“There’s this thing called nominative determinism, which is where your name or the name of something is your job. Like many dentists are named Dennis or Denise,” Jenny Lewis schooled me over Zoom. “In choosing an album title that has the word ‘joy’ in it, I’m manifesting that.”
Joy’All is Jenny Lewis’s fifth solo effort, and her first on the historic Blue Note record label. It’s also her first full-length release since the pandemic. Splitting time between Los Angeles and Nashville, her mostly solitary quarantine experiences gave her a lot to think and sing about in the tunes that make up Joy’All, several of them stemming from a virtual, song-a-day writing workshop led by Beck (with whom she’s touring on the West Coast later this summer).
Lewis has never really slowed down, creatively. “If I’m alone in a room with a kazoo, I’ll figure out how to write a song with it,” she told me. But she said she’s taking this busy record release and touring year just “one day in advance,” keeping her head about her. She’s dryly hilarious – I laughed a lot during our chat a few days after Joy’All was released, like throw-my-head-back cackling – yet Lewis doesn’t shrink from the harder stuff in conversation, nor in song. After all, this record was born from a time of much solitude and a winnowing down of her close friends. “I don’t have as many people in my orbit now, but the ones I do have are super solid and they showed up in those crazy times. I learned a lot about my people and myself in the last couple of years.”
Joy’All’s jaunty penultimate track “Balcony” is about reuniting with loved ones on the road, but it’s also an homage to friends that “didn’t make it” through COVID-19. “It’s emotional for me,” she said about releasing these songs now and reliving those complex sentiments.
“It’s all of the things, the yin and the yang, which is such a symbol from my youth… It’s the joy, the longing, the love and the love lost. It’s the Narcissus among us, looking in the mirror – ‘Is it me? Am I the psycho?’” she mused. “How badly do I really want this thing that’s clearly not good for me?”
Leading off Joy’All, the catchy single “Psychos” gives us some of the best Jenny Lewis quips back-to-back in the trademark, soul-sharing way we’ve come to expect from the singer-songwriter:
I’m not a psycho“Psychos”
I’m just tryna get laid
I’m a rock-and-roll disciple
In a video game
Turn down the treble
Drop the bass
Respect to your guru
On “Love Feel,” Lewis further explores her country twang through name-dropping and a litany of clichés (another prompt from the Beck workshop). We can feel the thumping heart of Music City throughout Joy’All. The tracks were laid down in Nashville in collaboration with Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb.
Lewis said she was “really open to the moment and the space” where she recorded, inside the hallowed RCA Studios on Music Row. “You feel emboldened by the locale, for sure.” She certainly vibed with Cobb, with whom she became acquainted organically before deciding to partner on this record. “We get along great, we’re the same exact age.” Cobb and the other esteemed instrumentalists he employed – drummer Nate Smith and bass guitarist Brian Allen – retained much of the lo-fi charm of Lewis’s home-recorded demos but added flourishes like the “Purdie shuffle” and artful handclaps on the title track. The percussive nature of Joy’All somehow underpins its soul.
In the ballad “Essence of Life,” Lewis juxtaposes suffering with ecstasy. I asked if she feels like she’s held those in balance recently. “Well,” she sighed, “sometimes there’s more of one than the other. And that’s just how it goes. But I think you look forward to the MDMA of it all.” Half a minute later we giggled in agreement that Eeyore, the downtrodden donkey sidekick to Winnie The Pooh, was the ultimate emo kid. “Lean into the light but sparkle blue” is the final line of the tune, acknowledging we might choose joy, experience ecstasy, but always have a little sorrow shimmer to us, too.
Jenny Lewis continues shimmering, y’all. Her sterling voice feels like it’s always been with us – from the early aughts fronting indie darlings Rilo Kiley, to offering backing vocals on the beloved Postal Service project Give Up, which celebrates its 20th anniversary on a U.S. tour this fall. After many years and four solo releases honing her voice, Lewis’s “nominative determinism” is manifesting ample joy on her newest, our WNXP Record of the Week.