There are some performers whose gifts defy logic as much as they do gravity. More than a decade after giving into her addiction to bruising, bone-rattling rock-n-roll, people can stop asking why the Oscar and Emmy-nominated actress choses to leave her day job, often for years at a time, to get her fix. In all honesty, it's her fans that usually wind up addicted to the fireball energy and the jumpsuit-wearing mayhem that occurs when she takes the stage.
For Lewis, who began her music career at age 30, it was a leap of faith that resulted in four albums with plenty more on the way. Moving on from her five year run as the queen of the Juliette and the Licks and a debut solo record (Terra Incognita) in 2009, Lewis recently reemerged with a new band and a stable of new songs that mark a seismic shift in her approach to rock—a sound that can transport you from electric dance floors to a bluesy, skull-filled swamp of sacrifice. She also participated in a Red Bull Music-produced documentary short called Hard Lovin' Woman, directed by Michael Rapaport that draws a portrait of her crazy life. Through it all, she relies on her live performance to show her truth, sweat out her demons, and connect with her fans. Yesterday, Lewis took a few minutes to speak with the Weekly before her tour makes a stop in Santa Ana tonight at the Constellation Room.
OC Weekly (Nate Jackson): You’ve often said that you’d only want to get back into music when you’re really feelinging it. What made you want to return to it after taking a few years off?
Juliette Lewis: I felt love sick, I felt heartsick. Anybody who does music knows that when you’re not doing it and you’re walking around in life you just feel incomplete. I disbanded the Licks because I was craving a different sound and the Licks was a very guitar-driven, muscular, rock-n-roll sound. But I was in search of groove. So I wrote some songs on piano and I went to Omar Rodriguez-Lopez of The Mars Volta and he produced what I call my weird record, which was all over the map, but I needed that record to explore myself as a songwriter. So then the years went by, I went back to my day job, and I was trying to develop some “who am I now?” music. That’s all I’m ever trying to do is follow the muse. So I came full circle and my love for ‘60s garage, soulful rock-n-roll was explored through Brad Shultz of Cage the Elephant. We reached out to each other and it was through that collaboration where I went to Nashville, I played the songs live and I also worked with Isabella Summers, an amazing producer who is also the keyboardist of Florence and the Machine. And through both of those I found my love of groove. “Hello Hero” is produced by Isabella and that’s really saucy and fun and more dancey. And the new single coming out called “Anyway You Want” that’s inspired by the Animals, and the Kinks, the real ‘60 garage sound and that was produced by Brad Shultz.
How has putting a new band together influenced your music?
Last year I put my band back together to see where I’m at. I still love to play some of the Licks songs, but mainly what I play now is a combination of solo stuff, some Licks songs and my new stuff. So now I’m able to be all of what I am musically. No matter what steps I take artistically, I’m always trying to be fearless. I’m trying to actually do what I consider the scariest thing and just conquer it. Part of that was trying to find the grooviest rhythm section. And I found that in Juan Alderete, who’s also with The Mars Volta and he doesn’t just play bass, he has a sound and his grooves are so deep and exciting. So I put this new band together and I’m trying it out. I’m independent, I don’t work for anybody, I work for the people and we just see who shows up and then we have a party, an energy work session.
It’s interesting because at this point there’s a generation of fans growing up who know you mostly for music and find out later that you’re an actress.
Yeah when I started doing music, there was a shift that happened after about a year later, I started getting the same amount of people approaching me on the street about my music as they did about my acting because all I was doing was touring, so that was really gratifying.
When you first decided to do the documentary for Red Bull about your musical journey, did you have any expectations or fears about the project?
Over the last 10 plus years, I had been documenting with various friends who filmed our sets. I always wanted to write a love letter to the fans through a documentary. But I was also scared because that seemed super intimate. So when Red Bull came to me and said they wanted to produce new content and they picked Mike Rapaport, I said “Done deal!” Because Mike is someone I trust with my story, my sensibility, we’ve known each other for 20 years and what I love about the documentary is that it’s my heart and my truth and it captures the humor. I try not to take myself too seriously all the time. I’m serious about what I do, but life can sometimes have a brutality to it so I try not to get swallowed by that pain and I approach things with a certain lightness. And I’m also a fan of Mike’s work as a filmmaker. I saw the Tribe Called Quest documentary he did [Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest] and I was blown away by my friend. I was like “Oh, shit you’re a fresh story teller, you’re the real deal.” So he took a portrait of me at that time in my life. My dad had just passed, I was just trying to find my voice again and I was in a place of transition and I’m really proud of what we’ve created together.
The documentary also shows the effects that your shows can have on your body. Was it strange to see yourself get all banged up, including a pretty gnarly knee injury, and then decide to keep going?
Yeah, it was a trip. I’ve never hurt myself like that before. You don’t see it in the doc, but I literally had to go to physical therapy for a month. I could barely walk the first week. But now I’m still super physical, I’m just mindful. And I have the best crew and the best band and we all sort of take care of each other. It’s just so weird that I injured myself like that. I’ve cut my arms and bruised my knees and chipped my teeth but I’ve never taken myself out like that.
Did you ever look to certain artists for inspiration when you started performing on stage?
Well, just like in acting I’m always trying to carve my own path and find my own voice. As a rock-n-roll and blues singer, when I first worked with Linda Perry, she was so instrumental in helping me find who I am. Before that, I imitated jazz singers. So how I learned to sing was by singing Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Anita O’Day. Singers I revere to no end, they all sound like no one else but themselves—Tina Turner, Chrissie Hynde, Stevie Nicks, Karen O. And as a performer, the first moment I said I want to do that, I kid you not it was David Lee Roth, the “Panama” video. It was David Lee Roth when he was crawling into the camera and doing the air splits, that’s who inspired me.
One of the things you’ve become known for are the jumpsuits you wear at your shows. Do you find stuff randomly or do you go designer?
It’s a combination of things. I’m inspired by wrestlers, acrobats and superheros. So this year I got jumpsuits made inspired by Evel Knievel. The first jumpsuit I ever got made was a canary yellow jumpsuit. I’m inspired by people who are larger than life because I’m a performer and entertainer at the end of the day.
Any plans to go back in the studio or more acting projects?
This whole year was about finding my audience. I live by that saying prepare for the worst, hope for the best. So every show I expect like 40 people to show up. So when we were selling out places in Europe on this tour, we’re playing smaller venues that were mostly sold out, I’m like okay that’s my future, these are my people. So I’m gonna put out this EP of songs that Brad Shultz and Isabella Summers produced. So I want to get in the studio with my boyfriend Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine and we have plans of creating something together. So that’s just a seed that’s planted.
Juliette Lewis performs tonight at the Constellation Room, 8 p.m. $16. For full details, click here.