I remember the first time I heard Jenny Lewis, except it wasn’t Jenny Lewis. I was a 16-year-old watching my friend sing at our high school coffee house. I heard the intro guitar chords and was hooked. I’d later find out the song was called “Pictures of Success,” and to this day it remains my favorite Rilo Kiley track. Its dreamy, naive narrative sticks with me at 26 as much as it did when I was 16: Lewis croons, “I’m a modern girl but I fold in half so easily/When I put myself in the picture of success/I could learn world trade or try to map the ocean.” The track, off her Take Offs And Landings album, focuses on one of life’s biggest questions: What do you do when you have the whole world in front of you? It contemplates the idea of success and what that means—a theme that surfaces throughout Lewis’ other works. At 16, I couldn’t have predicted how much Lewis herself — and music in general — would be tied into that idea for me personally.
What made this particular Lewis song so relatable for me, is the idea that insecurities can prohibit self-discovery. At the time I was trying to figure out who I was and what I wanted to do, and this song allowed me to explore the realm of possibilities when it came to my future. “Pictures of Success” gave me the courage to sing on stage in high school and in college, but it also for made me want to be a woman as accomplished as Lewis in the music industry.
For many, Jenny Lewis represents the multi-faceted woman we aspire to be: ambitious, fearless, vulnerable and real (with a kickass sense of style). On “Just One Of The Guys,” a track off her most recent record The Voyager, Lewis candidly sings “I’m just another lady without a baby.” She isn’t afraid to admit she’s something of an anomaly when compared to the majority of women in her generation, and instead, turns that fact into a smart critique of gender roles. In her lyrics, she reassures other women that it’s okay to stray from the norm, that it’s okay to be career-driven and want something different than what society dictates. But, it’s also okay to want love, no matter how cliché that may be.
This week marked a huge anniversary for Lewis fans — January 24 is the 10-year anniversary of her debut solo record Rabbit Fur Coat. For fans of Rilo Kiley who were in mourning after the band dissolved, Lewis’ solo career gave them hope for her voice to remain strong throughout the coming generations. I remember being a bit surprised the first time I heard Rabbit Fur Coat; the album was rooted in country and gospel, but still carried the same indie, quasi-emo ethos that established Rilo Kiley as a band.
Joined by The Watson Twins, Rabbit Fur Coat was Lewis’ melancholy opus, dwelling in her own struggles with religion, stardom, loneliness and heartbreak. The crux of the album dealt with finding a way to love yourself despite your flaws, while questioning the values that were instilled in you and the choices you’ve made along the way. Rabbit Fur Coat was really a glimpse into the inner workings of Lewis’ head. Maybe it was her unabashed honesty on “Melt Your Heart” to admit her own regrets (“When you’re kissing someone who’s too much like you, it’s like kissing on the mirror/When you’re sleeping with someone who doesn’t get you, you’re going to hate yourself in the morning”), or her perspective of being a child star (“I became a hundred-thousand-dollar kid/When I was old enough to realize/Wiped the dust from my mother’s eyes/It’s all this for that rabbit fur coat”), but Lewis made her own experience growing up relatable to 16-year-old me.
As Lewis sang “You are what you love/But not what loves you back,” her lyrics revealed a light at the end of the tunnel. Despite fucked up childhoods, isolation and regrettable one-night stands, she realized that the most important thing to keep in mind was to love and appreciate herself, and she taught me to believe in myself. That belief is something that has stayed with me, and I’ve carried throughout my life and career.
Growing up, I doubted I’d get to a place in my life where I’d be able to interview the musicians that I’ve learned from and looked up to. As a New Jersey indie kid, I considered interviewing an artist like Lewis or Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard as some sort of holy grail. But 2014 presented me that an opportunity as Lewis was about to release her first album in six years, The Voyager. I was finally going to talk to Lewis.
Over the course of three editorial internships and five years of writing, I’d gotten pretty comfortable interviewing musicians, but talking to Lewis made me trip over my words and profess my love for her music on our brief phone call. As I stumbled over my sentences and told her how much her music impacted my career, high school relationships and existential thought process, she surfaced as the person you thought she would be: laidback and kind.
Speaking with Lewis, and encountering that kindness reinforced my belief in myself. That experience was something I always wanted to remember, so, I decided to get a tattoo to always keep my passion for music writing in mind. I chose to have the words More Adventurous inked on my back. That’s the title of a another of my favorite Rilo Kiley albums, but also a phrase that reminds me to keep following my dreams, making mistakes, living through pain and coming out on the other side. Just like the rest of us, Lewis has insecurities: she’s been scrutinized, she’s questioned the existence of God and she’s struggled to see past her faults. Whatever else I’ve questioned, I’ve found power in Jenny Lewis’ music to find beauty in my flaws and accept the never-ending journey of figuring myself out. It’s those words that give me hope for my future and remind me to know my worth.
Get the Rabbit Fur Coat reissue here.