Lewis is a shapeshifter, a transformer. Shifting from film to television to songwriting, for the past two decades, Lewis’ artistic prolificacy has been as storied as the characters she’s portrayed. Since her Oscar nominated debut at 18 in 1991’s Martin Scorsese film Cape Fear, Juliette Lewis’ acting dexterity earned her iconic and audacious character roles throughout the nineties, including What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Natural Born Killers, Kalifornia, From Dusk Till Dawn and the more than forty roles that followed. Just before she hit 30, Lewis took five years away from acting to take up the musical mantle, forming her band Juliette and The Licks and releasing their debut in 2004. The latest peg on her creative pegboard is her second solo album, Future Deep.
“I didn't know when I first started writing songs that it's the only artistic medium for me that is the same feeling as being in love,” Lewis exclaims. “When you write a song and you think about it, it makes your heart warm, you are humming the melody all day, you got a pep in your step--it’s got a hold of you and you hold onto it. That's what so amazing about music to me and why I didn't know my life was so deprived not making music.”
Her raw-boned lyrics and melodic concision come soulfully full circle on Future Deep. To see Lewis on stage is to see her really come alive. Her presence metamorphoses into a bombastic “live-wire jumping bean” predicated by pure energy. On that stage, you can see her musical catharsis almost as though it were its own living thing--electric, veracious and scorching.
“I know that music making is a necessity because I feel half complete when I'm not making it,” she admits. “When you write a song, it completes you—when you're done, you created magic—that's the thing. I love writing with people, I like alchemy, I like putting two energies together and seeing what we would come up with, or putting four energies together—there's some brilliant singer-songwriters that do it all themselves and they do it with their guitar or keyboard, but I like having other people to collaborate with, that would create something different than what I might realize on my own and that's magical to me.”
Some of her collaborators on Future Deep are Isabella Summers [Florence + the Machine] and Brad Shultz [Cage the Elephant]. “It’s a fresh sound that is rooted in the soulful groovy bombastic rock 'n' roll,” Lewis explains about the album’s sound.
“When I was in The Licks—I liken that to your first band out of high school—it was all energy-based, derivative but fun, so then I wrote a solo record, I wanted to explore songwriting more. So I wrote songs on piano, I wrote traditional song structure, then years later I came full circle in loving really simple hard-hitting songs, so this is me coming full circle. Now that I have a less idealized version of making music through a band, I wanted to find key people I could work with which was Isabella Summers and Brad Schultz—I wrote three with Isabella and four with Brad.”
In terms of how the songs came together, Lewis generally pulled from her collective personal life experiences. “There's always what's percolating in your brain—what's in your bloodstream at the time—storytelling-wise, lyrics that just want to reveal themselves and then you have the sounds the song inspired and that's just the untapped lyrical sentiment of the song. But sometimes I jot down phrases or lyrics all through the years or sometimes you work with another musician, you'll find the lyric you had jotted down arises out of the chords,” she muses. “A lot of people say, if it's a match made in heaven, the songs write themselves. With music, like acting, I'm still trying to arrive at my truth, my deepest truth and find what that is and take that journey.”
Michael Rappaport documented part of that journey in the documentary Hard Loving Woman, released early 2016. The doc chronicles Lewis' turn away from her acting career in lieu of being ordained into the scrutinized line of actors-turned-musicians and dealing with the stigma that comes with it. Challenging popular perception is an undercurrent not so subtle in her artistic choices, both with acting and music.
“That project was really special to me because a couple things. I was a little unsure about what I was going to do next, musically, so I had all the songs and all this footage from over the years that I always wanted to use to make a documentary,” Lewis explains. “It’s sort of a love letter to audiences that showed up and came out again again for me. I went to my friend Mike Rappaport, who is brilliant and amazing, who I’ve known for twenty years [because] I knew he was the only one I could allow to follow me or give home movies and parts of my life to, because I trusted him. I’m really proud of the documentary because I believe that it captures what I do and it captures me. I think there's a lot of love and humor in it… god, he really captured my humor, which was nice.”
If you’ve ever met Juliette in real life, you’ll immediately see that humor dashed into conversation. She possesses a unique, cool and spitfire candor—the animated and inviting type of frankness. She’s largely observational as well, more interested in knowing about you than talking about herself. I decide that I really like her in the first sixty seconds of meeting her--which was over a decade ago. Since then, on the occasion our paths cross, I’m consistently reminded, that like her artistic performances, I always walk away feeling good.
The song the documentary was named after was the first song that Lewis wrote after her band had broken up. “I had many break ups going on,” she tells me. “I had a love break up and a band break up. and I was like, fuck it! I just care a lot and I realized, OK, that's a good thing. For me it was a declaration of independence. It was sort of claiming all of what you are and it was painful. It was about the painful self and owning it and owning it is a power.”
