Whenever an artist who's the face of a great band announces that he or she is going to go off and do a solo project, tongues automatically begin wagging among that band's ardent fans. Rumors fly about friction and eminent breakups. Cynical jokes about crazy stylistic departures — "Yeah, he's finally going to do his ska-salsa album" — are trotted out.
But mostly, people just wonder if the magic created between the band members, the chemistry that makes what they do so special, will be proven as the sole reason why the act is any good: Is the solo album going to suck?
Jenny Lewis' solo album, Rabbit Fur Coat, doesn't suck.
While hardly a household name, Lewis has nonetheless won the hearts of countless hipsters, y'allternative listeners and indie-rock fans as the primary singer for unassailable Los Angeles quartet Rilo Kiley. Formed toward the end of the '90s, Rilo Kiley made its bones the old-fashioned way, touring on a succession of CDs released on cred-heavy independent labels and building a fan base on the strength of the music and the word-of-mouth support that music earned. Eventually, '04's More Adventurous broke the band through to that amorphous area between underground ubiquity and the fringes of the mainstream; Rilo Kiley played its single "Portions for Foxes" on various late-night talk shows and toured with similarly positioned acts like Death Cab for Cutie.
And then, just when a more careerist ensemble might be tempted to rush another album to market in the name of striking while the iron is hot, Lewis headed into the studio with a bunch of friends to make a white-soul solo album.
"Blake did it first," the redhead says with a laugh, referring to Rilo Kiley co-songwriter Blake Sennett's eclectic side project The Elected. "That kind of gave me license to do the same thing, but it was mostly about just having an excess of songs after we recorded More Adventurous."
Lewis wasn't looking for an experimentation far removed from her band's sound or to show the world her love for rap-metal, or anything. Her warm, yearning liquid voice and now-familiar poetic-conversation lyrical style are all over Rabbit Fur Coat; they're just presented in a more intimate, less rocking context and stand closer to the foreground as a result. While the tunes on the disc sound like they could easily have found their way onto the next Rilo Kiley release, the arrangements and overall presentation here are recognizably removed from the group's aesthetic, though Lewis says she didn't go into the project looking to do anything that different.
"I guess that became the point of doing it," she muses. "Initially, I just had more songs, and they were just songs that didn't necessarily belong anywhere. But in the finishing and recording of them, I realized there were different things that were important to me, as the singer and songwriter, than might be important to the bass player in Rilo Kiley or to Blake, like really making the lyrics and voices and the harmonies the focus."
Rilo Kiley drummer Jason Boesel played on Rabbit Fur Coat, but aside from his contributions, Lewis looked beyond the band, to friends and respected peers both famous (including Death Cab's Ben Gibbard, with whom she worked on the incredibly hip Postal Service project) and obscure. She may not have been seeking a wildly divergent sound, but she was looking forward to a different type of recording process.
"Yeah, I think I wanted a kind of older approach, where people come in and do their parts, and ultimately I had the say as to what would end up on the record," she says. "And I mixed it with [engineer/producer] Mike Mogis, so it wasn't really about what other people thought of their parts. This wasn't about that, it was about creating something that felt consistent in a lot of ways.
"When you're in a band, people tend to lobby for their own parts. And I think being in a band, that's what it's about. And I really enjoy that when I'm working with Rilo Kiley, I can turn off certain parts of my brain and trust that the songs are in the right hands. But with this, I had a very specific kind of idea of how I wanted to sound."
How Rabbit Fur Coat sounds is gorgeous, intimate and infused with a spirituality that's akin to, but not exactly like, gospel. It's not an acoustic album by any means, nor is it Americana. But the more innately hooky and traditionally pop-literate elements of Lewis' songwriting that are so evident in Rilo Kiley's catalog take a back seat to her decidedly un-pop lyrics and phrasing, which guide the songs beyond their basic chords and structures, in search of the nuances. They find them and glorify them. Rabbit Fur Coat is rich with details, from subtle supporting instrumental lines and sing-around-the-campfire percussion to the multiple harmony lines, many of which were supplied by Leigh and Chandra Watson, the relatively unknown siblings who supplied the name for Lewis' side project.
"They live in Los Angeles," says Lewis of the Watson twins. "We got a chance to sing together years ago on a Rilo Kiley 7-inch, and later, I was asked to participate in, in a hoedown you could call it, where I played three songs alone. And I was terrified, so I called them to get up with me. And in doing so, I asked them to sing on a few more songs for the record."
The Watson twins have been out on tour with Lewis and her seven-piece band for the better part of '06, bringing Rabbit Fur Coat's little-yet-huge tunes to audiences in Europe and the U.S. But don't expect the show to be some quiet, subdued, Unplugged-style reverent affair. Lewis says that on the road, the songs that make up her marvelous sidestep from her marvelous band have taken on a life of their own.
"It's become progressively more rocking over the year we've spent playing the songs," she says. "There are definitely moments of quiet throughout the set, but I think that happens when you play in front of people — things tend to get a little more energetic."