Jenny Lewis, a decade, and me
Jenny Lewis has dropped her trail mix. She’s standing in front of me at the Whole Foods 365 in Silver Lake, wearing a wide-brimmed rodeo hat, bell bottoms, and a rusty red-colored suede jacket with arm fringe that runs all the way down to her thigh. I cannot see her face, but I am well aware that it is indeed Jenny Lewis. Still, I want to really make sure that it’s her, so I wait a moment to see if she will dip or pivot to retrieve the snack herself. I feel somewhat guilty about this ploy, so ultimately, I decide to reach for the trail mix, whereupon I catch a quick glimpse of her baby’s breath bouquet-shrounded face. She looks up, and with a half-smile, I hand over the bag.
Again it hits me, but this time with urgency — Jenny Lewis has dropped her trail mix.
It’s my first night back in Los Angeles after spending several weeks with my family on the east coast. I am lonely and exhausted and I want to hibernate, but still, I need food. And here I am with a cart full of unpurchased food, nearly face to face with the woman whose music has become for me a series of silent yet urgent anthems, a collection of dirges and hallelujahs — from my tenth grade break up to the birth of my best friend’s baby.
I quietly vacate my place in line and pretend to ogle a tower of coconut water, watching as Lewis’ brick-colored hair twirls over her shoulder. I am waiting to say something — or at least I think I am waiting to say something. And then, as she finally walks by —
“Hi, it’s me from the trail mix. I just wanted to say… I didn’t fully realize it was you in that moment, but I do now.”
Almost twelve years ago, singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis released her debut solo album featuring six-foot-tall and twangy indie twin duo, the Watson Twins. The album, Rabbit Fur Coat, is a 12-track vocal revelation meant to be performed cover to cover in two acts — complete with sets, costume, and story. It is pure, down-home theater and Jenny Lewis’ reintroduction to the world.
Years before Rabbit Fur Coat, I’d already been listening to Jenny Lewis, then the frontwoman for the indie rock group Rilo Kiley, with some interest. I remember the first time I heard “Glendora” off the group’s now extremely rare 1998 EP, Initial Friend; and despite its whiny, late-90s cadence, I thought to my fifteen-year-old self, “There’s gotta be something here.” What I didn’t know was that Lewis would spend her next two studio albums with Rilo Kiley, sidestepping her serious talent, relinquishing a voice for whatever attitude, whatever feeling best befit and embodied the essence of indie.
Later in 2001, the band would release their first LP, Science Vs. Romance, wherein Lewis married her signature half-spoken breathiness with a multi-octave Patti Smith-like fury. On this album — and this album only — she shared the lead vocalist title with guitarist and then romantic partner, Blake Sennett, who despite every effort to sell Rilo Kiley as a weepy-eyed indie version of Fleetwood Mac, only distracted from Lewis’ still half-born brilliance. And so the following year, when the group released their next studio album, The Execution of All Things, Sennett decided to step away from the microphone, from then on strictly singing back-up to Lewis. The results were stunning, and despite the still overt indie-ness of the record, for the first time, the group seemed to be less concerned with band identity and more concerned with sound.
At the time, I lacked the prescience to anticipate what would occur next — that the band’s overall sound would eventually skew more towards Lewis’ wild and eerily un-strenuous hybrid Gospel, folk, and bluegrass-fueled vocals. Still, I remember hearing the forcibly cute and whispered vocal on a track like “Paint’s Peeling,” thinking there was a voice that did not want to be cute nor whispered. That despite the quippy swears, spoken allusions to unromantic sex, and a shy upper register sung with the quickness of a late 90s chick rocker, there was a voice that wanted to coo with the earnestness of Dusty Springfield, that was bound to detonate with southern heartbreakery.
Just two years later, Rilo Kiley released More Adventurous, a collection of both soft and furious indie anthems like “Portions for Foxes,” a rebellious first-person ballad about a self-righteous sex worker, and “It’s a Hit,” a strummy 3-note anti-Iraq War, anti-Bush sing-speak that begins “Any chimp can play idiot for a day” — a playful slight to the former president.
Midway through More Adventurous, though, comes an unlikely vocal swell — a roaring yet girlish decree.
That decree is called “I Never,” an alarming display of vocal persuasion backed by a stylized-yet-Honky-Tonk steel guitar. There are lines like “So let’s take a loan out, put it down on a house / in a place we’ve never lived” belted with the glamor and tremor of Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette. An electric organ glissandos against a steady base. A string section plays through an unforeseen rosewater bridge. There is romance, melodrama, and just a hint of schmaltz. There is Jenny Lewis.
I’ve seen Jenny Lewis live six times since 2007. Each time, I’ve noticed that she prefers not to rehash too much of the Rilo Kiley discography. But she will always bring back “I Never.”
Long after its release, this sultry, spur-donning ballad is still indicative of Lewis’ stepping out and a pronouncement of self-rule. Though essentially storyless, “I Never” is an establishing cry — a plea to be considered “country.”
