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It's been over a decade since Jenny Lewis quit her acting career to pursue music full time. Nonetheless, the sultry redhead's child-star past has remained an endless topic of curiosity for fans and critics alike — first as a credibility blocker for her band Rilo Kiley, and now as a comparison point for the fame she's reached as a solo artist.
Lewis' second solo effort, Acid Tongue, hit shelves last year and was followed by a torrent of magazine features, TV appearances, and sold-out shows. The ambitious album was a Fleetwood Mac-style series of personal portraits, painted with broad strokes and framed with cameos from the likes of Elvis Costello, Chris Robinson, and Zooey Deschanel. If Rilo Kiley's ultra-slick 2007 album, Under the Blacklight, hadn't already established Lewis as a mainstream pop star, Acid Tongue clearly has.
In contrast to most indie-rock crossover artists, though, Lewis has been down this road before — sort of. Twenty years ago, she was the precocious star of two popular Hollywood films, Troop Beverly Hills and the Fred Savage/Nintendo vehicle The Wizard. At just 13 years of age, she was getting her introduction to celebrity status — an experience that has scarred its share of youngsters in the past. In Lewis' case, it seems only to have helped her develop into an astute and confident performer.
When the movie roles became harder to come by in the late '90s (Angelina Jolie aficionados might at least remember Lewis in 1996's less-than-classic Foxfire), Lewis formed Rilo Kiley with another former child actor, Boy Meets World's Blake Sennett. In retrospect, Rilo Kiley's 1999 debut EP was the pivotal point of Lewis' bizarre career: smack dab between the celebrated bookends of The Wizard and Acid Tongue and essential to her expertly handled evolution from actress to singer, kid to adult. (Her low-hanging bangs have been the one constant.)
By wisely putting Hollywood behind her, Lewis was more quickly accepted by the notoriously cynical indie community, and Rilo Kiley became one of indie-pop's more celebrated bands of the past decade, helping to establish the reputations of labels like Barsuk and Saddle Creek. Much like Liz Phair before her, Lewis never proclaimed devotion to the indie aesthetic. Even as her unique combination of charm, smarts, and sex appeal made her the focus of the indie scene's lust and admiration, Lewis' music wasn't too niche-y for a broader audience. If anything, it was a matter of time before her undeniable talents caught the attention of a public that had watched her grow up.
That sea change began in 2004, when Rilo Kiley's third full-length album and Warner Brothers debut, More Adventurous, generated some radio play with the perfect pop singles "Portions for Foxes" and "It's a Hit." Once Jenny's trademark short skirt and come-hither stare started showing up on MTV, the band's fan demographic immediately expanded, and predictably, the band turmoil began.
Lewis' off-stage relationship with Sennett soon ended, and when her solo debut, Rabbit Fur Coat, made more money than More Adventurous, Rilo Kiley appeared to be in trouble. The band eventually reconvened to make the commercially successful Under the Blacklight, but even amongst diehard Rilo fans, there's little denying where Lewis' heart seems to be these days.
Acid Tongue was written and recorded with her current boyfriend, Scottish singer/songwriter Jonathan Rice, and it proved to be a much (pardon the pun) more adventurous record than Blacklight. Interestingly, Lewis has recently begun playing the Rilo Kiley song "Silver Lining" as the start of her solo shows — an indication that the line between the two projects is fading, and further proof that Jenny Lewis is ready to be a household name again, instead of just a dorm-room name.