PHOTO BY AARON STERN
Rain Phoenix is like any typical musician, flitting from playing gigs to experimenting with recording to her preference for the tambourine as an instrument. She's noticeably touched when I mention an affinity for a song, and speaks frankly about her need to let go of the creative process, to keep learning and exploring. Phoenix mentions words like "wonderful," "grateful," and "collaboration" frequently; less like an artiste and more like a musician who joyously intersects her particular brand of gravelly, raw vocals into her current projects. What she doesn't mention, however, is her family pedigree of bona fide performing powerhouses (though she does tell me her sister Summer's store, Some Odd Rubies, is responsible for her onstage outfits) or that she has added her voice to those of Michael Stipe, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and even her own brother, River. Instead, she points out that her third record with her band papercranes was an experiment in stream-of-consciousness creation, of letting go and playing songs without the traditional editing process.
Her music is unpolished and confessional, with a '90s tinge of driving guitars and gently menacing female vocals. In "Dust Season," a moody trumpet accompanies a drum roll, almost like a march, as she talk-sings with unsubdued melancholy. For "Synapses," she shows the emotional range of her voice, from poppy "Oohs" to sad ruminations, while the song builds behind her. She explains that the latest record, Let's Make Babies In The Woods, was written off the cuff—keeping the tracks loose but honest, adding the Phoenix family's signature intensity to a refreshingly melodic record.
LEILA BRILLSON: Can you tell me how this album unfolded?
RAIN PHOENIX: I collaborate with many musicians, and this record was made with my Florida-based band at the time. We were working on writing, and we decided just to go into the studio and record basic skeletons. In the process of recording, we really wrote the songs and produced the record at the same time. Since the band was Florida-based and I chose to record in LA, it took a while longer—the guys in my band have day jobs and children. But when we did get together, we worked pretty tirelessly, and it evolved on the spot. We stuck with the basic theme of a song, and as we were recording it, if we liked it, we'd continue.
We didn't come with nine songs written and make an album. We came in with a few themes and ideas. In that sense, it was really an experimental record for me, as opposed to working the songs live and then recording. I made an executive decision to make the record that way, embracing the process of recording.
BRILLSON: So was it an experiment in stream of consciousness?
PHOENIX: Yes. This is my experimental papercranes record. We allowed a stream of consciousness to live and be the soul of a song. Regardless if, month later, I'd hear a song and be like "Wow, that is a rough tracking," I still felt the soul of the song lived within the experiment. I was willing to forfeit perfect production to further realize the experiment, and there was a strange bliss in letting go.
PHOTOS BY AARON STERN
BRILLSON: Do you think you would approach music-making like that again?
PHOENIX: I am currently working on new material, but this time around I'm interested in working as a live band. Hearing these songs live and playing them repeated as "actual songs" has taught me a lot about how songs grow live. Whether I am collaborating with different people, I like changing projects conceptually so I can grow.
BRILLSON: Why did you feel this implicit connection with LA? Why did you have to record there?
PHOENIX: I like to record records in Los Angeles. It's less distracting than New York, where I was based. I'm in the lucky position as an artist where I don't have to hold down a day job, so I was able to move to where the inspiration was located, with the blessing of my old band. There were two drummers on "Let's Make Babies," and one (Norm Block) introduced me to some great musicians out here, who are now papercranes.
BRILLSON: There are a couple of very tender, very vulnerable songs on this album, specifically "Dust Season" and "Shell." Can you tell me a bit about writing such a personal album?
PHOENIX: Well, that comes from not really knowing where everything is going. The amount of mixes in a song like "Synapses"—if you heard the original version versus what is on the record, and how we chose to record it, we completely changed the song as we moved along. Choices like what to mute or how chords were arranged completely changed the song. I do pick up on what you call "vulnerability," because I had to let go of the fear of not knowing how I sounded. But the concept of the record was to learn to let go of control.
BRILLSON: What instruments do you play?
PHOENIX: I would say I am an amateur guitarist. On the songs "Sea Red" and "Grace," which were the rockier ones, I played electric guitar with an eBow, which is a tool that vibrates the strings, so I did some crazy leads at the ends of the songs. I played in this punk band, and I discovered the eBow, and I loved the sound of it. I thought that those two songs were raw, emotional, and angry songs, and I wanted the ebow because it reminded me of my punk past. That is all, besides vocals... and tambourine. [laughs] I can play the tambourine pretty well.
BRILLSON: As someone who has taken on many different artistic roles, when did you start identifying yourself as a singer?
PHOENIX: I started singing at age three—I opened my mouth some time, singing along to the radio and my parents were like, "Wow! You have a really great voice!" It wasn't studied, or even every day, but I realized I had pitch and I could sing along to, like, Madonna songs. So I realized this is something I was good at.
BRILLSON: Do you think you'd ever go back to acting?
PHOENIX: Yes, absolutely. I enjoy acting, and if the right project were to come my way, I'd totally be interested. Sometimes when you have many different interests and you try to stay open to all of them, you don't necessarily focus on one. In recent years—the last five, for sure—I've tried to make music my main focus. But I'm always open to a great idea. You know, I have to really feel something or else I'm pretty sure I won't do a great job. But I feel that way about music, too. If I don't "get" it, I won't do it any justice.
BRILLSON: I know this role gets brought up a lot, but I thought Bonanza Jelly Bean (from Gus Van Sant's Even Cowgirls Get The Blues) was the most bad-assed character I had ever seen.
PHOENIX: I know! I loved the book and I was so excited at the chance to play her. Being only 18 at the time, getting into her skin and be that character was such a gift. I felt so lucky to have that amazing experience. I really think that playing her, right then, really matured me.
PAPERCRANES' LET'S MAKE BABIES IN THE WOODS IS OUT JANUARY 24 ON MANIMAL VINYL. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT THEIR MYSPACE.