The former imposed a kind of musical isolation, Lewis tells Spinner, chatting one recent sunny morning in the restaurant that sits atop New York City's Gramercy Park Hotel.
Before heading to L.A. to record Confess, released this week on 4AD, Lewis spent months on the road, separated from his record collection. If the new album plays like perfect summation of his influences -- everything from Sade and the Smiths to George Michael and Boys II Men -- it's a testament to just how thoroughly the Dominican-born, Florida-raised, Brooklyn-based artist has internalized those sounds.
"You'd think being on tour, you'd listen to a lot of music, but when you have a lot of different people in the band, and a lot of different tastes, you rarely listen to music as a group," Lewis says. "And you rarely listen to music by yourself, too. I get nauseous listening to music on the headphones in the car."
Then, Lewis is more of a bike guy. He's been riding motorcycles for about eight years, and it was a desire to feel the wind whip through his famously stylish duds -- on the day of the Spinner interview, his look might be described as Prince chilling with Depeche Mode in South Beach circa '89 -- that convinced him to record in California.
"I knew I had to make my record in November or December," Lewis says. "I knew that I couldn't ride a motorcycle in New York in those months, and I had just bought a motorcycle. So i quickly shifted to L.A. and decided that's where I would make the record, simply so I could ride."
And ride he did, even after a nasty accident that provided him a much-needed moment of clarity and gave the album a nifty back-story. As Lewis is aware, a similar thing happened to Bob Dylan in the late '60s, though he's quick to point out that Confess shares little in common with the epic set of Americana tunes Bob cut with the Band in Woodstock following his bike wreck.
"I hope it's not my Basement Tapes," Lewis says with a laugh.
He says he might not have even gone public with the crash story were it not for the postscript, the important part -- the sense of well-being he felt after he got back on his bike and punched the sucker up to triple digits on an open stretch of road.
"The only reason I mentioned it was because I realized when I was in L.A. that I really enjoy life," Lewis says. "I'm really enjoying what's going on right now in the world and with music and my peers. It was a sentiment I wanted to get across. This was my record saying I want to be here. I want to be involved in this life."
That realization came even as Lewis became increasingly attuned to the sacrifices one must make to have a successful music career. He's been going nonstop since 2010, when he released his debut, Forget. Produced by Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear, the album was a hit with critics, many of whom compared Lewis to Morrissey -- partially due to his sweet pompadour.
Lewis' hairstyle has since undergone several transformations -- something he noted with the promotional poster for his 2011 Clean Cuts Tour -- though not as many as his personal life.
"Before, my life was abundant in love and healthy friendships and all of that," Lewis says. "A lot of Forget was a bubbling-over of that, to the brim. Whereas this record is to the bottom -- all that stuff disappeared because of my absence, in a way, from life."
That comes through in a song like "Five Seconds," an '80s throwback somehow reminiscent of both Naked Eyes' "Always Something There to Remind Me" and Billy Idol's "Rebel Yell." The chorus, "Five seconds in your heart/I can't get to your heart," plays like the frustrated plea of someone too busy for love.
"That song is one of those songs that keeps revealing itself to me as a different thing," Lewis says. "It is about time and space and five seconds seems so short and so accessible, but not. That's something someone said to me, actually. And I just put it in the song. It's one of those proverbial things that keeps delivering to me, in a way."
If Lewis' life centers on the tradeoff between work and relationships, the dilemma has only strengthened his music. Soulful, contemplative and suave, with bits of "Love Is a Battlefield" synths gliding past "Every Breath You Take" guitars, Confess is a dealing-with-fame album and '80s movie soundtrack in one.
Fans will hear this music and urge Lewis to stay the course, no matter the cost, no matter the vehicle. As it turns out, that might not be as selfish as it sounds.
"There are definitely moments where you wonder whether you're getting back enough," Lewis says. "There are a lot of those moments, but the second you play in front of fans who really need it those doubts disappear, and that's really what keeps me interested -- seeing the way music affects people."