This article originally appeared in the February 2006 issue of SPIN
Jenny Lewis is concerned that she talks too much. She does not directly say this, and there is no evidence to support her fear. But this is her concern. And I know this because of the manner in which she talks about total strangers, which is always the easiest way to admit things about yourself.
“Let me tell you what happened to me on the way over here,” Lewis says. We are sitting in a Lower East Side restaurant called the Pink Pony, but neither of us is eating. I am pretending not to ask whether her mom had a substance abuse problem during Lewis’ childhood, and she is pretending not to care. But she eventually says this: “I was walking over from the Howard Johnson’s, where I like to stay, and there was an older woman standing in front of the knish shop next door. This old woman was berating her 50-year-old son. She was saying things like ‘How could you? How could you tell complete strangers the story of your life? Why would you tell them about your childhood? Why would you divulge such information?’ And I just sort of passed by and thought, ‘That’s pretty good advice. I think it’s safer to not get into the details.'”
The paradox, of course, is that Jenny Lewis is making a career out of painting details in public. She’s just recorded a solo album called Rabbit Fur Coat, and like all successful short-story collections (musical or otherwise), it is saturated with specificity. This is especially true of the title track, which appears to forfeit grains from the story of Lewis’ adolescence: At the age of three, someone decided little Jenny was cute enough to sell Jell-O on TV. By the age of ten, she was on a sitcom with Lucille Ball, which is the kind of work that makes someone’s mother rich enough to buy fur and drugs and anything else she doesn’t need. But by 19, Lewis had grown weary of acting and decided to start a band called Rilo Kiley. Eleven years later that band has become so successful that she can make a solo record partially explaining how all of this happened, which prompts me to ask if her mother would be (a) amused, (b) upset, or (c) flattered by a song that seems to classify her as a cokehead.
“I think her reaction would be a combination of all those things,” Lewis says. “All I can really say is that the 1980s were an interesting time, and a lot of people were doing a lot of things, and I just happened to be a child actor during that period.” When asked to describe her relationship with her mom, Lewis quietly says, “It exists.”
These sentiments are akin to saying that Italians in the 15th century were “busy.” Like most singer/songwriters, Lewis saves her best confessions for the studio. She will effortlessly tell you all the trivial things she loves (such as puppies wearing sweaters) and fearlessly outline the trivial things she hates (such as the fonts used by ESPN), but she’s guarded when it comes to queries about who she is or what her songs mean. “I would much rather read an interview with Bob Dylan or Tom Waits, and we all know those guys aren’t telling the truth,” she says. “I’m kind of honest all the time. Well, not all the time. I lie quite a bit in my own life. And I used to try [to lie in interviews], but I always ended up fucking myself.”
After she says this, Lewis smiles without showing her teeth and appears embarrassed, although I have no idea why. Rilo Kiley have released three country-ish pop-rock albums and toured with Coldplay, but Lewis still rents an apartment for $800 a month (plus an additional $27 for the use of a piano) in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles. She does not own a car. It is strange that she has become an indie-rock sex icon, because she’s not glamorous or provocative; she’s just cute and friendly and devoid of pretension, and fashionable in the way that women tend to appreciate more than men. You have met people like this. Jenny Lewis is mostly normal.
However, her record is mostly not. Her record is mostly way better than normal.
“It’s always elusive to try and describe why something sounds good,” says Elvis Costello, a man who has written a few nice tunes in his career. “But this album is such a beautiful, delicate surprise. It references a lot of music I would have never anticipated. Someone wrote that the song ‘Rabbit Fur Coat’ was a little like Bobbie Gentry’s ‘Ode to Billie Joe,’ and I think that’s an apt comparison. These songs seem old-timey in a unique way. They’re very affecting.”
Both physically and metaphorically, Jenny Lewis is the little red-haired girl Charlie Brown was always in love with. And that’s an advantageous position, because the world of indie rock seems to be composed of 100,000 Charlie Browns. If you haven’t been suspected of dating Jenny Lewis, then you probably haven’t made any good records. Or at least you haven’t made them in the state of Nebraska—home of Saddle Creek Records, the Omaha-based label of Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, which released Rilo Kiley’s second album, The Execution of All Things.
Currently, Lewis is involved with Johnathan Rice, the wide-eyed 23-year-old who recently released the Nick Drake–ish Trouble Is Real. She used to date fellow Kiley founder Blake Sennett (that ended three years ago). There were strong rumors, which she will not confirm or deny, that she had a relationship with Oberst (he declined comment). Internet chatter insists that Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard wrote the song “Such Great Heights” about her, but this is untrue.
“Jenny and I have a Luke-and-Leia relationship,” says Gibbard, who is bandmates with Lewis in the highly successful side project the Postal Service. “I know that sounds cliché, but we really are more like siblings. All those romantic insinuations—about her and Conor, or her and anybody—those are all just guesses. How can anyone really tell if someone is sweet on somebody else? Jenny went to one movie premiere with Jake Gyllenhaal, but I think that was just because their parents know each other. I suppose if some specific rumor keeps coming up over and over and over again, maybe there’s a little truth in it. But if someone gets drunk and messes around with somebody at a bar—well, that happens to everybody. And I’m not saying that’s what happened between her and Conor; I’m just saying it happens to lots of people.”
The situation with Sennett is considerably more intense; what happened between them does not happen to lots of people. Both he and Lewis were child actors, so they share formative experiences most humans can’t relate to. Both classify each other as a best friend (and have for more than a decade). Together, they write and arrange everything for Rilo Kiley. Lewis says meeting Sennett 13 years ago saved her life; Sennett says that every new woman he dates simply has to accept that Lewis “will always be around.” They have become indie rock’s version of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. These are people who used to do everything together; now they do everything together, except for one thing.
“Not sleeping in the same bed, that’s the only difference. Very little has changed beyond that,” says Sennett. “With intimacy comes a different level of honesty, and that probably never goes away. But I suppose it’s a bad idea to have your business partner and your musical collaborator and your best friend and your lover be the same person.”
Interestingly (or perhaps predictably), Lewis and Sennett use similar language to describe their present interaction. Neither seems uncomfortable about discussing the complexity of their union, and both concede that when they’re arranging particularly emotional music, it almost feels like the romantic relationship never ended. But they also do curious things that consciously engineer tension: Sennett has his own side project, the wistful rock band the Elected. For some unfathomable reason, he will release the new Elected album, Sun, Sun, Sun, on the exact same day that Rabbit Fur Coat hits stores.
It’s possible that this is mere coincidence. But I really, truly doubt it.
“Jenny and Blake have a very volatile relationship,” says Gibbard, a man who seems incapable of lying about anything. “It has every element of a romantic relationship, except the physical part. I remember when we were rehearsing for the Postal Service tour of the U.S. in 2003, and we were considering going to Europe for a few months, Blake somehow got wind of this possibility, and I suddenly hear Jenny having this insane phone conversation. I could hear her yelling into her phone, and it was like, ‘No, I’m going. Fuck you! I’m going! No, fuck you. No, I don’t you dare come down here. Fuck you!’ If I ever had a fight like I that with somebody in Death Cab, the band would break up immediately. But an hour after that call, she was totally fine. She said it happens all the time.”
It probably does happen all the time. It probably happens so often that neither Lewis nor Sennett even keep track of the last time they screamed at one another.
“I don’t remember that fight specifically, but I do recall being I threatened that she was playing in another band,” says Sennett. “And I’m sure it was threatening to her when I made my first Elected I record. It’s scary, but then it’s good. Yesterday I had to go to the dentist to get a filling, and I was scared. But when I was finished, it was awesome. It’s like that, man.”
Whatever you say, man.
Produced by indie-blues savant M. Ward and Bright Eyes alum Mike Mogis, Rabbit Fur Coat is partly an homage to the 1971 Laura Nyro white-soul classic Gonna Take a Miracle. This makes sense in theory (Lewis employed gospel singers the Watson Twins as backup vocalists, just as Nyro used the female trio LaBelle), but it doesn’t really sound like a soul record; it’s closer to well-polished country rock. It’s more moving than anything Rilo Kiley have ever released and indeed feels like an album that would have been recorded around the time that the 30-year-old was born. Lewis loves ’70s beard rock (Wings, Bob Dylan’s Desire, the guitar tones on ELO albums), which is probably why she chose to cover the Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care,” the 1988 supergroup single originally performed by five pop legends (who spent much of the 1970s wondering what they should do next). “That was a brilliant move,” says Costello. “I always think it’s so smart to cover something from the intermediate past, as opposed to the distant past.”
On the modern “Handle With Care,” Gibbard carries the late Roy Orbison’s vocal parts while Oberst handles the Dylan verses. When asked if those four people have anything else in common, Lewis just laughs; she says that Oberst and Gibbard have more of a John Lennon/ Paul McCartney relationship. So does that make her George Harrison?
“I don’t think I would want to be all Zen-ed out like George,” she says. “I don’t want to go to India. Alanis Morissette can go to India and be George. I’ll stay here and be Yoko.”
It is rare to find an artist who’s willing to identify with the most polarizing feminine force in rock history. But this is the kind of skewed self-awareness that makes Lewis so enchanting. When you throw one female among a collective of insecure males, she becomes the force around which all other personalities revolve. And within this particular universe of emo melancholia, Jenny Lewis gets to be the sun.
“I’ve always been boy crazy,” she says. “I think my life is characterized by a series of crushes.”
This may very well be true. But crushes work both ways, and Lewis seems to understand this all too well.