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.
Settled in southern California
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."
"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 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 thePhiladelphia Inquirer's Dan DeLuca. "Up until then it seemed really far-fetched that anyone would be interested in anything I had to say," she remarked in the interview. Sennett, who grew up in San Diego, had some musical experience as a drummer for a Goth band in his teens, but he had also been a child television actor. He was a regular on Boy Meets World from 1994 to 1996 and also appeared in several episodes of NBC's 3rd Rock from the Sun as Elman, a high school friend of the fictional alien-family's son. "Even though we didn't meet in an acting context, we shared a similar history," Lewis recalled of their near-instantaneous bond in London's Independent newspaper. "We felt failures as actors and we looked to each other for support."
Band forms in Los Angeles
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, there were fights. But ultimately I love her more than anyone else in the world, so it doesn't matter. I think in the end we realised that it was music that brought us together, and it wasn't something that we wanted to abandon."
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."
Band members pursue other projects
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."
Critics love More Adventurous
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–).
From Child Stars to Rock Stars
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."
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 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."
For More Information
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).
"Rilo Kiley." UXL Newsmakers. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 11, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/general/culture-magazines/rilo-kiley
"Rilo Kiley." UXL Newsmakers. . Retrieved December 11, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/general/culture-magazines/rilo-kiley
With a sound that coasts through the genres of country, power-pop, and everything in between, the Los Angeles four piece band Rilo Kiley has managed to make the kind of records that overshadow vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jenny Lewis and guitarist and vocalist Blake Sennett's pasts as child actors. With wry hooks, observant and sometimes terse lyrics, and a relationship with labels like Barsuk Records and Saddle Creek Records, Rilo Kiley has chiseled out a niche in indie rock as a band that All Music Guide said "writes melodies so damn catchy, you might almost think you've heard them before."
Born on January 8, 1977, in Las Vegas, Nevada, Jenny Lewis began her career as a child actor when she appeared in a commercial for Jell-O. After a move to Los Angeles following the divorce of her parents, Lewis started to take acting more seriously, appearing first in the television movie Convicted alongside John Larroquette and Carroll O'Connor. Since, she has been cast in numerous feature films, including Troop Beverly Hills, Big Girls Don't Cry…They Get Even, Foxfire, Don's Plum (alongside Toby Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio), and Pleasantville (starring Maguire and Reese Witherspoon). Perhaps most notably, though, Lewis played alongside Fred Savage and Christian Slater in the video-game inspired The Wizard, which premiered in 1989. Though the film didn't do very well in the press (the Washigton Post 's Rita Kempley called it "tacky and moribund"), Phil Villarreal of the Arizona Daily Star called the $14-million box-office earner "a near forgotten classic." But although acting was something that took up much of Lewis' time, music also played a role in her childhood. In an interview with Twenty Forty Zine, Lewis stated that, "I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in LA, but I went to public school and was into hip-hop and the Cure. They were mostly big bands, pretty much on major labels, with the exception of hip-hop groups that were on the smaller labels. But then in my late teens I started discovering bands like Modest Mouse and Built to Spill."
Rilo Kiley started as an acoustic songwriting collaboration between Lewis and Sennett in 1994. Sennett, who has also been known to go by the names of Blake Soper and Blake Swendson, has appeared in numerous television shows, including Highway to Heaven, Family Ties, the Wonder Years, 3rd Rock from the Sun, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Most notably, however, is Sennett's casting as Pinsky in the Nickelodeon series Salute Your Shorts. He also had a four-year run, from 1994 to 1998, playing Joey on the sitcom Boy Meets World, starring Ben Savage.
Between acting commitments, Lewis and Sennett, who were romantically involved at the time, worked on material and gigged around the Los Angeles area. Wanting to expand on their skeletal arrangements, Lewis and Sennett decided to form an actual band. In 1998, bassist Pierre de Reeder, a high school friend of Sennett's, and drummer Dave Rock were drafted in, becoming the first version of what would be known to a wider audience as Rilo Kiley.
