Anyone familiar with Jenny Lewis' 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," Lewis says. "I mean, the producers of that kids' 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 the song evinces a happy-go-lucky sprightliness that largely camouflages the harsh sentiments. Perhaps it's this very dichotomy that has made Lewis' work in and out of Rilo Kiley 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!!". It's a tongue-in-cheek re-creation 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 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," Lewis says. "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 Bros. seems to consider Lewis' view of the world a bankable commodity; it 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.
Rabbit Fur Coat has received a huge amount of mainstream media attention for an independent release. Is the red-tressed, mini-dress-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 'big push' that you speak of. I just hope I don't end up on the hood of a Volkswagen with a tight skirt on."
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. "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 perseverance. "I guess for me, it's always just about the next tour and the next album," Lewis says. "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 10 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."