Since bursting violently onto the big screen in flicks like Cape Fear and the brilliantly insidious Natural Born Killers, as well as playing the love interest of both Woody Allen (Husbands and Wives) and Johnny Depp (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape), Juliette Lewis has cagily skirted the perimeter fence of Hollywood stardom. As it turns out, she was actually just prepping her inner rocker for a no-holds-barred coming out; indeed, Juliette Lewis and The Licks’ 2004 debut EP was unambiguously titled …Like A Bolt Of Lightning.
Now, um, Lick-less, Ms. Juliette’s first proper solo album shows her shaking off the garage rock clichés for the visceral rollercoaster that is Terra Incognita (it means unknown land, appropriately). With Mars Volta’s Omar Rodriguez-Lopez producing, Juliette gets ethereal on “All is for God” (relax, she hasn’t gone Christian), gives a devastatingly anguished vocal performance on “Ghosts”, and gloriously channels Robert Plant on the rip-snorting “Hard Lovin’ Woman”. The astonishing musical jolts culminate in the epic, noise-riddled; Eastern tinged “Female Persecution” (“Behind every door / You find a ghost and a whore” Juliette howls). It’s an absolute bombshell of a record, a virtual orgy of emotional twists and sonic surprises.
She’s also back on the big screen with a hilarious tough-chick turn, in the riotous the Drew Barrymore directed Whip It. Alongside Drew and Juno’s Ellen Page, Juliette plays the punky, bloodthirsty roller blade queen Iron Maven to rousing effect—probably her most vivid character in ages. As her exalted tour made its way through New York City, Swide caught up for a chat with the outré superstar. We were charmed, to put it mildly.
YOU DISAPPEARED FROM FILM FOR A LITTLE WHILE.
“Yeah, for about four years. But when I started the band I meant it. So for me to do what I had to do, which is tour the world three or four times over, and to really develop and get better, I had to cut the umbilical cord from the only livelihood I’ve ever known.”
IT MUST BE EXCITING TO GO FROM BEING SO FAMOUS BACK TO SQUARE ONE.
“It was terrifying and exhilarating, because the chance of failure was so high. But I found an audience, people started showing up at the shows!”
BOBBY GILLESPIE FROM PRIMAL SCREAM HAS SAID THAT YOUNG BANDS NOW ARE SO BORING, SO CAREER-MINDED, WHICH IS SOMETHING I GENUINELY AGREE WITH. AND YOU ACTUALLY SEEM MORE OF A BALLS OUT ROCKER THAN MOST OF THE KIDS.
(Laughs hard) “You caught me! But if I tried to do this at twenty, I probably would have crashed and burned. But what people don’t know about my music career is that I’m independent through and through—there’s no big management coddling me. I get some opportunities because of who I am, of course; but then, critics also judge me ten times harsher.”
TERRA INCOGNITA IS MUCH MORE RANGY THAN YOUR OTHER RECORDS. WERE YOU INTENTIONALLY TRYING TO PUSH THE BOAT OUT?
“Yeah, this record is my soul purged, it’s the blues woman, the haunted lady... ”
WHO IS THAT HAUNTED LADY?
“Oh, since I was little, I’ve always felt connected to a sense of longing and despair. And it’s not related to any kind of childhood trauma; it something that’s just in your soul. The haunted lady is a girl who chases an illusion, and the chase is the journey.”
WHAT DID OMAR BRING TO THE RECORDING?
“He’s someone I revere; he was almost intimidating to me. His gifts are awe-inspiring; when he plays his guitar...I don’t mean to geek out here, to me it’s revolutionary! And much like me, he relates sound to characters and visions and drama.”
YOU BONDED OVER FELLINI, RIGHT?
“Yeah, people are connected through music in different ways. There are those nostalgic connections, songs being connected to certain times in your life. But there’s also this fantasy world...”
RIGHT, WHICH IS WHAT FILM REALLY IS. ESPECIALLY FELLINI, AS HE HAD THIS INCREDIBLE AFFECTION FOR EVERYDAY PEOPLE, BUT ALSO CREATED THESE UTTERLY SURREAL WORLDS.
