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Rilo Kiley: Solid Gold

Rilo Kiley wanted their bold, brassy new album to sound like a party. But with the prospect of mainstream success reopening old wounds and triggering self-doubt, can they find it in their hearts to have some fun?

Jenny Lewis’ apartment is a disaster. One might expect the 31-year-old lead singer of Rilo Kiley to have scaled up by now. Nine years into their career, they are the model of the indie band made good — critical respect, decent sales, sound­track exposure — while Lewis’ solo debut, Rabbit Fur Coat, was a modest hit last year, with 112,000 copies sold. She has a love of pretty things — I see her, over the course of two summer weeks, wearing, among other things, a sparkly little jacket, a gold-trimmed minidress, and Chanel-esque heels. Her consumer lust is so strong that she deadpans at one point about her breakup with the band’s lead guitarist, Blake Sennett, “It was because of my shopping.”

Lewis’ apartment is located on a slanted hill in the boho Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. The palm trees are yellowed and dry here; the lyrics to Fergie’s “Glamorous,” blasting from my stereo on the drive over, suddenly seem ironic. Inside, the one-bedroom looks, in a word, seedy. The carpet is dishwater gray and the Venetian blinds are drawn to keep out the heat, but they keep out the light, too. There is a silver and yellow floral brocade couch that looks like something a dotty grandmother might have thrown out decades ago. A piano sits against a wall with a Judy Collins songbook on its mantel; Lewis shells out an extra $29 a month to use it. There are occasional dashes of wit and charm — a heart-shaped pillow emblazoned with the words suspicious minds occupies the couch — but even at $800 a month, the place is hardly a steal.

Lewis thinks her home has been good to her, though. “I haven’t really wanted for anything else in the last eight years,” she says, bouncing into the kitchen. She opens the refrigerator door. “Kombucha?” she asks. I decline the fermented, yeasty iced tea, but she grabs a bottle for herself and takes a gulp.

The rest of the band — Sennett, 31, drummer Jason Boesel, 29, and bassist Pierre “Duke” de Reeder, 34 — overrun the apartment like Ritalin-starved schoolkids. Sennett leafs through a magazine, Boesel checks out photos on the dining room walls — Lewis with her mother and siblings, as a tot, and in a silk dress during last year’s solo tour–and de Reeder wanders into a back room. A tanned, muscular guy with shoulder-length blond hair wanders in from the bedroom, looking as if he just woke up. This is Johnathan Rice, a singer/songwriter who is Lewis’ live-in boyfriend and sometime collaborator. He speaks to her quietly in a Scottish accent — “Hi, babe” — and walks over to the vintage Stack-O-Matic record player to put on an LP. A live version of Elvis Presley’s “Impossible Dream” starts up. “To dream the impossible dream / To fight the unbeatable foe…” The subject turns to Hawaii, where the guys are dying to play–but Lewis steadfastly refuses to subject her fair complexion to the island climate. “I will tell you why,” she says, suddenly kittenish. “Because redheads will be extinct in the year 2100.” Lewis has brought me over, initially, because she wants me to see a first edition she has of my grandfather William Saroyan’s book of short stories, My Name Is Aram. She says she loves his writing because she recognizes her own native California in it.

“There’s something about when you realize your surroundings are valid,” she says. “And that happens when you read books that relate to you.”

It occurs to me, as the band members discuss “The Moneymaker,” the porn-obsessed video for the first single from their new album, Under the Blacklight — shot in the San Fernando Valley smut capital, where Lewis was raised — that Rilo Kiley’s songs accomplish the same thing. They reflect a very particular Los Angeles, one that isn’t often portrayed in pop — or, for that matter, pop culture. It is the L.A. of dark, starless nights and post-breakup loneliness, of cool Eastside kids wondering if their fashionable lives are all that there is. “I think if I grew up in Flint, Michigan, I might be writing about the auto industry,” Lewis says. “It so happens I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles. So I write about the things that I observe around me.” She pauses. “For better or for worse.”

Read the full feature on Rilo Kiley in the Sept. 2007 issue of Spin, on newsstands now!

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