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My First Indie Band: Rilo Kiley

I didn’t really start listening to music until around my junior year of high school. For most of that year, I listened to maybe five bands: Oasis, Muse, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead, and The White Stripes. These bands don’t really have much in common, and in some instances it’s hard to even come up with an explanation for why I liked them in the first place. I think it was mostly just that they were there. I had no real knowledge or context when it came to music, so I went for whatever bands fell into my lap. Not that I was totally a blank slate without opinions: I knew there was music I hated, like Smash Mouth. But I didn’t really know what kind of music I actually liked.

My earliest favorite bands are also an indicator of what kind of music is “there” if you’re a teenage guy who is interested in rock music, but isn’t really putting in any effort to find it. It’s mostly a lot of dudes playing guitar. So even though I never related much to traditional masculinity and had already developed a strong hatred for “bros,” listening to women never really entered the equation, because there was no representation of them except in pop or country music (which I wasn’t interested in).

Over the summer heading into my senior year, I finally started to get at least a little bored of listening to the same five bands over and over, so I started looking around online more and heard about Rilo Kiley. At the time, the band had just released their fifth album, Under the Blacklight, and were getting more of a mainstream push after signing with a major label. They appeared on the cover of Spin and were heralded as the next Fleetwood Mac. In retrospect, this is all funny, because Under the Blacklight would end up being the band’s last album, and unquestionably their worst. It’s pretty much the sound of a band that had run out of gas, and I remember not being particularly surprised when they quietly split up a couple years later.

That said, when I listened to Under the Blacklight back in 2007, it immediately grabbed me, just because it was so different from everything else I had heard. I really didn’t have friends and had gotten used to just not talking during the day and being alone with my own thoughts. The bands I listened to at the time all spoke in the same voice — a voice similar to the one always running in my head. Rilo Kiley offered a completely different perspective.

That came from frontwoman Jenny Lewis. While Rilo Kiley allegedly had other members, Lewis was the clear star, and their best songs were built around her bittersweet vocals and blunt, sometimes-personal lyrics that often touched on themes of sadness and depression. What made her really intriguing at the time was that she played off my ignorance about music and people in general: I was conditioned to expect music to sound a certain way, and I had preconceptions about how a woman singer would express herself. Lewis’ gift was her ability to subvert those expectations, by sounding sweet and looking pretty, but then writing lyrics that cut deep and were nowhere near what I expected. Their music was similarly subversive — it frequently had bright guitars and bouncy bass lines, sounding relatively poppy, which masked the dark subject matter.

Under the Blacklight lacked her more personal lyrics, instead focusing on third-person stories of the sleazy underbelly of L.A, which is part of why I feel the album was a bit of a dud.  It was only when I listened to the band’s other albums  — particularly The Execution of All Things and More Adventurous — that I really got hooked. The peak of my Rilo Kiley obsession was probably my first year at community college. I had a pretty bad attitude about going there (I felt I belonged at a “real” college despite my awful grades and lack of extracurriculars), so I continued to spend a lot of time by myself instead of meeting people. I would bring my 50 MB iPod shuffle that my dad got for free after signing up for a bank account or something and my junky $10 pair of headphones and would sit on benches or lawns on campus and just listen to their songs over and over and over.

I still wasn’t at the point where I was thinking all that deeply about music, but listening to Rilo Kiley is where certain ideas began to seep into my brain and a lot of my preconceptions were erased. The biggest realization was that music could be this way to get outside of my own thoughts. Instead of telling me what I wanted or felt like I needed to hear, I liked being challenged with a different perspective from a singer like Jenny Lewis. At the same time, I also realized that just because a singer seems very different from me, that doesn’t mean we don’t have similar experiences or feelings — some of Rilo Kiley’s songs about depression articulated how I felt much better than any songs I had heard up to that point.

When I look back on Rilo Kiley now, what also really stands out is how personality-driven the band was — at least to me, it was all about Lewis, and there was a feeling that through their music, I really got to know her and she became like a friend. Ever since then, I’ve tended to gravitate towards really individual, charismatic artists, who put a lot of themselves into the music they make. It’s part of why I got into music instead of movies or TV: I like how individual the medium is, that you can really know or understand someone through their songs. As someone who has never had a wide circle of friends and has consistently lagged behind socially, artists like Lewis have been important as a sort of form of social contact, and it’s why I prize them above those that lack that personality and honesty.

After my Rilo Kiley phase is when I really kicked my music exploration into overdrive, and soon the band was pretty much left in the dust. There was so much other music to discover that it was hard to justify listening to a band whose songs I’d already memorized. Lewis embarked on a solo career and made a record with Jonathan Rice, but none of it really grabbed me until last year’s The Voyager, in which Lewis, now in her late 30s, reflected on a life spent on the road, acting in movies as a child or performing in bands. It had a combination of toughness and vulnerability that reminded me of why I was so attached to her music years ago.

Listening to The Voyager, I couldn’t help but be a little nostalgic for the Rilo Kiley days, when everything was so new and exciting. It is kind of the ironic tragedy of someone who loves music: the more you listen to, the harder it is to truly love it, to feel the level of almost child-like attachment I did with Rilo Kiley. Though I’ve sometimes felt like I “moved on” from them, I really never did: their presence reverberates through almost all of the music I listen to now. They were the gateway through which I discovered that music could be so much more than I ever had thought it could be.

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