Somewhere between Blondie and Jimi Hendrix, Juliette Lewis emits a mock sigh. “This feature already has made me upset because, no, you can’t pick just one song,” she says by phone from a hotel in New Orleans. It should come as little surprise that Lewis adores music so wholeheartedly—there’s her punk band, Juliette and the Licks, but there’s also a rock’n’roll sensibility that carries over to her roles. Throughout her nearly four-decade career, Lewis has excelled at playing characters driven by a fierce inner rhythm. Most recently, she has brought that unpredictable intensity to the role of Natalie, a hardened loner with a fierce loyalty, in Showtime’s runaway hit Yellowjackets. She even wore her own Amyl and the Sniffers shirt on the show, thinking that her character would be a fan of the Australian punk band.
Music has played a crucial role in Lewis’ life since her childhood, when she took piano and singing lessons—though she admits that she quit both because “inevitably, a teacher would say or do something I didn’t like.” Those initial experiences did help Lewis write her first song at 10, which she describes as “a tragic, one-finger-on-the-piano song wondering if anyone would notice if I wasn’t there.” She warbles out a verse from memory—“It seems awful to me/If I were to die/Everyone would wonder why”—and erupts into giggles.
Music-making took a backseat over the next two decades as Lewis became one of her generation’s most celebrated young actresses, spellbinding audiences in dramas like Natural Born Killers, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and Cape Fear. (Her performance in the latter earned the then-18-year-old a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Oscars.) Along the way she fell in love with bands like the Velvet Underground (“Ironically, I discovered them after I quit drugs”) and Nirvana (she describes Kurt Cobain as a “megawatt”).
At 30, Lewis honored her childhood music dreams by forming Juliette and the Licks, a rock’n’roll act with plenty of stage-diving and high kicks. After two full-lengths, the Licks went on hiatus in 2009, reforming now and again for touring. Lewis continued to release solo records under her own name, most recently 2016’s fiery Future Deep EP, and she’s currently working on new material with the Licks. While that comes together, Lewis continues to proclaim her love of music in other ways. Her Instagram is a tribute to the artists who shaped her, including Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, and the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde. “Music has always been a conduit to my feelings,” she says. “I always use music to get into something or to grow from something. I know I’m really depressed when I don’t crave music.”
Here, the 48-year-old artist runs down the songs and albums that have defined her life, five years at a time.
Donna Summer: “Hot Stuff”
Juliette Lewis: My parents split when I was two. It was very amicable, they were never feuding, but I did live for a good chunk of time with my mom while she was working in Florida. I remember quite literally laying on the floor of the apartment—the days of horrible maroon or brown ’70s carpet—with my ear to the radio speaker listening to Top 40. I just loved Donna Summer. Disco was happening and I got some fuchsia spandex disco pants. “Hot Stuff” sounded so jubilant and adventurous. It told a story of danger, and even at that age I wanted to get out of the drudgery of this little apartment. It was like Day-Glo listening to that song, my imagination became so vibrant and alive. I never stopped loving “Hot Stuff”; later in life, my band did a fun rock’n’roll cover of it.