The Los Angeles-based alternative-rock band Rilo Kiley cemented their reputation as a favorite among rock critics with the release of their 2004 album More Adventurous. Fronted by Jenny Lewis, a former child actor, the band's introspective, musically complex songs won them a cult following early on in their career in the late 1990s, but the release of More Adventurous, their third record, on the Warner label gave them access to a much wider audience. Their songs have even appeared on the hit Fox teen drama The O.C.
Rilo Kiley was formed when Lewis met guitarist/songwriter Blake Sennett in the mid-1990s. Born on January 8, 1977, Lewis shares a birthday with rock and roll icons David Bowie (1947–) and Elvis Presley (1935–1977). Show-business roots run deep in her family, on her mother's side. "My grandparents were in vaudeville," she told Times of London journalist Steve Jelbert, while "my parents had a lounge act in Las Vegas." Her parents' act was similar to that of Sonny (Bono; 1935–1998) and Cher (1946–), husband-and-wife musical stars of their own early 1970s television series. And Lewis's parents, like Sonny and Cher, split up, both professionally and personally.
Lewis had already made her professional debut as a three year old, when she was cast in a television commercial for Jell-O. After her parents divorced when she was around eight years old, Lewis moved from Las Vegas with her mother to southern California and began working as a child actor. She appeared in television and film projects that included Life with Lucy, a short-lived 1986 television series in which she played the sitcom granddaughter of legendary comedienne Lucille Ball (1911–1989), and Foxfire, a 1996 teenage-girl vigilante flick that also starred a young Angelina Jolie (1975–). "Acting was my mother's idea," Lewis explained in an interview with Robert Sandall for London's Daily Telegraph. "It was what I did to support the family."
Lewis began writing songs in her teens, inspired in part by her mother's vast record collection heavy on female singer-song-writers, such as Bette Midler (1945–) and Barbra Streisand (1942–). Meeting Sennett was a turning point in her life when the two were introduced by a mutual friend, she told the
"You can still remain loyal to an indie spirit, but if you hope to reach more people, working with a major label is something to consider....If we hadn't done it, we probably would have regretted it more."
Jenny Lewis, lead singer of Rilo Kiley
Lewis and Sennett wrote two songs the first day they ever spent together in 1995, and they had a dozen songs finished at the end of that first week. In 1998 they decided to formally start a band. With Lewis as the vocalist and Sennett playing guitar, they recruited Pierre de Reeder, a bassist who Sennett knew from high school, and Dave Rock, a drummer. The band began playing small clubs in the Los Angeles area, and then released a self-titled debut and CD, titled The Initial Friend, on their own label in 1999. From there they went on the road, once spending an eight-month stretch driving around the United States in a van and playing shows. Two Rilo Kiley songs were featured in a small independent film released in 1999, called Desert Blue, which starred Christina Ricci (1980–) and Kate Hudson (1979–). In 2000, Lewis and Sennett appeared as themselves and with the band performing in an episode of the television show Once and Again. The show's creators were early fans of the band and invited them on to appear in a nightclub scene that had been written into the script of the ABC drama.
In 2001 Rilo Kiley released Take Offs and Landings, on the Seattle, Washington-based Barsuk Records label. But two other milestones happened that year, with potentially band-ending consequences: Dave Rock left the band, and Lewis and Sennett ended their romantic relationship. They found a replacement drummer, Jason Boesel, but also decided to take a few months off as a band. When they went back into the studio, there was still some tension between members. Once, there was an argument and Lewis stormed out, but then, as Sennett recalled, he felt something hit him in the back. It was a CD. "She had come back in just to throw something at me!" he recounted to Fiona Sturges in an interview with the London Independent. "So, yeah,
Rilo Kiley's next album, The Execution of All Things, marked their debut on an up-and-coming Nebraska label called Saddle Creek. Omaha had recently earned some buzz as the next big alternative-music-scene city, and the Saddle Creek label was also the home of a budding singer-songwriter Conor Oberst (1980–), an Omaha native who would go on to indie-rock fame with his band Bright Eyes in 2004. Boesel was an occasional member of Oberst's band, and Oberst and Lewis became friends as well. The 2002 Rilo Kiley release earned a brief but career-making review in the New York Times in September 2002, with critic Kelefa Sanneh comparing it to their previous record, Take Offs and Landings, and finding it "just as sweet, but it's more self-assured, more adventurous and much more appealing." Sanneh also remarked that the band seemed to have evolved musically, and "the biggest change is in Ms. Lewis," Sanneh wrote, "who has learned to wield her sugary voice as a weapon."
Oftentimes Lewis's voice has earned comparisons to that of country-and-western legend Loretta Lynn (1935–), and Lewis admits she is a fan of country music and has been since a childhood spent listening to her mother's records. "What I'm drawn to is the simplicity of the songs but the complex nature of the lyrics," she explained to Jelbert in the Times of London article. "There are so many great stories." She still wrote songs on her own, but took some time off from Rilo Kiley to work with Ben Gibbard, of Death Cab for Cutie, members of which were Rilo Kiley's former labelmates at Barsuk Records. That side project, called the Postal Service, released Give Up in early 2003, and the band toured the United States and Europe.
