Rock 'n' roll a transcending experience for singer, actress Juliette Lewis


Juliette Lewis speaks of rock 'n' roll the same way a clergy member might reference a sacrament.

Her speaking voice, a crouching tiger waiting to lunge at you at any given moment in a sudden flash of volume and fangs, takes on a solemn, almost hallowed tenor when she talks about getting onstage and shaking her hips and hair into a bright, sweaty blur.

"The live show is everything for me, because it's where all the gods collide and where all my fire sparks off into this one universe that is the live show," she states matter-of-factly, as blunt as the business end of a sledgehammer. "That's why our rock 'n' roll show is different than anybody else's. I'm not just a musician up there singing songs. For me, it's about transcending and connecting and really communicating with the gods. It's a really rich, deep experience."

Last time she was in town, performing at Perry Farrell's birthday party at Bare at The Mirage this past April, Lewis was a thunderbolt smothered in red, clad in a tight scarlet dress as she roared through AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap," eyes wide, lips curled.

As an Academy Award nominated actress -- or dramatist, as she refers to herself -- it's tempting to view her as just playing another role in this context, acting the part of the brash badass with mic in hand, completely uninhibited, like a kid singing into a hairbrush in front of her bedroom mirror -- but with an audience. Lewis certainly doesn't see it this way, though.

First off, she considers herself a full-time musician at this point -- "It's my main gig," she says. "I do movies when I'm in a break between records, basically."

But more importantly, to hear her testify to her own intensity, you don't get the sense that Lewis is putting on any airs.

She sounds like a true believer, in rock 'n' roll, in herself -- not that she ever acknowledges much of a difference between the two.

"I never think of it in terms of a character. I feel that I'm connecting with all that I am onstage," Lewis explains. "So, for me, it is a heightened reality, it's where fantasy and reality merge and you transcend. I really am into this idea of putting on a show, but also, in a twisted way, it's all me. It's everything that I am multiplied."

In her films, Lewis often plays characters defined by a sort of primal energy, from the ruthless blood thirst of Mallory Knox in "Natural Born Killers" to hard-swinging roller derby chick bravado Iron Maven in her latest film, Drew Barrymore's "Whip It."

And her music tends to follow suit.

Initially, Lewis centered on heart-pounding pop punk with her band The Licks, with whom she released a pair of high-energy albums beginning with 2005's "You're Speaking My Language."

But recently, Lewis convened a fresh group of players, The New Romantics, and on her latest disc, "Terra Incognita," she begins to explore a whole different side of herself, musically speaking.

A much more varied affair than anything Lewis has done in the past, the album drifts from moody psychedelia to pure pop sunshine to more dissonant, atmospheric tunes that are more haunting than hard-edged.

Lewis made the album with Mars Volta guitarist/composer/producer Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, a suitably unbounded, instinctual foil for her, and he helped Lewis untether herself from any sort of expectations and craft a record that can veer in any of a number of directions from one track to the next.

"He thinks way outside of the box, and I felt like more of a musician than ever working with him," Lewis says. "He understood my language. Like, I would describe a sound: 'I want to feel like a dark cloud just passed through and at the end, a ray of light comes out.' So that's the vision, that's what I want to feel, and he would create a sound or a guitar effect that would make you feel exactly that."

As such, "Incognita" begins to paint a fuller picture of Lewis, a more finely detailed portrait done in a number of different hues, some bold, some understated.

"People think I'm just this rah-rah-rah girl and I'm really strong, but I'm as vulnerable and filled with longing as I am strong and able to slay dragons," she says.

Any tentativeness on Lewis' behalf, however, seldom comes across when chatting with her. Making music was a long time coming for her, a slow-building, pent up desire that's finally bubbled up to the surface in volcanic fashion.

And these days, she's all about wading through the magma.

"Against all odds and better judgment I had start a band at 30, because I knew I'd regret it if I didn't," Lewis says. "The thing is, it was so deeply personal, my musical expression, that I was guarding it for so long. But when I was a kid, I was always going to be a songwriter as well as a dramatist. I was just being super shy about it for so long, and then I realized that the clock was ticking. It's naturally in me. It's why I'm doing what I'm doing."

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476.

 

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