He may be first and foremost a comic book artist (and a top-class one at that) but New Yorker Jeffrey Lewis has also made a name for himself as a lo-fi singer-songwriter, albeit one with a particularly unique style that some might perhaps describe as an acquired taste.

The thing is, despite not catering for the mainstream, Lewis has successfully built up a fan base that spans the globe. The remarkable cult following he commands sees in his work a refreshing alternative not only to the lightweight fodder that the mainstream is constantly flinging in our faces, but also to that alternative music which perhaps doesn’t quite live up to what it purports to be.

Regarded as “the best lyricist working in the US today” by Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, Lewis is often linked to the anti-folk movement due to his involvement in New York’s Sidewalk Cafe, where he first plucked up the courage to play his music to other people back in the 1990s. More than belonging to some movement or other however, Lewis has developed his own style of delivery; one that doesn’t necessarily conform to any predetermined characteristics, folk or otherwise, and perhaps that is what is most anti-folk about him.

Currently touring Europe, Lewis found time to answer a few questions ahead of his first-ever concert in Malta later this month.

You started out as a comic book artist and later took up music. Did your illustrating have any bearing on why you got into music?

Not really – I just had too much lonely time to fill in the late 1990s and drawing comics wasn’t enough to fill all of it, so I started messing with guitar too and making up songs. I would just sit up late into the night and draw, and when I got tired of drawing I would pick up a guitar. I was drawing all my life but I didn’t start composing songs till I was about 22 or so. Then I realised there was this open mic not far from where I lived so I started going there, drawing the performers and playing my songs.

How important has your connection to the anti-folk scene been to your career as a musician?

The Sidewalk Cafe open mic was maybe the only way I would have gotten into playing music live in New York City, because it was so open and welcoming to new people. I would never have made a demo tape or tried to book a gig somewhere, but at Sidewalk you could just walk in and become part of this community and this little music scene, even though I was very shy and it took me a long time to know the other performers.

I was at the Monday open mics every single week for about two years, and for the first eight or nine months I probably didn’t talk to other people much, I just drew in my sketchbook.

I don’t know if my singing really appeals to very many people, but it’s just what comes out when I open my mouth

You have quite a particular style of singing and playing that is far from mainstream but enjoys widespread cult fandom…

I don’t know if my singing really appeals to very many people, but it’s just what comes out when I open my mouth. I’m not a big fan of singing, when you can hear a musician trying to sing, putting on a fake voice. I hate when I sound that way; I’m always trying to avoid that.

Which of your albums would you recommend as a starting point to someone who has never heard your music?

It seems that most people say my second album It’s the Ones Who’ve Cracked That the Light Shines Through is the one they got into first. I think it’s a good album; it shows the mix of material that happens in my band’s live shows, so I think it’s a pretty good representation of what we really sound like.

Further to the album of Crass covers you recorded some years ago, are there any similar projects in the pipeline, and whose work would you most like to cover?

I’ve covered a lot of bands and artists at various times, and there are many others I’d like to cover.

I think Ian Dury would be a good choice, because he’s not very well known in the US. He had so many wonderful lyrics and songs, even later in his career before he died; I think that would be a good opportunity to introduce some people to some great material they might not have heard before.

There’s a Lou Reed album called Mistrial that is one of my favourite Lou Reed records but it has a ton of typical 1980s production on it; I think those songs would be good to play for people without all the 1980s production sounds, so people could hear how good the songs really are.

You’ve come up with some imaginative song titles and topics over the years. Any ones you look back on and think what was I thinking?

It’s been a long time since I performed The Complete History of Jeff’s Sexual Conquests, Volume 1, even though when I wrote it I thought it was one of my best songs.

I got to a point where I didn’t feel like I needed to unfairly exploit myself in order to make art.

But sometimes I go back in the other direction. It’s good to go too far, at least to try it and see how it feels.

Does having someone like Jarvis Cocker singing your praises put you under any pressure?

I do feel some pressure, and pressure is bad because you have to be totally open and non-judgmental to create anything, otherwise you just crumple up every page as soon as you start.

I think it’s a lot easier to make stuff when nobody’s paying attention. It’s always great to hear that somebody likes what you’ve made, whether that person is famous or just somebody who comes up to you after a show, especially when you feel like you had a terrible show. A few kind words really help remind you why you need to keep trying, whoever they come from.

A parting word to those who haven’t yet decided if they’re coming to your gig or not…

You should definitely come to the show because we’re one of the best bands out there and it’s a rare thing for us to get to Malta.

Also, you should come and tell us what we should see and do while we’re there. Our friends Stanley Brinks and Freschard have performed in Malta many times, and they always tell us it’s great.

Jeffrey Lewis will be performing at the Każin San Gejtanu in Ħamrun on September 11. Bark Bark Disco will be the opening act. For more details look up the Jeffrey Lewis Concert event page on Facebook.

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