Jeffrey Lewis is a comic book writer/artist and a musician. Jeffrey Lewis and his various bandmates have perfected a scuzzy, urban style of indie-folk, or anti-folk, developing from late-90s New York City bedroom tapes into a mighty 21st Century mash-up of folksy spiel and artsy garage, like Pete Seeger meeting Sonic Youth.
Jeffrey lewis is an absolute creative hero of mine, on so many levels, in so many ways. His songs are witty and self-deprecating, pretty and noisy, relatable and strange, hopefully despondent. His art and music are vibrant; teeming with life and full of beautifully written stories. Everything he makes has the sort of strange honesty or honest strangeness that I associate with all art that I most admire. And the generosity of his creative output extended to his agreeing to do this interview in this small magazine, responding to a message out of nowhere from a stranger.
And the conversation went like this:
Magpies: Holden Caulfield says that you know a book is really good because “when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”
I feel like that about your drawings and music–I’m sure many people do. (Except that I’m phone-o-phobic.) But apologies in advance for the quantity and loquaciousness of the questions.
1. I’ve always found your music and art very inspiring–not just in the honesty of your insecurities, your sort of buoyant pessimism, (“I’m weird and worried, too, but I made it through the night and wrote a song about it.”) but in the exuberance and generosity of your creativity. It seems like even the pandemic didn’t slow you down. Do you ever have fallow or down times? Do you have methods to work your way out of them, or do you just let yourself ride through them?
Fallow and downtimes all the time. Many not-good songs and not-good drawings. The proof starts to pile higher and higher that I’ll never do anything good again, as more and more not-good things pile up. But if you just make more, try again, there will come some good stuff again, even when it seems really, really, definitely impossible for sure this time. I’ve been trying to keep thinking “work makes inspiration, rather than the other way around.”
2. Sometimes when I read stuff back that I’ve written I think “What genius wrote that BEST THING EVER?” and I’ll read the same exact thing an hour later and be so discouraged I never want to write again. Do you have songs or drawings that you consistently feel good about?
There’s stuff I’m really proud of, but even that stuff can sometimes get seen with a critical and disappointed eye if I see it from a certain angle. But as you obviously know from your own experience, that sensation of being so happy with your own work feels so good, it keeps you coming back for more. Like a gambling addict at a slot machine, you just keep pulling the handle, the disappointments keep happening but that high is so high when it hits, that feeling is worth a thousand bad pulls.
3. I used to make films back when everything was actually film, and I’ve been thinking lately that computers etc, make everything faster and (in theory) easier, but in removing the part of the process that is slower and repetitive they remove some important quality to the work. Cutting and splicing the film itself–that sort of monotonous, physical part of the process–can be therapeutic or transcendent in some ways. I was wondering if maybe drawing, or inking old drawings, is something along those lines for you? Is there part of the music-making process that functions in this way as well?
I don’t do much technical stuff so it’s less relevant for me, I just do my drawings with pencil and ink on paper same as I always did, although I do color things on computer often (mostly because everything is printed digitally, so you get much easier color matches when you’re printing digital colors from digital colors – if I did watercolor or colored pencils etc I think I’d have to do a lot more editing work to get the scanned digital colors to look right, before printing). The songwriting stuff is also different from any kind of digital improvements, although I do prefer to write in a text program than on a page a lot of the time. I’ll usually write a song on paper first, then type it in to my laptop, and from the laptop I can read the lyrics a lot more clearly than my handwriting, plus I can print out lyric sheets any time, once it’s typed in, plus it makes changes and edits a lot easier, I can move things around and take out lines and change words, a lot easier.
4. Flip side of the question: the end product of music-making is, (pandemic aside) ideally, touring and performing. A lot of your songs deal, beautifully, with anxieties or insecurities. Do any of those extend to performing? I would guess the collaborative nature helps?
Performing is always a nervous thing but not in a bad way, I’m always trying to push outside of my comfort zone, I almost never do a show where I know for sure that it’s a good collection of songs to play, I get very nervous and picky about picking which songs to play each night before getting on stage, plus forcing myself to try new stuff a lot, plus playing older songs to make sure I still remember them, it’s a lot of fun to construct a different set list before each performance and I have a lot of songs to pick from, but it makes each show an experiment to see if I put together stuff that worked out. I don’t think the audience cares that much, it’s kind of a game I do for myself, it keeps me nervous.
Follow-up that’s not really a question…I love the way you combine art & music in videos in which you sing and flip through drawings. Love love love it. And your small-indie-film music videos. Thanks for those. Also I really love your sketchbook drawings. Your storytelling is so strong (in drawings and songs) that it’s easy to get lost in the wit and eloquence and lose sight of the technique. But the sketchbook drawings are all beautiful lines and gestures.
5. Whenever I write interview questions I think of the scene in Godard’s Breathless in which Jean Seberg’s character asks the famous philosopher, “What is your grand ambition?” (To become immortal and then to die, is his answer). And I was thinking about this as I was looking over the press page on your site, in which lots of the reviews are all “Why isn’t he more famous?” But you’re (labeled) “indie” so a certain kind of fame would be seen as selling out. So my question is, what is your idea of success? What is your grand ambition? Is it something you think about at all, or do you just make what you need to make and hope people see/hear it? (This doesn’t have to be about fame. Some days for me success is cutting my toenails.)
