Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice are the kind of effortlessly cool Indie musicians who you want to befriend and also impress, without making your intentions obvious, of course. Aside from their success in the music industry, their appeal is of the approachable, “I’ll have what they’re having” variety, and so the fact that they were recently commissioned by actress Anne Hathaway and her producer husband Adam Shulman to write the original music for the new film Song One — in which Hathaway stars and serves as executive producer alongside Shulman and is now in theaters and available on iTunes and On Demand — makes perfect sense.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Lewis and Rice to discuss their movie music and why they agreed to mix business with pleasure in working alongside real-life friends, Hathaway and Shulman. Read on for expert insight into the superstitious minds of songwriters, how much Indie cred is won and lost in writing music for movies, and try to guess who considers the Honda Accord his/her spirit animal. (Hint: It may or may not be a certain former child actor who appeared in ‘80s fan favorites Troop Beverly Hills and The Wizard).
How different is it promoting a movie, compared to how you promote your music?
JOHNATHAN RICE: There’s more of it.
JENNY LEWIS: Well, it’s very condensed. It’s usually a day or two set in a conference room, not unlike this. But also the subject matter is different and when you’re doing your own music press you’re talking about yourself and in this case we always defer to the director.
What did you like about working with friends and working for friends?
RICE: I like the fact that all of us are around the same age, of similar generations; it wasn’t that much of a stretch in terms of taste — and I’m speaking about the music, since that’s what Jenny and I contributed. Annie and Adam and [writer/director] Kate Barker-Froyland would go to the same types of concerts, buy the same types of records, so it was a pretty level playing field in terms of when we were talking about music. We never felt like it was difficult — especially when Jonathan Demme got involved; he was just a joy to talk about music with.
LEWIS: And we actually became closer friends throughout the process. For traveling gypsies such as ourselves, you don’t typically have a lot of time to spend with your friends that live scattered all over the world. So to have those moments with Adam and Annie and Kate; we’re working, we’re on the clock and talking about the film, but we’re also deepening our friendship.
Is there any stigma or preconceived notion about writing music for movies or having your music featured in them? I’m curious how it’s perceived in the Indie community — is it selling out?
LEWIS: Things have shifted in the Indie music community in the last decade, since I’ve been making music. Things that weren’t okay are now okay like licensing a song for commercials, for example. I think with writing original music for film there’s mostly just jealousy. When you tell your friends, “I just wrote this song for a Disney movie” [Lewis penned “Barking at the Moon” for Disney’s 2008 animated feature Bolt] and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, how did she do that?” I think as writers it’s very exciting to write about subjects other than ourselves and it allows us to stretch out a little bit. For Song One, writing from a male perspective exclusively was really fun to do. It was like a challenge and sort of like a homework assignment.
RICE: Yeah not to sound too hyperbolic but I absolutely credit writing songs for this film for like a personal and creative renaissance, I really do. Like Jenny said, just the idea of writing for other voices and other people really opened up my mind.
LEWIS: And having deadlines. When you’re just making your own records, my last time between solo records was like seven years, no one was saying, “You’ve got to get that done!” so to know you have to turn-in a song by the end of the week or the end of the day.
I liked what you said in an earlier interview about actively not trying to be around other writers suffering from writer’s block…
LEWIS: It’s contagious.
RICE: Yeah. Creativity is mystical I think, so even if you’re not prone to superstition, when you’re dealing with something mystical like creativity, superstition can creep into your mind slowly like a fungus. When you’re in a room with other songwriters there will always be the one who’s going through a blocked period and is becoming superstitious about that. I try, I strive, and I don’t know about other people, but to remain in almost a beginner’s mindset, to try and learn from songwriters that I admire, but also not absorb too much of their bullshit and insane ticks.
What was your first encounter with Playboy?
RICE: My best friend growing up had a bunch of Playboys — this was probably like the late ’80s — and they were just the most wonderful thing. I remember we hid them in the woods and I have this in common with Bill Callahan from Smog because he has this line in one of his songs, “Drinking at the Dam,” he says, “Skin mags in the brambles of the first part of my life, thought that woman had orange skin.” So because the rain would come in Virginia where I lived, it would turn all the women orange.
Ha, not just because they were spray-tanned?
RICE: No, because we would keep looking at them and slowly and surely they would disintegrate and become part of the earth again. Those were our Playboys.
LEWIS: I believe my introduction was through the Playboy Channel, which was the first bit of pornography I guess I saw. I was visiting my father who lived in Anchorage, Alaska during the time of year when the sun never sets and I remember being very young and flipping through the channels in a motel and the Playboy Channel was on and it kind of changed me forever. But then I purchased the Drew Barrymore Playboy issue, which I thought was very beautiful.
What movie scared you most as a kid?
RICE: The Exorcist.
LEWIS: That’s a very Catholic response.
What’s your pop-culture blind spot?
RICE: Unfortunately I don’t think I have one. I wish I was blind to some of pop culture, but I absorb all the trash and all the treasure.
Let’s pretend you’re on death row: What’s your last meal?
LEWIS: [To Rice] Guess mine.
RICE: It’s a restaurant in Hollywood on Vine street. The corner of Vine and Fountain.
LEWIS: It’s a Japanese restaurant, I’ve been going there for decades and I only order one thing on the menu and I have for many years, so when we walk into the restaurant they don’t even give us menus — they just order up this Bento box. Very simple, but it’s really all I want to eat.
RICE: For me, an expertly-roasted chicken, which to me is the pinnacle of eating.
What was your first car?
LEWIS: My spirit animal, a Honda Accord.
RICE: A Hyundai Elantra, not my spirit animal.
What was the first song you knew all the words to?
RICE: “Twist and Shout” or “Sara,” by Starship.
LEWIS: I believe it was a Joni Mitchell song, a cover called “Twisted” and it was also on a Bette Midler album, it’s very wordy. I’m not going to mention the Annie soundtrack.
What’s your favorite mistake?
RICE: I guess everyone told me I was making a giant mistake when I moved to New York when I was 18 years old to become a songwriter, that’s my favorite one that is still paying dividends.
LEWIS: When we first met we held hands in the stairwell, while I was dating someone else.
That’s pretty cute.
RICE: That’s as cute as it gets.