The cult singer-songwriter discusses loneliness, luck and his love of comic books with Samuel Hornsby.
It’s the end of January but Jeffrey Lewis still has his Christmas tree up. On the wall hangs a homemade collage of ‘The Terminator’ with the head of ‘Lou Reed’. The off-kilter appearance of the living interior matches the appearance of its occupant whose bucked teeth and balding hair may leave passers-by to judge him as an oddball. Such things do not bother him though.
As he potters about his cramped New York apartment on video call, there is a sense of self awareness about his eccentricities which he has often embraced and elaborated on in his art.
“Just because something isn’t in the charting Top 100 doesn’t mean that it’s a failure or that it has no great quality or spirit,” Jeffrey says.
“I don’t think there could be a world in which artist like Kevin Coyne, Daniel Johnston and Jeffrey Lewis are at the top of the charts. We don’t make music that makes sense for most people. It isn’t what they’re looking for. When you’re making stuff yourself you just do what feels exciting to you. I don’t make a song or a comic book with the intention of having a sales target or popularity.”
The music of Jeffrey Lewis has often been labelled anti-folk. The artist himself describes his style as “New York City rock ‘n’ roll with a lot of attention to the lyrics” and draws song-writing influences from the likes of Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman, Bob Dylan and, in particular, Daniel Johnston.
“Hearing the work of Daniel Johnston showed me a way to make music in the vein that I was making comic books. Daniel showed a way that just your own personality, humour and emotions could translate into making great songs. That was really a revelation to me.
“I graduated from school and suddenly I was out in the real world without much of a social scene. I was just living a very typical starving artist life. I was home most of the time and working jobs, but I had no money,” he says.
“At that point making comic books wasn’t enough to fill all my loneliness and boredom so I started writing songs. Then I found myself going to open-mic nights and performing them. My musical career came out of a big personal void and the pain of being alone. Humans are tribal creatures and if we’re severed from a social scene you almost feel this physical pain from the isolation.
“All of that emotion went into the music which were like lullabies that I would sing to myself, along with a bit of humour.”
“I feel lucky about the songs I write, not proud.”
Though Jeffrey found a cathartic release through music his first love was comic books, a passion he has had since childhood and has persisted ever since.
“It’s funny. I was just stumbling on a batch of old comics from when I was a little kid from six or seven years old. Just look at those comics I remembered how much they meant to me and how many of them I read. It was just my whole world. Music was just not part of my life as a kid. It was just comic books enveloping 100 percent of my brain.
“Comic books are something I feel I was born to do. It’s also something I feel I’m still on the path of learning how to do. I’m aware each one I make is just a further step towards the better comic that I’ll make next time after that.”
Though Jeffrey puts a great deal of time and effort into both of his two primary creative outlets, his approach to making and evaluating them is a contrast. On the one hand, he views drawing as a challenge and a craft that requires constant improvement, whereas coming up with good lyrics and melodies is something he puts more down to luck than his own intentional decisions.
“An album feels like a product of luck and a comic book feels like a product of skill. It’s very hard to feel proud of your luck. I feel lucky about the songs I write, not proud. I don’t know if you can say you’re going to be more inspired next time,” he says.
“Each album feels like some miraculous thing that I might not ever be able to repeat. Just because I wrote ten songs that I feel excited about for one album, doesn’t mean I’ll write ten more great songs for the next album. It’s almost the opposite. It’s more like ‘man, I can’t believe I came up with this album’ and then I think that I’ll never be able to come up with one again.”
Both Jeffrey’s comic books and music have a very hands-on and homemade approach. He provides all of the writing and artwork for the comics and album art as well as writing and performing the songs. His latest lo-fi release ‘2020 Tapes (Shelter-at-Homerecordings & Pandemos)’ was recorded at his home during the New York lockdown. Although, as he explains, this is not just a stylistic choice but also a necessity.
“I don’t have the technical know-how or even the recording gear to make anything high quality.
“The song is the important bit and if I can just record the song in whatever way is available, which can be in the studio or at home,” Jeffrey says.
“However, I don’t apply that mindset when I make my own album artwork. Though it is a do-it-yourself project because I am literally doing it by myself, that does not equate to being a lesser product than it would be if I were to hire somebody else. I feel like nobody is going to do a better job of the illustrations and the packaging design than I can because I think I’m quite good at it. It’s kind of D.I.Y. from the opposite perspective than the music.”
A usual staple of a Jeffrey Lewis live performance, whether in the flesh or screened digitally, are documentary style history songs accompanied by his own illustrations, combining his two artistic venture. This unique audio-visual display is one that had early roots in his musical career but has been expanded over time.
He says: “Around 1998 I started to be offered to play little shows around New York City. When you’re only playing one gig every five weeks you really have a chance to make every performance a special thing. Each show was a new chance to experiment.”
One idea to come out of that period of experimentation was illustrated songs. After a few years he ventured into non-fictional topics for them for the 25th anniversary of Rough Trade Records and soon after created one depicting the history of ‘The Fall’ when he opened for the band. Eventually though he ambitions for the format grew.
“I thought ‘what would be the most gigantic historical topic with a huge story that has nothing to do with music?’. The crazy idea I came up with was to try and tell the history of communism. I’ve been adding installations in that particular series ever since.”
His illustrated songs are emblematic of his enthusiasm for both comic books and music as well as his unique creative vision which has allowed him to persist as a cult figure for over two decades. Sure, as he admits, an artist like himself will likely never hit the charts but his passion and originality will make sure he will always stand out and be remembered.