Jenny Lewis is working hard to hold back tears. At the moment, she’s doing all right. The previous day, though, was another story: She almost sobbed her way through band practice.
“I’m always like, ‘I’m fine! I’m fine! I’ve got this. I’m strong,’ ” she tells the Voice. Despite the confessional nature of Lewis’s songwriting, she’s always presented a tough exterior — or maybe not so much tough as extremely collected and cool (she did grow up in California, after all), the kind of performer whose rock ’n’ roll benefits from its emotional undercurrent. Part of that composure stems from her background as a child actor, a tale that’s been well documented (yes, she was that girl in Troop Beverly Hills), as well as from the nearly two decades she spent on the road with Rilo Kiley, the Angeleno indie outfit Lewis co-founded with Blake Sennett in 1998.
The offender responsible for her near-waterworks on this particular afternoon was neither a person nor a bout of bad news, but Rabbit Fur Coat, the album that forged the Rilo Kiley frontwoman into an indie force in her own spotlight. January 24 marked the tenth anniversary of the release of Lewis’s solo debut, and she’ll be celebrating the occasion not only by reissuing the album on her own label, Love’s Way, but by performing it in its entirety at the Beacon Theatre on February 3 and 4. Considering how Rabbit Fur Coat serves as a turning point in her life and career, it’s understandable that rehearsing it would unearth certain forgotten, or misplaced, memories. Rabbit Fur Coat wasn’t just the effort of a solo artist shedding the protective carapace of a successful act, but an already open lyricist’s most intimate body of work to date. It was the first petal to unfold in a solo career that would go on to blossom and further establish Lewis as an authoritative female voice in the dude-dominated spheres of indie. As Lewis sums up, after Rabbit Fur Coat, “Shit got hella real.”
Looking back, she admits that the making of the album took place during what felt like an innocent time. (“I think I had just gotten my cellphone,” she half-jokes.) The idea of branching out and going solo never occurred to her until her friend (and former Saddle Creek labelmate) Conor Oberst (of Bright Eyes and Monsters of Folk fame) approached her about putting out an album on the new label he was launching, Team Love. “My first reaction was, ‘Are you crazy? I’m in a rock band!’ But he persuaded me. I made it and had zero expectations.”
This was in 2004, when Rilo Kiley were in the midst of wrapping up their third full-length, More Adventurous, in Nebraska, and Lewis began writing the songs that would become Rabbit Fur Coat. “I feel like everything I do is a reaction to what came before it,” she says. “[The new music] was just more quiet. The songs were personal and they were mine. I didn’t want anyone to hear them or be a part of them; they didn’t feel appropriate for the band.”
The soulful, folk-tinged nature of the music was inspired by Laura Nyro’s 1971 album featuring the Labelle trio, Gonna Take a Miracle, which Lewis grew up listening to with her mom and sister in the San Fernando Valley. “It was our go-to record,” she explains. “I started re-listening to that, and it became kind of the template for Rabbit Fur Coat.” Lewis then found her musical foils in the Kentucky-raised Watson Twins, her neighbors in Silver Lake, who contributed gospel-influenced background vocals that evoked the fond, familiar sounds of Lewis’s childhood. “I drove over with my acoustic guitar and played them the songs, and they started singing along,” she says, recalling the moment they became a part of Rabbit Fur Coat’s musical makeup. “It just happened in that moment, just so natural.” Mike Mogis — another Saddle Creek label pal and frequent collaborator of Oberst’s — would be flown in to produce the record.
The resulting twelve songs paint an intimate portrait: The album’s title track, for example, delicately yields an autobiographical tale of her childhood with her mother (“I became a $100,000 kid”), while others reveal matters of the heart (“You Are What You Love”) and put Lewis’s country chops on display (the foot-stomping “The Big Guns”).
The hypocrisy- and God-questioning “Rise Up (With Fists!!)” still feels relevant after all these years, she notes — maybe it’s the insanity of the upcoming election season — and another of the album’s more memorable moments comes courtesy of Traveling Wilburys cover “Handle With Care,” recorded alongside Oberst, Ben Gibbard, and M. Ward.
“I grew up in a band…so it was truly the first time I was out there,” Lewis says of her solo effort, crediting the Watson Twins for guiding her on that path. “I felt invincible. They’re my true soul sisters…. They really helped me find myself. It’s been a gift of autonomy, so I’m forever grateful for them.”
For these Rabbit Fur Coat performances, the show will be divided into two sets with an intermission, an aspect of the Grateful Dead’s final concerts she enjoyed. “There’s something really cool about not bombarding people for too long, giving them a moment to get a drink, smoke a joint, go to the bathroom and recharge for the second half.” Her original touring band didn’t fully reunite for this jaunt, but the Watson Twins are back, as is M. Ward, who will open the show as he did a decade ago.
“It’s weird [to revisit the Rabbit Fur Coat songs] in that they’re not complex; they’re not complicated. They just make sense,” she says. “[Performing] feels very natural, but it is emotional, you know?”
In the years since Rabbit Fur Coat, Lewis went on to release one more Rilo Kiley album, 2007’s Under the Blacklight, plus two beloved and critically acclaimed solo LPs, most recently last year’s The Voyager, as well as an album with collaborator Johnathan Rice as Jenny and Johnny. She also left L.A. for the East Village, a move that actually made her feel sentimental about missing the recent blizzard. (“I’ve been watching [the storm through] my friends on Instagram. There’s just something about New York and a natural disaster…there’s just a certain feeling.”) It’s here in New York where Lewis will tackle a different side of the industry with Love’s Way, a label dedicated to female artists. “I just love the female perspective; there are definitely fewer of us out there on the road,” she says. “It’s definitely a boys’ town out there. I want a safe space.”
The Rabbit Fur Coat reissue is the label’s first release, and Lewis’s plan is to release seven-inches for her artists. (Her guy friends get it but are bummed they can’t participate. “Some of my guy friends are like, ‘Wait? What? Why can’t I…’ and I’m like, ‘Sorry, dude.’ ”)
The songs of her initial solo triumph can pull at her heartstrings at times, but for Lewis, reflecting on how far she’s come since Rabbit Fur Coat has ultimately been all the more rewarding. “I never thought I’d celebrate the ten-year anniversary of anything. I just can’t believe how much happened between [ages] 29 and 39,” she says. “I really wasn’t worried about what people were going to think. I made something that was completely pure.
“I think you just have to take a risk in your life and put yourself out there. Sometimes you fail — but that’s OK — and sometimes you succeed and you make something kind of magical.”
Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins will perform Rabbit Fur Coat in its entirety at the Beacon Theatre February 3 and 4.