Jeffrey Lewis has been an artist on the verge for at least 15 years now. His debut, 2001’s The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane, was one of the early standard bearers for the “anti-folk” movement of the late ’90s and early ’00s, offering lo-fi recordings and quiet, intensely personal songs with a literary bent. He followed that up with 2003’s higher-fidelity It’s The Ones Who’ve Cracked That The Light Shines Through and 2005’s City and Eastern Songs, both of which garnered rave reviews (Rolling Stone calls Lewis “downright inspiring,” while the Guardian declared him “a wordy force of nature”) and the esteem of his more famous contemporaries (Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker calls him “the best lyricist working in the U.S. today,” and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie says that he’s “hands down [his] favorite contemporary songwriter.”
That acclaim hasn’t translated to any sort of mainstream success, though. As Lewis himself has detailed extensively through his songwriting, he’s the sort of cult artist whose brushes with stardom tend to involve running into someone who looks like Will Oldham on the train, and whose tours still occasionally pay him tens of dollars a night. The tension between being an artist whose work is adored by a small number of fans, but ignored by the larger commercial and critical world, is at the core of Lewis’s music.
It’s not just in his music, either. Lewis splits his time between making records that are beloved by the handful of people who hear it and making comic books that are beloved by the small number of people who actually read them. He writes and draws Fuff, a 10-issue-deep comic book series with an underground aesthetic (think Joe Matt or Chester Brown) that keeps himself as a central character, exploring themes of creative, artistic, and commercial success. And while he bristles at the notion that his work is autobiographical, he’s willing to submit to the label “non-fiction” for much of his creative output. “People say that I’m an autobiographical or a confessional artist with the songs and the comics, but I feel like that only reflects a certain proportion of the work,” he says. “There’s always been a high percentage that are purely fictional, or fantasies, or fantastical.”
That blend of the personal and the weirdly imaginative is all over Lewis’s latest album, Manhattan. It’s his seventh official release from his label, the venerable U.K.-based Rough Trade Records (though his discography is littered with self-released and collaborative albums, as well), and–as the title suggests–it’s a collection of songs that captures the perspective that being not just a lifelong New Yorker, but a near-lifelong Manhattanite, tends to give a person.
After the release of 2011’s A Turn In The Dream Songs, Lewis found himself moving back to the East Village neighborhood he grew up in, and as he began going through the songs that he wrote in that time, he realized he had a number of songs that told a story about Manhattan. “I hadn’t started writing the songs with the intention of making an album about downtown Manhattan,” he says. “But I realized that I could present them that way. This album reflects that I’m back where I started, in my childhood neighborhood, and that informed the songs that I had been writing in the past year and a half.”
Lewis’s music has always invoked New York: His first single, “The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song,” was rooted firmly around the Manhattan hotel that Leonard Cohen’s famous song helped immortalize. (“I happened to be living in Chelsea at the time I wrote that song,” Lewis explains.) When he left Manhattan for Williamsburg for a spell in the early 2000s, his music shifted in its setting to Brooklyn. “The experience of living in Williamsburg, when the was the area for a lot of bohemian types, and the things I saw around me and the trains that we took and the culture of it, that definitely made its way into certain comic books and certain songs,” he says. But on the new album, it’s fair to say that connection is deeper and more personal. “For the first time, I’m really tapping the vein of an environment that has deeper roots for me personally. I didn’t grow up in Chelsea and I didn’t grow up in Williamsburg, but I did grow up here on the Lower East Side,” he says. “So I’ve been able to write the songs I’ve been writing in the past year and a half because it’s the same blocks, the same streets, and some of the same shops and same neighbors. I find it really irresistibly weird that this experience is passé and overlooked by modern creative culture. Any band from New York, you can probably assume they’re from Brooklyn, and you can also probably assume that they moved to Brooklyn from someplace else in America. So the fact that I’m actually a Village-based, Lower East Side-based contemporary rock band is really pretty out of step with modern culture, as does the fact that I’m actually from here, rather than somebody who moved here to live the dream of moving to the city and forming a band–I thought there was something interesting if I put that up front, and let that be part of my identity on this record.”
