As a singer, indie stalwart Jeffrey Lewis is a loquacious performer.
Take, for example, the lead-off track from his latest album, which was released earlier this month. “Exactly What Nobody Wanted” is a mouthful of a song title in and of itself, but Lewis doesn’t get any less verbose as the song opens:
“You were throwing off sparks of pure power / sending signals from a mystery tower / you didn’t bother making sure it would sink in / it was a different way of workin’ and thinkin’ / really wild and completely expressive / so creative and intense and obsessive / you were practically completely beyond it / and you were exactly just what nobody wanted …”
The creativity alone is evidence of his ability to turn a phrase, and it’s easy to see why The New York Times tapped him as a regular columnist several years ago. For Lewis, words are his commodity, and as a performer getting started in the 1990s as part of the Big Apple’s indie folk scene, they were his way of standing out, he told The Daily Times recently.
“I have a theory about how music from New York City has always been a little bit different because of the geography and the fact that everybody is living piled on top of each other in some way,” said Lewis, who brings his band, The Voltage, to The Pilot Light in Knoxville’s Old City on Friday. “You have neighbors living above you and below you; you don’t have a basement or a garage to set up a band in, so the usual approach to creativity and making songs, just because of the space and volume level available to someone in New York City, doesn’t really lend itself to having a band in quite the same way that it would in a lot of other areas. A lot of New York City’s musical history, I think, comes from a slightly weird place.
“Rap is maybe the biggest example of an entire art form that arose from a situation where people didn’t have direct access to practice space and gear, and when all you’ve got is a pen and a piece of paper, humans just get creative and make stuff with what’s available. For me, getting involved in music, I didn’t have any opportunity to play in a band in a certain form. What did I have in my little bedroom? A tape recorder, a pen and paper, and maybe some acoustic guitars. That was what was around, and the outlet for what you would do with that stuff were open mic nights all around New York City, where if you want to play your stuff, you might get one or two songs, and it wasn’t an environment where you could set up drums and amps and this and that.
“It’s about what you can create with the resources that are on hand, and for some people, maybe that’s expressing yourself with how well you play guitar,” he added. “For me, it was, ‘How can I make a song that reaches people?’”
For Lewis, it was with words — specifically the ascerbic wit, droll delivery, self-deprecating humor and devastating observations of beauty and humanity steeped in the nuance of a New York folk poet more concerned with the teeming millions around him than grander ideas of peace and social change. Those themes find their way into the music, of course, but he’s always been more focused on the straightforward than the abstract, he said.
“I don’t know how I would make a song without it being about something or having a feeling about something,” he said. “I don’t really gravitate toward making something abstract. It always ends up being, how can I explain or express what it is I’m trying to get out? And words are one way of doing that.”
The press bio for his new record, “Bad Wiring,” describes his career arc as a slow transformation from “Daniel Johnston to Yo La Tengo.” It’s not a completely off-base analogy, he said, but in many interviews and reviews, the fact that he’s toured with a full band — The Voltage is essentially the same lineup as his previous band, Los Bolts, except christened with a new moniker for the album — often is lost in translation.
“Again, it’s kind of just making the best out of what you have on hand, and Daniel was always the biggest inspiration for being able to do so much with a limited amount of resources,” he said. “From the appearance to the playing to the singing to the recording, it’s about how you can make completely devastating art removing all of those components people think are prerequisites for making great art. You can make something truly great out of nothing if you set your artistic mind to it, and in the beginning, that was all I had available.
“For years, even when I was touring and making a recording, I didn’t even own my own guitar, and I certainly didn’t own an amplifier. Now, I have my one little amplifier that’s missing one of the knobs, but it’s portable, and it works. After a few years with my brother, Jack, playing bass, we met up with a drummer, and it morphed from something we would mess around with in New York City to an actual touring band unit with guitar, bass and drums. It’s a band project, and that became like a secret weapon, because for 10 years, every review or mention of me said something like, ‘acoustic lo-fi singer-songwriter guy,’ even though I’ve had a band for quite some time.”
But even that misperception is something Lewis can use to his advantage: He enjoys the looks of surprise on the faces of fans who were expecting a guy and a guitar who got his start making independent comic books as much as he did music, and the muscular sound built onto his solo skeletal structure makes it difficult for him to be dismissed as just another indie folkie.
“I love, from one song to the next to the next, not being able to be tuned out,” he said. “You keep throwing something new and interesting at people, one project after another and one song after another, and they never get the chance to go, ‘Oh, I know what this is,’ or, ‘I know what’s coming next, so I don’t have to keep paying attention.’”
The most pleasant surprise, he added, has been in the direction is music has taken. In the early days, he and his brother idolized bands like Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth and Galaxie 500, but the gulf between how those bands sounded and what Lewis and his brother were doing in the late 1990s was vast. Over the years, that gap has closed, and the place in which he finds himself is always evolving, but closer to where he wants to be than where he once was.
“I’m always surprised with where it actually ends up, because you have intention and goals, and the striving between where you’re trying to go and where you’re at usually ends up at some mysterious place in the middle,” he said. “I never would have thought that with the cheapo, lo-fi weird recordings I was making with my brother that things would eventually sound so completely different. It’s really great when I actually hit the mark, but there’s so much more to do and a lot left to achieve.
“I feel like I’m still learning how to do everything — play shows, make albums, write comic books. Each one I do represents a whole lot of learning, and all of it is incredibly challenging, always. There’s always a piece of paper you need to pick up and try to turn it into something.”