Rilo Kiley: Just good friends

Already alt.rock darlings in the US, Rilo Kiley are making waves here. Fiona Sturges meets the one-time lovers - separately
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The Independent Culture

Meet Blake Sennett and Jenny Lewis, the singing and songwriting partnership behind the California quartet Rilo Kiley. Their story is the stuff of Hollywood soap opera, one that takes in fame, disillusionment and a failed romance.

Meet Blake Sennett and Jenny Lewis, the singing and songwriting partnership behind the California quartet Rilo Kiley. Their story is the stuff of Hollywood soap opera, one that takes in fame, disillusionment and a failed romance.

Two former child-stars from Los Angeles, they both gave up lucrative acting careers in order to start a band. Soon after forming Rilo Kiley, alongside the drummer Jason Boesel and bassist Pierre de Reeder, Sennett and Lewis became an item, only to split acrimoniously two years later.

Such a turn of events might have signalled the end for a lesser band, but Rilo Kiley are made of sturdy stuff and were not prepared to let such a trifling matter as a relationship meltdown get in the way of their art. Already established as alt-rock darlings in the US ( Rolling Stone hailed them as the greatest rock act of 2004), Rilo Kiley are now bringing their bittersweet brand of indie-pop to Britain.

The early signs are good. BBC Radio 2 and XFM are among the radio stations championing their forthcoming single, "Portions for Foxes", while MTV already has the song on heavy rotation. Meanwhile, their album More Adventurous, released in the UK six weeks ago, has received rapturous reviews, with Lewis, flame-haired and with a penchant for saucy footwear, being breathlessly described as a latter-day Loretta Lynn.

Ensconced in a cosy candlelit bar in Utrecht, where they are supporting Bright Eyes, Sennett, a twitchy figure with a strangely lopsided haircut, is having a hard time remembering which city he's in. "This is Brussels, right? No? Oh, sure, we were there the other night. Then there was Cologne. So this is Utrecht. Oh, well. Beautiful as they are, after a while, when you're touring, these cities start to look the same." Sennett and Lewis have expressed a desire to be interviewed separately for fear that they might start bickering. "We've been living on top of one another for too long, and we're both quite edgy at the moment," says Sennett. "We wouldn't want to expose you to that."

Rilo Kiley's apparent overnight success has actually taken years. Having formed in 1997, their first five years as a band were spent mostly on the road. They didn't get around to releasing their debut album, Take Offs and Landings, until 2001, following it up in 2002 with The Execution of All Things. Both albums are yet to be released in the UK, though there are plans to rectify the situation.

Given Sennett's and Lewis's history, it is hardly surprising to find that their third album, More Adventurous, dwells heavily on thwarted love and broken relationships. Beneath the glossy veneer of indie pop and country soul lie unsettling tales of emotional damage and disappointment. "Does He Love You?" is a heartfelt letter to a friend conveying news of a betrayal, while the forthcoming single, "Portions for Foxes", finds Lewis regressing into old habits with a lover ("You're just damage control for a walking corpse like me"). Elsewhere, on "The Absence of God", she reveals a tendency to sabotage new relationships: "And I say there's trouble when everything is fine/The need to destroy things creeps up on me every time." It's an intelligent and assured record, full of bitterly insightful lyrics that are as captivating as anything you'll hear this year.

It is significant that Rilo Kiley's apparent coming-of-age has coincided with their jumping ship from the credible but cash-strapped independent label Saddle Creek, to the major conglomerate Warner. Both Lewis and Sennett are keen to point out that it wasn't an easy decision. They were very happy on Saddle Creek, but decided that they "wanted to reach more people, have better distribution, and function as a band that wanted to do this for a little while".

For Sennett, this is a touchy subject. When I suggest that More Adventurous is their most mainstream record, he flinches. This is, after all, a band who have kept the origin of its name cloaked in mystery: the possibilities include a homage to the, possibly imaginary, gay gridiron players Ben Rilo and Stephen Kiley, who killed themselves in 1909, after making love for the last time; and the certainly imaginary childhood pet of Sennett - a dragon. "I see it as very much an indie record," he protests. "We're not trying to dumb down or sell out. We're still very much an alternative band. Maybe we were trying to make something a little bit more classic and sophisticated. Sure, our first two records were more home-made-sounding. You might say that this one is, well, more grown-up."

Lewis adds that More Adventurous is a more "focused" album than its predecessors. "The instrumentation is a bit more clean, perhaps, and the songs are more lyrically diverse. Certain songs are more accessible. I love pop music, and Blake and I have always written pop songs. In the past they may have been buried in seven minutes of guitar noise, but with this one we did consciously trim the fat."

