Jenny Lewis – Looking back to see
Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley has a face like a china doll framed by a retro shag haircut. Her easy figure is often adorned in prized vintage attire. Yet something about Lewis’ ’60s/’70s chic is oddly genuine, suggesting she was maybe born in the wrong decade. Her solo debut Rabbit Fur Coat only deepens such a sense; the album sounds as if it were plucked from the same record bin as Heart Like A Wheel, New Morning and Dusty In Memphis.
“Regardless of what you find yourself listening to when you get older, you always go back to the stuff you heard growing up,” says Lewis. “What I grew up listening to was very influential in the making of this record. I grew up listening to Laura Nyro, Roberta Flack, Lou Reed.
“My mom and I used to sing along to Transformer,” she adds with a laugh. “That was our Sunday morning record.”
Though she may have been weaned on Lou, it’s obvious she cut her teeth on Laura, for if Rabbit Fur Coat has a set of sister sides, it’s Nyro’s soul excursion Gonna Take A Miracle. A generous collection of modern soul-country, Rabbit Fur Coat is one of this winter’s warmest albums.
The disc, due out in January on the indie label Team Love, was recorded with the help of Bright Eyes mixmaster Mike Mogis. It’s heavy on Bobbie Gentry-style story-songs, and centers on themes of loving, hurting, gambling and God.
The album’s title track is the oldest song of the bunch, and is easily the most halting. A whispery yarn concerned with a “thousand-dollar kid” and her mother “putting that stuff up her nose,” it serves as a Mansion-On-The-Hill parable about the dangers of fortune — perhaps autobiographical, given that Lewis spent time as a child actor in Hollywood.
To help flesh things out, Lewis flew to Portland, Oregon, to collaborate with fellow up-and-coming indie-rocker M. Ward. “I had maybe six songs, two of which were incomplete,” she recalls. “I thought, you know, I’m just gonna play them for him and see what he thinks. I was uncomfortable because, working with Blake [Sennett, of Rilo Kiley], we were always prepared and had everything finished before we’d go into the studio.
“I played him ‘Happy’, and that song had the worst chorus, something about, ‘The steak is bloody.’ Somehow, in the room with him listening, the song just came together.”
Ward’s old-timey plucking is all over the record, and his ashy voice can be heard alongside those of Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) and Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) on an irony-fueled cover of the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care”.
As with her best work with Rilo Kiley, Lewis sings her vivid scenes to life on Rabbit Fur Coat, which also highlights her growing prowess as a songwriter. What’s most striking, however, is that she managed to create an album which harkens back to yesteryear without any of the fake tape hiss, needle scratches or studio trickery common to such retro-styled projects. She simply sang the way she remembered voices sounding on her parents’ turntable, and as a result, made an effortlessly vintage-sounding record.
But it wouldn’t be a Rilo Kiley-related project without a good rumor to surround it. Some have suggested, because of her work with synth-poppers the Postal Service and her all-around higher profile of late, that Rabbit Fur Coat signaled the beginning of a solo path. Lewis is quick to dismiss it all.
“I feel alright about [this record],” she says. “But I’m one of those people that once I’m finished with one thing I’m thinking about the next. So I’m really looking forward to touring, and then I’m really looking forward to get into the studio and working on some new material for the next Rilo Kiley record.”