By Rissa Rogus
Well first off, I wanna say I’m a huge fan, so sorry if I sound a little nervous.
Aw, thanks Rissa, that’s nice to hear.
Very excited for the show on Sunday! You’ve been making art for over 20 years now, which is insane. What’s that like? Have you seen the scene change, or the way that your output has changed? How has that transformed?
Well I guess I really transformed from being a little more focused on my illustration and my comic book stuff to getting increasingly better at singing and playing music. Which was never something I felt like I was good at or something I intended to do. But, from the earliest recordings, and from my earliest times playing at open mics and starting to play little shows and stuff, I was just so very amateur-ish and new to playing and singing and everything. And slowly, over the years—at this point—I feel a whole lot more confident about being able to get on stage and play and sing. I’m not like, any kind of virtuoso, but I know just from experience I can do it. But, simultaneously, when I was just starting out I was really just interested in drawing all the time. I was so devoted to drawing in my sketchbook for hours every day, and making comic books. And since I’ve found myself in this life of music so much more over the last 20 years, I don’t draw quite as much as I used to. But I still do draw quite a lot, and I still make comic books—I’ll have some comic books with me on my tour. I always bring some comics and art. But I feel like now my life is sort of like, “half music” and “half art stuff,” which is different than how I used to be.
How do you decide if a concept is better for a song or a comic or whatever medium you choose?
Well, sometimes I’m not sure whether an idea would be better for a comic book story, or for a song. But other times I feel like there’s certain ideas that are maybe too complicated to make a song out of, and I would need to do in comic book form. But sometimes it’s kind of hard to know. I kind of just, you know, go on some kind of intuition about what kind of thing might emerge from the creative process. But there’s something so weird about this whole creative process, because you go into this zone of making something, and you’re not really sure what that thing is gonna be. You just kind of hope that it is something that seems to work and seems to make you feel you’re doing something.
Do you think that your work in comics informs your work in any way? Do they feed into each other?
I think they definitely do. I feel like there’s a lot of similarities in some of the ideas and some of the ways I present my ideas. Even if a song that isn’t telling a story with a beginning, middle, and end, even if it’s just not that kind of song, there’s still something in the way that it unfolds, or the way that the ideas are kind of presented or explained that relates to the way that I think of comic books as a way to communicate. And I guess, either the comics or the songs—both of those forms, I never felt that being flashy or impressive was the most important part. I just felt like getting the idea across and really getting the emotion or concepts through was more important than making someone say, “Wow!” at the initial impression. Even though I’m a much better illustrator than I am a guitarist, but even with the comics and the illustration, I just felt like the storytelling and the atmosphere were what I was most interested in.
You’ve been doing both forms of art for so long now. Do you have a method for keeping your creative spark alive?
Well I really lean into the idea that inspiration is kind of . . . you just have to force yourself to do it. Rather than inspiration creating the work, work creates inspiration. So, if you just make sure to devote some time where you’re gonna be sitting down and making something—whether it’s a song or artwork or whatever it is—I think if you wait to be inspired, it’s less likely to happen. You just have to sort of start doing it, even if you really don’t feel like doing it, or even if you feel like you don’t particularly have an idea, or you don’t really know what you’re aiming towards. The process of doing it does kind of get the gears turning and starts to make you FEEL inspired… It’s really a weird magical thing. It always seems impossible. I always feel like, “I’m totally out of ideas,” “I’m all washed up,” “I’ll never make anything that feels exciting to me again,” but I’ve been feeling that my entire life. I felt that way when I was 14, or 20, or whatever. So, I think at this point, I’ve just learned to not trust that voice that tells me, “Forget it. You’ll never make anything good.” I just feel like, “Alright, well I’m just gonna sit down and make SOMETHING, even if it’s not good.” And that really seems to be the key for me. As long as I start making something, I’ll start to find myself getting interested in it and starting to get excited about some of the possibilities.
