Interview: Jeffrey Lewis
A post-gig chat with the anti-folk superstar
On stage, Jeffrey Lewis is an endearing storyteller who captivates the attentive with waking dreams that ebb and flow through semi-conscious sense impressions. His songs are full of self-doubt, but he is without selfism that stops the specific from being universal. Moreover, the songs retain interest even when you know what the denouement will be.
Off stage, he is an unassuming twenty-eight year old who looks a lot younger. His demeanour is slightly apologetic, his eyes and mouth are slightly skewered. He is tour-weary, battling with germs and yearning to be back home. From behind his merchandise stall at ULU, interrupted only once by a girl asking how much the albums are (“Ten pounds each . . . [she looks doubtful] . . . or make me an offer.”), he granted this short interview to The Mind’s Construction.
How are you?
“Oh man, I’ve been better,” Lewis drawls.
Tell me about your life: What were the key events? What made you who you are today?
“That’s a pretty broad question, Jeez. We never had a TV in the house when we were growing up, so I read a lot of comic books and entertained myself. I don’t know . . .”
What is the high point of your life so far?
“Doing good shows is always a high point . . .”
Apart from music.
“Oh, um . . . travelling, finishing a good artwork. Finishing a comic book is great.”
And the low point?
“Feeling as if I’m just wasting time, wasting everybody else’s time, when we do a show that sucks. When you’re doing anything that’s in the public eye, whether it’s comic books or songs, for somebody to pay attention and spend money, you really have to give something, communicate something and if it’s not something special it just feels like a real sham. I’m not the kind of creative engine that I feel I can produce something great all the time, I’ve got maybe 1:3 ratio of when I feel I’ve done something decent. And, for me, if I haven’t done something decent it just feels terrible.”
What separates you from your peers?
“We think pretty small . . . I think pretty small. Selling a 1000 records seems like a pretty big deal to me. Just having things out on CD as opposed to homemade cassettes seems like a pretty big deal. Being able to play a show to a few dozen people seems a pretty big deal. Things that seem like peanuts to most bands seem like the pinnacle of achievement to me. Maybe that’s a difference: my drive for success. I feel I’ve reached a pretty high level of success just being able to do what I’m doing now.”
Where does the inspiration for your narrative songs come from?
“Just what’s going around me. Any time I think of something and I get a sort of double take where you think – I can’t make a comment about that. Or, I can’t put that out there. Then you know it really must be something. You think: what if my girlfriend hears that? Or my record label? Or my Mom? Any time I enter that fear territory, that’s when I know I have to do it. That’s when I feel, you know, whatever it is.”
Are your songs as effortless to write as they appear or are they difficult?
“It’s effortless when it happens. But it could be 8 months between songs, you really can’t force it.”
Last question: What is the difference between your external appearance and your internal make-up?
“That’s a very interesting question. That’s probably one of the most interesting questions I’ve ever been asked, thank you for asking such an interesting question.”
“Jeez, if everyone could imagine themselves looking the way they feel they should look; I wonder how different everyone would look.
“I guess a lot of times it is frustrating when people pass you by, girls don’t look at you, people just don’t give you any respect or any love, based on looks, lack of charisma or magnetism, or dressing the right way or saying the right things. It’s frustrating for everyone. I mean, everyone’s a cool person, basically, unless you’re like . . . not.”
He surveys the people milling around the bar then, for the first time, makes eye contact with me.
“It seems like such a terrible thing to say, that you can read a character when you first see them: how can you judge them? Plenty of people are not what their looks are. Look at this girl here. We could form a general perception of her; there are certain things we could say about her. But if you met her, you would be surprised. How can you be surprised when you don’t know who she is yet?”
She’s actually my girlfriend.
“Well, maybe you wouldn’t be quite so surprised then.”
Jeffrey Lewis looks beneath social artifice into the mind’s construction; I recommend you check him out.