JENNY LEWIS AND THE WATSON TWINS at Trinity St. Paul's Church (427 Bloor West), Saturday (October 7), all ages, doors 7 pm. $26.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Why are all the first ladies of in die pop leaving their shoegazing roots for the twang of neo-traditional country?
When it comes to the appeal of the alt-bumpkin bandwagon, though, Jenny Lewis - Rilo Kiley's iconic frontwoman - is no latecomer. Her decision to trade pop riffs for down-home harmonies came from her childhood.
"The first records I listened to were my mother's Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn. It was a style I grew up on."
She's on the phone for a brief moment on a busy tour schedule promoting her first solo album, Rabbit Fur Coat (Team Love). Noting that many reviewers are quick to question the authenticity of such a musical jump, she says it was an easy decision that simply felt right at this stage of the game. "It suits storytelling."
Lewis is many things - former child actor, indie rock icon and, solidly, a born storyteller. She writes songs that incorporate the structural elements of the short story without sounding contrived, wrapping her melodic sweetheart vocals around tiny narrative arcs with the wit of a brazen truth-teller.
This is most evident on title track and cautionary tale Rabbit Fur Coat.
"Rabbit Fur Coat was the first song I wrote that ended up on this record. It's the centrepiece. I was working on it for months and months, constantly revising it, tweaking lyrics and ideas."
The song tells a rags-to-riches-to-rags-again story using the running metaphor of the rabbit fur coat.
The lyrics, like many Lewis songs, smack of confession and memoir. Is she the $100,000 kid in question?
"A song is really never the truth for me. I'm creating my own truth and, of course, it's subjective - it never is exactly what happened. I'm sure if you were to speak with people in my life who were there, they would tell you that. It's my right as the songwriter to take something that begins in truth and then becomes something else entirely."
Lewis has no set rules for how she writes her tunes.
"I get bored with the standard songwriting structure. Sometimes songs come quickly and quietly, and sometimes they'll come rather loudly, knocking at the door for weeks, and I'll have to sit down and write them."
Accompanying Lewis on the album are the Watson Twins, two freakishly top-model sisters with gospel in their soul. Their collaboration grew out of Lewis's first solo gig in L.A.
"I was afraid to do it by myself, so I called the twins to see if they'd accompany me on three songs, and realized there was something really satisfying about singing together."
She remembered a record her mother listened to when she was young - Laura Nyro's Gonna Take A Miracle. The album was commercially overlooked but a critics' favourite. Nyro's classic folk voice is much like Lewis's.
"I stumbled upon this idea that the record would be a loose template for mine."
Lewis says the switch in sound and style hasn't altered her audience in any significant way. Most Rilo Kiley fans, she says, are open music lovers.
At the same time, she notes that her audience over the past year of promoting Rabbit Fur Coat has grown to include some older listeners who tend to understand the musical references.
Ex and Rilo Kiley co-songwriter Blake Sennett released a new disc (Sun, Sun, Sun, on Sub Pop) by his side project, the Elected, the same day as Rabbit Fur Coat. That was planned, but it's the only time their projects will coincide.
"We won't be touring together. It's good to have time apart."
For those of you eager for a follow-up to 2004's More Adventurous, a new Rilo Kiley record should be done by the end of the year.
In the meantime, you can catch Lewis and the Watson Twins at Trinity St. Paul's Church, an eerily appropriate venue for an album heavy on God and gospel.