Heels and Picks: Lewis takes the stage
BY ERIN SMITH / Special to the Star-Advertiser
Jenny Lewis is one of those rare artists who have crossed over from child actor to serious musician.
The 39-year-old singer-songwriter, who will perform Tuesday at The Republik, is putting out solo material nearly 20 years after appearing on sitcoms and a decade after working with her indie rock band, Rilo Kiley. Many key players in the industry, including Beck, feel that Lewis’ voice gives the music industry and music lovers something they need — an authentic voice with a classic feel. Listening to her new album, “The Voyager,” you get the feeling he is right.
Lewis, who can rock a rainbow leisure suit like nobody’s business, has found her voice amid personal struggles, including family discord and insomnia, and muses over topics such as babies and relationships. Perhaps much of that comes from her upbringing, including her rocky relationship with her parents and bandmates as well as some key pivotal moments of artistic discovery and revelation.
Lewis spent some of her childhood touring with her parents, who performed as a Sonny-and-Cher-style act, according to a 2014 profile in the New York Times. Upon their divorce, she moved with her mother and sister to the San Fernando Valley. After a rough patch, Lewis began acting on popular sitcoms, appearing on “Life with Lucy,” “The Golden Girls,” “Growing Pains” and other shows.
She became the breadwinner of the family and reveled in the independence that gave her, hanging out with other Hollywood kids. She attributes part of her musical spark to a mixtape given to her by fellow child actor Corey Haim; it had Run-D.M.C. on one side and Beastie Boys on the other.
Rilo Kiley, her first band and one she formed with another former child actor, Blake Sennett, signed a record deal with Warner Bros. in 2005. The two dated and broke up but continued making music together. Rilo Kiley toured with Coldplay and Lewis went on to appear as part of the Postal Service, a side project by Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard.
Sennett made a solo album in between Rilo Kiley records, and the ebbs and flows of Lewis’ personal and musical life led her to record her first solo album as well. That first album, “Rabbit Fur Coat,” released in 2006, got Lewis more critical acclaim and response than any Rilo Kiley project. The group would do one more record, but other projects ultimately took over.
Her second album was 2008’s “Acid Tongue,” which was followed by her current release, the crisp-voiced “The Voyager.” Longtime friend Ryan Adams produced it after casually inviting her to play some of her new material and was immediately captivated by its classic simplicity, according to the New York Times. Bright but weary, the songs have a flow to them that feel as timeless as those of the artist with whom Lewis is often compared, Emmylou Harris.
“The Voyager” is a mixed bag of glee and heartbreak. For instance, “She’s Not Me,” which has a bit of a Tom Petty feel, touches on moving on in relationships in life at a time when some are settling down. It sings with poppy cheer about taking a partner for granted, even when partnership is exactly what you need.
“I used to think you could save me / I’ve been wandering lately / Heard she’s having your baby / And everything’s so amazing,” Lewis sings in the opening verse, following it up with a sharply written, succinct chorus: “She’s not me / She’s easy.”
The slow-drive of “Slippery Slopes” launches into complicated relationships, past relationships, the urge for the “golden ring” of marriage and tour life with a gripping first verse: “And if you don’t wreck it / Then I won’t wreck it either / When I’m out on the road / If for just one second / You’d ask me to forget all about / Slippery slopes, whiskey and clothes.”
It’s bleak but with a rainbow horizon, which perhaps that explains the costume. Rather than the sexier outfits we’ve seen Lewis rock for prior tours and albums, these days she’s mostly wearing a rainbow-colored, airbrushed leisure suit. It’s a look that Lewis accredits to her feeling “androgynous” at the moment, which is on point with other female-fronted acts such as Florence + the Machine. It’s possible that androgyny is having a moment.
After touring with men for much of her earlier career, Lewis told the New York Times she now seeks out female band members to accompany her on tour. Just don’t expect the band that appeared in the video for “Just One of the Guys,” the first single from “The Voyager.”
The video, which garnered over 1 million views online in its first day, features actors Kristen Stewart (“Twilight”) and Anne Hathaway (“Les Miserables”). They back her up in elegant white pantsuits, then flip to tracksuits and fake moustaches, while the song pops the stellar lyric: “There’s only one difference between you and me / When I look at myself all I can see / I’m just another lady without a baby.”
Erin Smith is a singer and guitarist who performs as a solo artist and with Maui-based Na Hoku Hanohano Award-nominated band The Throwdowns. Born in Canada, she moved to Hawaii in 2004 and now resides in Kailua. Contact her via e-mail or follow her on Twitter.