The third annual Lawnya Vawnya independent music and art festival is officially underway in St. John’s. The lineup for this year’s five-day festival includes heavyweight Canadian DJ Kid Koala, Brooklyn, NY rock band Obits, Constantines front man Bry Webb, Sackville, NB’s Shotgun Jimmie, Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby, Manhattan anti-folk songwriter Jeffrey Lewis, Grand Falls-Windsor-born Matthew Hornell, and a host of other artists, including local acts Pathological Lovers, Mark Bragg & The Butchers, Long Distance Runners, Kat McLevey, Thom & The Tomcats, Ilia Nicoll, Delusion Victims, and more.
A ‘home and away’ kind of interview
St. John’s musicians Meghan Harnum and Thom Coombes (of Thom & The Tomcats) recently spoke with Jeffrey Lewis, who will make his first festival appearance this evening at the Rocket Room on Duckworth Street.
The New York-based artist doubles as a songwriter-musician and a comic book writer, so it makes sense that his music has an animated quality.
With his band The Junkyard, Lewis explores myriad musical styles and soundscapes. With his verbose, catchy lyrics he creates witty, literate folk narratives but is often ascribed the anti-folk label by music journalists. In 2001 the 37-year-old low-fi pioneer signed to Rough Trade Records (The Strokes, The Smiths) and has since released six albums and toured extensively around the world. His live shows often feature video backdrops displaying his illustrations as accompaniments to his songs.
For almost a decade now Lewis has been self-publishing his Fuff comic book series, he has lectured around the world on comic books and independently produced music, and has had his work featured on/in The History Channel, the New York Times, The Guardian and National Public Radio in the United States.
Lewis’ recent projects include creating the soundtrack for the film Radio Unnameable, illustrating Jaimee Garbacik’s academic book Gender and Sexuality For Beginners (due in 2013 from Random House), and writing and drawing a short comic book biography of Woody Guthrie, which is set to appear in the Paul Buhle book Bohemians in 2013.
Interview with Jeffrey Lewis, by Meghan Harnum and Thom Coombes
Is this your first time visiting Newfoundland, or Eastern Canada?
Definitely! I’ve played a number of shows in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver but never been to other parts of Canada.
Where is the strangest place you’ve ever played?
Either solo or with my band, I’ve toured some interesting areas, around China and South Korea, Tasmania, Finland, Russia, stuff like that. As far as a particular specific weird venue, I guess the first thing that comes to mind is the gig I did at Voodoo Donuts, a small donut shop in Portland Oregon. I am a big fan of a Portland songwriter named Tony Green, so one of the very first times I performed in Portland I contacted Tony Green to see if I could maybe play a show with him. I’d never met him before and didn’t know what sorts of places he played or anything – I was just a fan, and he somehow arranged for us to do a show that was the two of us sitting in this cramped space on the roof of the bathroom at this tiny donut shop, just a few feet of space between the roof of the bathroom and the ceiling. No amplification, and not really much audience to speak of, but when three or four people were in there buying donuts the tiny place was basically full.
Any upcoming projects or collaborations to look out for?
I’m currently recording a new album with Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders – he’s 75 years old this year. We made a great record together a couple years ago and this new one seems like it’ll be even better.
What’s the first and last record that you bought?
The first record I got was Escape by Whodini, a classic, awesome, totally solid mid-80s rap record. Ironically, I think the most recent LP that I’ve gotten is Hustler’s Convention, which was a 1973 side-project album by one of the Last Poets. I have just about all of their other 70s albums but I’d never had Hustler’s Convention and it’s one of the most famous ones. It’s really very good, I’m glad to have finally gotten my hands on it. So my first album and most recent album are both old-school rap albums! Just a coincidence. Most of the music I get is 60s psychedelic stuff, or 70s songwriters, or 80s/90s indie rock.
What are your three favourite albums?
For Little Ones by Donovan, Dragnet by the Fall, and the self-titled Jad Fair & Daniel Johnston collaboration album from 1989.
How important is it to you to release albums in a physical format versus digital downloads?
Very important, especially for my official releases on Rough Trade. I like to put a lot of work into doing the album packaging and artwork. And for my own cheap self-releases I still think it’s important to have an array of interesting items to show people when I play shows, or to have on my website. It gives a better insight into what you do than just saying “check out my stuff online.”
What was your favourite album to record, and why?
I think the Come on Board album (2011) with Peter Stampfel was a favorite album recording experience. We made the whole record in 36 hours, which sort of included showing the songs to the other three musicians who were backing us up on it. Learning, rehearsing, recording, overdubbing, mixing, from zero to finished album in a crazy 36-hour weekend in the dead of winter. When the ideas are forming in such a fun, fresh manner, and with the full band playing/recording live in a room together, I think you really capture a spirit in the grooves that is impossible to get when you spend too much time working on something.
What is your favourite of your own songs?
Hard to say, but I have always been very fond of Heavy Heart from my first album because it says a lot to me in a very short song with not many words. I like when I feel like I’m cutting through music and singing and just presenting ideas without any barrier.
Lewis will perform an intimate solo show this evening, April 18, at the Rocket Room as part of the Lawnya Vawnya festival. Other acts on the bill for the all-ages show the bill include Leslie Amminson & Esmee Gilbert and Paper Beat Scissors. He will also be doing a Comic Art Talk at Eastern Edge Gallery on Friday, April 19 at 6:30 p.m., which is free and again open to all ages.
For more information on Lewis and other Lawnya Vawnya artists, and a complete festival schedule, visit www.lawnyavawnya.com.