It took eight days for Jenny Lewis’s new video to rack up nearly 2.5 million views on YouTube. Of course it did. “Just One of the Guys” is pop-culture catnip: a buoyant song about a woman struggling to be taken seriously on her own terms, starring an all-female backing band made up of Hollywood royalty such as Anne Hathaway and Kristen Stewart.
With Lewis front and center, her celebrity cohorts vamp it up, at one point in drag, as dudes in tracksuits and mustaches. Directed by Lewis, the video is fun and frothy until the song gets to a startling verse: “There’s only one difference between you and me/When I look at myself, all I can see/I’m just another lady without a baby.”
Right after Lewis sings those lines, the camera cuts to Hathaway’s face, her bottom lip quivering as a tear streaks down her cheek.
“It’s supposed to be funny,” Lewis says, explaining that she’s fine being childless in her late 30s. “Either way, it’s cool. Whatever you decide as a woman, it’s your choice. Of course I’ve felt the cultural pressure and the cult of people who have kids. I love kids, but there’s always time for them later. You can always adopt, you can have a puppy. The songs are my children.”
“Just One of the Guys” gives Lewis’s new album its story line. “The Voyager,” which will be released on Tuesday, is her first solo release since 2008’s “Acid Tongue.” Meanwhile, Lewis plays at this weekend’s sold-out Newport Folk Festival, joining a roster of heavy hitters such as Jack White and Mavis Staples.
The new album marks a return after a tumultuous period in Lewis’s life. Her former band, Rilo Kiley, dissolved, and her father, whom she didn’t know well until the end of his life, died. The trauma sent Lewis into a tailspin, she says, grappling with insomnia that once kept her awake for five very long and strange days.
“The Voyager” is the document of overcoming those demons, but it’s shot through with Lewis’s sense of humor and an exceptional amount of candor. You can literally see Lewis’s optimism on the album cover, a tight image of her in a white pantsuit airbrushed with a rainbow motif. It’s the same outfit she’s been wearing on tour, as both a fashion statement and badge of honor.
‘I wanted to rock a little bit because I hadn’t as much on my solo records. . . . It came down to the songs and what worked. There were no parameters.’
Five years in the making, the album came together when Lewis decided to work with Ryan Adams (who headlines the Newport Folk Festival on Friday, the same day Lewis performs), at his Los Angeles studio. She had visited Adams while he and Mike Viola, both of whom produced the majority of “The Voyager,” were recording Adams’s forthcoming album, and the freewheeling vibe of those sessions appealed to her.
“Ryan saved my record, and the bulk of it I rerecorded at his studio,” Lewis says. “He just knew what to do with the songs, which had been incubating for quite some time. It was a really good opportunity to do homework. If you’re a songwriter, you have to do homework. You can exist for a while on the inspiration, but at some point you have to sit down and have the discipline to write, to finish the poem, as they say.”
“It wasn’t group therapy. It could have been, but it wasn’t,” says Viola, a Stoughton native who now lives in Los Angeles, works closely with Adams, and plays in his band. “Jenny came in as a fighter — not defensively, but with trust. She didn’t really wear any of her struggles on the outside, but it’s all in the music.”
“A certain amount of energy was important,” Lewis says, adding that most of the album was recorded in live takes. “I wanted to rock a little bit because I hadn’t as much on my solo records, partially because my band was still active. Rilo Kiley was a rock band, so I wanted my solo records to feel different. This was the first time I was a free agent, and it came down to the songs and what worked. There were no parameters.”
“The Voyager” is a reminder that Lewis’s songwriting has a sort of magical realism about it. The line between reality and fantasy is thin, and she loves to let the mystery be. Even when she sings in first person, she insists she’s not the protagonist. “She’s Not Me,” a sultry soft-rock jam that would have been a big hit in the summer of ’74, serves up a killer chorus: “She’s not me/She’s easy.”
There’s also a confession about how she cheated, and her beloved went ballistic. “No, Johnny never punched through the drywall,” she says about a certain lyric, referring to her boyfriend, fellow musician Johnathan Rice, with whom Lewis released an album, 2010’s “I’m Having Fun Now,” under the name Jenny & Johnny.
“I want to tell a compelling story,” she adds, “so sometimes I’ll fib a little bit to make it more interesting. There’s always a character in there. But it’s fine. If people want to think it’s all about me, that’s great, too.”
“Just One of the Guys” video: