From presumed bad joke to opening for Cat Power and the Pretenders on a current North American tour, Juliette Lewis has navigated the back-and-forth between being an Oscar-nominated actress and a fierce rock ’n’ roll frontwoman with little regard for her naysayers. She makes no bones about the duality of her career or about the creative differences between acting and singing; there are no diva-sized meltdowns when mention is made of her breakthrough roles in Cape Fear and Natural Born Killers. In fact, it’s Lewis who brings up the critics that scoffed when she formed her original band, Juliette and the Licks, in 2003 (the same ones who thought they’d been vindicated when Lewis ditched the Licks earlier this year to go solo).
She may finally be able to prove them wrong. Churning out her new album in just a few months after the split, the piano-driven Terra Incognita (made with Omar Rodriguez-Lopez of the Mars Volta producing) might just be the record that earns Lewis a little respect.
When you decided to start pursuing music, did you imagine that this is what your life would look like?
Lewis: I imagined it from the artistic standpoint in the new work that I’ve made. I imagined I would evolve or progress as a songwriter, and get more and more out of my comfort zone. I saw those things as part of my artistic evolution, and it’s sort of like what I am in film — I try not to work from the ego and do things that make you feel uncomfortable, make you do things you’re scared of and really surrender to the moment. But did I ever know I was going to end up in Turkey or Jerusalem at the Wailing Wall, and be like, “Oh, I’m only here because of my rock ’n’ roll dream; I’m not on vacation’? No. I had an intention. You can dream a dream, and then it manifests and you’re like, “Holy shit, this is happening!”
Here’s a little story. When I first started my band five years ago, I was trying to get a manager and booking agent, and to explain to people about how committed I am. They’re so nervous about actors because they think you’re flaky; they think they book a tour for two months and then you go, “Oh sorry, I got a movie. Cancel the tour.” I’m never that! It’s sort of the other way around. Film’s created such a strong work ethic in me that once you have something committed, you honour that... I was telling this manager, “You don’t know how far I wanna go with this. I wanna go all the way to Brazil!” I said Brazil because it seemed like the farthest place I could imagine, and then four years later, there I was on a festival stage playing for 50,000 people, sharing the stage with Björk and the Killers.
All these images are so surreal.
What’s funny to me is that music is more of a cinematic existence than film. Film is a very technical medium, and don’t get me wrong: I’ve been to amazing places and worked with exceptional people, but the medium itself is very tedious. A two-minute scene can take three days. With music, it’s communal, it’s spiritual, it really is the first art medium. You’re dealing with sound, and rain dances, and celebrations, and an asking of the gods — people would bang stones together and chant. I don’t know — it still goes back to the jungle, in a way, for me.
That explains the bull image on the front of your album. Very primal.
I wanted to allow all my contrasts to come through on this record. That means sonically and emotionally, and the whole thing of Terra Incognita is exploring the unknown... Some of the songs, I just broke rules. The initial notes of [the song] “Female Persecution” — that’s my really abstract song, it doesn’t even follow a scale structure. And some of these songs don’t follow conventional song structure. Lyrically and melodically, they’re more exposing, and that’s what I wanted to do. Like, “Okay, it took me five years to really cut my teeth. Now let me get to who I am as a songwriter and really express all the facets, and not just the rock ’n’ roll animal that people know me as.”
Was there a piece of music that made you decide music was something you could do with your life?
There were a couple of turning points. I was always a music lover and tweaker, if you will. [Laughs] Music is the soundtrack to all my heartaches and joys, and I always use music to get into roles and get into the feelings of certain scenes. It’s a visceral ignition, a drumbeat or two chords. But I used to be deathly afraid of crowds, and it comes from when I was young and when I was extremely introverted and got kind of famous, because the last thing you need is extra eyes on you when you go out to get coffee. [Laughs] But I went to a Rolling Stones concert in ’98, and it’s not so simple as that, but I just sort of felt the perspective of the audience, this elation, and I guess it made me less fearful of that, because I was this screaming person saying, “I love you, Mick! I love you, Keith!” Long story short, I started the band with the intention of confronting what I feared, which was to sing and express myself that way.
And it would be so different to perform in front of 50,000 people versus 100 people on a film crew.
Oh, yeah. Movies are a very insular, creative process and it’s really interesting, and I love it, but it’s totally different. I just did a bunch of movies last year; I hadn’t done any in a couple years. And it was so exciting because all the things I love and get frustrated and challenged by come alive. It has everything to do with who you’re working with and the material you’re working with. Film is totally collaborative, and for it to be good, it relies on so many other things.
Juliette Lewis opens for Cat Power and the Pretenders on Wednesday, Aug. 26 at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park, 5 pm. Tickets $55 from Ticketmaster, Zulu, and Highlife.