Jenny Lewis Talks Rabbit Fur Coat, 10 Years LaterMusic Features Jenny Lewis
In 2006, Jenny Lewis broke away from Rilo Kiley for the first time, releasing her debut solo record Rabbit Fur Coat on friend Conor Oberst’s record label, Team Love. Since then, she’s gone on to release two more albums under her own name, hitting countless other stages and working on many other projects with some of the collaborators who appeared on that very first full-length. As Lewis celebrates the 10-year anniversary of Rabbit Fur Coat with a rerelease and a reunion tour with The Watson Twins, we caught up with the singer about what the debut means to her now. Check out our conversation with Lewis below.
Paste: There’s something that you said to the New York Times when Rabbit Fur Coat was just coming out: that the only reason you made the record is because Conor [Oberst] asked you to. Do you still think that’s true—would a solo record not ever have happened without that push?
Jenny Lewis: That’s absolutely the reason why I made the record. I would’ve never, at that time, set out to be a solo artist. That was never my intention. My band was my identity. It was my entire life. It was all that I cared about, especially at that moment. When Conor approached me, my first reaction was, “Are you crazy? What? No!” I was terrified to make a record on my own. He is very persuasive, and he convinced me to to it. I’m so grateful that he did, because it changed the course of my life. He granted me the gift of autonomy, creative autonomy. I had no idea, at the time, how it would affect me. He is the patron saint of Rabbit Fur Coat.
Paste: What were your fears over becoming a solo artist at the time? Have the obstacles changed after releasing three records?
Lewis: I’m still terrified when I stand on a stage by myself. The first time I ever did that was at an Elliott Smith memorial concert in Los Angeles, not long after he passed away. There was a moment that happened between myself and Blake [Sennett], from my band, where we were gonna sing one song together, and then I suggested, I said, “You know, I really wanted to do that acapella song ‘I Didn’t Understand’ by myself.” We had a really big fight about it—he wasn’t happy that I wanted to go out there and do something without him, because we were partners at that time. We had a huge, huge disagreement, and I ended up doing it despite not having his blessing. I just remember standing up there in front of the crowd at the Heny Fonda and singing the song acapella. It was just one of those moments that, at the time, I didn’t realize how significant it was, until I was standing on stage alone playing Rabbit Fur Coat years later, after Conor asked me to make this record.
I’m still afraid to do that—I’m still afraid to stand by myself on a stage, but I think sometimes it’s necessary as an artist and as a writer or performer to just project that autonomy, and to be brave enough to stand up there fully exposed in front of people.
Paste: We spoke last year about the Song One soundtrack: You talked about how, for the movie, you had to write “Marble Song” by putting yourself in the shoes of a newer writer, someone who isn’t quite at the place where their songs are being heard by a lot of people. Are there records, whether it’s Rabbit Fur Coat or other music you’ve written, where you look back and recognize that quality in your own work, even on a less extreme scale?
Lewis: It’s pretty funny. There are so many songs—there are hundreds of songs. And you know, I’ve never written with a filter, with the exception of one or two songs which I won’t mention. I’ve always written almost stream-of-consciousness, sometimes to success and sometimes to not-so-good. But there’s a little bit of truth in all of the songs, even if they’re not very good. There’s always something that I can…it’s like looking back through your diary. It’s like, ‘wow—I don’t identify with that person right now, but I identify with this word or this line.’ It’s funny, for Song One, I actually used some of the chords from “Melt Your Heart” and “You Are What You Love.”
That’s where I started—like, ‘okay, to get back to that place, let me start with those chords.’ Because, really, this record was the first time I was ever doing it completely alone. The songs were completely private. The first people to hear them were The Watson Twins. It’s weird going back over them. Some songs hold up, some songs don’t. Now, I’m kind of looking back on the Rilo Kiley batch of songs and picking some for my solo sets and some work, and some don’t.
Paste: As far as performing these songs now, are you re-working anything or doing anything differently? What are you most excited about for these reunion shows?
Lewis: There are certainly a couple moments that are a little bit expanded, but I really wanted to represent the album as a whole, in order, in its entirety, which I haven’t ever done before. I’m really excited to present it as it is. That’s just my preference as an artist; I always tend to want to present things the way I would want to hear them as a listener. I really like going to a show and hearing a song and going, “Oh wow! This is the song!” I like it to be recognizable. That’s just me.
