During their five-year courtship, singer-songwriters Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice have collaborated on each other’s solo albums, supported one another on tour, and shacked up together in one of Laurel Canyon’s standard-issue rock & roll bungalows. The next step was inevitable. On August 31, Lewis and Rice finally tied the knot — musically, that is — with the release of I’m Having Fun Now, their debut as Jenny and Johnny.
“Yeah, we’re one of the ‘and’ bands now,” says Rice, referring to indie rock’s current crop of boy-girl duos like She & Him and Matt & Kim.
“But we don’t have an ampersand,” adds Lewis.
“Ah, true,” concurs Rice. “Make sure not to use one when you write about us. No ampersands for Jenny and Johnny.”
Conjunctions aside, it’s the equal billing that matters most to Rice. While Lewis has enjoyed a rabid following for years as both a solo artist and frontwoman for Rilo Kiley, the Glasgow-raised Rice has toiled mainly under the radar. Just a year ago, he was touring with Lewis as part of her backing band — an anonymous role to most but one that left some lasting impressions.
“We started covering the song ‘Love Hurts’ in our set,” recalls Lewis. “That was one of the first times that Johnathan and I really sang together like that. It always got a really great reaction from our friends and the people out in the crowd, and I think that sparked something that we didn’t even realize at the time. Singing in harmony, you really create this whole new character.”
By the time the tour wrapped up, Lewis and Rice knew it was time to truly collaborate. “I threatened to go on strike if I wasn’t promoted,” says Rice.
For Lewis, the new project had personal significance. “I’m actually the daughter of a musical duo,” she says. “My parents were in a lounge act in Las Vegas in the early ’70s, and they were initially called Linda and Eddie. So it comes naturally to me.”
Rice: “I would say, though, that this particular project is not retro leaning in any way. It’s very much a rock & roll band that’s for right now.”
Lewis: “Unless you consider the ’90s retro leaning.”
Rice: “Yeah, people keep telling us it sounds ’90s-inspired. But we were both very much alive during the ’90s.”
Lewis: “Some of us more than others.”
In case you missed the code language there, Lewis is seven years older than Rice (she’s 34). But that age gap, along with the peculiar combination of Glasgow Guy and L.A. Girl, only seems to add to the intrigue on I’m Having Fun Now — a record that seamlessly shifts from top-down, West Coast power-pop (“Scissor Runner,” “Big Wave”) to sparse, sad-bastard balladry (“Switchblade in Your Coat,” “Animal”).
“I think that a lot of Johnathan’s melodies come from old Irish folk songs that he learned as a kid or Scottish football chants,” says Lewis. “So I think he’s just pulling from a different pool of melodies than I am. I grew up on show tunes and hip-hop.”
Rice chuckles. “Right. When I was listening to some old folk song in church, Jenny was listening to The Chronic.”
In the end, it’s the fusing of their somewhat disparate influences that gives Jenny and Johnny a wholly distinct sound, even with Rilo Kiley’s rhythm section and longtime producer Mike Mogis contributing to the album.
“In the past, we distanced ourselves more from each other’s material,” says Rice. “And in this one, quite the opposite. So if Jenny had an idea about one of my songs, she wasn’t shy at all about saying, ‘Hey dude, you need to change that.’ The involvement was just much more prominent.”
“And in some cases, Johnathan would write the bulk of the song, and I’d just come in and write the bridge,” says Lewis. “Or he would write a chorus on something I was working on. It was all very open.”
As they take their new act on the road, Rice is hopeful that Lewis’ fans will embrace his work as she has. But he also understands where their allegiances lie. “Sometimes we’ll be walking down the street, and someone will come up to Jenny and get very emotional and say, ‘You’ve changed my life!’ And I think that’s a wonderful thing. But it’s hard for me to get my head around.”
“It’s incredibly flattering,” says Lewis. “It isn’t the reason I started playing music, but it’s one of the reasons I continued playing music. When you meet people who are truly affected by the things you’ve written, it’s like one of those five-hour energy drinks.”
“Honestly, I often come up to her weeping too” quips Rice. “You really changed my life, Jenny.” —Andrew Clayman
JENNY AND JOHNNY, WITH LOVE AS LAUGHTER AND JAILL. 7 p.m. at Beachland Ballroom. Tickets: $17, $15 in advance.
Going to the show? Let us know what you think of it in the comments.
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