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When I told my friend that Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis was an ex-child actress who'd starred in The Wizard and Troop Beverly Hills, he was flabbergasted.
"But she seems so—so genuinely rock!" he sputtered.
It's funny: acting and playing music are both technically performing, and yet it seems bizarre to both of us that a child actress who probably got her Flintstones Vitamins delivered to her on a silver platter is now touring the nation in a van, sleeping on people's floors, and haggling with promoters for money after shows. And what's more, her music is good. Really good—beautiful and well-crafted, with stabs at existential angst and a jittery heart-rending sense of the deep sadness that informs our generation. Jenny Lewis could break your heart.
Like in the song "A Better Son/Daughter": "Sometimes in the morning, I am petrified/and can't move awake but cannot open my eyes/. . . and crawl back into bed to dream of a time/when your heart was open wide/and you loved things just because."
Sniff . . . this is three-hankie rock. But not three-hankie rock like Elliot Smith, where you kinda sorta maybe just want to commit a little suicide. This is three-hankie rock that actually rocks; the sadness comes more from the vulnerability in Lewis' plaintive vocals and the juxtaposition of her acutely-aware-and-yet-resigned-to-the-world's-ills lyrics with the fizzy, loping music beneath them.
"I think all the great people I've met have a deep sadness," she says. "I don't think that's necessary to live—I don't think you have to be sad—but I think it's part of the human experience."
Rilo Kiley's near-perfect latest album, The Execution of All Things(Saddle Creek), the follow-up to 2001's Take Offs and Landings (Barsuk), is a carefully observed study of that human experience. The confectionary "My Slumbering Heart" starts with the clinical pinging of a keyboard and ends with Lewis announcing, "It just feels good when you're waking up/It just feels good when you're next to me/It just feels good when you're coming home."
Which, if you have any life signs at all, will put a lump in your throat. The song, says Lewis, is about those periods of being in a "love drought where you feel incapable of love and you can't get yourself to snap out of your own self-centered world."
"It's just another hopeful song," she says, "Because, God, it feels good when your heart is no longer slumbering, and it wakes up, and there's a person or song or friend that snaps you out of your own craziness."
In conversation, Lewis uses the phrase "feels good" quite often. It "feels good" she says, to write about heartbreak. It "feels good" to sing the first song on the album, "The Good That Won't Come Out." There's something about her wording, the way it connects the ephemeral with the visceral, that's both interesting and persuasive. She explains quite a bit about herself—like why she quit acting—in the same way.
"It just made me too nervous," she says. "I think being in LA, these things happen—children get involved in this monster industry, and you fall into a career you never knew you could have, or you don't even notice it's happening. By the time I was old enough to make my own decisions, I didn't really like it so much."
In fact, says Lewis—born in Las Vegas to a harmonica-playing father and a singing mother who had a lounge act called "Love's Way"—her music always came first. She was writing songs on the piano at age 8, learned to appreciate music through her mother's record collection, and got a guitar at 15. (Onstage, she alternates between keyboard, guitar and bass.)
She met the band's co-founder Blake Sennett, also an ex-child actor, about eight years ago in LA through a mutual friend from whom she'd borrowed a four-track. At first, Sennett seemed unimpressed, but Lewis stayed up all night writing and recording and then played her stuff for Sennett the next day. "He heard it, and I think from that moment on, we sort of knew we were going to be stuck knowing each other," Lewis remembers.
The two played acoustic shows in living rooms (Sennett on guitar, Lewis on keyboards, both of them singing) for a couple of years before Sennett invited a friend from San Diego, Pierre de Reeder, to join in on bass. The band had another drummer up until a year ago, when they got current drummer Jason Boesel. And while Lewis and Sennett are the songwriters of the band, it's clear the band functions as a unit.
"It's always the four of us," says Jenny. "The four of us in the van or the four of us in a motel room or the four of us spending the night on someone's floor."
This has been Rilo Kiley's day-to-day life for the past few years, she says, since they've been relentlessly touring. And if Lewis has her way, they'll never stop.
"I've written a lot in truly happy times and written a lot in bouts of depression, but for me, it's input that sparks ideas and feelings, so touring for me is the best possible time because you get to see so much and meet so many people," she says. "I'm more prolific when I'm in motion."
RILO KILEY PERFORMS WITH RAINER MARIA AT THE GLASS HOUSE, 200 W. SECOND ST., POMONA, (909) 629-0377. SAT. CALL FOR TIME. $12. ALL AGES.