I saw a quote from Jack White of the White Stripes where he said the only major difference from “making it” and “not making it” was the ability to not have a day job, so that as soon as the White Stripes were able to not have day jobs, that felt like crossing the boundary of success, even though they were still quite small and struggling at that time, and there were many more levels of success to grow and grow to. I think that makes a lot of sense, the levels of success are always infinite, there’s always somebody else who’s more well-known, more respected, making more money, so you can always feel like you “haven’t REALLY made it all the way,” but just based on the initial success of having ANY fans and ANY chance to “be an artist,” that does seem like a reasonable landmark. My own level of success is still where there’s a lot of “day job” elements to what I do, a lot of administrative work keeping track of how many CDs to bring on tour, when to reprint the comics that are selling out, talking to all the clubs to find days and deals, mailing out posters, a hundred things that are not drawing or songwriting. So, to me, a higher level of success would be the ability to not have to do as many of those tasks, if there were people handling that stuff and leaving me to do more drawings and songs. But it’s kind of fun doing all that stuff too, in a weird way. It’s fun being in total control of everything, in a weird way. Even if I seem to complain about it a lot.
6. And keeping with Godard, my favorite films, books, music, art, are things that seem made the way they are because their creator couldn’t make them any other way. Their own particular brand of weirdness takes over and defies genres and labels. When Godard made Breathless he was just trying to make a gangster film, but it turned into something so much stranger and more wonderful. Your drawings and music seem like that—just honest and singular and perfectly the way they need to be. But after so many years creating, do you ever feel that your own particular brand of weirdness has almost become a genre? Do you ever feel the pressure to make something “Jeffrey Lewis-y?”
It’s almost more like always doing stuff that might ruin what people’s impressions of you are, like, I think there’ve been a lot of times I did stuff that could have ruined what somebody was hoping to see or hear, like, going from lo-fi home recordings to studio recordings, or back from studio to lo-fi, or from folk songs to garage rock songs, or from sad songs to funny songs. Doing comic books with intimate sex scenes, or talking about sexuality, or doing sort of gross violent stuff, there’s a lot of ways that my art or my music could always have been losing fans, or even losing my own sense of what my “purpose” was. But I just want to get better at everything, I want to get better at all these things, I want to make better folk songs, I want to make better rock songs, better comic books, better histories, realer stuff, funnier stuff, deeper stuff, crazier stuff, just hoping it doesn’t fatally contradict itself. Because that’s a real problem for me – it’s part of the problem and the game of making set lists – what’s the right recipe where these interests work together rather than contradict each other in annoying, self-defeating ways. It’s like one of those cooking TV shows where they get a batch of ingredients and have to make a real meal out of it, that makes sense as something to eat, and the times when I do a good job of it, that’s the times that all add up to make the aesthetic that you’re talking about.
7. And finally a couple of pandemic-related questions: What has been the most disappointing thing for you this past year?
The relationship I was in fell apart and the pandemic played a major role in that. We’d had tickets for some really fun events and trips we were planning together that spring, but instead all of that went out the window. We had an increasingly stressful couple of months in NYC completely locked in an apartment together 24/7, dealing with the claustrophobic stress in increasingly different ways, till she broke up with me and decided to leave the country. There was a lot of lockdown time alone for me after that, and I spent a lot of time wondering what would have gone differently for us if the disaster hadn’t changed our lives.
What has been the most unexpectedly hopeful?
I spent the previous 20 years thinking I had to tour to make a living, but it was amazing to learn that I could make a living just by making songs and art and comics and selling stuff from my website, mostly, I might never have learned that otherwise. Getting rid of Trump and getting Biden in office was a victory on the level of the rebels blowing up the Death Star, and then the better-than-expected public roll-out of the vaccine in early 2021 was, in combination with the governmental change, a gigantic turnaround from the darkness and stress of 2020. We broke the grip of Trump and broke the grip of the coronavirus. I know there is still a lot of virus-stress for people, but it is just absolutely nothing like the stress that NYC went through in spring-summer 2020. All my family and friends are now vaccinated, and plus Trump went down in absolute flames and humiliation like a classic movie villain, the only president to lose the popular vote twice, the only president to be impeached twice, and the only president to lie so pathetically about the results of a democratic election. 2020 was a very dark year, and 2021 is just victory all around, in comparison.
There’s a real sense that nothing will ever return to exactly the way it was…not jobs, not cities, not the way we interact with each other. Has this year changed the way you create or share what you’ve created?
Yeah, like I say, this extended period of not being able to perform and tour has forced me to get creative in different ways, and to become more organized with a lot of other aspects of what I do. I was able to get a whole new website made, where I’m now selling stuff like different t-shirts, different posters, comic collections, a lot of items that had just been floating around in my head as good ideas to get around to someday, I finally managed to get it all done. Plus I learned a lot about various other experiments, things I was doing on Bandcamp and Youtube and other platforms, seeing what works best for me, a lot of really useful skills and tools that I can keep doing into the future, whatever comes along next. Usually I’m only able to do one new illustrated song per year, or one every two years, but last year I was able to do six of them, including “The Story of Chile” which was a big research project I had been planning to do for a long time. So if and when it becomes possible to do the kinds of touring and performing I used to do, I really don’t know what kind of new balance I will end up forging, between the increased home-production side of my output and the performing side of it. I really miss performing and touring though. It was a big part of my life and I want to get back to it.