“I equate this record with Fellini because it’s sort of this world where pixies live, but fucking monsters, too. There’s danger, myth and magic, and I wanted to turn it into a sonic force. One of my favorite films, Nights of Cabiria—all of the sudden in the middle of the movie, this beautiful parade comes by, for no reason at all. It’s those moments of surreal grace that I really love.”
YOU’VE SAID THAT THE RECORD COMBINES ELEMENTS OF HEAVEN AND EARTH. WHAT IS HEAVEN TO YOU?
“Not literal. The guitars and drums are the earth, and heaven is a sense of hope I have after periods of extreme disillusionment. I’m actually trying to show some vulnerability with this record. The next record I might be doing jungle drums!”
YOU ALMOST MANAGE TO SOUND LIKE ROBERT PLANT ON A COUPLE OF SONGS.
“Shut up! I love you! But I’ll tell you, on stage, I do feel like a superhero; and it’s been a perverse pleasure to know that I can just own it up there. And I’m actually quite the freak up there!”
YEAH, AND AREN’T YOU JUST SO DISAPPOINTED WITH HOW FEW OTHER FREAKS THERE ARE UP ON STAGE NOW. DON’T YOU WANT TO GRAB THEM AND GO...
“BREAK THE RULES!”
Right! Be more fucking crazy!
“But this gets us to a big discussion about art and commerce, mainstream versus the underground...”
But there is no underground! Everyone is just towing the line.
“Well, I’m not a radio artist, so I can’t even really say. My music lives and breathes in the live setting. I don’t care about all the other stuff.”
THERE WAS A MOMENT, PROBABLY AROUND THE TIME OF THE OTHER SISTER, WHERE YOU COULD HAVE CHOSEN TO BE THE BIG HOLLYWOOD STAR. AND YOU SEEM TO HAVE INSTEAD DECIDED TO BE IN CONTROL OF YOUR CAREER.
“What that would have meant was that I would have had to cultivate something that comes so unnaturally to me—which is a debutante’s existence, having a good party chatter, keeping up a polished look, which is just not interesting to me. Instead I just fought against what the system deems important in movie making.”
SO, WHIP IT, IS VERY DREW...SORT OF PUNKY BUT SWEET. IS THAT THE RIGHT WAY TO PUT IT?
SHE DOESN’T SEEM NECESSARILY LIKE A HOLLYWOOD KISS-ASS, BUT SHE KNOWS HOW TO WORK IT.
“Well, she lives and breathes movies. She was a producer, and I think she’s a really natural director.”
IT WOULD SEEM LIKE YOU HAD A LOT OF FUN MAKING THE FILM.
“We had a fucking blast! I can’t explain to you. We trained for a month, the action scenes are ninety-percent all us.”
YOU OBVIOUSLY GOT REALLY GOT INTO BEING SUCH A SINISTER CHARACTER.
“Yeah, but it was hard for me to be a bully. I asked all these real roller girls if it was actually real, and they were like, “Uh, YEAH. They kind of have the swagger of wrestlers and rock & rollers, but they really play up their alter-egos, they really intimidate each other...”
The nicknames are hilarious.
“Yeah, the names are hilarious!”
THERE WAS A GREAT LINE IN THE FILM, KRISTEN WIIG’S CHARACTER MAGGIE SAYS, “BE YOUR OWN HERO.” THAT WAS A LINE THAT JOE STRUMMER USED, AND WAS PRACTICALLY THE PUNK MANIFESTO. HAVE YOU TRIED TO BE YOUR OWN HERO?
“I have! Sometimes you do like to lose yourself. But I’m having a fucking blast waving the flag and marching to my own beat, because I will always feel most connected to the disenfranchised, the misfits, and the freaks. And I want everyone to leave one of my shows feeling more vital and cognizant of their own power. It’s a spiritual communal endeavor.”
I THINK GREAT ROCK STARS DO HELP THEIR AUDIENCES GET A LITTLE BIT MORE IN TOUCH WITH THEIR OWN POWER, YES. BUT I WAS THERE ON OPENING NIGHT OF NATURAL BORN KILLERS—IT’S BEEN QUITE A TRIP SINCE THEN, HUH?
“It’s been a long ride, and I wouldn’t change anything about it. I was maybe a little too dismissive of certain opportunities along the way. Now it’s about this journey of connection, and now I see the journey clearly.”
Source & Photo Credits: Juliette Lewis