“I would always feel inadequate among my friends who are great songwriters. I’ve been really lucky to be around people who write amazing lines in beautiful songs. There’s a [Tim] Kasher song and a Conor [Oberst] song kind of pushing everyone,” says Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis, talking about her songwriter friends on Saddle Creek. It’s a typical response from the charming and humble Lewis.
There’s a reason, however, that Rilo Kiley has quickly turned from a twee L.A. pop band to the assured, anthem writing rock and roll heroes of today. While the songs have always been strong—like disowned, harrowing oldie “Glendora” or secret track “Salute My Shorts!”—the band’s recorded output never quite matched up to their talent.
Still, it’s hard to ignore the songwriting magic that Lewis and Blake Sennett can produce: at their best, they’re giving us catchy anthems both sensitive and smart-ass, leading us in sing-alongs about love, depression, the environment, and death. Punctuated by Sennett’s knotty guitar lines and soaring climaxes, Lewis wields her pen like Liz Phair when she was relevant, (see “The Divorce Song”, Exile In Guyville) coming up with right-on sentiments like the dead-on “Portions for Foxes” from their new album, More Adventurous: “And the talking leads to touching / And the touching leads to sex / And then there is no mystery left / And it’s bad news, baby it’s bad news.”
More Adventurous was recorded last winter in Omaha, Nebraska, with Saddle Creek’s Mike Mogis. Much of the pre-release publicity was focused on Rilo Kiley’s jump from Saddle Creek to their own label, Brute/Beaute, which has major label distribution. In a deal similar to “what the White Stripes have”, Rilo Kiley can put out records on this label and they’re beginning to release videos.
The first video, for protest song “It’s a Hit”, was directed by their friend Andy Birtell: “He works at the Director’s Bureau in L.A., he’s one of the lowest on the totem pole and he’s never done anything on his own. I think it’s awesome. It’s animated and it has the unipine—a combination of a unicorn and a porcupine. It has their terrible love affair and it has a tragic end,” says Lewis.
Despite sessions in Omaha where “there’s not much to do except drink at the bar, make music, and fight with each other constantly,” the band ended up producing a great record. Lewis was listening to a lot of Dusty Springfield, Tammy Wynette, and John Lennon. She says, “I was allowing myself to become kind of, in my way, like these soul singers.”
“Nothing felt forced on that record,” she continues, “and I’ve been brutalized, truly crushed by death. I think that particularly with ‘I Never’ [the doo-wop soul song on the album], this love song, that heartbreak kind of fuels the performance on that one.”
As a lyricist, Lewis takes chances on songs like “A Man/Me/Then Jim”, which, with its shifting perspectives, plays out like an artfully sketched short story. It’s her favorite song on the album: “There’s something kind of soothing about it. I can listen to it and not obsess.” She says that song in particular was inspired by Paul Simon’s work with lyrics and point of view.
Paul Simon aside, it was easy to get Lewis in a discussion about other influences. Like hip hop. Lewis replies, “I grew up listening to hip hop. I went through a five-year phase growing up where I dressed like an asshole and rapped occasionally, wore backwards baseball caps. I feel inspired by that type of writing. I think Bob Dylan has some great raps as well, it’s really intricate.”
Lewis and Sennett both grew up as L.A. child actors and there are certain ways that being a child actor can shape a life as a working rocker. For Lewis, she says, “It was so long ago, and I think I learned a lot about working with other people. I’m probably the biggest ball-buster in the band as far as practice schedule goes and I think I learned that from working ten hour days, supporting the family and stuff.”
Once the interview ends, I find myself gushing over “Portions For Foxes” in an utterly geeky manner, saying things like “Oh my god! That song’s my life! How did you know?”
Lewis takes the compliment gracefully, replying, “Isn’t someone always bad news?” Ain’t that the truth, Jenny.