Jenny Lewis is in a bit of a quandary.
"We're planning to do a children's show in a couple of days, and I was asked which song I would like to play for this kid's show. I started going through the songs on the record, and with every song it's like: Oh shit, here's the love-story phobia song, this song talks about cancer, this song is talking...ugh! I couldn't find one that seemed appropriate...I guess it's...just what I write."
Anyone familiar with Lewis's work as front person for subversive popsters Rilo Kiley knows that she leans toward dark, ironic, lyrical territory, but her solo debut, Rabbit Fur Coat, finds our heroine delving further into realms of spiritual hopelessness, physical self-destruction and domestic mischance than ever before.
"I know that with Rilo Kiley there's more of an upbeat feeling in the music that's kind of uplifting, and maybe that's [RK co-leader] Blake [Sennett]'s contribution...Not that he doesn't have his own darkness, musically and personally. Maybe I just need to get some more middle-of-the-road lyrics. I mean the producers of that kid's show chose one of my songs called 'The Charging Sky' which I think is a pretty, um, dark song, but I guess they feel it's appropriate for the kids. They're gonna bounce around 'Pancake Mountain' while we play it."
True, lyrics along the lines of "It's just you and God/But what if God's not there? /But his name is on your dollar bill/Which just became cab fare" are hardly what one would expect to come out of the plush mouth of, say, Barney the purple dinosaur, but with or without Sennett's contribution, the song evinces a happy-go-lucky sprightliness that largely camouflages the harsh sentiments. Perhaps it's this very dichotomy that has made Jenny's work in and out of Rilo Kiley (in addition to her solo career, she also sings part-time for the Postal Service) so appealing to both critics and audiences: If you're in the market for sweetly sung, boppy melodies, you're all set. If you're up for contemplating the nature of interpersonal dysfunction and lethal substance abuse spirals, just listen a little closer.
The goofy/gloomy combo-platter mined by Lewis is nowhere better illustrated than in her recent video for the dour, sarcastic (but toe-tapping) Rabbit Fur Coat track "Rise Up with Fists!!" (http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=D9EheZ_bots). It's a tongue-in-cheek recreation of the old Hee Haw show, replete with corny country outfits, outlandish laugh track and an appearance by naughty-girl comedienne Sarah Silverman as a postmodern Jewess version of Minnie Pearl. In an odd bit of kismet, the clip isn't the only Hee Haw parody currently making the rounds. MTV-2's sicko sketch comedy series Wonder Showzen recently "preempted" itself with an entire episode of Horse Apples, a decidedly Hee Haw-esque, alternate universe "country comedy" showcase featuring comedians David Cross and Zach Galifianakis, as well as alt-rock demigod Will "Bonnie 'Prince' Billy" Oldham spazzing out in the role of the crazed Pastor Pigmeat.
"I actually saw [Horse Apples] after we made the "Fists" video, and ours is far less obscene than theirs. Our video is more for the children, and theirs is more for the, uh, demented children. Actually our video is sort of a nod to (1960s comedy series) Laugh-In as well. But I was embarrassed enough to ask Sarah to wear a pink-checkered dress, let alone dance around in full body paint."
Regardless, entertainment megalith Warner Brothers seems to consider Jenny's view of the world a bankable commodity; they signed Rilo Kiley soon after the independent release of 2004's More Adventurous and reissued it, putting the band on tour as openers for superstars Coldplay. When quizzed on her June 2005 show supporting Chris Paltrow and company at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion a few scant months after rocking Mary Jane's Fat Cat (R.I.P.), Jenny just kind of snorts. "Obviously the Coldplay audience is not our own -- that place was not even half full when we were playing...I'm surprised they didn't pelt me. With rotten. Tomatoes."
Still, a WB imprimatur is nothing to sneeze at, and Rabbit Fur Coat has received a huge amount of mainstream media attention for an independent release. Is the red-tressed, minidress-sporting Lewis, already something of a thinking-man's pinup girl, being groomed for the big push to actual superstardom, morbid lyrics and all?
"I have no clue," she demurs, albeit a little grumpily. "It's always tricky just kind of discovering how these things work and why people decide to put money behind you, which is ultimately what facilitates this Ôbig push' that you speak of. I just hope I don't end up on the hood of a Volkswagen with a tight skirt on."
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And with that, Ms. Lewis is suddenly on a roll, warming to the subject of alleged corporate encroachment upon independent culture. "Not that I'm really opposed to licensing stuff out to commercials -- a lot of independent bands have really not only probably paid their rent but, you know, made their music more available to people who wouldn't necessarily know about it by [licensing songs]. But I don't know how it gets to the point where you're actually posing with the product with a banner above your head. I guess it also depends on the product, like maybe you really love whatever it is you're endorsing. A lifetime supply of Kellogg's Corn Pops would be okay," she muses. "I can't remember who it was, but someone once said that there's nothing more punk rock than actually taking money from a corporation."
The fact remains that this whole Pop Music Success Story thing is largely a matter of hard work and day-to-day perseverance. "I guess for me, it's always just about the next tour and the next album," says Lewis. "I've mainly seen things change through the size of our audiences on tour. And it hasn't been a huge or a drastic thing where, y'know, once we played to two people and suddenly we're playing to 10,000 -- it's more like you come to town and play to ten kids and the next time it's 100 and now we're playing to, you know, nearly a thousand in some of the bigger cities. And that's taken eight years, so it's been a slow process.
"And an interesting one."
Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins performs on Sunday, October 22, at Numbers, 300 Westheimer. Call 713-629-3700 or visit www.superunison.com for more info. Okkervil River also performs.