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Lunch Date with Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley

by tim molloy
April 2003

Jenny Lewis is the lead singer of Rilo Kiley, the greatest band on God's green earth. But don't take our word for it: buy the band's phenomenal new CD, The Execution of All Things, and check where it says who the singer is. That's right, genius -- Jenny Lewis.

The supersmart and swoon-worthy Ms. Lewis talked to us while driving from Denver to the band's hometown, Los Angeles, after the last night on their latest tour. She described her songwriting process with Rilo Kiley guitarist and co-singer Blake Sennet, her current tour with the Postal Service, and her cameo on a much-celebrated album by Bright Eyes, her labelmates on Nebraska's own Saddle Creek Records. We pretended we were on a date with her because we are sad and alone.

Jenny, our new girlfriend, shares a birthday with Elvis Presley, David Bowie and R. Kelly. She was in a lot of movies and TV shows growing up, including The Wizard with Fred Savage, but we love her for those punchy, complicated songs we can't get out of our heads.

Lubo: So we had this really obnoxious dream when we started off doing interviews, which was to ask everybody awkward first date questions.

Jenny Lewis: Oh, OK!

Lubo: Really? I thought you would need like a big explanation and you'd be all quiet. You're just totally down.

JL: Yeah. Just bring it on.

Lubo: So what kind of music do you listen to?

JL: Um, I listen to everything from reggae to big band. Indie rock. Classic rock, show tunes. Barbara Streisand. Opera.

Lubo: I read somewhere that in high school you listened exclusively to hip-hop for about a year?

JL: It was actually about three years. And I fancied myself a rapper. When I was like 15 I was like OK, this is what I want to do. I want to be a rapper. And I went to this all-ages club in LA, it was like a hip-hop club, called the Gaslight. And they had like open-mic freestyling, and Biz Markie was like, cutting it up on the turntables, and I was like, "You know what, it's Biz Markie, I love that man, I'ma bust out." And I just freestyled. It wasn't very good, but I felt like that was sort of the peak of my hip-hop career.

Lubo: Wait, let me interject a first-date thing here: Oh my God! We have so much in common! So who else were you really into?

JL: I was really into the whole Native Tongues family, like the Jungle Brothers and Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. I think Three Feet High and Rising just kind of changed my life and I think it was a big part of becoming a songwriter as well, because the stories they tell they're like, so linear, and so dense, and there's such a positive feeling from that whole crew, that I think it definitely carried over a little bit into how I write stuff now. And I was also really into the whole West Coast like Freestyle Fellowship thing in the mid-90s. They're so awesome. And like Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, I adore him.

Lubo: That guy is the messiah.

JL: He is the greatest! I love those first two Del albums. They're so great.

Lubo: If I had to name my favorite rapper it would probably be Del.

JL: Really? This is going so ­- I can't believe that! This is like a perfect date thing, like oh my God, I love Del Tha Funkee Homosapien too!

Lubo: Who would think in this whole big world? But I'm sorry, I feel like I'm just talking away and I want to know all about you. What's your favorite color?

JL: Color? Um, well, gold of course. Is bling a color or is that just sort of all encompassing?

Lubo: I think that's perfect. Oh my gosh. What was your most embarrassing moment, like on the past tour, or in your whole life?

JL: Um, OK. So we were in Florida, I think Orlando, and I was in the bathroom, putting on my makeup and these two girls walked in and they didn't see me and they're all, "Can you believe how big her boobs are?" And I'm standing there like putting on my lipstick, and I look over, and we saw each other and the girl just turned bright red. I think she was more embarrassed than I. And uh, I was like, "Are you talking about me?" And she's all, "Oh! No! No no! Not at all," totally lying, but it was pretty embarrassing. But sweet.

Lubo: That's a really good embarrassing moment, so... Hey, what's your favorite movie?

