Since first hitting the so-called “anti-folk” circuit in 1997, Jeffrey Lewis has been staking his place as a fringe icon with a steady drip of lovingly crafted records and comics. The man described by Jarvis Cocker as “the best lyricist working in the US today” has always been honest and open as a songwriter, and equally so as an interviewee. But when we fired over a few questions via email to the New York folk hero recently, we could hardly have expected the brilliant 3,000-word manifesto he fired right back. What followed is essentially a Jeffrey Lewis guide to reconciling dignity and success as a modern musician.
You seem to have been able to attain and maintain a position of neither scary superstardom nor commercial failure. Is this the perfect level of success?
In many ways it seems to be a good place to be, much better than being overexposed and over-rated. I feel like I’ve still got a long way to go before everybody’s tired of me, because most people have never heard of me, that’s a very different position to be in than somebody who has already gotten a lot of press exposure, magazine covers, TV appearances, all of that stuff, I feel like once an artist gets that level of exposure it’s sort of like you’ve had your day, and everything you do after that can be viewed as some sort of decline. So you’re better off with a very slow climb, rather than a quicker climb, which could lead to a drop. Actually none of that stuff matters at all, the only thing that matters is touching something, reaching something, artistically, that generates the spark of excitement and discovery that makes something great. You have to constantly leave your comfort zone to get to that place; so if your comfort zone gets too comfortable it’s harder to challenge yourself to be great.
Have you ever had the option of ‘selling out’? And is that an unthinkable thing for you to do?
Depends what you mean, I do remember in 2001 when Rough Trade offered me that first album contract, just to put out The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane, to make a CD of songs from my tapes, and pay me a $1,000 advance, and have the CD come out in stores on the Rough Trade label, that seemed like a step into the “commercial” music world that I was unsure of taking. I considered not doing it, keeping my musical path completely separate from the world of labels and distribution, and just sticking with recording my songs on to cassettes and selling them for $3 at my gigs the way I always had, very cheap and very home-made, and then leave the rest of it to pure word-of-mouth, that seemed purer and more natural.
In retrospect, I think the decision to work with Rough Trade forced me to up my level of quality. The awareness that more people were listening forced me to stop messing around as much and start giving myself a higher standard of quality. Prior to that I was much more of a mess, the recordings were sometimes unlistenably low-fidelity, and the live concerts were more full of unrehearsed songs. I didn’t even have a tuning pedal for my guitar in those early years. I’d spend so much time on stage being out of tune or trying to re-tune my guitar, stuff like that. So that first “sell out” of putting stuff out on Rough Trade was probably a good thing for me. Artistically, it made me place higher value on what I was doing, and try not to mess up as much. But other than that, I have no interest in commercializing my material.
So I’m guessing you wouldn’t let your songs be used in adverts?
I don’t need the money! I’m able to pay rent and eat and buy some records, so why would I want to let my songs be used to sell somebody else’s ideas other than my own? I’ve turned down various offers from commercial interests, stuff for car commercials or jeans, I try to avoid that stuff in any way that I can. It’s crazy that even at my tiny level you get pounced on as a potential billboard.
When you play some little festival you get an email like “Every performer playing at this festival gets a free pair of this particular brand of jeans! All you have to do is tell us your size, and wear the jeans on stage during your set, and you can keep them!” And I’m like, what is this? Am I a homeless naked person walking around wearing a barrel? Do I have to go through the humiliation of being somebody’s sandwich board just for the sake of me getting a pair of pants? First of all, I already have pants, and if I want another pair of pants I can just buy them. Second of all, you want me to advertise your stuff for you and you’re not even offering to pay me? You expect me to be so grateful just for the chance to own a free pair of of pants that I’ll pimp your product for you?
It’s crazy how people just take for granted that you are supposed to be excited about advertising any random product they throw at you. Even when it’s some higher-budget car commercial thing, I just don’t need it. Of course, if I really needed the money, or if somebody I loved was sick and I needed to money to pay for their treatment or something, then it would be a different discussion, there might actually BE a discussion. But without actually needing it, there’s no reason to even enter into a discussion about it. I don’t hold it against artists to do this stuff—The Fall is one of my favourite bands and there have been commercials that use their music, but they probably needed the money, or whatever, I don’t know, it’s not any of my business really. It doesn’t affect my love for the band. It’s a personal decision. I’m lucky that I’ve been in a position where I can afford to just stand on a high-horse and spout off about this, maybe later in my life things might change and I won’t feel so casual about pointing fingers and yapping.
How has Manhattan changed over the years that you’ve been there, and how do you feel about it?
