Awkward Energy’s Jack Lewis Is Struggling to Become an “Adult”

Awkward Energy

Photo by Tasha Bielaga

Portland musician Jack Lewis is the reluctant adult. He spent his first years out of college touring as a member of his brother Jeffrey Lewis’s band, but as time went on, he felt the need to push toward something else—even if he wasn’t sure what that “something else” was.

That struggle comes across loud and clear on his song “Please Don’t Step on My Flower Bed,” when he sings, “I should start acting my age.” “Flower Bed” is one of the five tracks that make up his newest EP American Lvov: EP #1 under the name Awkward Energy. Serving as chapter one of an upcoming LP—his first release in five years—Lvov is the first of three EPs of original songs and covers that Lewis plans to release every three months before sewing them together into a full-length album later in the year. The songs are lively and effervescent, with jangly guitar and lo-fi production that echoes the glory days of indie pop.

But for all the brightness in his music, Lewis still struggles with the realities of adulthood: How is an adult ‘supposed’ to act? What kinds of things is an adult ‘supposed’ to have accomplished? We spoke with Lewis about this push-and-pull, about achieving balance in life, and what impending adulthood looks like when you’re in your 30s.

Why three EPs? Why did you choose to stagger the release in that way?

I often spend a lot of time kind of tweaking my albums. Making my last album, I would record the basic tracks and then constantly add friends to the tracks, and it would take me about a year or longer to finish the album. With this album, I recorded everything back in April, and Gary’s been mixing, and I’ve been adding friends to the tracks. I kind of  felt like, for my own well-being, I wanted to release the music more quickly. I also feel like people don’t necessarily listen to whole albums—it gets kind of overwhelming, even for myself. So in, like, five-song chunks I feel like people will pay more attention to songs. It’s just five songs they have to listen to.

At one point, you walked away from trying to be a full-time musician. What led to that decision?

I toured with my older brother Jeffrey [Lewis] for 10 years. We started touring in like 2001. I was a senior in college, and the first few years were all amazing. I never thought I’d be able to see all these foreign countries, go to to all these museums all over the world—London, Germany, France. It was great, but we also did a hardcore DIY type of touring in order to save money.

There were always some creative differences—my brother was the band leader. Occasionally, a song or two of mine would end up on his albums, but after 10 years of working with my brother and touring around, I felt like I had gotten as much out of that experience as I was probably going to, and I needed to try something else in my life. I always wanted to become a teacher. So that was kind of a rough transition.

In terms of you making a decision to leave: It’s one thing to be like ‘I need to get out of this,’ and it’s another to actually take action. Was there an interim period where you knew you wanted to pursue other things, but making the official break was taking a little bit of time?

It was probably four or five years of talking about leaving. And I was living in Portland. I moved to Portland in 2006, and my brother was still in New York, and I always thought with the touring schedule, I could do other things with my life while I was home in Portland not touring. But that just became really difficult to figure out. And then 2010 and 2011 tours still being kind of a drag because of these personal issues with my brother and their drummer. It was never just one thing. And in 2012 we kind of had a super fun weird experience where we got to open up for Pulp at Radio City Music Hall, and so that kind of felt like a good cap on my time with the band, and I could go off and kind of transition out of that and go back to school.

So that concert was kind of like a pivotal moment of like, ‘Oh I’m done now’?

No, it wasn’t that concert. I think I had just been wanting to leave for a couple years and just not knowing how to because of income. It was hard to leave the full-time touring life job because of income, and also [it was like I had] just no other skills. I’ve been doing it for 10 years of my life right after college, so it was hard to imagine leaving it for something else. Like any sort of thing you do for awhile, you think there’s nothing else you can do.

You had said that you joined your brother’s band senior year of college, were you pursuing teaching at that point? Or was this a new endeavor?

I was a art major in college, and was interested in maybe being a curator and getting into that world. But after college, I interned at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and realized that it was just gonna be a difficult world to access. I saw a lot of my artist friends struggling. But I’d always liked the idea of teaching, I had a really great U.S. History teacher in middle school, and I always loved the idea of having an impact on the world, and being [a part of] some kind of progressive change. You know—the usual fantasy of becoming a teacher, which has not a become a reality, necessarily. Right now, I’m subbing.

Do you feel like you’re still in limbo?

Yeah, definitely.  I was just talking to my mom on the phone just a minute ago about financial woes. My mom has been very supportive of me over the years. I would not have been able to survive without her. She’s too giving, she’s too supportive sometimes. Maybe she’s too enabling of me not finding, or not working towards that full-time job, and I’m spending too much time dilly-dallying. Because I’m picky about my sub jobs, too. I’m always trying to wait for that right sub job—wake up at one in the morning or two in the morning to look over the possibilities, ‘cause that’s when the good jobs are listed. So yeah I’m still trying, I still think I could make a living subbing, but I’m still trying to figure that out.

So are you subbing so that you still retain some sense of freedom to pursue music?

Yes. I mean, it’s not just music—I’m also a painter. I love hiking and getting outdoors. It’s a classic, ‘Never had a full-time job in my life I’ve been spoiled.’ Right after college, I started touring, and then I worked odd jobs. I worked as a cashier in the museum in New York, and they let me go on tour. My dad always just got by by working weird odd jobs, he never instilled a really good work ethic in me.