Of the comparisons of performing music to acting, Lewis says, “I hate when people [compare it] to acting. Although it's totally different, there are similarities in that I'm trying to be as present with the material as possible and surrender to it, to be open and as true to the piece as possible. It’s like acting, in the sense that when you do a million takes and I’ve had to play the same song for over a year now. I'm always striving to have it feel like it's never been played before, that it's just being expressed in that moment, and that element. The part that is totally different from acting is that energy of that room, of the venue, and all the acts that have come before you. Each venue or room has a current to it that's really special and then you fill it up with all these magical souls that have expectations and troubles to enjoy the music. They come into this room and you're trying to create a collective and it's really like conducting an ocean current--it's really an exceptional experience, I honor it in that way,” Lewis says.
“The road will beat you up, you will be grinding, you will be tired and you'll have to play a show night after night--you have to come at it with a kind of reverence and a deep spiritualism or spiritual connection, so that none of it's lost to me--that those people showed up to be in that room in that space with me. I just try to give 100,000 Watts, I don't even know if that's allowable, is that a lot of wattage?” Lewis chuckles.
“I give a thousand percent to that space. I want to come to the songs, I never go on autopilot. I never do it in acting, I'd never do it on stage, I try to be the antithesis of complacency or autopilot. But there are certain things that you know work in a show and there's certain beats you hit but with songs and there's certain songs that I can't play because it’s too much. I don’t want to say those statements that night and there's some songs that I have to, so I would design the set depending on where I could be at peace with it, where I could deliver it. There is a song about a friend I lost on an earlier record and it's such a precious song to me that I could only sing it a couple times… and then there's the songs that are just good that you just love all the time.”
How does she keep the material fresh each time, with songs she’s performed a thousand times? “I’m a very physical performer – I'll root it in my feet, I’ll keep my hand on the microphone and I’m really into eye contact – that’s how I keep it new,” she replies. “Mind you, I'm one of those people, do what you fear and even in life moments that are supposed to be awkward and feel weird, I’m up for it, I'm game, the most wild things come about it so I have shows where I’m fucking jet-lagged, tired, and had a hard time, maybe it was [something with] my band or whatever is going on in my private life, or even in the show where I don't feel powerful, I’m not connected to my body, and every fucking time I'll look at somebody in the audience and I’m like, this show is for this person and it’ll ground me into the show and my experience at the time and I'll start really personalizing it… there'll be a sea of faces but I'll start connecting it to different individuals.”
I wonder how it feels to force yourself out of your head to that extent, no matter what may be going inside it, in order to fully perform and engage an audience.
“There's all kinds of head trips that come in to see you, especially when we were first performing and your head can freak you out, but I am always down for whoever is there to get into it, that's our journey, it's us together,” she continues. “I start really personalizing the experience and that roots me in the present even more than singing to the back of the room. So that's a drill I like to do. That's what was happening with The Licks a lot, I was starting to get sick of my own music and the other thing I'll do is I'll make changes on the road, I’ll do segues, I like to do shit in the moment. There’s a song I play every single set and it changes everything in the audience; there's a big ending in it and it's so fun to perform live, but it's some deep personal shit, so it's hard to do.”
While Lewis is a high-energy and engaging performer, she understands the value of stirring shit up and expressing yourself in a sometimes nearly visceral way. “In our political climate, it's always necessary that people express and feel and inspire others, but of course now more than ever, we need good passion and energy in the arts with something to say and with a little volatility. I think anger is good when it's focused energy and it inspires strong protective action especially in rock 'n' roll-- rock should be angry and celebratory and I hope to deliver more of that for the future.”
Few understand this sentiment better than Lewis’ boyfriend and collaborator, Brad Wilk, drummer of one of the most archetypal and revered hard-rock bands: Rage Against the Machine. Lewis understands the epitome of electric statement rock. “You wanna leave a space feeling electrified and more powerful as an individual and thus as a collective to come to your own peace. This is going to be an exciting time, I think, in the arts, I know for me I'm always trying to make it more honest, a little more dangerous. Like to me spiritualism can feel dangerous to people acknowledging that you're this wild and somehow exceptional force, and that's what I want people to feel. That's what music is rooted in - celebration of life and loving, spiritual practices. I can't wait for you to listen to what I'm doing next. All I can describe it as is Spirit music and I'm writing it now with my man. It's really deep and resonant, it's really fun, I can't wait to get that going.”
Written by Heather Seidler
Photography by Stephanie Oberle & Jen Vesp