Born in New York in 1975, Jeffrey Lewis is a comic book artist and guitarist/singer-songwriter. Lewis, considered part of the anti-folk movement, was one of the musicians who performed at New York’s Sidewalk Cafe, its biannual anti-folk festivals and open mic nights in the 1990s. His signature sound shares specific traits with the anti-folk genre.
He employs a downbeat, self-deprecating style of humor, has off-kilter vocals and plays a blend of punk and acoustic tunes about such themes as everyday life and emotions. Lewis takes no issue with being labeled “anti-folk”. He once told the press: “I think it’s a cool title” adding “the fact that no one knows what it means, including me, makes it kind of mysterious and more interesting than saying that you’re a singer/songwriter or that you play indie rock.”
Sources indicate this comic book artist first stepped into a recording studio in 1996 or 1997. His first release was When Madman Was Good – Version One in 1997. Critics found his material literate and witty.
He followed it with a second version of similar material, When Madman Was Good – Version Two, the next year in 1998. His songs were seriously influenced by his childhood and location. Later that same year he put out Indie-Rock Fortune Cookie. He was well-received enough to be encouraged to release Journey to the Center of the Earth at the end of the decade (1999).
Journalist Nigel Williamson hesitates to pigeonhole Lewis. He states that few other anti-folk artists toiling in that genre “display quite the same tightness of touch and sense of playfulness.” The year 2000 opened with the release of The Only Time I Feel Right Is When I’m Drawing Comic Books an album that referenced his main occupation when he’s not making humorous music.
This was also the year Lewis began performing regularly in Texas where he would spend the next two years. He also put out I Am, Of Course, Glad that same year. The following year, 2001, he was signed to the British record label Rough Trade.
His major label debut disc The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane was one of of a few of his recordings to hit the racks that year. He also did Kimya Dawson (of the Moldy Peaches) And Jeff Lewis, Songs From Austin and Diane Cluck And Jeffrey Lewis. Finally, He even put out the more well-known single “The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song” which references Leonard Cohen.
Jarvis Cooker praised his work and said that Lewis is “the best lyricist working in the US today”. 2002 witnessed the release of two projects: Guitar Situations: Musical Conduct and AntiFolk Collaborations Volume 1. The two singles for that year were “Back When I Was Four” and “Graveyard/Spirit of Love”.
He also contributed the song “So Long (I’m Gonna Go Draw All Alone In My Shack)” to the compilation platter Call It What You Want This Is Antifolk. The complexity of his songs and literary references remained and he continued to combine a generally nihilistic view of the world with his sharp sense of humor and a message of hope. The next year, 2003, Lewis would put out his second major-label full album, It’s the Ones Who’ve Cracked That the Light Shines Through.
The 13-track platter contained such noteworthy numbers as the closing cut “You Don’t have to Be a Scientist to Do Experiments on Your Own Heart” (which also appears on the compilation disc Antifolk Vol. 1) and “Don’t Let the Record Label Take You out to Lunch”. Williamson once remarked that these tracks excellently conveyed “the general flavour” of Lewis’ sense of humor. In fact, the record execs must have originally had similar feelings as they approved the release of “No LSD Tonight/Don’t Let The Record Label Take You Out To Lunch” as singles that year.
The following year Lewis was promoting his music with the publication of his comic book, Come to My Show. It was also in 2004 that his Jeffrey Lewis “Four Seasons” Box Set hit the stores. His third record, City and Eastern Songs, was released in the UK in November 2005. He also put out the EP Gas Money which was “split with Schwervon! (the two-piece rock band)”.
He also had two singles out that year: “Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror” which pays tribute to one of his influences, Will Oldham and “Had It All”. His “Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror” was also included on The Art Star Sounds Compilation which was also out that year. City and Eastern Songs would not hit American stores until the following year, 2006.
As on the prior two albums, Lewis’ brother, Jack Lewis, also appeared here. Jack even wrote and sang a number os selections himself. With his brother’s help Lewis was also able to release Tapes From The Crypt that year and his song “Waiting For A Change” was included on the compilation Still Unravished- A Tribute to June Brides.
2007 saw Lewis and Cluck’s “The River” on the compilation record Anticomp Folkilation. Lewis next recorded 12 Crass Songs. This was a collection of anti-folk cover cuts of songs written by the anarcho-pacifist British punk band Crass.
The tunes were re-worked to fit Lewis’ signature song-style. Some critics felt that it was like taking a joke too far. Nevertheless, Lewis kept working on his music (when not working on his comics).
In the summer of 2008 Lewis and his brother Jack opened for Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks in Europe. (This had not nor would it be his only tour or live performance. In fact, Lewis has worked with such acts as Beth Orton, the Fall, The Mountain Goats, Super Furry Animals and more.) His next CD, titled ‘Em Are I would not be complete and in stores until the next year, 2009.
This 11-cut release would be the first to actually credit Lewis’ backing band, the Junkyard on the cover. (Lewis would also continue to sometimes add his own unfinished artwork to his various covers.) The label also put out one of his singles, “To Be Objectified”.
Earlier this year Lewis had a new single out. It’s called “Roll Bus, Roll”. As of this writing he had not completed a new CD. Nevertheless, he is still working on his comic art and music tipping his tuneful hat to his environment and sources of inspiration as well as spreading his own unique version of humorous, intelligent anti-folk rock.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.
A Critic’s Choice List of Songs:
“The Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex” of the album The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane: This is his most popular number and pays tribute to someone who influenced his songwriting, Leonard Cohen.
“You Don’t have to Be a Scientist to Do Experiments on Your Own Heart” from the album It’s the Ones Who’ve Cracked That the Light Shines Through: This is one of the cuts that best exemplifies the general sense of the album and “flavor” of Lewis’ work during this period.
“To Be Objectified” from the CD ‘Em Are I: This is simply a good example of his more recent work from his latest disc.