But really, the most exciting thing is to be on stage with The Watson Twins again. I’m so excited to sing with them. I’m so excited about our costumes. It’s like a little play.
Paste: Tell me more about how your relationship with The Watson Twins influenced you and your other works.
Lewis: Singing with them is really special. I think the three of us, we knew it from the first note. I feel very safe around them, and I am really so grateful to them. It also really reflects how I started singing—with my mom and my sister in the San Fernando valley in three-part harmony. They grew up singing together, so it feels very familial. It feels very natural. And there’s an element that’s very theatrical when we play together. They’re so beautiful and so striking, and just the twin imagery is like…I could just, for days, look at pictures of them dressed alike. I absolutely love it. It brings this spooky, theatrical element to the shows. It’s just easy. It was very easy to make Rabbit Fur Coat with them. And then, to collaborate with Autumn De Wilde and create the almost movie set of images that went along with the songs. It’s just one of those things; it’s just meant to be. It just feels really comfortable.
Paste: You collaborate with a lot of people on this record. Is there anything in particular that draws you to someone as a collaborator? How have those relationships grown or affected your music in other ways?
Lewis: You know, it’s usually that I’m a fan. I’m just a fan of their music. Reaching out to Matt Ward, I didn’t know what that collaboration would be like—I was just a superfan of his records. I just wanted a little bit of that mood and that feeling from his records to be on my record. But I always go out on a limb. I never know if it’s going to work.
That was one of the first times I just completely trusted the producer. It was one-on-one, and I flew up to Portland with my acoustic guitar, and that was it. I had no plans. Some of the songs were not even finished, and I just put all of my faith into Matt. Our bond was palpable. It was like singing with the twins. It was just meant to be.
So, it always comes out of an appreciation for the music, which extends to Ryan and Beck and Ben and so many amazing people I’ve worked with. I’m always like, “wow—I really like what they do. Can you come and help me out with my thing?”
Paste: “Handle With Care,” specifically, is such an incredible song choice. Since you didn’t write it, has that song’s meaning evolved to you over the years?
Lewis: I chose it because of the lyrics. There are a couple of lines that just define my childhood; overexposed, commercialized. There are so many genius nuggets in that song. I sort of fantasized about having some of my friends sing some of those parts, and I got a lot of flack for it when it was on the record. But it was really a very pure intention: I loved the song. It’s a great fucking song. Playing it now, just in rehearsals, it just knocks it out of the park, that song. It’s just perfect. And it fits in so nicely, lyrically, with the rest of the record.
Paste: You say that you got flack. How have you adjusted to getting criticism as a solo artist? Was it weird at first?
Lewis: It definitely feels different. When you’re in a band, you can kind of say, “It was his fault!” [Laughs] Even though it’s not. But it definitely stings a bit more when someone doesn’t like you, rather than your band. Because these songs are like little moments from my life, you know? If people are like, “This record SUCKS,” it’s basically like, “You suck as a person.” Because the songs are pretty personal. Then again, when someone says, “I love this,” it’s like they’re saying, “I love you!” [Laughs]
Paste: You’ve said that you write constantly and that you keep the things you write down constantly. Is there anything you wrote during the Rabbit Fur Coat period that maybe didn’t make the record, but re-emerged later?
Lewis: There’s always little tidbits. I have shoeboxes filled with lyrics, and sometimes if I’m in a period where I’m not able to write words, I’ll go through the shoeboxes and lay all the lyrics out on the floor and pick something. But what’s interesting about Rabbit Fur Coat is that this is really a very finite amount of time, these songs—with the exception of “Rabbit Fur Coat,” which I started writing in the studio making More Adventurous. I didn’t really know what I was writing—I just kind of had the guitar, finger-pick thing. It was actually my friend Willy Mason who stayed over at my house and taught me how to do the Travis Finger Pick. It’s so funny that these things just happen to me: Willy Mason taught me how to do the finger-picking thing, so I started writing “Rabbit Fur Coat.” Matt Ward came over to my house and tuned my guitar to this open tuning, and when he left I wrote “The Big Guns.” All of these weird little guides along the way have given me these little tidbits that I kind of work with. This record is pretty much just this one period of time; I used all of the songs, and then kind of moved on.