In 2019, a female singer-songwriter who has been making music for over 20 years — collaborating with big named like R.E.M. and the Red Hot Chili Peppers while consistently releasing her own albums — should be defined by her body of work, not her relation to a man. And yet the headline of a recent article in a major publication screams an inescapable association: “River Phoenix’s Sister Releases Solo Album.”
It’s impressive that Rain Phoenix managed to forge her own identify and path as an artist growing up in the shadow of her late older brother and following his untimely death — not to mention his subsequent rebirth as a globally revered icon. And lately she seems to be hitting her creative stride as a modern-day renaissance woman with her own label, LaunchLeft, along with a podcast of the same name that serves as a platform for emerging talent.
Each episode begins with Rain and her sister Summer interviewing a well-known artist (think: Liz Phair, Devendra Banhart and upcoming tour partner, Pete Yorn) and ends with their guest introducing a favorite up-and-coming act. On this week’s episode? The Joker himself: her brother, Joaquin Phoenix (watch below).
Artistic integrity is the common thread that runs through Rain’s diverse array of projects and, it would seem, the veins of her siblings. Just as her brother Joaquin would never don a cape in a Marvel movie in exchange for a fat paycheck, the only thing Rain values more than authenticity is family. The Phoenix clan could have been torn apart by such a tragic loss and the media frenzy that followed but instead it brought them all closer together. “Death is so personal,” says Rain, who asked permission to pay tribute to her brother — and reflect on the emotional toll of losing him — through song, since there are no words to describe her recollection of River’s final moments. At the time, it was too much to process in the public eye but she found solace in music: Rain joined the Chili Peppers as a backup singer on the band’s two-year international tour.
But her debut as a solo artist is the opposite of escapism — it’s a fearless examination of grief and loss that she dropped on the 26th anniversary of River’s death (known as Halloween to the rest of the world). After making a career out of collaborations — including her brother’s indie act Aleka’s Attic at age 15, the political cabaret collective Citizens Band (Zoe Kravitz, Zooey Deschanel and Maggie Gyllenhaal all made cameos) and Papercranes, which she envisioned as a band with rotating members (sisters Summer and Liberty joined guests like Karen O and Flea) — this was Rain’s time to shine. But she ultimately shined a light on her brother and instead of an eponymous title, named the album after him: “River.”
The collection of eight songs is not all about River, however. As evidenced by lyrics and liner notes, Rain endured more recent — albeit comparatively peaceful — losses. “It is the greatest pain anyone will ever experience,” she says. But her heartbreak not only helped to put River’s death in perspective but also altered Rain’s entire outlook on the end of life.
What is your songwriting process like?
My favorite way to write is stream of consciousness. I don’t think about what it means until it’s written and then I discover what I was feeling. Some songs I wrote on my guitar and my collaborator and producer, Kirk Hellie, composed string arrangements. That was a first for me because I’m used to doing indie rock records.
Including only eight songs makes a confident statement.
I set out to make an EP. I was, like, “Let’s go into the studio and see what happens” and they just kept coming — a deluge of creativity. But I’m a fan of brevity in records. Some of Randy Newman’s records are 30 minutes.
Once the concept came to you, did the work take on enormous extra weight?
The realization that this would be my first solo record — and I needed to honor my brother in the process — hit me over the head. And with it came a lot of responsibility for sure. But it was also a blessing to let River back in [my life]. What happens when you need to shut out the pain of loss is that you accidentally shut out the loved one, too. This was the “a-ha moment” that touched everything I’m working on.
You released the album on the anniversary of River’s death. Why?
To take back Halloween in a positive way by focusing on his life and legacy through my work. I’m a big fan of considering impermanence. We all share a fear of death — and we all lose people that are close to us — so this project was an opportunity to talk about the universality of loss.
In Joaquin’s Vanity Fair cover story, the writer asked where your father was living and your brother said heaven. But the writer assumed that was a city in Costa Rica.
Until you lose a parent, you don’t realize how archetypal that is. It felt like the end of an era, like my DNA was dying when I lost my father in 2015 to cancer. I was one of his caregivers, which meant maintaining a level compassion through all of it and not crumbling. I learned about the privilege to be there for someone who is dying. It changed my relationship to death and that contributed to this record. Maybe that was the gift my father gave me — seeing grief in a way that could be exalted even though it’s devastating. My dog died soon after. I was like: “I’m here for you” and he stared me down as the spirit left his body. Your heart cracks open when you witness that kind of loss, but as my mother says, “Your heart is more open to love.”
You wrote a song about your father — how was that process different?
It’s called “Lost in Motion” and River wrote most of the lyrics. It was one of our songs in Aleka’s Attic, but the way he sang it was faster, more of pop song. Kirk brought me this beautiful but dark music and I just started singing my brother’s song to this different melody. Then I took away some of his lyrics and added my own. So I was able to collaborate with River on a song about losing my dad.
You were only 20 when River passed away. How has your perception of death evolved over time?
River was the beginning of my experience — a great and terrible loss that changed me forever. But the liner notes speak about my dad and my dog and River — it’s an homage to all three of them. I realized what happens when we go away: We can never touch that person or hear their voice again. But it helped me to accept that as opposed to repressing it.
You also wrote about another form of loss that can be devastating — the end of a relationship.
Or the fear of the end of it: “Are you going to get your shit together or do I have to break up with you?” Anxiety always revolves around some kind of loss. Whether it’s how much we worry when people we love get sick or grasping for something but having to learn to let go. There is huge cultural anxiety around death but once you’re dead, you don’t have any anxiety.