Jenny Lewis - Biography
If there were such thing as an indie rock royalty, Jenny Lewis would definitely rule one of its provinces. With a sound and accomplished body of work and a huge range of collaborations that have resulted in an organic kind of street cred, Lewis's sweet, rare vocal style and confessional songwriting have managed to cut through the vast sea of female singer/songwriters, placing her in a well-deserved league of her own. In January of 1976, as if her showbiz future had been written in the stars, Jennifer Diane Lewis was born in Las Vegas. She started early, as a child actor debuting in a Jell-O commercial (probably the most widely documented factoid about her). She went on to appear in a parade of 80s television shows: The Golden Girls, Growing Pains, Baywatch, Mr. Belvedere, Roseanne and, starring as Lucy’s granddaughter, Lucille Ball’s Life With Lucy. Her movie credits include, Troop Beverly Hills, Big Girls Don’t Cry, The Wizard, Pleasantville and a 1987 film version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, among others. Even with such an extensive acting career, Lewis’s true destiny unfolded when she struck up a musical collaboration with her friend and fellow child actor Blake Sennet. In 1998 they formed the country-tinged indie rock band Rilo Kiley with Pierre de Reeder and Dave Rock (who was replaced by Jason Boesel in 2001). Rilo Kiley achieved worldwide success and critical acclaim, releasing four well-received albums. Fleetwood Mac comparisons floated around, perhaps due to the rootsiness of the music, the hooky, skillfully arranged songs or maybe the male-female vocal/songwriting team of Lewis and Sennet. The fact that Rilo Kiley got picked up by Warner Brothers strengthens the case for the comparison, but the fact that Lewis’s solo career took off simultaneously (Stevie Nicks-style -- not to put too fine a point on it) is perhaps the most striking parallel.
Lewis’s career was varied from the get-go, with numerous collaborations including Cursive, The Good Life, and Postal Service, for whom she sang backing vocals. Both M. Ward and Elvis Costello have contributed to her solo work, and she maintains an ongoing artistic partnership with her boyfriend Jonathan Rice with whom she recently released an assured, breezy pop album, I’m Having Fun Now (2010 Warner Bros.). Between Rilo Kiley’s third and fourth full-length releases, More Adventurous (2004 Barsuk) and Under the Blacklight (2007 Warner Bros.), Lewis released her solo debut, Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins, Rabbit Fur Coat (2006 Team Love). Her voice is gutsier here than ever before, but not at the expense of her trademark sweetness and fragility. The album’s gospel-influenced opener, “Run, Devil Run” sets the tone for this Americana-soaked collection of songs that evoke an unspecified, moodier, dustier time. If a song could be sepia-toned, “Happy” would be, and its reprise at the end of the album is a sublime, ghostly worksong. From the acoustic sparseness of “The Charging Sky” to the breathy intimacy of “It Wasn’t Me,” this is a simultaneously stark and luscious album. It also has an innate authenticity at its heart: “The Charging Sky” is as “proper country” as it gets, and “Handle With Care” — a Traveling Wilbury’s cover -- rivals the original, hands down. The songs are beautifully enhanced by the soulful backing vocals, courtesy of identical twin sister duo Chandra and Leigh Watson, who have since gone on to form their own recording project, The Watson Twins.
Lewis’s second solo album, Acid Tongue (2008 Warner Bros.), is probably her finest achievement to date. The subtle arrangements and classic pop structures provide the perfect medium for both her vocal and songwriting abilities to shine. The album opens on a melancholic note with “Black Sand,” and moves into the brooding Americana of “Pretty Bird,” which calls Emmy Lou Harris to mind. The title track is a wonderful, minimal country song (Billy Joe McAllister would have been proud). “Godspeed” is a rollicking, 60s R&B classic, while quirky murder ballad “Jack Killed Mom” crackles with black humor. And that’s just to name a few -- there actually isn’t a single dud track on this record. For all its traditionalism, Acid Tongue maintains a compelling rawness and a real indie aesthetic. In fact, maintaining a balance between traditional and modern is one of the many achievements of Jenny Lewis, an artist who has established herself as an outstanding voice in contemporary music. And if the Reigning Queen doesn’t suffice as an accurate title, maybe it would be safe to call her the Bella Donna of alt country indie rock.