Rain Phoenix rises above loss through music
What: Rain Phoenix
When: 2 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 26, and Sunday, Jan. 27
Where: ASCAP Music Cafe, 751 Main St.
Cost: Free for Sundance Film Festival credential holders
Singer-songwriter Rain Phoenix was in her early 20s when she and her younger brother, Joaquin, watched helplessly as their older brother, River, succumbed to an overdose outside the Viper Room, a Los Angeles nightclub, in 1993.
Phoenix, who performs at the ASCAP Music Cafe on Jan. 26 and 27, waited 26 years to publicly address the loss of her brother, but when she felt it was time, she made sure it was on her own terms through the album titled “River,” which was released in October.
The album addresses loss from a universal and personal perspective, according to Phoenix.
“Loss is one of my favorite subjects, because culturally we kind of hide from it,” she said. “While that may sound funny to some people, I can’t bring up loss, without talking about my personal connection to it. And I am honoring my brother by naming the album after him.”
Phoenix said her brother introduced her to music.
“It was River who started me singing,” she said. “He would play the guitar, and one day I began to sing. I was only three at the time, but when I sang, it made total sense to me, and it became something that I knew I wanted to do.”
Phoenix, who along with her sister Summer co-hosts the LaunchLeft podcast,, which supports left-of-center artists, has toured as a backup singer with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and R.E.M.
But she said “River” marks the first time that making music by herself felt the most authentic.
“Of course, I really didn’t make the record alone, because I worked with my collaborator (and producer) Kirk Hellie, who co wrote many of the songs on the album as well,” she said. “But I did feel completely at home as an artist in expressing myself with this record.”
Part of that comfortableness was due to how Phoenix wrote the songs.
“I never held back, because most of the way I write is through streams of consciousness,” she said. “I don’t just set out to write about something. I just usually start singing words to the melody of the music that I’m either playing on guitar or that is brought to me. I prefer to think that songwriting is like having information beamed to me. I just open up and allow what needs to come through.”
Sometimes Phoenix doesn’t really understand a song she has written until it has been recorded.
“When I do understand what the song is about, I try not to explain the meaning of it to others,” she said. “The reason I don’t do that is because everyone hears the song through their own (filters), and they may use the music to deal with their own loss or remember an experience or relationship. I’m really interested in where the music leads them.”
During the recording process, Phoenix decided to ask two of her brother’s friends — R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe and filmmaker Gus Van Sant — if they would like to be part of the project.
Both agreed. Stipe sings a duet with Phoenix on “Time Is a Killer,” and Van Sant directed the video for the song “Immolate.”
The video also features another one of River’s friends, actress Catherine Keener, who is the ex-wife of actor Dermont Mulroney, who also called River a friend.
“It was important to include as many of his friends on this project as a collective homage,” she said.
While Phoenix didn’t create the material with those friends in mind, she knew it was strong enough for them if they wanted to be involved in some way.
“To me, collaborations like this elevate my work,” she said. “They inspire and influence me even more to step up as an artist and bring in things that will resonate with them to the point that they would want to work with.”
While Stipe and Van Sant won’t be at the ASCAP performance, Phoenix will use her time on stage to not only sing some of the songs from “River,” but to also tell stories about her brother.
“My shows will be designed to invite my audience to think about those they have lost, or think about their fears about loss,” she said. “I would like to think that the short half-hour I’m on stage will be a short half-hour set of healing. And I’m grateful for ASCAP that I have an opportunity to be part of this.”
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