I can’t force myself to work a day job, even though I know I need to financially. But I’m like, ‘How important is stuff…?’ Because I’d accumulate more stuff with a larger, more stable income. But it’s not even just stuff. This is something I’ve been talking about with a friend—you have mental freedom when you know you can pay all your bills, and that mental freedom is so valuable, and it comes with a day job. So, obviously, if could get paid enough working two or three days, that’d be great but that usually doesn’t happen—or if I could find a job that I love so much that I don’t mind being there 40 hours a week, that also feeds into my passions.

It’s a balance, it seems. I don’t know if it exists.

The thing about getting the teaching degree also was that I felt like such an outcast in a certain way.

Really?

If I just hung out with musicians, I’d feel better. I just feel like all my friends in Portland are professional people, in a certain way, and I felt like I needed some sort of career—I needed something so that I wouldn’t be judged. I was genuinely interested in teaching, but I felt like, ‘Oh, I’m too much of a man-child, I’m getting into my mid-30s, and people are gonna look down on me in my social circles.

But you own your house, don’t you?

Yeah, yeah.

That’s, like, the most adult thing that exists. You could essentially be living on the street but renting all the rooms in your house, and I’d be like, ‘God, that Jack. What an adult.’

I would say the house stuff is complicated, there’s a co-owner involved, so it’s still very much in flux. But the house ownership was huge and weird also, because I feel like I have socialist/communist ideals, and land ownership is complicated when you’re doing that.

Do you use music as a way of processing depression?

Oh yeah, definitely. My brother does it a lot more so. He’s got a new song called “Depression, Anxiety, I’ll See You There,” or something along those lines. He’s got another song called “Anxiety Attack.” Sometimes I would turn the depression into creative fodder, but I’m usually more creative when I’m less depressed.

Is there something that gets you out of those depression zones? Is there something you’re aware of or it’s just letting time pass?

I’ve been going to these snow cabins to ski—just getting out of my house into a remote area ideally with heat, light, and electricity. Last October, I rented this cabin sorta past Mount Rainier, and I was just in this cabin by myself doing a lot more reading and painting. I didn’t do any music writing, I was just removing myself—which is what a lot of people do creatively when they can just get into a quiet space without any Internet connection. So those things definitely help with easing the depression.

You mentioned the lack of Internet connection. Do you feel like social media has an impact on your mental well-being, especially in this news cycle we’re in?

Yes, absolutely. I was always an NPR addict, I would always turn on NPR first thing in the morning and listen to it all day. And I knew it was not helpful to my mental well-being, and sometimes I’d try just to listen to music. Since the election, I’ve stopped listening to NPR completely. I haven’t listened to it since November. I think it’s useful helpful for me not to do that. I’ve also stopped checking Huffington Post, which I was also checking way too much. But I’m still addicted to Facebook and Instagram, spending way too much time on those things. And it’s a balance, because those things are needed for creative outlets. You post a painting, you post a song, you get people to like it. So it gets stuff out there But there’s a huge amount of time wasted by looking into other people’s lives, wondering what everybody else is doing, and hoping that they look at your life and they think your life is interesting—all these elements of the social media world.

In terms of releasing of music—what drives you to do that? What’s your goal with this album? I was listening to “Please Don’t Step on My Flower Bed,” and the line, “I should start acting my age” leapt out at me. With the phases that you have been going through in your life, it seems like you’ve been ascending towards adulthood. I feel like that line really grabs it.

Well, there were about seven or eight songs that I had written probably starting in 2010, maybe ‘11, that I never gotten properly recorded. I just really wanted to record them and get them finalized, so I could at least cross that off my checklist—‘cause they’ve kind of been hanging over my head for years and years. But I also felt very stagnant these past couple years, not releasing any music. It really seemed like no one really cared about the art. But in order for my own mental well-being, I needed to finish this project for myself.

There’s a line in another song that will probably be on the next EP: ‘Schedules and jobs keep my friends busy and secure.’ It’s the struggle between creative pursuits and being a creative person and not having some sort of adult career. That’s always going to be a struggle. And I’ve always felt, going through my teens and 20s, that I was just really suited for that life. I wasn’t super happy-go-lucky, I still felt the artist’s malaise or depression. But now in my 30s All these friends of mine seem to have transitioned into adulthood better. They’re in long-term serious relationships, a lot of them have kids, all these other things. And I still feel like I’m a 26-year-old, kind of floundering, with nothing really super steady, trying to balance these interests in my life. So many people give up their art and their creative endeavors. They get busy with full-time jobs, they get busy with relationships, or their kids, and they stop making stuff. I’m always struggling with those questions when I’m making something: Who cares about this thing? Do you need someone else’s approval for this thing that you’re making? Can you just make it for yourself?

Do you feel ready to be an adult?

No, I don’t feel ready at all. I was brought up [with] lower middle-class parents [who] just never had an emphasis on money, material things, and I’ve been able to survive on very little money-ish. Just very Bohemian. Society has kind of always told everyone, ‘You’re supposed to have a career and have a 40-hour job, get married and have kids.’ And I do want to have kids and a serious relationship. I guess I wonder: Can you live this vagabond Bohemian life and have a serious relationship and have kids?

Nilina Mason-Campbell

%d bloggers like this: