As the frontwoman of beloved indie-rock band Rilo Kiley, Jenny Lewis began singing songs of love, heartbreak and aging in 1998. After accruing a solid fanbase, Lewis showed she could stand on her own with her 2006 solo debut, Rabbit Fur Coat, which found her boldly embracing a more roots-oriented sound.
Last month, in honor of Rabbit Fur Coat‘s 10th anniversary, Lewis reissued the album via her own imprint, Love’s Way. Along with the release, she launched a tour (continuing Wednesday at New York Beacon Theatre) during which she’s performing the LP with help from the Watson Twins and M. Ward — something these same artists did when Rabbit Fur Coat debuted in 2006.
While Lewis’ solo debut embraced country-folk and gospel, her most recent LP, The Voyager, leaned toward postpunk. “I never set out to be a solo artist,” she told Rolling Stone. “I always wanted to be in a rock band.” However, what has remained consistent in Lewis’ music, from Rilo Kiley through her solo career, is her unwavering, honest lyrics.
Lewis spoke with RS about transitioning from the band to her solo career, the consequences of confessional lyrics and the future of Rilo Kiley.
So it’s been 10 years since your first solo record came out sans Rilo Kiley. Can you believe it?
Yeah, it felt so weird when Give Up, the Postal Service record, turned 10. I didn’t even wrap my head around the fact that Rabbit Fur Coat was close behind. It’s weird looking back on your life via 10-year anniversaries and albums because every couple of years I make a record, and it reflects where I’m at at that time. So to revisit those feelings in the record and the songs is pretty trippy. I never set out to be a solo artist — I always wanted to be in a rock band. I only made Rabbit Fur Coat because Conor Oberst was starting a label called Team Love and he wanted me to put out a record. Conor persuaded me to make this record. I didn’t want to do it — he made me do it. It changed the course of my life forever. It’s just amazing how different things are than they were 10 years ago.
If he didn’t push you to do this, where do you think you would have ended up?
Man, I don’t even know, but to give me the gift of autonomy, I’m forever grateful to him. He’s my weird spirit guide. I have a couple [of them], but he tops the list.
You’ve always sung about really relatable things like hating yourself in the morning after a one-night stand (“Melt Your Heart”) or growing older as just another lady without a baby (“Just One Of the Guys”). Do you ever regret sharing these intimate thoughts you have about yourself?
No, I don’t. Sometimes I get a little embarrassed. It depends on the tour. Any one of those lines makes me feel a little embarrassed. But when I meet people, it all seems like it’s sort of meant to be. I kind of put stuff out there — there’s no filter. I don’t ever write with a filter. Sometimes it can be a little intense if you’re singing about someone, and they’re in the room. But there are rules with your friends. Most of my friends are songwriters, and you’re not allowed to take it personally if there’s a really mean line about you. I write these things that I sometimes don’t even understand sometimes what I’m writing about, and 10 years later, they’ll make sense. They’re little prophecies. Then I’ll sing a song, and suddenly it’ll be 100 percent relevant.
On Rabbit Fur Coat, how did you end up collaborating with the Watson Twins, Conor Oberst, Ben Gibbard, M. Ward and others?
Well, the Watson Twins were living in Silver Lake at the time, a couple blocks from my apartment. They were friends with Blake Sennett of Rilo Kiley, and they actually sang on a really early Rilo Kiley B-side. We didn’t hang out all the time, but as I started piecing the songs together for the record, I was referencing this Laura Nyro record with the Labelle sisters, Gonna Take a Miracle — it was one of my favorite records growing up. I used that as a template and reached out to the twins with that record in mind. I didn’t really have a plan, I just went over to their place, played them my songs and it was just meant to be. We practiced a couple of times and recorded for a day. I brought Mike Mogis out from Nebraska to record me in L.A. I had made two Rilo Kiley records with Mike at that point. We were like, “Whoa, this album is really different.” It was really special.
Looking back on Rabbit Fur Coat, what was your favorite track on the album when it first came out, and what’s your favorite now?
I think my favorite song at the time was “Rise Up With Fists!!” I think that happened when I was working with M. Ward. There was just a moment when I could see him listening to the words and there was a little sparkle in his eye. I was like, “Wow, that’s so cool that this guy likes this song.” I think just in rehearsals [now] “Melt Your Heart” has been so sad and beautiful. Conor [Oberst] played a five-night run at Town Hall many years ago, and he asked me to come sit in, and he chose “Melt Your Heart.” I remember at the time I was pissed because he chose “Melt Your Heart.” It was like, “Of course, he chose the quiet girl song. Why didn’t he choose ‘Rise Up With Fists!!’?” See, your friends sometimes know you better than yourself.
Did you ever feel like you lost a lot of Rilo Kiley fans when you moved to a country- and gospel-influenced sound on Rabbit Fur Coat?
I’m sure I did, but I wasn’t really worried about that at the time. Truly, at that moment, I had no intentions but to just make a record. When I toured it, it was so easy and felt so good — touring and singing with the Watson Twins every night. I feel like the songs could really work in any context, and some of those songs — I think — could have been Rilo Kiley songs. I don’t really sweat that stuff. That’s really none of my business. I just kind of make stuff, and people find it if they want to.
What kind of state were you in when you wrote the Rabbit Fur Coat record? What was your life like at the time?
Well, I was living in a rent-controlled apartment in Silver Lake with a Craigslist roommate. I was living on the road and living in the van with my band. I was beginning a relationship. I was completely, 100 percent dedicated to my band — that was my entire life. But I was also really lonely in a way.
A decade later, what advice would you give the Jenny Lewis who wrote those songs?
Man, I’d say, “Don’t give up that rent-controlled apartment in Silver Lake!”
Why did you decide to go on tour to celebrate this anniversary after recently coming off the Voyager tour?
Well, I wanted to re-release the record on my own record label. I started a record label called Love’s Way, which is named after my parents’ band. They had a lounge act in Las Vegas in the Seventies. Doing the 10-year anniversary shows for the Postal Service’s Give Up came along so quickly, and it dawned on me [that] the anniversary for Rabbit Fur Coat wasn’t far behind.
If you could change anything about Rabbit Fur Coat, would you?
No, nothing, because it’s a moment in time. You can’t change the past — you can only look forward. That’s what I made: a very real slice of life.
Will we have to wait six years for another Jenny Lewis solo album?
Oh, God. I hope not. The break between Acid Tongue and The Voyager was not ideal. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the songs ready. Usually that’s the thing: You wait for the songs to come and then record them, but this time, hopefully five years. No [laughs].
Jumping off of that, do you see yourself moving forward as a solo artist, or do you think you’d get the band back together as Rilo Kiley?
Never say never with the band, but right now I see myself writing solo records or starting something new.
Looking back at the sonic transition from Rabbit Fur Coat to The Voyager, how do you think you’ve grown as a solo artist?
Well, I think the songs on The Voyager started out like they did on Rabbit Fur Coat. They’re all folk songs, and they’re all country songs. I can play all of them in that context. They all took on [a] different life working with my producers, Beck and Ryan Adams. Being a solo artist, the thing that excites me the most is that I can do whatever I want; I can make any kind of music I want, and I can collaborate with whomever I want. It’s kind of a relief to give up that control and have a producer take those songs into a different world. I’ve been rehearsing these Rabbit Fur Coat songs, and they just feel so right. I’m wondering if this record will bring me back to myself in a way — the inception of when I became autonomous.
Do you think the Jenny Lewis on The Voyager is a completely different person from the Jenny Lewis on Rabbit Fur Coat?
No. Absolutely the same person — just a little bit older. The thing is, I feel the same way I did when I was three years old. I’ve always felt the same. So The Voyager is just the three-year-old me in a rainbow suit.
How did you feel at age three? How do you remember what you felt like?
I’m going to save that for my therapist [laughs].
Rumors have been swirling online for a while about the possibility of a new Postal Service record. Is that happening?
What? Well, I haven’t heard about it, so I don’t think so. I’m gonna text Ben [Gibbard] and Jimmy [Tamborello], because if it is happening without me, I’m pissed. Again, never say never, right?