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No Nostalgia: Jenny Lewis on 'Rabbit Fur Coat' Ten Years Later

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By Dianca London

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The first songs I learned were hymns, stripped down and chock-full of harmonies, gospel became the soundtrack to my childhood. I sang “Precious Lord Take My Hand” to my dolls on countless afternoons and hummed “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” during games of hopscotch at recess. Whenever my family went to the community swimming pool or ventured to the Jersey Shore for a weekend trip, I whistled “Take Me To the Water” until my mouth grew tired. Or until I was asked to stop.

As the years passed, my appetite for “old-time religion”—ie. a sort of "back to the basics" core expression of Christian faith—became more nuanced. I developed a craving for something different. I started searching for similar chords and lyrical narratives in songs that I could call my own, songs that I hadn’t inherited from my grandmother or my parents. I wanted to lose myself in the melodies that existed outside the confines of leather bound hymnals. Jenny Lewis, in that sense was an answer to that prayer.

In addition to backbeats and catchy chords, it was Lewis’ ability to tell a story without hesitance that converted me to a diehard fan. At an instant, I was struck by the raw candor of the quasi-autobiographical narrator on Rilo Kiley’s 2002 song “A Better Son/Daughter,” drawn in by her refusal to downplay the anxieties of expectations, relationships, and the perpetual demand of a 9-5. Years later, I encountered what felt like a resurrected version of that same narrator in “Handle With Care.” Offering a litany of flaws, fears, and unabashed confessions, “Handle With Care,” much like the rest of Lewis’ debut solo album, Rabbit Fur Coat, seemed to add something more to the tradition that first introduced me to music. “Run, Devil Run” and “Happy” felt sacred. The album’s final minutes played out like an intimate benediction. The first time I heard Lewis sing with The Watson Twins, I felt like I was a little girl again, listening to my mom sing along to gospel LPs from the 70s. Reminiscent of Loretta Lynn, Nina Simone, Skeeter Davis, and Aretha, Lewis' songs became for me what “Amazing Grace” was for my mother. Her songs offered a different kind of salvation; it was Lewis’ sincerity that saved me.

Currently touring to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the album's release, Lewis, who is admittedly “not really one for nostalgia,” has returned to the stage yet again to perform an album that ultimately shaped the rest of her career, and inspired everyone from Best Coast to Waxahatchee to First Aid Kit. Unlike the rest of Lewis’ discography, Rabbit Fur Coat is the only album to date that was solely influenced by women. It’s release sparked a desire in Lewis to further explore lyrical narratives crafted outside of male-dominated spaces. While speaking with her over the phone on a chilly afternoon, it became clear that even after a decade, so much of her first solo album continues to ring true.

 

Noisey: It's been ten years since Rabbit Fur Coat's debut on Team Love Records. How has your connection to the album evolved?
Jenny Lewis:
The songs feel strangely relevant ten years later and I've been playing a handful of them during my solo sets. I played “Rise up With Fists” with Rilo Kiley on our last tour but the songs that I avoided in the last ten years, they feel like they really apply to my life right now. It's strange, when I write songs I don't always know exactly what I'm writing about and this particular period for me I had only written within my band and [Rabbit Fur Coat] was the first time that I was writing with a different intention. It wasn't being filtered through the other members of my band it was very quiet, private songwriting process. I didn't share the songs with anyone really except for The Watson Twins before we recorded them, so they feel particularly personal and private.

In retrospect, which tracks resonate the most?
We're performing the album in its entirety in order which I've never done before. They all serve a purpose within the whole, they all feel good and they fit together. They tell a story from beginning to end and there's an arc and the middle of that arc is the title track which I don't typically play. I mean, I played it a little bit in 2008 and I certainly played it in the first touring cycle for Rabbit Fur Coat, but that one I've avoided. Partially because it’s a four minute story song and I'm just up there alone, you know? I feel very exposed when it’s just me and the guitar and my song in front of an audience. It’s different if I'm in my living room playing songs for my friends who are also songwriters, but that song in particular is kind of a tough one to get through and not only because of the content, but just to be able to stand up there in front of so many people. It’s terrifying.

There's so much transparency and vulnerability in moments like that.
It’s almost like those nightmare dreams you have when you're in front of a class and you're naked. It’s the part of my job when I'm up there when I'm like, “Goddamn why did I choose this job?”

In an interview from 2008 you referred to the title of the album as a metaphor for the “need to show your wealth” and “use a bunch of little dead things to make you more than what you are.” Looking back, has that metaphor changed for you in any way?
I still identify with that metaphor but that song has taken on so much more for me. In my songwriting in my 20s I was pointing my finger a lot, I was looking outwards sort of examining my past, looking to my future, looking to the people around me, but what I've realized writing songs now is that I embody all of the characters that I'm criticizing. I've sort of become all of those people and I guess I was those characters all along I just didn't realize it.

The album is really rooted in the tradition of folk and gospel, two genres that have a legacy of bearing witness and responding to moments of personal and cultural significance. Songs like “The Big Guns,” “Rise Up with Fists,” and “Run Devil Run” come to mind. How did those genres and their traditions influence your identity as a songwriter?
The record that influenced Rabbit Fur Coat the most is Laura Nyro's It's Gonna Take a Miracle and The Labelle Sisters are singing backup for her. That was something that I listened to growing up with my mother and my sister in the San Fernando Valley.  I sing because I grew up singing with my mom and my sister. We were always listening to gospel songs because there were such distinctive harmony points. [Rabbit Fur Coat] for me, is a kind of spiritual record. It's not a religious record, but it's a spiritual record that in that moment in my life I was trying to figure out what I believed in. It turns out I believe in love and my friends and at that moment making music in Nebraska.

