run-D.M.C., and he introduced me to Janis Joplin. A flash of Janis Joplin came on the screen one day and he said, "Do you know who that is?" I went, "No." I was like 14, and he said, "That's the first white woman of soul." A couple years later, I only listened to that '60s music—Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.
That spirit still carries through. It's never been confined to one decade. When you can tap into that, that's when you create music that lasts.
The best rock n' roll singing is soul singing. It's almost from the gut. It has such a volume and texture. To me, Roger Daltrey is one of the best rock n' roll singers. I love those power voices like Tina Turner, Robert Plant and it goes on and on. There's nothing like that Chrissie Hynde voice. I opened for The Pretenders for a month, and I got to geek out and ask her how she wrote certain songs. She is timeless, man. Her music and spirit are really amazing.
Being a fan is probably one of the most important elements of creating art. You have to possess a certain reverence for other artists before you can become one.
It's really wild that you say that because before I took that step outside to finally start making music, I went to a Rolling Stones concert in 1998, and I finally understood what it was like to completely lose yourself. I didn't…but I understood girls ripping their shirts off. That fever! It was a really powerful experience. I love that kind of fanaticism.
The best artists always draw on what has come before.
You just soak it up and find whatever your flavors are and the tastes that you're drawn to. With The Licks, I was really drawn to straight-up, janky and really dirty guitar playing. For this, I wanted lighter textures and more affected guitars that danced around a big old rich, bottom rhythm. It's interesting, as you grow, your tastes change. I'm just excited, and I'm going to keep putting music out over the next year. It's alive and kicking, and the clock is always ticking. What's the saying? I'd like to live every day like my last…well maybe not that [Laughs].
How about like you're first?
That's better [Laughs]. Live every day like your first! That's an exploration. You're always discovering in that sense. It's less desperate [Laughs].
Watch out for video of this interview, coming soon!