After spending a few years playing around Los Angeles, a small amount of touring, as well as songwriting and recording, Rilo Kiley released its first full-length, Take-Offs and Landings, in 2001 for the Barsuk Label. Home to bands such as Death Cab for Cutie and The Revolutionary Hydra, Rilo Kiley's straightforward indie-pop sound seemed totally at home with the Northwestern label. All Music Guide said, "Songs like 'Go Ahead' and 'Bulletproof' showcase the band's most distinctive asset—the sweet vocals and bittersweet lyrics of Jenny Lewis—while the breezy hooks and driving beats of tunes like 'Wires and Waves' and 'Always' show surprising commercial potential." In Music We Trust called it "a delicious collection of all the positives indie pop has to offer. The songs have feeling, the vocals inviting, the music tight and enjoyable, and the overall song always manages to make you smile, no matter what you're feeling."
A year later, Rilo Kiley returned to the release world with its sophomore stab, The Execution of All Things, released in 2002 for the Omaha-based Saddle Creek Records (home to Bright Eyes, the Faint, and Cursive). This was a record of firsts, as it was the first record to feature new drummer and ex-Lassie Foundation member Jason Boesel. It was also the first record Saddle Creek had released by a band not originally from Omaha. In Music We Trust said that the album takes a "darker, more sullen approach, giving the songs, and the band, more than one dimension to play in. Mostly due to the band's growth in songwriting—both musically and lyrically—they seem more apt to take chances…. Elements of country and folk, though not blatantly obvious, are there, and the pop and indie rock, which dominate the album, seem to appreciate it…." Pitchforkmedia.com said, "The words here are descriptive and articulate, but gracefully rendered. Perfect images and phrases litter the verses, some of them upbeat but more of them conflicted…. Around these frequently bleak lyrics, Lewis and Sennett wrote catchy and energetic music, with perfect hooks and choruses that knock down the walls."
Before commencing work on their next album following an extensive tour supporting Execution…, both Lewis and Sennett attended to their respective side projects. Lewis was tapped by Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard to work on an electronic collaboration between he and Dntel's Jimmy Tamborello called the Postal Service. Lewis offered her vocals to a number of the songs on Give Up, and the record was released on Sub Pop in 2003. While Lewis toured with the Postal Service, Sennett, along with Boesel, released Me First, the debut by a band they called the Elected, on Sub Pop in early 2004.
The time came, however, for Rilo Kiley to reconvene, write, and record More Adventurous in the winter months of Omaha in 2004. Released on their own imprint, Brute/Beaute, online music outlet Neumu.net praised the album as "Basic but gorgeously textured pop-rock with a country tinge, Rilo Kiley's music is led by vocals that'll stop you in your tracks."
For the Record . . .
Members include Jason Boesel , drums; Pierre de Reeder , bass; Jenny Lewis (born on January 8, 1977, in Las Vegas, NV), vocals; Dave Rock , drums; Blake Sennett (also known as Blake Soper and Blake Swendenson), guitar, vocals.
Lewis and Sennett formed group in Los Angeles, CA, mid-1990s; other members joined band, late 1990s; released debut full lenth Take-Offs and Landings on Barsuk Records, 2001; released The Execution of AllThings on Saddle Creek Records, 2002; released MoreAdventurous on Brute/Beaute, 2004.
Addresses: Publicist—Girlie Action, 59 W. 19th St., New York, NY 10011, website: http://www.girlieaction.com. Website—Rilo Kiley Official Website: http://www.rilokiley.com.
Take-Offs and Landings, Barsuk, 2001.
The Execution of All Things, Saddle Creek, 2002.
More Adventurous, Brute/Beaute, 2004.
Billboard, October 12, 2002.
Entertainment Weekly, August 20, 2004; September 3, 2004.
Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, August 28, 2004.
Vanity Fair, June 2004.
"Lazy-I Interview: Rilo Kiley," Lazy-I, http://www.timmcmahan.com/rilo.htm (November 11, 2004).
"Rilo Kiley," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (November 11, 2004).
"Rilo Kiley: The Execution of All Things," Pitchforkmedia, http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/record-reviews/r/rilo-kiley/execution-of-all-things.shtml (November 11, 2004).
"Rilo Kiley: More Adventurous," Neumu.net, http://neumu.net/fortyfour/2004/2004-00178/2004-00178_fortyfour.shtml (November 11, 2004).
"Venus: Jenny Lewis Interview," Venus,http://www.venuszine.com/stories/music_interviews/434 (November 11, 2004).
"Rilo Kiley." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 11, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/rilo-kiley
"Rilo Kiley." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved December 11, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/rilo-kiley