Online Exclusive: Juliette Lewis, the extended interview

Most people know Juliette Lewis as a successful actress who has starred in such films as Cape Fear, Natural Born Killers, From Dusk To Dawn, Kalifornia and Strange Days, to name but a few. What many of these people don’t realize is that she is a successful, hard-working, hard-touring and hard-rocking musician. Lewis is currently touring with her latest release, Terra Incognita, and is bringing her highly acclaimed live show to Calgary next week. The Gauntlet had the opportunity to talk to Lewis as she was cruising the freeways of her home town Los Angeles.

Gauntlet: How’s the tour going?

Juliette Lewis: I’m in Los Angeles right now. I’ve been here for three days after touring all over Europe for a month. I still have jet lag and I just bought a blender I’m really excited about. I have this routine now that when I come home I try to be extremely healthy, because the road is not the healthiest eating. I have one week off then we’re back on the road all over the U.S. and Canada. I do quite well in Europe. I’m so excited on this tour to be playing many parts of Canada because I’ve done some shows in Canada, but not enough. It’s always fun to do new territories and more of the territory that you love. It’s why I named the new record Terra Incognita, because of this great pleasure I’ve developed of going to uncharted territory both metaphorically and physically.

G: It’s great exposure for you as well.

JL: Yeah! Well, I’m six years in now with an EP and three records, but my first objective when making music is all about the live show for me. I think with the advent of all that’s happening on the internet and the deconstructing of the music label system, the live show is this beautiful wild animal that’s the untouchable medium. I relish it. To me it’s where all my drama, pathos and rock and roll can come to life. In the beginning my first focus was to go with a ferocious live show. It’s what has brought me beautiful audiences all over the world.

G: Audiences who keep coming back.

JL: That’s the thing. It’s alright to be the bearded lady for a second, or the resident freak or laughs for comedic people who are curious. But if you don’t have anything to give them they’re not going to come back, so that’s exactly right. I’m very cocky about my live show (laughs).

G: As you should be. When I saw you with the Licks about five years ago I really appreciated your energy and connection with the audience. How much do you draw upon your theatrical background when performing live?

JL: I think it’s innate, it’s in me. For me it’s an unleashing. I live in my emotions. I see sounds visually. That’s one of the pleasures of working with Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, who produced the new record. He understands sounds as being full of drama and visuals as well. He creates landscapes and moods through guitar, effects and rhythm. I think we compliment each other. I’ve always used music to get into character. The thing with music is that it’s visceral, instantaneous and less cerebral than creating a character.

G: How did you hook up with Omar? Were you a Mars Volta fan?

JL: That was a really special thing. I met him at a Japanese music festival called Fuji Rock. I revered Omar and was intimidated by him. I later called him and we were like two peas in a pod. I showed him my piano songs. He freaked out and thought we’re very honest and he heard something in it. I wrote the rest of the record with my friend Chris Watson and then brought it to Omar. We recorded in New York and Mexico, both places he has a studio and was living at the time.

G: Terra Incognita is a real departure from what you were doing with the Licks. It’s more diverse, textural and experimental. Was this your intention from the start or did it just evolve that way?

JL: I wanted to create music that represented duality and conflict. A song like “Fantasy Bar” is celebratory and makes you want to go out, hustle and have a good time. But the lyrics are quite cynical about where you might end up and the characters you might meet, so that’s a juxtaposition. “Suicide Dive Bombers” is a song about disillusionment, but ultimately is a song about hope and trying to create unity in my audience. It’s really one of our most beautiful songs. “Hard Lovin’ Woman” is more of a straight up blues number. It’s a more complicated record. The thing about the Licks is that it was this very strong, exciting, whammo muscular rock. I was ready to challenge myself and keep a wall there, so that project reached its point.

G: Terra Incognita is an unexpected step in a new direction that I hope you continue to explore.

JL: I’m already thinking of new songs for the next record. I work with Chris who’s in my band. I’ve known him for over 10 years. It’s a really special thing to make music and a band with an old friend. So yeah, we’re going to keep on keeping on.

G: How much freedom do you have in the studio? Is there much label pressure to go a certain way?

JL: No! I make all the records myself and label puts them out. I don’t really have anyone to answer to except my own complexities and the audience I want to take on live. There’s a lot of freedom and lot of pressure because it’s so wide open.

G: Do you ever feel like it’s too wide open, like being intimidated by a blank canvas?

JL: In the beginning. I love the Cars. Blondie, The Stooges and Nina Simone. Then I just thought about the bare-bones, rock-and-roll animal I could love that within this structure. Now I’ve discovered intimacy and I’m beginning to let that out. I pretty much follow what’s in my heart.

G: What made you decide to branch out from movies into music. Was it a long time coming or was it spur of the moment?

JL: It’s funny you should ask that. It was so not spur of the moment. It was like a bubble or a volcano with heated lava. There was so much at the surface that it was due to implode or explode. It took a lot of denying for a long time. When I was little I did musicals, so my whole artistic self was a mix of dance, performance art, drama and music. I got successful in this one medium and I became a little complacent and didn’t quite know how to go about music. I started stripping it down by first writing some songs. Second was putting a band together so I could play those songs and put on a live show. I knew in the beginning that the music would develop. Since then I’ve been making up for lost time. There won’t be an end to it in the next couple of years, that’s for sure.

G: Glad to hear it. How difficult is it to balance the musical and theatrical sides of your career?

JL: Well in the beginning there was no balance. I made a clear choice. I deliberately did not do anything that was offered to me for four years. It was a lot of pressure I put on myself. After that I was able to pursue my other passion and do films. It kind of worked out that when I’m not touring I can make a movie.

G: That must keep you hopping.

JL: Oh yes it does! I’ve got three movies coming out so that will be very exciting.

G: When you first started out as a rock musician, did you find that having previous fame was like a double-edged sword?

JL: That’s so funny. Yes, it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I could get interviewed. I could get on the radio. They’re not going to play my music on the radio, but they’ll talk to me. The negative is that I’ll be judged 10 times harder than a new, unknown act.

G: Does it matter to you that more people know you through your acting as opposed to your music?

JL: No, that’s fine. I’ve played so many festivals just off the strength of my live shows and word of mouth. Whether I’ll get a good review in Rolling Stone, that will never happen, because you might have snotty people sitting at their desks. But as far as the rock and roll of touring live acts, I run into a lot of bands all the time because we’re all on the same festival circuit. It’s really rewarding to become a peer to people I admire. I get to be a fan and a peer at the same time.

Juliette Lewis is performing at the Republik on Thursday, July 29.

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