by Jack Diablo
When you’re famous, crossing over into another area of entertainment can be very enticing. Your name and face are already immediately recognizable and there are those who will follow you blindly wherever you lead them. Countless actors have made the leap from television and film into music to try their hand at expressing themselves creatively. Rather than recite other people’s words or work under direction, the appeal can be doing something that is personal and expressive. Or it can be a quick buck.
American audiences may occasionally behave like sheep, but for the most part can spot a phony pretty easily. The ones that fake it for the money or simply have nothing relevant to contribute to the music world are quickly chewed up and spit out. But a handful of actors turned musicians pull it off, at least to some extent, and prove that they can do both and do so for the right reasons.
Julliette Lewis has been making music for the past five years and shows no sign of quitting anytime soon. She even put her acting career on hold for a few years to focus on the music. The star of such films as Cape Fear and Natural Born Killers is still at it and seems to be on the right track. While most who follow this path accept the role of the nicely packaged novelty act, Juliette and her band tour the same venues as every other group out there scraping by on the road trying to make a name for themselves. Sure, her reputation precedes her, but when it comes to earning the honest respect of her audiences, she’s a hard-working gal out to prove she’s in it for the right reasons.
Fresh off a summer tour with the Pretenders and Cat Power, Juliette Lewis is headlining her own tour with a new band and a new sound. EU caught up with the actress turned musician a few days before her show here in Jacksonville.
EU: You’ve split ways with your previous band, the Licks, tell us about the new band and why you decided to change things up.
Juliette Lewis: Well, last year my main songwriting partner in the Licks quit and he went on his way to do something else and I’d been touring for a couple years and I essentially felt that the spirit of the Licks was gone. And then also, I was craving a new sound, a groovier sound, stranger guitars. I was also getting really into songwriting, writing deeper melodies. So I wrote a lot of the record on piano. A lot of these melodies came out on piano and I hadn’t touched a piano since I was nine. So what happened was, my band broke up and there I was contemplating my future but also wanting to challenge myself and not do anything too familiar because I feel that if anything is too safe or familiar or too formulaic or routine, then there’s no point in doing it. Especially with art and especially because I’m not a major label artist, I’m not a radio artist. I have no one to answer to in that way so the only limitations I’m going to be putting on myself would be from me. It was the first album I made by finding a producer and working through the producer to really create the sounds I was hearing in my head and also having him help me get there. And then, I put the band together after the fact. And it’s just music under my own name. It’s just Juliette Lewis, as boring as that sounds, it’s not the New Romantiques, which was on Wikipedia for a minute but that’s not true.
EU: Speaking of not being safe, you worked with Omar Rodriguez-Lopez of Mars Volta. What was it like working with him and what do you feel was the result of the collaboration?
JL: Oh man, the result is we have a cinematic record! We have something completely diverse and fresh. It’s hard to make anything fresh in rock and roll but I think we made it! It was also a collaboration with my good friend, Chris Watson, who doesn’t approach a rock riff in any conventional sense. He’s super strange, the way he plays guitar. And Omar, when I was talking to him, I was telling him I wanted a big, fat bottom sound and groovier stuff that makes you want to move your hips and that kind of drumming. And then the guitars, well you just listen to Omar, he’s reinvented guitar-playing, he’s just radical! There’s so much flavor in what he plays and he plays all throughout the record and basically did all the instrumentation of the songs. I would write the key, I’d write the core of the songs and he’d create the music. I see music visually or emotionally so I can describe, “I want you to create a jungle atmosphere and weave strings of lights throughout the trees on this track.” Stuff like that! And he’s know exactly what the fuck I’m saying and it would sound exactly like that. We would talk about Fellini movies and he sees music visually too, like sounds and characters, so it was really radical and it made me feel less alien to work with somebody who sees music in a much fuller context. Because I’m not a player. It’s too late in the game to ever be a player in the way I want to, so I speak from melodies and from lyrics and ideas I have about sounds.
EU: People tend to be pretty critical of Hollywood stars who branch out into music. What separates you from those who may simply be cashing in on their previous success and how do you deal with criticism?
JL: Umm, because I’m awesome. [Laughs] No, I’m a rare bird, I don’t think there’s anybody like me musically, period. I don’t know. And I say this, you must say that I’m laughing because the thing is, music is personal. There’s plenty of fucking weak-ass, sucky bands out there that aren’t from movies and they’re on the radio, they have huge followings. Do you know what I mean? Music is a personal thing so it’s like whoever has the most heart, wins. That’s all. It’s rough for touring bands. Three days ago I was flyering in New York. Basically I’ve got to believe that what I’m doing is relevant and that what I have to say on stage is something exciting and meaningful. I know what it is to me and audiences who come to one of my shows, I’ll tell you this, are never bored. You may not like the song but you’re gonna have a good time at the live show and that’s what live music is about. It’s about getting people out of the house and away from the computer and getting to feel a little bit of sweat on your forehead, where you feel your heart start beating faster. That’s a relevant and visceral art form and I love it and I was missing it my whole life. You could say I was a songwriter, a live performer that was making movies first and now I’ve found my way. But I’m inspired a lot by artists that do mix mediums back in the day like Bowie and Mick Jagger and Tina Turner, Blondie, Iggy Pop, Grace Jones. You know, all these freaks who were doing it all, they were working with avant-garde artists and doing spoken word, making movies, you know what I mean? I probably haven’t gotten weird enough. But as far as like cashing in, it’s funny because there’s no easy ride if you’re going to be an independent musician. So I feel pretty proud that I’m on my third record, not including the EP I did, so maybe it’s the fourth, I don’t know. And it’s been five years now.
EU: Do you find that there’s much difference between acting on set and performing music in front of an audience?
JL: Yeah. 1000%. You don’t have drums, bass and guitar [laughs] and beautiful, crazy people when you’re acting. I feel like at my live shows, that these are all songs I wrote whether they’re about longing or fantasy or a friend betraying you or people who are searching for redemption. They’re all songs that came from my heart, so I’m really deeply connected to them. They are me. They are my voice whereas in a movie, the writer, the director, the cinematographer, this entire collaboration – it’s a much more solitary kind of artistic medium. You’re only really connected to what’s around you and the people you’re working with. Yeah, it’s two completely different mediums, but what I tell people is that what is similar is that I approach things the same and that I’m always thinking of being honest and as connected as possible and to surrender to the moment. So that’s the same whether it’s acting or on stage.
EU: What’s next for Juliette Lewis?
JL: What’s next for little JL? Well, I gotta tell ya, I’m really excited about my band. It started with my very good friend Chris who I wrote most of the record with and I’ve known him for eight years and he’s in my band. So it has a different connection there. I don’t know, we’re just a much groovier bunch, it’s a pretty cool collection of sounds. What’s next is a year long tour in the U.S. and in Europe, probably back to the U.S. then over to Australia. So we’re gonna go on and on until next year. Then, I’ve got some movies coming out. I haven’t done any films in four years and so the first one is Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut called Whip It! and I play a roller derby renegade named Iron Maven. That comes out in October, it’s really fun.
Interview: Juliette Lewis
by Jack Diablo