Omaha's music community, at that time and even now, was so influential. Saddle Creek and everything that they were doing was pivotal for so many bands.
Conor [Oberst] was a great influence lyrically. He asked me to make the record and I never intended to be  solo artists, I never set out to do that. My identity was wrapped up in my band, that was my entire life, it was all  I cared about and when he first approached me to make the record my first reaction was I can’t do that and he said, “No you can do it, you're going to do that and I'm going to put it out my new record label, Team Love.” So he’s very much a part of the songs and the spirit of the record.

I've been really fortunate along the way to just have these guides and I've always been really afraid but when I get on stage I'm not afraid anymore, just getting there is terrifying. Connor, Ben Gibbard, Blake Sennett, and Ryan Adams... all of these guides, have just kind of pushed me out there, pushed me beyond what I thought I was capable of doing. Each era is defined by a guide in a way.

Jenny and The Watson Twins

In regards to things that define you, what have some of your current influences been?
I've been staying in New York in my friend's apartment, just trying to write my new record and there's no internet, there s no TV and there's the record player and a handful of records. They're her records but the one that I keep listening to the most is the second Steely Dan record, that one has been on repeat. It's so great to get back to the basics of music where I've got like five records that I listen to. I don't feel inundated with too many choices. That and this Ted Lucas record...it’s amazing [and] EZ TV. They're from Brooklyn and they made my favorite record from last year. I've been listening to a lot of jazz and reggae, roots reggae.

It's really cool that you mentioned reggae. In a way a lot of the narratives in reggae are similar to the stories that folk and gospel tell, especially with the call and response pattern present between each genre.
The message is love really, you know? Almost all of Bob Marley's songs are about God and the reason why it connects with people is because there's this mess of love and I've been listening to this music and trying to grasp on to it a little bit and it’s really inspiring.

Rabbit Fur Coat explores similar themes head on. Do you still feel the same way about religion?
It's funny because you know, I was 28, 29 years old when I wrote these songs so for me it feels very 20, but then some of the themes continue to resonate. It’s not a totally serious record and I think there's a lot of questions on the record, but I think the through line is spirituality and however you choose to define that or identify within that but I'm still on the quest to figure it out but I always come back to one word which is love and that you know dictates how I proceed.

You were on tour last year for Voyager. How was preparing for this tour different for you?
I tend to compartmentalize eras. I'm not really one for nostalgia, I don't really look back but I do think [that] it's really important. The Watson Twins—they're such an important part of this record and although they're my songs, [the twins] help bring them into the world. Without them I don't know if I would have even made the record.

There was just this moment where I had these very private songs and they lived a couple blocks from me and I went over to their place and we started singing together and it was like I was back in the kitchen with my mom and my sister it felt immediately like I was a part of a family. I'm so grateful to them and I just think our vocal blend is really very, very special. I feel very safe around them. They're very loving and it's just a very special connection that we have. Touring with Voyager was amazing and I love my band but when I sing with the twins, it's like something from outer space.

Their presence on the album gives each song such an intimate, almost sacred feel to them.
… and there's no dude in control! [With] Rilo Kiley, it was very collaborative, but there was a very prominent male presence. With Rabbit Fur Coat, M. Ward produced a few songs, but his approach is very different, it’s a very, you do your thing and then he does all this amazing stuff around it. This is really the only record that I've made where there isn't a very strong male influence—you know all the Rilo Kiley stuff and Voyager with Ryan [Adams] and Beck. This is really a very feminine record. It's very stripped back. Whenever I'm in a producer position, I like to create space for the words and the vocals, and I'm not always right, sometimes it can get boring but that's my sensibility and I think that this record reflects this.

Dudes are great, but there's something really powerful about songs crafted solely by women. It's a continuation of a tradition of women telling stories, of women as makers of meaning.
When I play with women it's a completely different thing, We just arrange songs differently. We're not afraid to lay [it] out. I've played with some amazing women over the years and when we're in a room arranging, it's just a different intention. It's really special.

[It] brings to mind my label, called Lovesway, which is named after my parents band from the 1970s and Lovesway is re-releasing Rabbit Fur Coat as the first release, but then I hope to put out female artists exclusively on Lovesway: I want to put out a series of 7-inches of some of my favorite female artists. It’ll to be a really safe place for women.

That sounds like the perfect antidote for counterbalancing the misogyny and sexism that's often synonymous with the music industry.
Some of my guy friends are going to be super bummed. [Laughs.] I'm not excluding them because I don't love their songs but I'm really interested in a female lyrical perspective. It's strange when you find yourself as the slightly older gen and there's women who've come up to me like Bethany Consentino and Katie [Crutchfield] from Waxahatchee, they've come up to me and said, “You were the first girl that I saw playing guitar on the stage, watching you when I was in high school inspired me to start a band.” You never think you're going to get to that point, you're like, wow, am I really that old, but it’s really cool to give back in a way.

Jenny Lewis Tour Dates

2.2 - Philedelphia, PA - Union Transfer
2.3-4 - New York, NY - The Beacon Theatre*
2.6 - Nashville, TN - Ryman Auditorium*
 
* w/ The Watson Twins and very special guest M. Ward.