Lewis’ is the sort of country that features babydoll dresses and new age free-associations on God. In “The Charging Sky” the narrator takes up praying on Sunday nights despite a questionable disbelief in God’s “almight.” She wonders, “What if God’s not there?/ But his name is on your dollar bill/ Which just became cab fare.” It’s borderline nihilism fit for toe-tapping.
Last February (exactly one year ago from the day I am writing this), my friend Lacey and I went to see Lewis and the Watson Twins perform for our third and final time together at the Lincoln Theater in Washington, DC. Soon, I would be headed to Los Angeles and she would be moving onto motherhood. We sat stage left, barely able to contain ourselves. By this point, we’d memorized the entirety of the show’s program. As the slow acoustic plink of “Run Devil Run” started up, Lacey looked at me and squealed in her Carolina timbre, “Here they come!”
We’d seen the exact set several times before, but this time was different. In the city where we met almost four years ago — burping out brown liquor and crying into our glasses about our collective 12 years wasted in seemingly fruitless relationships with men. Now, we were watching Jenny, our Jenny, the one whose lyrics we bonded over, whose melodies we slurred with spite and joy — the old Jenny to quell our anger, and the new Jenny to silence our fears. We were visiting our old selves — the moment we claimed our sovereignty as beret-donning, poetry-writing, revolutionary women; and Lewis was doing the same.
In 2006, The New York Times published a profile of Lewis with the headline “Don’t Tell the Indie Fans: Jenny Lewis Likes Country Music.” The article detailed Lewis’ musical metamorphosis as evidenced by the southern soulfulness of then just-released Rabbit Fur Coat, referring to the record as “a set of country-style story songs filled with gospel harmonies and verses about God.” Lewis tells Times reporter, Will Hermes, that she finds most modern country music completely unlistenable and that she grew up on Loretta Lynn and Dusty Springfield. “I remember lying about it,” recalls Lewis, “It wasn’t cool to listen to country when I was 12. Ultimately, though, my voice and the songs I did with Rilo Kiley, were revealing — I had to fess up to being a country fan.”
It was More Adventurous and songs like “I Never,” writes Hermes, that “predicted the ultimate direction of Lewis’ solo debut.”
Paired with the subsequently released Rabbit Fur Coat, the song starts to sound like an oracle, prophesying a sound that would eventually expose the real Lewis. In the album’s title track, perhaps the most expository of the album’s pseudo-autobiographical songs, underdressed acoustics give pause to an otherwise twang-induced collection of coming-of-age stories. The clear black sheep of the album, “Rabbit Fur Coat,” is a standalone masterpiece of self-reckoning — coming to grips with one’s past and making reason of a parent’s cruel and self-serving intentions.
In lyrical apogees like, “Let’s move ahead twenty years, shall we? She was waitressing on welfare, we were living in the valley,” she fast-forwards through time and space, bringing herself in as a character. Moving the tale of her own childhood stardom forward and in one even breath, she cuts ahead: “And so we did. And I became a 100,000-dollar kid…it was all for a rabbit fur coat.”Suddenly the “rabbit fur coat” is no longer a momentary emblem, but a schizophrenic compass for a misguided mother’s next move.
Throughout Rabbit Fur Coat there’s a sharp dichotomy between an inner toying with faith and a godless Los Angeles. Lewis, a native Angeleno, uses the city as a trope or even a topography in much of her music. In Rabbit Fur Coat, she makes Los Angeles a playground for self-reflection — the place where she decided to trade her mini dress and thigh-high boots for a marijuana leaf-decaled suit and steel guitar.
She became a teller of hard-to-hear stories and an apostle of idiosyncrasies — a rhinestone cowgirl performing a songbook of urban existentialism.
Tonight, Los Angeles doesn’t feel like my playground. It feels like my burden. My eyes are fixed in a constant state of welling and I’m texting my boyfriend that I want to come home. I enter the checkout line, where I notice Jenny Lewis standing just a few feet away. She drops her trail mix. I pick it up. Minutes later, I approach her. She asks me where I’m from and I say, “Philadelphia.” This spurns a mini-conversation about Kurt Vile and other Philadelphia musicians. I mention that I last lived in Kurt Vile’s neighborhood, a tiny northeastern industrial village called Fishtown. “You know there’s a place called Frogtown here,” she replies, “maybe you’ll move there next.”
I’m not sure I will move to Frogtown, or even stay in LA for that matter, but I do know that this city — as with any other place I’ve lived — will mark me indelibly. Although I am just a blip on a freeway, a wily and rule-bending poet in a sea of big screen dramatists, I can still tell my stories, I can still become more like myself.
In a genre often affiliated with whining damsels and haystacked Cinderella stories, Jenny Lewis became a truth-wielding woman, invoking drug usage, house arrest, and other unexpected and seemingly misplaced meta-narratives. Just last year, she told Rolling Stone that rehearsing the songs off Rabbit Fur Coat again felt “so right.”
“I’m wondering if this record will bring me back to myself in a way,” she said, “the inception of when I became autonomous.”