Aside from a stint as a drummer in a high-school Goth band, Sennett had little in the way of musical experience before Rilo Kiley. With an acting career that began at 14 - he was a regular on the US TV shows Boy Meets World and 3rd Rock from the Sun - there was little time for anything else. "I wasn't very good at acting but I looked young for my age," he recalls. "In America, a 14-year-old can legally work twice the hours of a 10-year-old, so looking young improves your prospects. But I never enjoyed it. By the time I was 18, I had music to compare it with. I quickly realised that, in music, you are the artist, the voice and embodiment of your art, whereas with acting you're a vessel for someone else's voice."

Lewis's TV career started at the age of three with an ad for Jello. Between the ages of eight and 18, she appeared in several long-running TV series, including Murder She Wrote, Roseanne, The Golden Girls, The Twilight Zone and Baywatch. Although she was encouraged into acting from the start, Lewis says that music is in her blood. Her parents had a touring lounge-act based on Sonny and Cher called Love's Way. Her maternal grandparents had been vaudeville entertainers; even her sister was in a Pretenders tribute band. Lewis's parents divorced when she was eight, by which time her acting had already turned into a full-blown career. For her mother, by then a single parent on welfare, it was "a stable financial path".

It is with an air of sadness that Lewis notes that most of her friendships were with adults when she was a child. "I would be enamoured of the men playing my father and the women playing my mother. It was quite a confusing time, emotionally." Although she insists "it's all I know, and it's certainly given me a lot to write about", it is clear that her childhood wasn't happy. "To go through all of those feelings that you have as a teenager, and then to be under lights with people poking you and commenting and criticising, it made it feel like a burden," she reflects. "When I met Blake, I think he was having similar feelings. Even though we didn't meet in an acting context, we shared a similar history. We felt failures as actors and we looked to each other for support."

Sennett and Lewis were introduced by a mutual friend; the first day they met they wrote two songs together, and by the end of the week had written another 10. Lewis credits Sennett with persuading her to take music seriously. "It just seemed so far-fetched that I could be a professional musician," she explains. "But when we met I realised that it wasn't as scary with someone standing next to me. Suddenly I felt free to sing these songs."

Did she fall for him right away? "Not exactly," she replies. "I think our friendship was made more intense by the fact that we were writing songs together. There was certainly a chemistry there, both professional and personal, though we were playing music together for a couple of years before we started going out."

Sennett tells a more straightforward version of their romance. "We ended up spending so much time together that we just started making out one day. I guess you Brits would call it 'snogging'."

The relationship lasted for two years. When it ended, the whole band took a few months off to let things cool down, though when they returned to the studio, relations were still tense. "I remember one fight - we were yelling at each other in the rehearsal space, and Jenny left in a huff," says Sennett. "One of the other guys said something like, 'What was that all about?' Right then a CD hit me between the shoulder blades. She had come back in just to throw something at me! So, yeah, there were fights. But ultimately I love her more than anyone else in the world, so it doesn't matter. I think in the end we realised that it was music that brought us together, and it wasn't something that we wanted to abandon. And sometimes, when you go to very dark places with people, it makes you much closer."

Both Sennett and Lewis now have other projects outside of Rilo Kiley. Sennett plays with The Elected, a psychedelic rock band signed to the Sub Pop label, while Lewis sings backing vocals in The Postal Service, which also features Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard. More recently, Lewis started writing a solo record due to be released on Team Love, the label started by Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst. The vocals are already laid down; now Lewis and the producer Mike Mogis are mixing it on the tour bus.

"There's a lot of down-time while you're touring, so it keeps us occupied," she explains. "I had these extra songs after More Adventurous, and I didn't want to wait two years to record them. And I wanted to experience something without Blake because I rely on him so much."

Right now, though, Rilo Kiley is the priority. Lewis describes herself as "the ball-buster" in the band; she is first in the studio in the morning, and last out at night. Her childhood career, she says, instilled in her a strong work ethic. Some of her working practices are less easily attributed, however. When I bring up a story involving Lewis stripping off in the studio while they were recording More Adventurous, she looks momentarily embarrassed. "Yeah, that's true, but only for one song," she admits. "I was singing vocals on 'I Never', and having trouble getting that vulnerable quality in my voice. Blake was pushing buttons in the other room but everyone else had gone, so I said, 'I'm gonna get undressed for this one'. I was pretty uncomfortable and it was cold, but it worked well. If you want a record to work, sometimes you've got to push yourself that little bit further, even if it involves being naked."

'More Adventurous' is out now on WEA/Brute/Beaute; the single 'Portions for Foxes' is out on Monday. Rilo Kiley play the Borderline in London on Tuesday