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Venus de Rilo: Indie goddess Jenny Lewis got her start fronting Rilo Kiley and now runs her own show.

Such Great Heights

Jenny Lewis on relationships, acting and LSD

By Curtis Cartier

WHEN Jenny Lewis was 14 years old she tried LSD for the first time. She and a group of friends each took a hit of the hallucinogenic drug at Dixie Elementary School in the San Fernando Valley, and, as she sings on her latest album Acid Tongue, they "tripped upon the land 'til enough was enough."

"That experience changed me forever," Lewis tells Santa Cruz Weekly from her home in Van Nuys. "I've never really returned to who I was before that."

Who she was before that was a child actress. Famous for commercials and teen television, Lewis was always in demand but never in the spotlight. As a dimple-cheeked child and tween she graced 1980s television shows like Golden Girls, Mr. Belvedere and Baywatch and grinned in Jell-O and Toys "R" Us commercials.

Yet always, besides a few extended roles in B-movies like The Wizard and Troop Beverly Hills, within a few seconds of appearing onscreen she was gone.

But a few years after that tab of acid melted on her tongue, the change she describes today had taken full hold, and Lewis decided she was done being a "minor role" and finished with acting altogether.

These days she's one of the most sought-after vocalists in the indie scene. Lead singer for the acclaimed (now disbanded) indie rock set Rilo Kiley and front gal of her own solo act, Lewis is star of her own show now. She heads back to Santa Cruz on Wednesday, May 27, for a repeat performance of her rowdy October gig at the Rio Theatre.

For Lewis, that summer day at Dixie Elementary may mark a point when her life changed forever, but it was more than drugs that led her to a life in music. As she puts it, "It's what I was always meant to be."

"My mother put me into commercials when I was 3 years old and I worked consistently until I was 18. That's a long time," she says. "When I was old enough to make a decision by myself, I realized acting didn't inspire me. Whatever I was doing on my own, whether it was writing poems or short stories or taking acid with my friends, that somehow seemed more poignant than showing up to an audition with a bunch of young women and feeling humiliated. I made the bold decision to stop and I got no support from my family. People thought I was fucking crazy."

It took 10 years, Lewis says, before her family embraced her career as a musician, but they came around; on Acid Tongue, her sister and father join Elvis Costello and indie mogul M. Ward in providing backup vocals. And though Lewis' kin may have found the concept of collaborating on a musical album to be a new challenge, for their daughter it's all in a day's work.

"I remember Ben Gibbard [of Death Cab for Cutie] calling me and asking me if I wanted to be a part of this new project," she says, recalling the beginnings of the phenomenally successful electronica act the Postal Service, which she, Gibbard and Los Angeles producer/DJ Jimmy Tamborello created in 2001. "He really pushed me as a songwriter and I'm really thankful for it."

It would be her contributions on several tracks from the Postal Service's only album, Give Up, that would cement Lewis as a bona fide indie starlet. In the years that followed, she appeared as a guest vocalist on dozens of albums and collaborated tracks.

But there was always something that kept her connected to Rilo Kiley: someone bonded to her both through music and through child acting. Blake Sennett played Ronnie Pinksy on Nickelodeon's '80s summer camp sitcom Salute Your Shorts. And later, as lead guitarist for Rilo Kiley, he was Lewis' lover and best friend. Today, Sennett and Rilo Kiley have now joined acting and LSD as part of Lewis' past--something to be revisited in song but never relived in reality. And though she candidly admits that "sometimes at night, he's all I can think about," it was her need to be truthful in her music that led her to move on.

"When you're writing a song, you don't want to hurt people, but sometimes you have to," she says. "I can remember Blake and I being together and throwing stuff at each other on the bus and threatening to quit and so on. There's nothing better than sharing your art with your partner, but if you can no longer be honest, it's time to change things. That's what music is about, not being afraid to be honest and not being afraid to change."

JENNY LEWIS performs Wednesday, May 27, at 8pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20 advance/$25 at the door at Ticketweb or Streetlight Records; 831.421.9200.

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