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Lewis gets a little help from her friends

Singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis says touring with the Watson Twins is a welcome change.

By BRIAN ORLOFF Times Correspondent
Published October 17, 2006

[Publicity photo]
One song on Lewis' album seems to deal with the relationship she had with her mom. Lewis was a child actor.

On Rabbit Fur Coat, Jenny Lewis' first solo album, she mines rootsy melodies and gospel harmonies (courtesy of twins Chandra and Leigh Watson) for a pared down but accessible sound. The muted approach puts the focus on Lewis' sweet voice, her meditations on faith, disappointment and personal freedom, all within the framework of Americana music.

You can understand why Lewis has earned comparisons to singers like Petula Clark, Patsy Cline or even her contemporary Neko Case. Another apt comparison might be Laura Nyro and LaBelle's classic 1971 record, Gonna Take a Miracle. It was one of Lewis' favorite albums growing up, one her mother favored, as well.

As a child actor in numerous TV series and films such as Troop Beverly Hills (1989), Lewis had a tense relationship with her mother, though she's never divulged details. Now, at 30, she's going public - however obliquely - about that time with her new album's title track.

Over a near finger-picked melody she sings, "A lady says to my ma, 'You treat your girl as your spouse / You can live in a mansion house' / And so we did / And I became a $100,000 kid."

Lewis, who also sings and writes for the indie rock group Rilo Kiley, spoke with the St. Petersburg Times about the tour that brings her and the Watson Twins to the Tampa Theatre on Thursday.


There's a lot of speculation that Rabbit Fur Coat is autobiographical. Has writing this record caused you to rethink your relationship with your mother?

There's a huge separation between when you're writing a song and when people actually hear it. I think it's a very personal and private time when I'm writing, and I often don't connect the dots to a year later (when I'm) playing a show and singing these songs that are seemingly personal. So, I don't know if I was really ready to experience some of those feelings. But I also enjoy storytelling, so although there are points in some of the songs that might ring true, I think for the most part, the truth is subjective. And it's very difficult to pinpoint exactly what happened.

I think if you're my friend, or if you know anything about me, my childhood was a unique one. It was bizarre. There were really good experiences and negative experiences within that, as with any show business profession at a young age. But for the most part, I can't help have some of that experience inform my songwriting. And I struggle with it. I don't want to talk about that part of my life, but I think the older I get, the more willing I am to accept the circumstances of the first 17 years of my life.


Talk about touring with the Watson Twins and how this side project has affected your other work.

As a songwriter, I feel like I overwrite. And having the Watson Twins there to reiterate what I've already said - or to add more to it - I think that has been a really interesting thing for me, just to know that I don't have to say anything; I can write something for them to say. And I can just stand there and play my guitar. (laughs)

But it's been great, and I think part of the reason we're enjoying it is that we all have other projects that we're invested in and everyone in the band has something else going on.

Sometimes you don't have that choice if you're in one band. You have to play the songs a million times and I guess that's an older spirit in a way. The bands I grew up listening to - some of them put out a record a year but there was never really that opportunity to get sick of the songs.

Putting out the music and touring is kind of the way we all put food on the table and pay our rent.


This year has been pretty huge for you. How would you characterize it as your tour winds down and you start up again with Rilo Kiley?

This year has been really positive just as a songwriter in knowing I can take my guitar with me anywhere and go play a show. I don't necessarily need a band to back me up. And that's a really frightening thing in some ways, but it's also really liberating. But when I'm out here on the road with this band, I miss the collaborative efforts of Rilo Kiley. And getting back into that, sometimes I can just tune out a little bit and trust things are going to work out. I don't have to be constantly in control, and I think there's something to be said for that.


Catch Lewis in concert: 8 p.m. Thursday at the Tampa Theatre. $17

Call (813) 274-8982.

Hear her music

To hear Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins:


[Last modified October 16, 2006, 20:54:10]

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