So what would you say your method is for songwriting?
Oh man, it’s really just desperation. I try to go to an open mic every week when I’m home here in New York City. There’s a Monday night open mic that I like going to, and there’s some other ones. And I sort of treat that as a deadline, like a homework assignment for myself. Like, I have to show up at the open mic with a new song every week. It’s not like anybody else cares, but I try to give myself that responsibility. And a lot of times, I leave it for the last minute—like any kind of homework assignment—and then it’s 2 hours before the open mic starts and I’m like, “Man, I let the whole week go by and i haven’t worked on a song! I better sit down and start trying to come up with something.” And it’s amazing how that kind of pressure that I put on myself has actually resulted in some songs I feel really good about. And of course, a lot of songs I don’t feel that good about. It’s very mysterious to me, why some songs come out and they feel like they really are saying something that i feel really good about saying, or there’s something about it that is compelling to me. And other songs that I make just don’t have enough of that spark for me, or I don’t feel like they’re worth holding on to. So I have a lot of discarded songs. So yeah, I’ll just basically sit down, usually with the guitar, and I might just start messing with a couple of chords. Or, maybe I have an idea for a certain line or a certain concept that I might try to make a song about. But yeah, it’s pretty random how it starts. I’ll start writing in a notebook usually. And at a certain point, whatever I’ve written in the notebook—once I have enough of a song—I’ll type it into my laptop. I try to preserve it on the laptop instead of having it all just on scraps of paper.
How long have you been doing the open mic method? I know you mention in “Cult Boyfriend,” you mention, “this song probably wont get past an open mic.”
That’s exactly what I mean! Because a lot of my songs don’t get past the open mic stage. If I’m writing a song, and then I play it at the open mic, then I feel like “eh, I guess that song wasn’t that worth holding on to.” You know a lot of these songs don’t ever get performed again. Or I might try them out once or twice. So, that has definitely been part of my whole involvement with making songs and making music since the beginning basically. Because, I never had the intention of making albums or playing shows or going on tour. None of that was part of my life or part of my idea with what I was gonna do with my life. But there was this open mic near where I was living, and I just sorta started going there. And I would just go to this place, The SideWalk on Avenue A in Manhattan. Because it was free to get in and I was totally broke and had nothing else to do, and didn’t know that many people. I would just go there and sit with my sketchbook and I would just draw whoever was there, or I would draw the musicians. And then when I realized one of the mics was an open mic night, and I had started making up some songs. So I was like, “Huh, maybe I can start playing some of my songs with my open mic night.” But I was really just always there with my sketchbook, sitting at one of the tables, drawing whatever I could see. Just because it was a free place, it was free to get in. So from that, I just really got into the whole world of going to the open mic every week and starting to get familiar with some of the other performers and slowly starting to make some friends in that scene. And meeting people who I thought were making interesting stuff. But it took me a really long time, because I wasn’t outgoing. I was very introverted just sitting there with my sketchbook. But I was just there SO MUCH. I was just always the guy who was sitting there. So eventually, over months and months of being there and playing my songs every week, I did start to feel like I was really part of this music scene and started to know a lot more people. Which was really great! I kind of never let that go. I just keep going to these different open mics. Sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on how busy I am with touring or other stuff. But I try to stick with this habit. So it’s been a long time doing that.
How do you think you’ve seen the actual scene change as you’ve been in it?