Sennett also had taken some time off to pursue new musical directions. His band was called the Elected, and they released Me First in February 2004. Sennett had written the album's songs, while Lewis's work with the Postal Service had been limited to vocals, and she later admitted that Sennett's announcement that he was making a solo project worried her. "I was really afraid that Blake would leave and find that he could do exactly what he wanted elsewhere," she confessed to reporter Ben Wener. "But it turned out to be exactly the opposite. He took that experience and brought the best parts of it back to the band."
Rilo Kiley's third record, More Adventurous, caused somewhat of a stir in the close-knit indie-rock community, for it marked the band's major-label debut on Warner. They made the decision to leave Saddle Creek, they said, in order to reach a wider audience of potential fans, "have better distribution, and function as a band that wanted to do this for a little while," they jointly told Sturges. The record was still recorded in Nebraska, during a particularly cold spell in the winter of 2003–04, and came out in August 2004. The title was taken from a lyric of Lewis's, "I read that with every broken heart we should become more adventurous." Its first single and an MTV video, "Portions for Foxes," had a title borrowed from a biblical reference that had once caught Lewis's interest, an assertion that in the end, humans become food for animals when they die, though their souls move on. She admitted that much of her inspiration came from literary sources. "I started out enjoying just singing but now the sound is less important to me," she told Sandall in the Daily Telegraph. "It's just a means to get the words out."
More Adventurous earned the band terrific reviews and was listed as one of the top ten releases of 2004 in several year-end critics' polls. "It's an intelligent and assured record, full of bitterly insightful lyrics that are as captivating as anything you'll hear this year," wrote Sturges. Her U.K. colleague in the Daily Telegraph asserted that "from the exuberantly ringing power pop of 'Portions for Foxes' to the country torch song 'I Never,' this collection marks Rilo Kiley's coming of age as songwriters, arrangers and performers." The Philadelphia Inquirer described Lewis as "a terrific conversational vocalist with a pert, agile soprano."
In the spring of 2005, Rilo Kiley played several well-attended shows, including the famed Coachella Festival in Indio, California, and the massive open-air Glastonbury Festival in England. Even larger crowds turned out for the shows they played as the opening act for British chart-toppers Coldplay in late summer of 2005. Lewis's own solo project, tentatively titled Rabbit Fur Coat was slated for a 2006 release on Oberst's label, Team Love. On it, she worked with two Kentucky sisters, the Watson Twins, and assembled a tribute of sorts to a record from her mother's collection of vinyl that Lewis loved to play as a child. Titled Gonna Take a Miracle, the work was an unusual collaboration between a well-known but forgotten 1960s songwriter, Laura Nyro (1947–1997) and Labelle, the funky-soul act once fronted by television star Patti Labelle (1944–).
With their confessional lyrics and admissions to interviewers about the interpersonal difficulties they have experienced as a band over the years, there is little mystery about Rilo Kiley— except, it once seemed, for the origins of their name. They once said that it was in homage to two high school lovers, Ben Rilo and Stephen Kiley, who were football teammates but fulfilled a double suicide pact in 1909, but there is scant evidence of this story outside of articles and Web sites devoted to the band. Another rumor is that the name came from a dream that Sennett once had about an Irish person who foretold the day of
Both Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett were working actors in Hollywood during their childhood and teen years. Lewis made her television debut in a 1985 episode of The Twilight Zone, and Sennett's came as Blake Soper in a Highway to Heaven episode during its 1986–87 season. Lewis went on to play troubled teens in several made-for-TV movies and won a supporting role in the 1998 Tobey Maguire-Reese Witherspoon feature film Pleasantville.
Sennett's most visible roles came in the Disney series Boy Meets World as Joey "The Rat" Epstein and in the hit NBC series 3rd Rock from the Sun. "I wasn't very good at acting but I looked young for my age," he said years later in an interview with Fiona Sturges of London's Independent newspaper. "A 14-year-old [child actor] can legally work twice the hours of a 10-year-old, so looking young improves your prospects. But I never enjoyed it." Lewis also voiced mixed feelings about her early work when Philadelphia Inquirer writer Dan DeLuca quizzed her about it. "I feel grateful for the experience," she reflected, "but I wouldn't subject my children to it."
Lewis's death. "Different people make up different things, but it's actually a name from an old sports almanac, from our bass player's parent's house," Sennett finally said in an interview with Sarah Shanok for the New York Press. "It's not a very good story, so we have to make up other stories. You can blow the whistle."
DeLuca, Dan. "Rilo Kiley's Lead Singer Leads with Her Heart." Philadelphia Inquirer (May 27, 2005).
Jelbert, Steve. "If at First You Succeed...." Times (London, England) (January 21, 2005): p. 15.
Messing, Nicholas. "Classic Rock, Teen Pop Grown Up and One Surprisingly Slowly Brewed Comeback." Interview (November 2002): p. 72.
Sandall, Robert. "Dark and Interesting Corners." Daily Telegraph (London, England) (January 22, 2005): p. 8.
Sanneh, Kelefa. "An Appealing Mix of Bitter and Sweet." New York Times (September 29, 2002): p. 29.
Shanok, Sarah. "Highlights: Listings." New York Press (October 5, 2004).
Sturges, Fiona. "Rock … Pop: Just Good Friends." Independent (London, England) (March 11, 2005): p. 14.
Wener, Ben. "Three Albums on, California Band Rilo Kiley Finally Is Breaking Big." Orange County Register (June 24, 2005).
Rilo Kiley Web Site. http://www.rilokiley.net/history/ (accessed on August 23, 2005).