JL: Well, I go through phases. I've got like a couple. It seems like every five years one sort of creeps in. The last five years I think it's been The Big Lebowski but I'm ready to let go of that 'cause like, I made all these t-shirts with quotes and like, all we'd do is like quote The Big Lebowski. Probably before that it was this French movie called 400 Blows. I just love that movie so much... it's a Truffaut movie and it's fuckin' beautiful. And then, this year I think my favorite movie that I've seen so far is City of God.

Lubo: What's your favorite book?

JL: Again, I go through phases. It's hard to sort of pinpoint one. I just read this... actually I read it like six months ago. I didn't read anything on this tour, which sucks. But I read The Human Comedy by Saroyan which is just a really concise, beautiful book. I'm a big Confederacy of Dunces fan. I think my favorite author is John Fante, I think he's just great. He just speaks volumes on how I feel. He wrote this amazing book called Ask The Dust and The Road to Los Angeles.

Lubo: And as we speak you're actually on the road to Los Angeles! So, do you go on a lot of interviews?

JL: A lot of interviews?

Lubo: I'm trying to do the equivalent question to, "So, do you go out a lot?" You try to ask if the person you're out with like, you know. Size up the competition kind of.

JL: Right right right. You know, I go out on interviews and sometimes the person will like open the door, which is really nice, and if it's raining I can like, share the umbrella, and sometimes we'll even like split the bill, Dutch. I'm no like, interview slut. I don't want you to get the wrong idea or anything.

Lubo: Oh, not at all.

JL: Yeah, this is only the second one I've done this week.

Lubo: Oh my gosh, I feel so privileged. So if you were going on an actual date with someone would you insist on paying or would you let them pay? Because you mentioned going Dutch.

JL: I don't think so. I'm like, weird with that stuff. I just, I kind of like to... you know, I'm a modern... woman.

Lubo: You're a modern girl, as you say in the song. ("Pictures of Success," on Rilo Kiley's 2001 release, Takeoffs and Landings.)

JL: Quote your own song... I didn't mean to do that.

Lubo: Well, you stopped right in the middle.

JL: It's like that Britney Spears song... I think I'm past that. I think this year, I became a woman. Like at 27, you kind of have to cut the crap a little bit. Like I gave away the little plastic barrettes, I no longer have my Cabbage Patch Kids. I'm like, ready to look forward.

Lubo: Ohmigod! I'm 27.

JL: You are? I can't believe it! And 27 is a crazy year. I mean obviously, the whole like Jimi Hendrix, you know... I feel like 27 is the year where you're like, I need to get my shit together.

Lubo: And I've totally gotten my shit together. It's great!

JL: It's great, it's really liberating. I'm proud of you.

Lubo: I'm proud of you! And you're doing even better than I am. I got to see you guys at the Knitting Factory in New York, which must have been one of the best shows.

JL: Oh man, that was so much fun. That was like the best feeling. I just feel like the people that come to see us, they like bring their baggage, they bring their depression, they're willing to just fucking leave it at the door and like, come, and rejoice in like, hope and stuff? I don't know how that started happening but our shows are so fucking awesome. I just feel so lucky to be able to hang out with all those positive people.

Lubo: Is that the case at all the shows? I've been reading stuff out of Washington where they said your first show there a few years ago had like five people there? And now, things are completely taking off.

JL: Things are better. It's been like a gradual change, you know? We've been touring our dicks off for a couple years and yeah, like last time we were in DC there really were four people there but those four people were super nice and super warm. It seems like every time we come back to town there's just more people there. They tell their friends and it's pretty amazing. It's like having a little baby, like Blake and I have this little baby and we're just kind of watching it grow up and it's a toddler now and it's walking around and it makes us so proud -- we're such proud parents!

Lubo: So you just have one baby?

JL: Just, just one baby.

Lubo: That's cool. So... a lot of people were taking pictures and bootlegging and stuff like that at the Knitting Factory show. I sort of got the sense that things are really taking off for you and there's these people who've been following their "little" band for a while and you're about to turn into their "big" band. And I think they might be afraid that they're going to lose that individual thing that they had. Do you get that sense?

