I’m on the road constantly for work, so it’s very rare that I actually take a vacation. The last one I went on was to Thailand and Malaysia, when I was 19. I was traveling with my friend’s older brother—I actually had a crush on my friend, and I was trying to get closer to him through his older brother. He was around 30, quite a bit older than me, and had been traveling back and forth to Thailand for many years, and he would always tell these incredible stories. I went with him on a whim, and I’m so happy that I did, because I think it helped shape my creative mind; it was a total mind-blower.
I remember getting off of the plane and walking down the stairs and thinking I was standing in the heat of the jets from the airplane, but it was just the air in Bangkok. It was so hot and thick. Walking on the tarmac, I heard this Thai music in the distance. They were listening to American pop music and doing their own version, which was poppy but also totally out there, and that became the soundtrack of the trip.
As an artist, you don’t realize what kind of input is going to affect you, but it all becomes a part of the mixtape of your soul or your consciousness or your psyche. I had the Thai music, but I also brought my Sony Walkman and two cassettes: Liz Phair and A Tribe Called Quest. I remember listening to Exile in Guyville on a little boat traveling between Koh Phangan and Koh Tao in Southern Thailand. The boat was packed with people, and I sat on the back looking out on the Gulf of Thailand, listening to this songwriter who I immediately connected with. I had been writing songs for a handful of years, but I’d never heard anything that felt so relatable and doable. Now we’re inundated with music. It’s so rare that we listen to one record like that, over and over again, and don’t have access to anything else.
“I sat on the back of the boat looking out in the Gulf of Thailand, listening to this songwriter who I immediately connected with.”
By the time we got to the north of the country, my Walkman’s batteries had run out, but I didn’t mind. We did these treks through the mountains around Chiang Mai, sleeping in the villages along the way, and I was so terrified. I’m from the San Fernando Valley, so I hadn’t spent a lot of time outdoors, aside from skateboarding in mall parking lots, and I wanted my senses to be on point. I wanted to be aware of the sounds of the jungle and, again, the music, the sounds within the villages, the little handmade wooden instruments and the singing. I wanted to be present for that stuff.
Aside from showing me a new soundscape, I think that trip really prepped me for life on the road, sharing a room with someone I didn’t know very well. Three years later, I was in a van with four dudes, sharing a bed with my bass player. And then, in The Postal Service, when we first toured, I shared a bed with Jimmy Tamborello—we had a pillow barrier between us. I’m not uptight about that stuff.
There was one other thing I picked up on that trip: a nickname. It was so hot on the long bus ride from Bangkok down to the islands, so I stuck my face out the window to get some air. At our destination, we met up with my friend’s sister and her son, who was, like, 8, and when they saw me, I was completely covered with soot and dust because my face had been hanging out the window of the bus. Her son nicknamed me Dirt Squirrel, and that’s still my nickname. This kid is in his 20s now, and when he sees me he still calls me Dirt Squirrel.
This all happened more than 20 years ago, and I haven’t been back since. I can’t even imagine what it’s like now. That was pre-internet Thailand, so it was pretty raw and real. That’s the thing about my generation: We remember a time before cell phones, when we were connected to the moment, and the amount of media we were taking in was limited. I’m not a Luddite, but that disconnect from your device is really important. So I’d like to see Thailand now, but I don’t think it’ll ever quite be the same.
Singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis will release her fourth solo album, On the Line, on Warner Bros. Records on March 22 and kick off a North American tour on March 26.
Taylor Hill/Getty Images (Lewis); Jill Morgan/Alamy (Walkman); Henry Westheim Photography/Alamy (Koh Phangan)