Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis Gets Her Wilburys On With Death Cab Frontman

Lewis' solo album features cover of 'Handle With Care.'

Jenny Lewis decided that since she was turning 30 in January, she should give herself a special birthday present: her first solo record.

“I thought it was a nice thing to do on my 30th birthday, to do something on my own and to be independent,” the Rilo Kiley frontwoman laughed. “And I think 30 can either send you into some sort of depressing tailspin, or the opposite. So with this, it’s like a little present to me, like, ‘Oh wow, you’ve made it this long!’ ”

So on January 24 she’ll release the delightfully countrified Rabbit Fur Coat, a soulful, self-assured disc that draws heavily from the winsome sexiness of Dusty Springfield’s masterpiece Dusty in Memphis and the unbridled moxie of Loretta Lynn’s Coal Miner’s Daughter.

There’s plenty of mentions of God and the devil, tons of three-part vocal harmonies and “Ooh-ooh” choruses (courtesy of Louisville, Kentucky’s the Watson Twins) and of lots of twangy guitar and church organ. There’s even an out-of-left-field cover of “Handle With Care,” the 1989 radio hit from AARP all-stars the Traveling Wilburys, featuring Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst trading verses instead of original Wilburys Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan (see “Rilo Kiley: A Band With An Open Marriage” ).

“This album is basically me paying homage to all my inspirations. I used to have a ‘no covers’ policy in Rilo Kiley, which I guess was me being stubborn,” Lewis said. “I’ve always loved the Traveling Wilburys, and I thought about who could sing the different parts. And I thought, well, Ben could play Roy, because his voice is so pure and beautiful, and of course I thought of Conor doing the Dylan part, which I think is pretty awesome and humorous in its own right.”

But it’s not all funny. On the album’s title track, Lewis gets downright personal, singing about an unhappy childhood spent as a “hundred-thousand-dollar kid” (she was a child actress, logging time in flicks like “Troop Beverly Hills” and “The Wizard”) and her mother’s struggles, first with poverty and then with drug addiction. By song’s end, Lewis is an unhappy and detached musician while her mother is homeless and snorting cocaine.

Easy listening it’s not, and while Lewis insists the song is “partly fiction,” it’s certainly the most open she’s ever been about her past (and it shows her growing skills as a songwriter, as the tune manages to infuse the titular coat with almost magical powers). And when talking about it, she’s understandably hesitant to discuss the particulars of her childhood.

“It’s difficult for me to remember, truthfully, certain details of my life. My memory is kind of like Swiss cheese — it’s got giant holes in it — but a lot of the song certainly feels true,” she said. “But people can analyze the song all they want, and they can analyze the metaphor of the rabbit fur coat all they want, but I’d prefer just to have people interpret it their own way.”

Rabbit Fur Coat is coming out on tiny Team Love Records (Oberst’s boutique label), so Lewis is fairly certain there won’t be a single or video to accompany the album (“It’s be kind of hard to go, ‘Hey, Conor, gimme $50,000′ ” she jokes), and she’s not exactly making the rounds on the talk-show circuit to promote it.

So why, exactly, would she release the album hot on the heels of Rilo Kiley’s opening stint on Coldplay’s massive tour (see “Rilo Kiley Freaked Out By Stuffed Animals, Coldplay’s Food” ), when her band is poised to finally force its way into the spotlight?

Well, why not?

“I had a lot of these songs lying around, and Conor came to me and told me he wanted to put out my record, so I figured it was time,” Lewis said. “Plus, I’m a little tired of playing the songs from [Rilo Kiley's] More Adventurous by now. We toured the sh– out of that record.”

Track list for Jenny Lewis’ Rabbit Fur Coat, according to Team Love:

  • “Run Devil Run”
  • “Big Guns”
  • “Raise Up With Fists!”
  • “Happy”
  • “The Charging Sky”
  • “Melt Your Heart”
  • “You Are What You Love”
  • “Rabbit Fur Coat”
  • “Handle With Care”
  • “Born Secular”
  • “It Wasn’t Me”
  • “Happy (Reprise)”