The just-turned-30 singer/songwriter best known as the sultry, though shy, frontwoman for the rootsy indie-pop quartet Rilo Kiley is referring to the photo on the cover of her newly released solo debut, Rabbit Fur Coat, taken by Lewis' friend and artistic collaborator, Autumn de Wilde; an unsettling shot that indeed evokes Stanley Kubrick's chilling 1980 classic. In it, Chandra and Leigh Watson -- Kentucky-born country-gospel singers (and identical twin sisters) who share top album billing with Lewis -- stand in a shabby, dimly lit hotel corridor in powder-blue dresses, eyes cast downward, eliciting memories of the spooky "Grady twins" (the film's young murder victims), even as they project matronly poise. Positioned between the Watsons, Lewis looks like the real ghost-child -- frail and grim, bangs framing her pale, sad-eyed expression as the rest of her auburn locks curl past her slumped shoulders. At the same time, her pose is eerily reminiscent of Sissy Spacek's title character's during Carrie's infamous prom scene, sans the head-to-toe gore (although Lewis' blood-red dress serves as a subtle surrogate).
Flip farther into the CD booklet and there are more photos -- nothing quite as macabre, but compelling in different ways: In some, Lewis is girlish and demure, sitting at a diner counter in the same red dress, or standing in the bright sun holding a white flower while decked out in a floral print and a floppy hat that hides her eyes; in others, however, she's cast as the somber mother of a young girl, world-weary as she stares into her child's glum face or vacantly applies makeup in a hotel bathroom while her tot finds affection by kissing her own reflection in the mirror.
Far from artsy-fartsy throwaways, these shots serve as strong visual clues to the nature of the album and its primary themes -- soured mother-daughter relations and confused parent-child roles; the search for identity; a loss of faith in God and love -- which all come into sharp focus after just a few spins through the 12 superb and satisfyingly stinging songs. And delivered as they are, mostly in confessional form and with vivid, intimate detail, it's remarkably tempting to surmise that Lewis is treating her solo coming-out as an opportunity to throw open the closet doors and let all the skeletons she's so far been wholly reluctant to reveal, in either Rilo Kiley lyrics or during interviews across her decade-long music career, tumble forth.
"It's up to you to decide if that's the case," she says, coyly.
That decision seems easy during "Rabbit Fur Coat," one of the disc's most arresting tracks. With only a rudimentary, back-porch acoustic strum accompanying her richly honeyed, twangy-in-all-the-right-places delivery -- a classic voice that's rightly earned comparisons to Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, and Dusty Springfield -- Lewis works her way through a first-person tale about a girl "of poor folk" with a mother whose sole prized possession, one that brings about much grief and abuse, is a rabbit fur coat. "She was waitressing on welfare, we were living in the Valley/ 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 hundred-thousand-dollar kid," Lewis croons. After their newfound riches turn back to rags, she sings, "Where my ma is now, I don't know/ She was living in her car, I was living on the road/ And I hear she's putting that stuff up her nose/ And still wearing that rabbit fur coat." Lewis concludes the song with this kicker: "But mostly I'm a hypocrite/ I sing songs about the deficit/ But when I sell out and leave Omaha, what will I get?/ A mansion house and a rabbit fur coat."
The natural inclination, of course, is to ascribe the known facts about Lewis' life to the narrative. We know that her parents (both musicians) split up when she was 3; she hasn't spoken to her father since then, and has been estranged from her mother for a number of years. Initially raised in Las Vegas, she and her mom moved to Southern California after the divorce and struggled financially until Lewis was discovered by a casting agency and became a child actor and the family's primary money-earner -- most famously she starred as Shelley Long's daughter in the 1989 film Troop Beverly Hills; she was also part of Angelina Jolie's tough-grrl gang in 1996's Foxfire. After she all but quit Hollywood in the late '90s to record and tour with Rilo Kiley -- which eventually signed to the Omaha, Neb., indie label Saddle Creek Records (co-run by Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, who put out Rabbit Fur Coat on his own Team Love imprint and appears, along with M. Ward and Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard, on the album's rollicking cover of the Traveling Wilburys' "Handle With Care") -- Lewis and her mom drifted apart. Meanwhile, in 2004, Rilo Kiley jumped ship from Saddle Creek to its current and quite lucrative distribution deal with Warner Bros.
So is the song ultimately a cautionary tale to herself? And what to make of "You Are What You Love," a sprightly, country-dusted pop song on which she sings, "This is no great illusion/ When I'm with you I'm looking for a ghost/ Or invisible reasons/ To fall out of love and run screaming from our home" -- is this Lewis demonstrating how coming from a broken home has affected her relationships as an adult? (She and Rilo Kiley singer/songwriter Blake Sennett went through a well-documented romance, and breakup, during the first few years of the band's existence.) Or of her repudiation of religion on "Big Guns" ("I've won hundreds at the track/ But I'm not betting on the afterlife") and the showstopping "Born Secular" ("God goes where he wants/ And who knows where he is not/ Not in me"), during which the Watson Twins, ironically enough, employ their gospel harmonies to devastatingly affecting ends?
"A lot of things appear incredibly personal, but they're not, necessarily, because I've created them, you know?" she responds with a chuckle after all these questions are posed. Indeed, Lewis is no James Frey; she's not promoting Rabbit Fur Coat as autobiography, and, she says, if some people read too much into her work in order to gain some insight into her enigmatic persona and private life, so be it.
"I'm exploring a lot of ideas and really trying to come to some understanding of who I am and everything I've been through in my life. But I think that as a writer and an artist you can kinda take some liberties. It's really hard for anyone to pinpoint what is true and what isn't and what is embellished in the songs, so I think I can always relax knowing that's the case. I'm sure some people will be sad about that, but I hope people get it. Hopefully people read books and understand the idea of fiction a little bit -- that it often comes from personal experiences but isn't always what really happened."
Still, she admits to at least some dismay over the way she's been written about by journalists and fans, whether it's the unending curiosity over whom she's romantically involved with, or the fact that so many male critics in particular have bent over backward to anoint her indie rock's premier pinup girl, sometimes at the expense of her work. (Veteran Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau, a professed fan, called her "a wet dream for indie boys" because she's "pretty, bright, likes men, says 'fuck' a lot.")
"I think that for the most part I try, I try ... I emphasize the word 'try,' not to read that stuff, but then I tend to get into periods where I do read it and then I always end up depressed or upset about it, so it's probably best for me not to pay attention. It's never accurate. I read that stuff and I'm thinking, 'Well, that's not how I am,' but what can you do? I guess that's how I'm perceived. Or it's like, I didn't date that person, but then I feel like, 'Well, believe whatever you want.' I know it's a part of show business, and it always has been, so I understand that. But for me all that stuff is so separate from my real life and playing songs and doing all the things that are really important to me, so I do my best not to pay it any mind."
Of chief importance to Lewis right now is her tour: Her performance at the Swedish American Hall this Friday is planned as a special, stripped-down album release show during which she'll be accompanied by only the Watson Twins and perhaps one or two other musicians -- no drummer, and, she adds, depending on the room's acoustics, she hopes to pull off the gig with no microphones, either. She'll return to town in early March with a full band in tow for a more traditional show.
"I think there's a lot of different kinds of people into my music, but I think that for the most part, when Rilo Kiley's out on tour we're playing for kids, you know?" Lewis says. "They're pretty young. But I hope that as the Rilo audience grows up a little bit, we can evolve together as the music gets a little more mature. 'Cause I'm definitely growing up a bit, too."