So why does Eric Clapton sell a lot more records than Daniel Johnston?
Jeffrey Lewis has been making music and comics books for over a decade. Originally from the Lower East Side, Lewis has somehow been largely overlooked at home but found receptive and eager audiences in Europe. Since 2001, he has released five albums on Rough Trade Records, while writing his evocative comic series, Fuff.
This year, Lewis has been busy on stage and off. He was a contributing columnist for the New York Times blog Measure for Measure, reflecting on songwriting. He has also presented a number of lectures about Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, as well as touring in support of his latest album, ‘Em Are I.
Rumpus: I recently saw Examined Life, the film by Astra Taylor that consists of interviews with famous contemporary philosophers discussing, inevitably, philosophy, and the film makes a leap in addressing these huge topics orally and quickly, rather than in lengthy treatises. So, I began to think about your histories of communism. One could write a PhD thesis about communism in China, but you sum it up in about five minutes. What are some of the benefits, and drawbacks, of presenting a ‘history’ in the form of a comic book/song?
Jeffrey Lewis: I think the benefits are tremendous, and the power of accessibility in art is one of it’s most explosive and insidious attributes. A great artist can change society because of the entertaining and mesmerizing quality of his or her art. To be entertaining and educational and enlightening, all at once, this is a good goal to have. And of course as they say, “brevity is the soul of wit” or something like that. A lot more people will want to hear a 5-minute singing cartoon about Communism in China than will want to read that PhD thesis, and that’s the power of it even if a lot of details will be missing – that’s the reason something like that often has more impact on society. But unfortunately most easily-digested entertainment has as much actual content as a Spongebob Squarepants episode, so the trick is to try to fit actual nourishing content into enjoyable entertainment. I usually think of art as having a measurable content of nourishment, whether factual or emotional or whatever, and I try to make sure that whatever I do has as much nourishment as I can muster.
Rumpus: The press reaction to your music ranges from lavish praise to harsh appraisals. How does criticism – both good and bad – impact your creative output?
Lewis: It makes one realize how silly criticism is, that there are such widely varying summations of one’s work. I was thinking I could release an album of me singing a number of the reviews of my recent album to illustrate this point, like, turn the album reviews into a bunch of songs and present them all in a row just so people can see how self-negating all those opinions are. What can you think when one review says “this album is brilliant, and all the songs flow into the utmost brilliant song ‘The Upside-Down Cross'” then another review says “this album is brilliant, except for that horrible and pointless song ‘The Upside-Down Cross’,” and another review will say “Jeffrey really sounds confident and relaxed on this new album”, the next reviewer says “Jeffrey sounds more depressed and awful than ever” – these totally contrasting reviews happen all the time! Some of the reviews of ‘Em Are I say “on this new album, Jeffrey sounds just as home-made and lo-fi as ever” and some of the reviews say “this is a totally new sound for Jeffrey, completely hi-fi and completely different from all his other albums”.
The funny thing is that some reviews are published in magazines and websites that are seen by millions of people, and other reviews are in very small publications or less popular websites, and you just have to be lucky to have the good reviews land in places where more people see them, and bad reviews land in places where they will be less seen. With each album release this just seems to be a matter of luck, because as you say there’s a pretty even split between some who love it and some who hate it.
Rumpus: Your songs have an acute awareness of their ‘songness’ and the act of being written. In “Chelsea Hotel”, when you sing that, “the only thing I did was write this stupid song about it,” and also, in “Back When I Was 4” when “I left the best thing that I knew and gave it up for fortune and for fame.” These songs make me think of ‘pathos’ in the traditional Greek sense, where a writer elicits an emotional reaction on purpose. But there is a distinct difference between being pathetic and playing a pathetic character, right? Could you discuss the use of self-awareness in your work?
Lewis: I never felt like I had a surface image to rely on that people would like – I always felt like my music would not be very fancy music, my voice is not very fancy, there is nothing hiding me from the audience. Everybody has a direct view of the person “behind” the art, so there is going to be a certain amount of awareness of who is making these songs. But I like paintings where you can see the brush-strokes.
By the way, I don’t think talking about myself making songs is a very interesting topic, there are so many other more engaging things to think about and write about. I even have a song called “Songs About Songwriting Suck”, it’s the sort of thing that comes from being at a lot of open mics where people are constantly writing songs about how hard it is to write a song, or singing about how they lament that they have nothing to say. This usually results in pretty uninteresting art, and I try not to fall into this trap.
Rumpus: Fuff #7, your latest comic book, is also hyper-aware of its form. You digress about product placement, but, more importantly, you reflect on the boundaries between “autobiographical ‘indie’ black and white comix, and mainstream full color superhero sci-fi stuff.” Why do you see the boundaries breaking down? What purposes do you think that serves?
Lewis: That was a joke about my comics and my music, that they mix together all of these elements and thus they are harder to describe for someone. When somebody asks me “What are your comic books about?” or “What are your songs about?” there is no answer and I feel like an idiot not having an answer, like I don’t know what I am making. I really do know what I’m making, but it’s not one thing, it’s everything I like, and I see no reason to leave out any of that. If I like hardcore straight-edge punk music, gentle psychedelic folk music, gangster rap, indie-rock with a lot of guitar pedals, and I find inspiration from all these things in different songs of mine, shouldn’t I be allowed to make any of this kind of music that I want? And it’s the same for the comic books, why should I only make autobiographical stories? Or only political stories? Or only superhero stories? Or only comedy stories? I am a bit creatively desperate, when I sit with a pen and paper I am desperate for ANY idea that makes me excited, I don’t care what kind of idea it is!
Rumpus: When in conversation with Tobias Wolff, John Darnielle said that if he’d learned great musicianship when he was young, he might never have become a good songwriter. How do you view the relationship between technical prowess and creative drive?
Lewis: There are people who are great technical players like Eric Clapton, and there are people who are great intuitive songwriters like Daniel Johnston. There are sometimes people who are great at both the technique and the creativity, the two sides of the coin, maybe Jimi Hendrix is an example. But I realized I was not a great musical technician, if I was going to make anything interesting it would have to come from the creative side of me and not the craft side of me. And I prefer artists who are creative more than artists who are technical, I think everybody would agree with that. So why does Eric Clapton sell a lot more records than Daniel Johnston?
Also, about Jimi Hendrix – although his playing is at an uber-level, his voice is quite lo-fi and normal, like a regular person singing in the shower, and this makes his music much better than if he was just a technical player and singer. And of course he had more ideas in his three-year recording career than Eric Clapton has had in his whole life, but that’s not Eric’s fault. I do feel pretty lucky that I’m not so great at playing and singing, it forces me to make sure I’ve really got something worth presenting because I can’t rely on any kind of virtuosity to dazzle people with.