After split from Jenny Lewis, Johnathan Rice redefines the breakup album
You might not recognize his name, but you’ve more than likely come across Johnathan Rice’s creative output since the early 2000s, whether from his role as Roy Orbison in 2005’s Johnny Cash biopic “Walk The Line” or through his 12-year romantic and musical partnership with indie-rock star Jenny Lewis. When the former Rilo Kiley frontwoman struck out on her own, Scottish American singer-songwriter Rice became a key collaborator in the studio. As “Jenny and Johnny,” the duo even released an album and toured together around the world.
The relationship dissolved in 2016, and over the next two years, Rice wrote and produced elements of what would eventually become “The Long Game,” his first solo album in six years and his most personal. Before Rice plays Barracuda on June 12 opening for the Felice Brothers, we talked to him about the songs he holds closest to his heart and why he publishes poetry on Instagram.
American-Statesman: How does it feel to put so much of your personal life and relationship with Jenny out into the world with this album?
Rice: It feels kind of inevitable, you know what I mean? It’s something that (Lewis) talked about a lot when her album came out a short while ago. You know, it didn’t feel unnatural or like too much oversharing to talk about it, and I think there’s a very direct writing style on this record that it’s pretty unmistakable what it could be about.
How has your approach to songwriting changed since the split?
Well, we always had a pretty open relationship when it came to writing. We were not the type of collaborators that would sit down and write every song together. We always wrote together and separately. This record of mine encompasses the last three or four years of songs; some of the songs are even 6 years old.
Two of the songs on this record I actually did write with Jenny, years ago, but I excavated them. They were both written for films. “Another Cold One” was written for Meryl Streep in her movie “Ricki and the Flash.” “Silver Song” was written for Anne Hathaway in a movie called “Song One” (performed by co-star Johnny Flynn).
In both of those cases, Jenny and I were writing in reaction to the script, providing a personal portrait, writing to maximize the emotion in the script we read, the characters, the theme.
It’s unlikely we’d ever write another song together, that’s for sure.
Why did you decide to include the two older songs that were written with Jenny on the album?
Those songs, lyrically and melodically, made a lot of emotional sense with the other, newer songs that I’d been writing on my own. The way I ordered the record is very deliberate.
There’s kind of a dream-like positivity to “Silver Song,” and that’s very early in the record. And then “Cold One,” the original intention of the song was to demonstrate Meryl Streep’s character’s relationship with her family. She had a dysfunctional, estranged relationship with her children, so we were trying to communicate that in the song.
When I cut the song for my record and put it in a different context, it sounds to me like two people agreeing to disagree forever.
I think songs are living things. I think they take on new meaning as life goes on and I think they can be conveyed emotionally in a myriad of different ways. It depends on the singer of the song and the singer’s life and the feeling of the singer in that moment.
“Friends” is a nice bookend to the album. What’s the story behind that song?
It’s the youngest song on the record, so the most recently written song, and it arrived just in time, right when I was wrapping up the record. It arrived pretty much fully formed. When I hear that song, I hear a lot of acceptance. Acceptance, as I understand it, the final stage of grief. It felt like a good final intention, final statement for the album.
Do you have a favorite song?
Nah, it’ll probably change. It keeps changing. It’s certainly the record I’m most proud of that I’ve ever made, no question.
What did producer Tony Berg bring to the table that was different?
Tony Berg (is what I) would call a veteran. He’s been around for a really long time. He is, in my opinion, a consummate producer. He gets inside your songs as well as the recording and vocal performances. He was very interested in getting songs into the perfect key, which usually involved taking them down from where I had written them and put them more into my baritone register, which is more like my speaking voice. To him, that was communicating the emotion of the song that he was attracted to as a producer.
My last record was self-produced and I did not want to do that (again). I very much wanted to be told what to do. I credit Tony with that.
I was going through a lot in my life. … Some days, it was easy to be in the studio, and some days it was difficult from an emotional standpoint.
Our buddy Mike Viola produced one song on the record called “Change.” He came in at the 11th hour of recording and told us, "the more you strip this back, the better; the more austere and bare everything is, the better it works." so he guided us in that direction. I was listening to a lot of '60s recordings: Ricky Nelson records, Frank Sinatra records, Ink Spots records. Those records all have an austere, ghost-like quality.
One song on the album is named for a conversation you had with Bill Murray. What’s the story there?
Years and years ago, I had a conversation with Bill, and he just said very quotable things. He said something like, "Well, you’ve got to meet the mother." And for some reason, that phrase stuck in my mind. Years later, I finally finished it.
It was my intention to write something funny in that song (“Meet the Mother”). It’s kind of an outlier in the catalogue. I always loved turns of phrases like, “A man can be drunk sometimes, but a drunk can’t be a man.” I always wanted to write a tagline like that (and with), ‘You have to meet the mother before you kiss the bride," I was trying to embody that tradition.
How does your Instagram poetry inform your songwriting, or vice versa?
I don’t know whether it does or it doesn’t; it’s just writing. I consider myself a writer. So I write poems and I write songs, and I’ll write in other areas of the writing sphere as my life goes on. The haikus are probably my way of dealing with my encroaching anxiety about the future. That’s why I call them dystopian haikus. My way of dealing with things that I’m worried about it is to laugh at them. And that’s why I’m laughing on the cover of my record. It’s like I’m laughing in the dark, and that’s very deliberate.
IF YOU GO
The Felice Brothers with Johnathan Rice at Barracuda
When: 8 p.m. doors, 9 p.m. show June 12
More information: barracudaaustin.com