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Juliette Lewis’ new CD a sonic ‘smorgasbord’

By Luke Baumgarten
/ Source: Reuters

An actress of startling range, Juliette Lewis has released an EP and two albums since 2003 with her band the Licks.

Citing a desire to strike out in new directions, Lewis disbanded the group in 2009, forming the New Romantiques soon after. The resulting album, "Terra Incognita," produced by Omar Rodriguez-Lopez of The Mars Volta, is exhilarating and exhausting -- spacey, Latin-tinged, tribal, grungy, droney, occasionally bluesy and even, just for a second, a little country. The sonic variance, though, is anchored by Lewis' gravelly, brazen yowl, which sounds like Patti Smith one minute and Kim Deal the next. Billboard caught up with Lewis by phone when she was in central Italy in the middle of a European tour.

Billboard: Where are you right now?

Juliette Lewis: Napoli. I've never been here. It's a time-table Rubik's Cube lining up press, but touring's great ... It's an endurance test on the senses. Yesterday was a 12-hour airport extravaganza. It was like serving prison time, but my band and I are so goofy, and we joke around and it's fine. We did it all on four hours' sleep -- but it's so great: You get onstage, you push yourself to the limit.

Billboard: The first noticeable thing about "Terra Incognita" is that it covers an incredible amount of sonic ground.

Lewis: It's a smorgasbord. It's filled with sonic contrast, and the sonic contrast represents humanity and my contradictions. I always call myself an emotionalist. I feel. When I wrote this album I felt disillusioned and optimistic. I felt innocent and vulnerable as much as I felt cynical and strong.

That's my emotional context, so the sonic contrast of (the record) fit. The heavy bottom -- the drum sounds are so f---ing meaty -- anchors it, and the guitar textures accentuate the story. Omar was the perfect producer for that.

Billboard: Rodriguez-Lopez has said he's meticulous and hard to work with. What was your experience like?

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Lewis: He's not that way with me. With his own stuff he cracks the whip in a very particular way. He's a conductor, he's a mad conductor. He literally conducts with his hands and his mouth -- he beatboxes it. But in this case I was the artist, so I was hard to deal with. Not really!

Our union, though, was a match made in heaven. He's much more versed in music and he's a bit of a genius, but we speak similarly because he hears riffs and to him it's connected to everything else -- to the stars and people and cinema.

Billboard: So how did the recording process work then?

Lewis: I would talk my wacky language to him and he'd interpret it to the drummer. I'd say, "I want it to sound like Zeus woke up from a nap and he's pissed and there's an opening in the clouds and he starts handing out lightning bolts," which is crazy, but that's how I hear the rhythm. And Omar, he whispers some things to the drummer, and that's exactly what it sounds like. It really encouraged the songwriter within me.

Billboard: Do your acting and songwriting come from the same place?

Lewis: They're interrelated. It's like a painter who's painting with oil, then you decide, "I'm only going to make junk art." You're still an artist, your medium is different. Now I work with sounds but I still connect with that center. It's all a sense of surrender and an attempt to connect.

Acting is me, but music is even more me. It's everything. It's the bitch's brew. It's my past self, present and future, and then my imagination. Being an actor is like being a bass player, one of the component parts to the collective hole.

Billboard: And so fronting the New Romantiques is like being the writer-director?

Lewis: Yeah, it's the writer-director and ... (laughs) I don't know if the metaphor fully translates, but yeah, the writer and director -- and the emotionalist.