JL: I think it all boils down to -- I'm going to quote my friend's song here. It all boils down to one quotable phrase: if you love something, give it away.

Lubo: So are you OK with people taking pictures and bootlegging?

JL: Hell yeah. It's no secret society. You do it for people, that's why you do it. And if they want to take away more than just their record, if they want a picture or live recordings, then God bless 'em. That's why we do it.

Lubo: How do you feel about downloading your songs off the Internet?

JL: Fine, you know? I encourage it. I've found out about a lot of amazing independent bands because of mixed CDs and downloads and I make a point to support the band at some point, you know?

Lubo: I wanted to ask you about your songwriting process. Do you write stuff and take it to Blake or does he write stuff and take it to you? How does it work?

JL: It works both ways. Sometimes I'll have a song that I write and then I bring it to the practice space and then we arrange it as a band. The songs that Blake sings he writes and then we arrange it as a band. The songs that I sing I write. But mostly I think we function as each other's editors. Like I'll be like, "You know what? That one line, is like, I feel like you've almost got something there." And I just trust him. I think it's a pretty sweet working relationship.

Lubo: And you guys have been working together for like seven or eight years, right?

JL: Yeah, it's been a while.

Lubo: So at the beginning of the Bright Eyes album Lifted, you and Blake are the people we hear arguing. What do you argue about?

JL: Stupid shit really, like whether we're going to have Taco Bell or Subway. Like, if we have to make too many bathroom stops. It's just ridiculous. We're like brother and sister. We have actually had like a bit of a lame slap fight in the back of the van the other day. Like I punched him in the leg and he pulled my ear and I was like "Owwoahstop!"

Lubo: So who usually wins?

JL: I think I would really kick his ass if I tried.

Lubo: The Execution of All Things is a true album with a lot of interconnected lyrics and themes, and even song snippets at the end of several tracks about your dad moving to Alaska. It seems to have a definite theme of family. Or is that just something I'm reading into it?

JL: No, I think that's definitely something that is on my mind. It's an important thing. All you have initially is your family and that's how you figure out about yourself and what you want, and your relationships resemble that of your parents and I think that in my 20s I just started thinking about this stuff and I just wanna figure it out and put it out there and sort of learn from the history and not have to learn from the mistakes and the things that they did right as well.

Lubo: What mistakes are you trying not to repeat personally, and does songwriting help you kind of work it out?

JL: I think a lot of the stuff is just fear-based stuff like not fulfilling your destiny because you're afraid. And I think for a lot of the women in my family for generations there's just been this like underlying fear that keeps them from saying what they want to say and doing what they want to do.

Lubo: Hey, what do people always ask you that you wish they would stop asking you?

JL: Uh, usually they ask me about The Wizard, which, I mean, that's cool and all, and that was fun, but it just gets like, a bit annoying because I feel like I have more interesting things to say.

Lubo: So for the record, I didn't ask about The Wizard because we're totally vibeing.

JL: I know, and I think that if you had the date would have gone poorly but I'm feeling even more optimistic. I mean, first it was Del the Funky Homosapien, then we're both 27, and no Wizard questions? I think this is pretty sweet.

Lubo: Word. So what are you doing next?

JL: I'm in this other band called the Postal Service and we're on tour in April.

Lubo: With Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie?

JL: Yeah, with Ben and my friend Jimmy Tamborello and myself and we're coming to New York and I hope you come and see us. It'll be a fun show.

Lubo: And when is Rilo Kiley going back in the studio?

JL: Um, hopefully before the end of the year. We have to tour a bunch for this record some more and then we have a bunch of new songs and I hope to do it with Mike (Mogis) in Nebraska maybe October or somethin'.

Lubo: I, uh, totally had a really good time. We should do this again.. sometime.

JL: OK, but like, don't call me for at least four days or you'll scare me away. You gotta like play by the Swingers rules.


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