Jenny Lewis: Poor little rich girl

Jenny Lewis has gone from child star to singing with Rilo Kiley to solo act. It's been a bittersweet experience, hears Tim Cooper
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If the past 12 months are any indication, it promises to be a very good year for Jenny Lewis. In 2005, after seven years striving for a breakthrough, her band Rilo Kiley earned rave reviews for their first major-label album More Adventurous, and toured America with Coldplay.

Now, breaking away temporarily to mark her 30th birthday with a solo album, their flame-haired singer is stepping further into the limelight. With her quirky lyrics and kooky look - all hot pants, knee socks and vintage mini-dresses - the elfin Lewis already has the attributes of a star. Plus she has a heartbreaking, spellbinding voice that has earned comparisons with Loretta Lynn. Throw in a past as a successful child actor, and a talented musician boyfriend eight years her junior (Johnathan Rice) and she would seem to have it all.

Yet, despite having had experience in front of a camera since the age of three, and having developed a confident stage presence, Lewis in person seems self-effacing and slightly insecure; someone who admits being overawed when meeting Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow, and who wishes her divorced parents would get back together.

Touring with Coldplay in the vast arenas of the American Midwest last summer exposed Rilo Kiley to their largest audience to date. But for Lewis, performing to an indifferent crowd impatiently awaiting the headliners, it was a poisoned chalice. "I think the idea of opening up for a massive band is always better than actually doing it, and having your name on the ticket means more than the actual set. There were thousands of people in the distance but we felt like we were playing a state fair with hogs for sale or something. Some nights I just couldn't wait to get through with it," she says. "But some nights were fun."

Stories of rock'n'roll debauchery with Chris and Gwyneth are in predictably short supply. "We didn't hang out much with Coldplay but they seemed like nice guys," she shrugs. "I briefly met Gwyneth and I think we're about the same age but..." She trails off. "I think Chris Martin is younger than I am but when I met him I felt like I was talking to my father. It's so strange, that feeling when someone is that famous - you assume that they are either older or better. Which is ridiculous because..." She searches for something more positive to say. "I think they are pretty nice and down to earth really."

Her remarkably assured debut, Rabbit Fur Coat, won't make Lewis that famous but should surprise even established admirers of Rilo Kiley. Stylistically pursuing the country-got-soul direction of "I Never" from More Adventurous, it's a distinctly modern take on what Americans call "old-time" country music. Blending elements of country, folk, bluegrass, gospel and deep soul, it retains a thoroughly modern feel thanks to songs whose bittersweet and sharply observed lyrics reflect the US's current moral crisis.

Songs such as "Born Secular", "The Charging Sky" and "Rise Up With Fists" articulate Lewis's confusion at a God-fearing/God-searching America splintering under the weight of religious, racial and economic divisions, while California basks complacently in its shallow obsessions with cash, youth and beauty.

Yet it's far from bleak because there's always a sense of optimism in Lewis's strangely uplifting songs of heartbreak - "My friends call me the silver lining!" she laughs. "Sometimes things feel hopeless. Not always within my own life - but looking outward, it seems like rough times lie ahead of us. The world seems to be kind of caving in on itself in a lot of ways. But I try to look on the bright side." She smiles brightly and offers some downhome wisdom: "There's always a good meal ahead, and hopefully a warm bed."

One song is even called "Happy" - though, in an entirely typical contradiction, it came to her in a sad place. "I was at this old abandoned LA hotel, the Ambassador, where Robert Kennedy was shot," she recalls. "It's been shut down for 15 or 20 years but they shoot videos there and I went to see Elvis Costello doing his video for 'Monkey To Man', which I ended up doing an awkward walk-on cameo in. Anyway, I was really nervous and I went into the kitchen which is where Kennedy was shot, and there was a little 'X' on the ground where it happened. I was alone in there and there was this great echo in the kitchen and I started singing the melody for what became that song."

Billed as a joint venture between Lewis and the Kentucky-born Watson twins, whose backwoods harmonies could kickstart a whole new genre when their own debut is released later this year, Rabbit Fur Coat also features collaborations with friends such as Conor "Bright Eyes" Oberst, Ben "Death Cab For Cutie" Gibbard and M Ward - all of whom feature on a cover of the Traveling Wilburys' hit "Handle With Care" - as well as two members of Maroon 5. It was Oberst, whose Saddle Creek label released Rilo Kiley's albums until they signed to Warner Bros, and whose new Team Love label releases Rabbit Fur Coat in America, who persuaded Lewis to make a solo album in the first place.