When asked about the autobiographical feel of his work, Lewis immediately rattles off a litany of songs that have nothing to do with himself or his identity–he has pure sci-fi songs like the zombie anthem “Shoot The Head, Kill The Ghoul” or the punky time travel jam “Time Machine” that he’s proud of, and which he seems concerned will get lost amid the idea that he’s just singing his journal entries.
That’s a fair point, but one thing that Lewis is interested in his “non-fiction” songs is correcting some of the misconceptions that people have about the life of a musician. On Manhattan, the song “Support Tours” aggressively attempts to demystify what it’s like to go on the road and live the rock star dream. (Sample lyric: “it’s $250 at the best, but they know a thousand others who would do the tour for less / you have to understand the situation, a band means having patience for the vast humiliation.”) It’s not the only song in Lewis’s catalog that aims to shed some light on things that people have the wrong idea about–and using his art to shed some light on the misunderstood corners of the world holds a lot of appeal to Lewis.
“There are areas where I can write a song or make a comic book about something where I have a wealth of material to share and I don’t feel like I’m the tenth person or the 20th person that’s telling the audience about this,” Lewis says. “It’s not like writing a love song where it’s like all right, we’ve heard this before. There’s a lot of material that people might relate to or be interested in hearing about.”
When it comes to explaining what being in a band is like–something Lewis has explored over and over again in different ways–it’s important to Lewis to explain that the world has moved on a lot since This Is Spinal Tap. “There is no TV show or movie that says what it’s like being in a band, which is weird because there are a lot of people in bands,” Lewis says. “I know a lot of people who are in bands, and everywhere I travel, I’m playing with other people that are also traveling in bands, and a lot of the music that people consume and listen to–look at the Mountain Goats or Magnetic Fields or Kimya Dawson or Built To Spill. These are artists that are popular enough that a lot of people are going to their shows, but there’s no real cultural representation of what their job actually entails. There’s a very old, leftover cultural sense, probably going back to A Hard Day’s Night or Don’t Look Back, and the phrase ‘party like a rockstar’ is part of the cultural lexicon–so there’s the job of being a musician in a rock band, and there’s no representation of what that job is, and what the good parts and the bad parts of it are, or what you’re doing on a daily or nightly basis. To me, that’s a rich vein to mine material, because it’s something that somebody might relate to, but has never actually heard expressed before. You could probably go through millions of hours worth of TV shows and movies that are supposed to represent what people’s lives are like in America.”
In the days before the release of the new album, Lewis was also opening an art show at the gallery/music venue Le Poisson Rouge. When you’re an artist on Lewis’s level, that’s a cool opportunity–but it also comes with creative costs, too. “I really want to make more comic books, do more drawing, and make more songs, but my time for deep focusing on that and letting creativity develop is limited by all of the stuff that absolutely has to get done,” he admits. “I can’t go on tour next month until I teach the new drummer at least fifteen songs. I can’t go to England without getting the work permits sorted. I can’t show up at the art show without first putting all the art in frames, getting it all hung up, and making the photocopies that need to be done. Everything has a deadline–the only things in my life that don’t have a deadline are the creative things. I can work on the comic tomorrow. I can write a song tomorrow. Well, tomorrow, I can work on it the next day.”
Lewis’s output–several hundred pages of comic books, seven official albums, countless side projects, and hundreds of tour dates–don’t suggest an artist whose creativity is crippled by the amount of time he’s forced to spend putting the art in frames. But it does reveal what the life of a working-class artist is like. Jarvis Cocker and Ben Gibbard might love Lewis’s songs, but they don’t have to book their tours themselves.
Still, Lewis says that, if you approach even those more administrative tasks with the right mindset, it’s all art. “I even enjoy the creative challenge of booking a tour and making all of that work out–the travel distances, the kind of deals I can strike with promoters, the kind of housing. That’s a very hands-on, stimulating, engaging, and challenging thing that, in some ways, has occupied more of my creative time than sitting down and drawing comics or writing songs. The majority of my job is actually all of that organizational stuff–but it’s never paint-by-numbers.”