In 2004, Juliette Lewis the punk rocker emerged with a bang. Now she’s being reborn as a musical force in the studio as well as onstage. After four years, two full-length albums and countless high-profile tours and festival gigs alongside acts like the Killers, Foo Fighters, Muse and Chris Cornell with her roaring rock road show the Licks, Lewis is ready to unveil her new solo project.
With the Licks, Lewis put out the 2004 EP …Like a Bolt of Lightning, which was followed by the full-length You’re Speaking My Language. By the time 2006′s Four on the Floor was released, the Licks had mounted their international assault, touring the world and rocking fests like Iceland Airwaves and the U.K.’s prestigious V Festival and Leeds & Reading as well as Lollapalooza. And Juliette’s time on the road is far from over: tour dates will be announced shortly after the release of her solo debut album: Terra Incognita.
It was during a grueling two-year tour for Four on the Floor, that the singer-actress began craving a fresh sound where guitars would provide atmospheric glow rather than chugging rhythms, and melodies could be haunting and dynamic. “I was hiding behind the bombast and rhythm guitar, riffs and hooks,” she says. “So it took five years to cut my teeth and really develop as a musical force and songwriter and gain the courage to now let my voice roar and emote.” After meeting the Mars Volta’s Omar Rodriguez-Lopez at Japan’s Fugi Rock Festival, the two chatted about collaborating. The pair quickly bonded over Fellini movies and the relationship between drama and music. “I was on a search for a producer who could unearth and interpret my musical identity and venture into the unknown with me,” she says. Lewis visited Rodriguez-Lopez at his Brooklyn, New York studio, bringing along cassettes of songs she’d roughly recorded on a piano at home. Rodriguez-Lopez was instantly struck by what he calls the music’s “pure honesty.” He began adding instruments and orchestration to the tracks, sent them to Juliette via e-mail, and “He blew my mind,” Lewis says. “I was looking at combining the elements of heaven and earth sonically, and Omar seemed to understand this language.”
Lewis wrote most of the 11 tracks that would become the new album, Terra Incognita, with her friend, guitarist Chris Watson, over the past year. She and Rodriguez-Lopez recorded for three weeks at his Brooklyn and Guadalajara studios in late 2008, with a very specific cast of musicians Rodriguez-Lopez thought best suited the project; Rich Costey (Nine Inch Nails, Muse) mixed the LP at New York’s famed Electric Lady Studios. The result is a stunning album of epic sonic scope and complex emotional journeys that Lewis says “is my version of whatever soul is.” On this record, “I let the haunted woman come through—the tormented blues soul singer—as well as my full-throttle rock voice.”
Opener “Romeo” kicks off with a fuzzy riff that’s joined by Lewis’ ethereal vocal and a strong, laid-back beat. Lewis says she wrote the track in Italy about “a blue-eyed something” and “you can feel all the colors and shapes of moonlight and water in the dreamy guitars.” The straight-up blues of the spare, guitar-and- vocal track “Hard Loving Woman” emerged when one of Watson’s guitar lines untapped a flurry of emotions tied to a phrase Lewis had been carrying around. She recorded the song in a single take, and Rodriguez-Lopez convinced her to leave it untouched. “I said it won’t ever get any better than that,” he recalls—and it doesn’t. Lewis conjures Janis Joplin on the song with a gritty wail that pounds home wrenching lyrics like “Society’s got no place for me.”
On the experimental “Female Persecution,” backward drums mingle with layers of warm tones that are simultaneously suffocating and freeing. “I love contradictions and contrasts, sonically and emotionally, and I have so many things that juxtapose,” Lewis says. “Strength and despair, innocence and decay, dreams and disillusionment—and how you convey all this through different sounds, as well as lyrically and vocally.” While that broody track recalls Patti Smith’s poetry, the triumphantly glimmering “Suicide Divebombers” has a gorgeous David Bowie vibe that swells into a glorious chorus of “The past is dead.” Lewis says she wrote the line “You were selling tickets to my funeral” when she was 21 and finally found its accompaniment on the song. “It’s the closing credits, the glitter is pouring off your face, the world’s blowing up and what can we do but keep dreaming of forever together,” she explains.
The album easily shifts from punky grooves (“All Is For God”) to chiming guitar rock (“Fantasy Bar”) and even includes a flashy pop song (“Uh Huh,” which Lewis describes as her “make-out jam”). There’s a ton of variety in the vocal performances, too, which leap from growly and rich to vulnerable and subtle. It’s a remarkably dynamic range that will likely stun fans of the Licks and anyone who’s never seen Lewis take the stage that recalls PJ Harvey and Throwing Muses’ Kristin Hersh.
“Everything she’s feeling, it’s just right there for you,” Rodriguez-Lopez says. “It’s just honest. It’s her. All the music encapsulates her and it’s driven by her, and it’s made for her.”
After mastering her live show with the Licks, Lewis says Terra Incognita is the album she always hoped to make. “I wanted to make a record that has full flavor and spectrum. Not the same song 11 times,” she says. “I felt I needed to break conventional songwriting habits, allow those roaming voices to comes out.Terra Incognita means unknown territory and I wanted—needed—to go there. Not everybody wants to. But I got no one to answer to, so why not feed the muse? It’s all about this love of expression and an audience who’s willing to take the journey into my mythical sonic forest of dreams, where romance and tragedy are next to heaven.”