Lewis semi-jokes that the album represents her "quarter-life crisis" as she approached her 30th birthday, which she celebrated earlier this month. She says she had been looking forward to the landmark. "The closer I got to it, the less it seemed to matter. But I've made it this far, which is a good thing."

Divorce, drugs and alcohol conspired to make hers a difficult childhood. She was born in Las Vegas, where her parents had a Sonny and Cher tribute act, but she retains no love for her birthplace. "It's a sham - the worst place on earth," she says. "It feels so desperate." After her father left when she was three, Lewis grew up with her mother and sister in the San Fernando Valley, where she was put out to work to supplement her mother's welfare cheques and waitressing tips. As happens only in Los Angeles, the child quickly became the family's main breadwinner by acting, first in commercials, later on television, including the final Lucille Ball show Life With Lucy, and finally in films such as Pleasantville, Foxfire and The Wizard.

At home, the all-female household sang around the kitchen table to singers such as Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, Roberta Flack, Laura Nyro and Barbra Streisand. Country music, she recalls, always held a particular appeal: "I'm a fan of good storytelling by great American songwriters. They're always such tragic tales, and also in country music there's often a strong female perspective." Lewis made her singing debut at her seventh grade graduation (age 12), performing "Killing Me Softly" ("before the Fugees covered it!") in front of her school.

The haunting title track of Rabbit Fur Coat is a mostly autobiographical rags-to-riches-to-rags-again fusion of fact, fiction and fantasy sung to a nursery-rhyme melody in waltz-time. Told in a style akin to magic realism, it's the story of a woman whose mother is waitressing and on welfare until her daughter becomes "a hundred-thousand-dollar kid", only to end up back on welfare, "still putting that stuff up [her] nose". In another song, "The Charging Sky", Lewis sings about her parents getting back together after 25 years. "I'm lying about that," she says. "It's the hope of every child of divorced parents, isn't it?"

Lewis won't talk specifics about her background, save to say that "no one read books in my family and no one went to college", but reveals her mum has not heard the songs yet. "She's not waitressing at the moment," she adds. "But she was a waitress for many, many years." She's equally tight-lipped about her boyfriend, saying she does not want to jinx their relationship by talking about it. "I'm just concerned that if you open these things up they tend to destroy themselves," she reasons. Lewis often sings about her tendency towards destructive relationships but in reality, she says, she's not like that. "I haven't had the experience - I've only had two boyfriends in my life."

The previous one was Blake Sennett, the fellow former child actor with whom she formed Rilo Kiley when she gave up acting. Whenever they are asked the origin of the band name, Lewis and Sennett have a tendency to make up a different story (the name of an Irish drunkard in a dream in one version; an athlete from a 100-year-old Scottish sports almanac in another), but it might as easily be a play on "Kelly Reilly", the character Lewis played in one of her last film roles, Talk To Me.

Fronting a band, Lewis finally felt independent, pursuing her own path instead of following a career chosen for her. "I think in LA sometimes children are treated as adults in showbusiness so just growing up there was a great weight on my shoulders of responsibility to my family. I don't regret my childhood in any way, and I think it enriched me in some respects, but at a certain point my sanity was the most important thing and I was willing to sacrifice the responsibility. I knew it was something I had to do. Just being a teenager, and being looked at by so many people, became uncomfortable. You're going through the awkwardness of growing up and people are in director's chairs commenting on it. You're always being judged, and on a superficial level such as your appearance."

She has had no pangs of regret and says she could only be tempted back by a part in Larry David's sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm or possibly by Ricky Gervais's show Extras. Perhaps, then, she is a secret fan of Ben Stiller, who appears in both shows? "I actually dislike Ben Stiller," she responds instantly, breaking the unwritten rule that celebs say only nice things about their peers. "I think he's a bit of a ham. He's always winking to the camera."

No surprise, then, to learn that Lewis has no friends from her acting days; nor from community college where she studied acting and PE for a year. Asked if any fellow students became famous, she recalls: "I went to school with some kids who ended up in rehab, or hanging somewhere by a piece of string" - a tragedy she read about in the newspaper and immortalised in song.

Far from keeping up with old acting buddies, Lewis actively avoids them in her home town. "I'm constantly dodging people in LA," she says. "There are some people I don't ever wanna see again but if you live where you grew up, you're running into people constantly. Have you seen Extras? There's this great line where Ricky Gervais says: 'That's another person that I'm gonna put on the long list of people that I will try to avoid for the rest of my life.'"

Lewis looks up, smiling. "I feel that way about almost everyone," she says.

'Rabbit Fur Coat' is released on 23 January on Rough Trade Records; Andy Gill reviews it on page 19. Jenny Lewis plays four UK dates from 8-12 Feb (