All cities change over time, and when you’re 20 and you realize your city is a lot different from how it was when you were 10, you feel indignant about it, and you complain a lot. But by the time you’re 30, and you realize it isn’t even the same as it was when you were 20 or 25, you start to realize this is just the constant process of change that happens everywhere, all the time. You could talk to somebody in San Francisco, Berlin, Dublin, Beijing, Tel Aviv, Manchester—everybody would have similar complaints. There is basically zero chance that you could ever find a city anywhere on earth where people wouldn’t have similar complaints, over a similar period of time.
I don’t mean to suggest a pure fatalism, because there are things that are worth organizing and fighting to preserve. I don’t believe in the “invisible corrective hand of capitalism” or the “democracy of the free market” or self-serving rich-person ideological crap like that. There is definitely a tremendous value in having tenant’s organizations and historical preservations and zoning laws and rent regulations and a whole lot of other protections for people and neighbourhoods and families and small businesses. I would much rather see strong regulations for all of that stuff, and fight for better laws and protections for that, rather than just throw up my hands and say “oh well, things change, don’t complain about it.”
How’s the music scene in Manhattan these days? And more generally what are you listening to?
I don’t listen to much modern stuff, in general. I can’t hear most modern performers as artists, I just hear them as business people. It doesn’t matter how good the band is. I know too much about the machinations behind the music, and I know how over-thought their recording process is, how much they are second-guessing what they think would be successful. I know how much their stage-show is a pre-scripted theatrical piece based on a set-list that they play basically exactly the same way every night, with a sound engineer who knows what song is coming next and what levels to adjust the sound to in order to have it sound the way it does on the album.
Isn’t that a little pessimistic?
I can’t help it! I can just picture them in negotiations about what kind of commercials their music needs to sound good for, or how to master their album so that the sound quality is good enough to potentially be included in a movie soundtrack or a video game. I don’t look around me and see anybody I can believe in as an artist.
The motives are so petty to me. In fact, the motives look petty to me even if it’s a band of hedonists, who don’t care about business but just care about getting drunk and getting laid. It’s very rare that I get a sense that somebody is aiming at some kind of higher creative star in the sky, something that I can emotionally feel like devoting myself to. If somebody is successful it basically already rules them out as somebody I can believe in.
I know that’s a pathetic standard because it makes me sound like a curmudgeon. But the best concerts I’ve seen are usually the small ones, the act playing at an open mic who blows my mind because she’s playing her song live for the third time and not the three-hundredth time, the band recording made by a band who has no idea what mastering is, etc., etc.
This is not to say that there’s no such thing as a well-crafted piece of brilliant art, made by a brilliant visionary artist, who is also able to be smart and successful and aware of how to conduct themselves in the world of business. But it’s not the norm. That was a very long answer and not even quite on topic! You’ve caught me in a ranting mood. I’m probably just ranting on and on because I’m procrastinating on other work I need to do today so I’m stretching out this interview.
Was Manhattan a quick record to write and produce or was it a long time in the making? Do you prefer your albums to be spontaneous and imperfect, or careful and laboured over?
Manhattan was about 15 days of work to record, but stretched out over about 6 months, and that was a very good process, allowing me to think quite a bit about what I was doing. But the previous album Jeffrey Lewis & the Jrams was done in one single day, and in general I think too many albums are thought about too much nowadays, it’s much harder to do an album without thinking. Everybody has too much opportunity to re-think and over-think.
I think an album should be perfect either way—either perfectly off-the-cuff and carelessly constructed, or perfectly thought-out and carefully constructed. It’s that vast middle-ground where it’s not enough of one side or the other, that’s when you end up with a mediocre album, and that’s what too much stuff ends up as.
Are you a better musician now than you’ve ever been before?
I’ve gone up and down. I’m definitely way way better now than I was when my first albums were coming out, but I’m probably not at my peak now because I think I was better during times when I was touring more relentlessly. There are finger-picking patterns and guitar solo stuff that I can’t do now as well as I know I could do them at certain points in the past, but it seems to come and go.
It’s the same with my art: when I’m drawing a lot I’ve got sharper skills, and then if I don’t draw as much I have to fight my way back up to the higher levels I was at before. In general I think you keep getting better at stuff the more you do it.
Over 15 or so years in the ‘biz, have you seen a lot of other musicians/artists around you give up and find new jobs? Were you ever close to doing the same?
Every time I make an album I feel like it’s the last one, because I don’t have any good stuff left over, and I can’t imagine how I could ever write another song, and I despair, then I write ten stupid songs over the next year and nothing is worth holding on to and I despair more and feel convinced that I’m cooked.
Then somehow I end up on the other side eventually, with new material that I feel great about, and excited about, and I feel better than ever. Maybe one day that will stop happening, and then I’ll just rot away and come to a halt when I’m tired of the old songs and not excited about the new songs. I hope not.