News and notes from Fredericksburg's entertainment scene
Sounds: Jeffrey Lewis
BY ANDREW ALLINGHAM
FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR
At every show, Jeffrey Lewis tries to include a “low budget music video” in which he turns the pages of a large sketch pad to illustrate a song. Whether it’s a multi-part “History of Communism” or something about Leonard Cohen’s sexual encounters in the Chelsea Hotel, Lewis draws his audience in for a little story time.
It’s an easy way to combine both of Lewis’s passions—comic book writing and music—while also showing off his knack for self-deprecating humor and honest storytelling.
“I’ve spent more time in my life illustrating than I have spent on playing music, so in terms of an actual skill set, I have more skills as an illustrator than I have as a musician,” Lewis said in an email interview.
Lewis got his start as part of the ’90s New York City anti-folk scene, playing with the likes of Regina Spektor, Kimya Dawson, Diane Cluck and The Moldy Peaches. Not necessarily a style in and of itself, anti-folk combines a punk do-it-yourself ethos with traditional folk instruments. That scene also gave Lewis an audience for his self-published comic books, including his long-running series, “Fuff.”
As Lewis found success in the music world, he found opportunities in the art world by doing illustrations for Kimya Dawson, a press kit for The Mountain Goats and a cover for Bearded Magazine.
“Everything I do tends to actually be about something,” Lewis said. “I’m not much for abstraction, either in my artwork, my writing, my songwriting, even in making instrumental music. I’m probably more practical and literal than abstract.”
For example, in the song “Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror” Lewis describes a nightmarish encounter with a man on a train who looks like Will Oldham, an Americana–punk singer who also performs as Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Palace. The odd meeting allows Lewis to put his personal demons on display as he struggles with making art, seeking fame and pursuing a more practical calling.
In typical Lewis fashion, his lyrics get straight to the point:
“Will Bonnie Prince, Palace or whatever / What do you think about it? / Is it worth being an artist or an indie-rock star / or are you better off without it?”
Lewis’ straightforward approach and lyrical mastery have earned him praise from a wide swath of contemporary songwriters, Jarvis Cocker, Ben Gibbard and Oldham among them. His singing voice is shaky but genuine, much like his musical heroes Daniel Johnston and Tuli Kupferberg of The Fugs.
Last month, Lewis contributed an online column to the New York Times about how his song “Anxiety Attack” ended up going viral on the Internet. In true Lewis style, there was an illustrated account alongside the article.
Fans around the world created their own music videos for the song on YouTube, and one of them caught the attention of movie director Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “The Green Hornet”). As the popularity of the videos grew, unlikely new fans found solace in Lewis’ song. He’s heard that some people stumbled across the videos while searching Google for ways to deal with their troubles. Instead, they reached out to Lewis.
“Clearly there’s something about staying awake at night alone in a cold sweat being devoured by personal demons that brings people together,” Lewis wrote.
Lewis’ show at Read All Over Books will feature “The Junkyard,” a backing band that includes his brother Jack Lewis, David Beauchamp and recent addition Kristin Andreassen.
They will have their work cut out for them, given the size of Lewis’ catalog and his propensity for winging it on stage.
“I’ve been trying to implement a policy of playing every single song of mine at least once on each tour,” Lewis said. “I prefer a show environment in which anything is possible.”
What: Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard, The Parlor Soldiers, The Little Black Clouds, Cat Be Damned
When: 7 p.m. Friday, April 6
Where: Read All Over Books, 307 William St.
Andrew Allingham is trying to stay productive in Fredericksburg.