JENNY & JOHNNY aren’t indie rock’s Sonny & Cher. They’re a duo with a unique history that’s shown in every infectious harmony and comforting retro pop rock lick embossed on their debut I’m Having Fun Now. Before their first major gig in Toronto, Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis and singer-songwriter Johnathan Rice chatted with us about annoying critics, how they exchanged musical tastes and why their songs are wrapped in a sweater of intimacy, not love.
Can love become stronger with the help of music?
JOHNATHAN RICE: Yeah. We haven’t really figured it out yet.
JENNY LEWIS: Well I think when you’re in a band, it’s like you create your own little family. Whether you’re romantically involved or not, you’re traveling with a group you can call your family. Like I come from a small one and when I was kid, I always dreamed of being in a big family. So starting a band when I was nineteen kind of filled that hole and made me secure and protected.
What was the first interaction between you two like?
RICE: It’s hard to meet someone for the first time, but..
LEWIS: I think it was friendly.
RICE: Yeah, we’re pretty nice to each other on stage. Sometimes the performance can get really intense and it’s like you’re in character but when you leave the stage it’s hard to tell if you’re still in character. We’re not singing love songs. For me, it’s almost cathartic to play with Jenny. It doesn’t feel like we’re in that stairwell for the first time, but it kind of feels like a stairway to heaven.
LEWIS: That was bad.
RICE: Well it was suppose to be a joke.
LEWIS: I guess (laughs).
What sparked the attraction?
RICE: Well, what’s not to like?
LEWIS: Oh no (laughs). I’d say funny jokes.
RICE: Lots of jokes.
Though you said your songs generally don’t talk about love, does the music itself display the emotions you have for each other?
LEWIS: I think if you’re singing in harmony with someone, that in itself is a very powerful thing. Like the sound of our voices together is very sweet.
RICE: Music and songwriting are intimate. Whether you’re creatively or romantically involved with someone, there’s going to be a high level of intimacy and you can see that.
So your music shows the intimacy between a Jenny and a Johnny?
LEWIS: It’s funny that you say that because we didn’t set out to call our band Jenny & Johnny. We had a list of ten other band names but they were all used. We’d go to MySpace and go “No, they’re all taken!” (laughs).
RICE: All bands name are taken.
LEWIS: Except for Jenny & Johnny which is the most obvious band name. But I think we justified that every girl can be a “Jenny” and every guy can be a “Johnny”. They happen to be our real names but they’re very generic ones and the title itself is kind of like a love story.
Why is it that most of the new material is different from your older collaborations?
RICE: Well songs like “Love Hurts” aren’t ours. That song was written for The Everly Brothers. They were kind of like the gold standard for harmonious groups and they inspired the Beach Boys to sing and even The Beatles.
LEWIS: It also inspired us. Like when we started singing that song live it would get one of the best reactions of the night as it was the two of us and an acoustic guitar. I think that sound is something we aimed for then but after we toured a bit more, we wanted to make a record that was a bit more upbeat and rockin’.
As both of you have been musicians for quite sometime and have different influences, what was the mutual exchange of music between you two like?
LEWIS: Well we realized we had grown up listening to totally different music. I mean, there was a little bit of crossover but for the most part, I was completely unaware of the classics. I was raised on hip-hop, show tunes and indie rock while Johnathan grew up listening to his parents’ record collection so we exchanged a lot of music. He gave me a Bob Dylan record and I showed him Built To Spill. It definitely helped start our music collaboration.
How has the record and the feedback its received affected your relationship as musicians?
RICE: It’s background noise to me, man. I don’t care.
LEWIS: You want people to like what you love. We made this record because we loved it and we wanted to put it out into the world. You can’t worry too much about the critical response to anything. I mean if you’re a true artist, you’ll understand it resonates with some people and it doesn’t with others.
RICE: Like when you stumble upon a music magazine and you start reading it and notice there’s an article in there about you that isn’t good, you feel bad because..
LEWIS: It sucks.
RICE: It just sucks. I think it takes months and years to fully appreciate records and sometimes you shouldn’t let the opinions of others take over. Let time take over. Like when I first played the first White Stripes record, it sounded f*cking righteous. It still does but I don’t know what the reviews were like for it. Nobody liked Exile On Main St. when it first came out and now it costs over $150 for the full re-issue box set.
LEWIS: I think you never really understand your own music until years later. You make something and you’re excited about it but then you don’t listen to it for a few years and later discover what you could have done differently.
RICE: Everyone is a critic. We played a College Music Journal show a few days ago in New York and there were a lot of press people there. You know how when you’re a kid and you’re telling a scary story you’d shine the flashlight a certain way? The press were pretty much doing that but were illuminated by iPads. They’re literally reviewing and critiquing the show as it’s going on.
LEWIS: They didn’t even wait until the end!
RICE: Literally, as the show was going on. I guess, as Ray Charles once said: “They can write whatever they like, once they spell my name right”.
Do you think critics should stop reviewing albums and concerts?
LEWIS: No, definitely not.
RICE: Everyone’s got a job to do and I respect everyone’s line of work. It’s not like I don’t respect critics.
LEWIS: But they’re criticizing our work. Everyone has responsibilities and as an artist you can’t allow yourself to get caught up in opinions or you’ll die an uncomfortable death.
RICE: Self-loathing is always a click away.
LEWIS: Don’t put yourself on Google Alerts and don’t let your parents do it either or they’ll call you and bum you out (laughs).
What’s one moment in the past year where you were reassured why you’re doing this collaboration?
RICE: When we got asked to open for Pavement. They’re one of our favourite bands and I never got a chance to see them when I was in high school. I think just the fact we did that a few months after we recorded the album is amazing.
LEWIS: We don’t know why we made this record, we just made it. There have been moments though where we’ve said “Well, maybe that’s the reason why we made this album”.
RICE: Like the moment in Ventura in California. It was the two of us. Just the two of us mastering the album. When we drove home with the only copy in the world, it was breathtaking. We kind of did this record in secret and could have easily just put it on the shelf and been the only ones who could listen to it.
LEWIS: That would have been cool too.
It was a spontaneous release because no knew about it. So when it was announced, it was kind of like Christmas morning for your fans.
LEWIS: Yeah, there really wasn’t any pressure. There are bands that do announce albums way ahead of time. Like the new Arcade Fire record, I was on pins and needles for months. It was like, oh my God, I can’t wait to listen to it!
RICE: I didn’t listen to that album until it physically came out. You should never listen to an album digitally through shitty computer speakers.
LEWIS: Especially when a band like that goes to the extent of recording in a church to get that pure, analog sound. It deserves more.
RICE: It doesn’t deserve speakers that sound like one of those greeting cards you open up.
LEWIS: “Happy birthday to the The Suburbs!”
You’ve put out a record and shown the intimacy that occurs between a Jenny and a Johnny through music; what’s next?
RICE: You know how we’ve been wanting to get beach cruisers? I found them.
LEWIS: How much?
RICE: They’re quite expensive.
LEWIS: I want a cheap-y.
RICE: You want a cheap one? I kind of want an expensive one. You know what, I think they may have to be borrowed.
LEWIS: I may cut all my hair off.
LEWIS: Just like you. Remember when you did it? I shed a lot of tears (laughs).
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