Well, I guess everything always changes and shifts and, you know, a lot of people move out of New York City all the time. A lot of people that I knew when I first started playing music and playing shows with different people… a lot of those people moved away over the years. And of course a lot of new people show up, and sometimes there’s some really cool new stuff happening. And there’s just so many people in New York City, and so many different music clubs. Even so many open mic nights. So many different kinds of bands, different neighborhoods in Manhattan, and Brooklyn, and Queens, just all over. There’s so many things happening, and I feel like I’m only aware of a really tiny fraction of stuff. Any night of the week, 7 nights a week, I could look at the listings and see just dozens of concerts and clubs to go to. So I’m really not super aware of ALL the things that are going on in the New York City music scenes. I don’t even know how many music scenes that would be. There would be, you know, jazz stuff happening—some of that might be more traditional, some might be more avant-garde and artsy—and then there would be various rock things happening, folk things happening, etc. etc. So, I’m aware of my own little open mic scene, and that has certainly changed just because people come and go. And the places where the open mics happen keep changing. Because there are different locations, some clubs shut down, other places open . . . So the open mic itself—I’ve gone to a lot of different ones in different locations.
I guess one thing that’s really different now than the way it was when I was starting out is that, the whole realm of releasing music digitally and social media . . . People aren’t making their own physical product quite as much. Like, I still like selling my comic books, I still like selling CDs, records. And when I started out I was selling my cassettes, and my cassettes always had these little comic books that would fold out. So I always liked making these weird little things. And I used to make these little comic book advertisements for my concerts. I would hand people these little folded comic books that would advertise my little shows. And I feel like that kind of hands-on creativity—AND ZINES! There were a lot of zines around when I was starting. And that has really shifted, and I really don’t see that anymore. I used to come home from tours . . . maybe, if I did a tour in say 2006 or something, by the time I got home, I would have a whole pile of CDs and zines, and maybe comic books that people gave me along the tour. Like all the stuff that people were making that they wanted me to read or listen to. And now if I go on tour, if I play shows, that almost never happens. Once in a while someone might give me a CD or a zine, but, you know, a lot of that kind of hands-on creativity has shifted to these online options. So, it’s a bit of a different thing, but I think the thing that’s so cool about when it’s not online is that it’s not operating in some kind of branded, corporate space. Like, I use all the social media outlets myself also. But there’s something annoying to me that you have to say, “Check me out on Instagram,” or, “Check me out on TikTok, or Facebook.” All these different things have that sort of corporate brand name, where you don’t feel like you’re just out in the world making something where you’re in control of the form, the format, and you don’t have to say a brand name in order to give somebody your zine or your album or something. You don’t have to say, “listen to it on Spotify/Bandcamp/Soundcloud.” All these spaces are owned by somebody. They’re all spaces that are making a profit for somebody. And it’s not quite the same as having the free, total free realm of making stuff out in the real world that isn’t part of somebody else’s controlled space. So, yeah there’s something a little bit distasteful about having to exist in all of those branded spaces. But I use them as much as anybody else does, mostly.
Are there any acts you’re seeing that you’re getting excited about that you’re seeing in New York or on tour?
That’s one of the cool things about being on tour. With the opening acts, I get to experience a little bit of what’s going on in each city. Usually, it’s like, wherever I end up playing, there’s somebody who will be a local act that plays a set before me, or maybe there will be two acts. Like this band, Little Gold, that’s playing before me in Athens on Sunday. And that’s sometimes really cool to make friends with these different bands and different songwriters and check out what people are doing in all these places! You know, sometimes I end up experiencing some stuff that I never would’ve heard of otherwise. And similarly in New York—especially at the open mic nights where you just have no idea what you’re gonna see—it’s not like buying a ticket for a show where you know what the band is. It’s a lot of surprises and unexpected stuff. Which, you know, sometimes works out great, and sometimes is less exciting, but it’s really unknown. But there’s a songwriter in New York City named Phoebe Kreutz.
She just put out a new EP, and I think she is the best songwriter in New York that I’m aware of. I’m just super impressed by her stuff. It’s the kind of thing that I love. It’s just very smart, and funny, and creative, and any time I hear about her playing a show I always love to see her play. She’s got her stuff on Bandcamp and Spotify. Yeah, that’s a name that I get excited about.
Jeffrey Lewis & The Voltage with Little Gold are playing at BUVEZ on Sunday, October 8th (doors at 7:00pm).
Transcribed by Joseph Mazzola