By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Here's an odd phenomenon: When musicians try their hand at acting, they often do a damn fine job. Al Jolson, Frank Sinatra, Kris Kristofferson, Barbra Streisand, Cher, Will Smith, Mark Wahlberg--they may not have changed the art form, but they've had careers. Pretty good ones, in fact.
But turn the tables, and it's not so pretty. Who could forget John Travolta's Travolta Fever? (Um, everyone?) What about attempts by Farrah Fawcett, Jeff Bridges and Burt Reynolds--did those slip your mind, too? Then there's the more recent string of actor-bands: Keanu Reeves' Dogstar, Russell Crowe's 30 Odd Foot of Grunts, Billy Bob Thornton's and Bruce Willis' short-lived solo projects.
So why is it that musicians can switch-hit but actors can't? I have a theory: Maybe it's that acting is essentially the art of pretending, and as a seasoned pretender, an actor-turned-musician can't help but appear somewhat phony when he picks up a guitar and sings. On the other hand, musicians make their living being genuine (or at least that's the idea), and it's therefore easier to make the transition to movies; we trusted they weren't lying to us as singers, so why wouldn't we believe their screen performances are heartfelt?
These are the harsh realities facing two new entries into the world of music, Juliette Lewis and Minnie Driver, both of whom are Academy Award-nominated actresses (the former for her role in Cape Fear, the latter for her turn in Good Will Hunting), and both of whom are currently promoting new albums. Lewis' band is Juliette and the Licks. They're a surly rock-and-roll act, trafficking in power chords, power drums and not-so-powerful lyrics about boys and sex and "corporate America." Driver's act is different. Her songs are winsome, heartfelt ballads in the vein of Gillian Welch and Sarah McLachlan. The Licks' music is a messy finger-painting of a junkyard, whereas Driver's is a paint-by- numbers auburn sunset. Each project has its merits; one is leaps and bounds better than the other. Care to place a bet as we delve a little further?
"I'll take you back through time," Lewis says via cell phone from a tour stop in Iowa City. The actress is chatty and outgoing, her sultry drawl in full effect. "It all started with me dreaming a little dream [laughs]. No, I'm serious. Having a dream from being a tiny girl. I always thought of being an artist as the complete deal of singing, drama and dancing, using your physical self. I was always inspired by musicals: Hair, All That Jazz, Grease, of course, Fame. So that was where I came from, even though people identify me so much with Natural Born Killersand Cape Fearand these really intense dramatic things."
About three years ago, sober after a tangle with cocaine and experiencing a lull in her acting career, Lewis started writing songs with a friend, Jimmy Boyle. Boyle introduced her to producer Linda Perry, formerly of 4 Non Blondes and considered to be one of the record industry's best resources for drawing out the talents of performers like Pink and Christina Aguilera. Perry took Lewis under her wing, taught her to tap her inner rock star and helped the budding front woman assemble the Licks, a quartet that includes former Hole drummer Patty Schemel, guitarist Todd Morse from hardcore act H20 and other veteran musicians, who helped flesh out the material that would become Like a Bolt of Lightning, Juliette and the Licks' debut EP, released as an Internet exclusive in October. Since then, it's been nonstop touring, with stints on the Warped Tour this summer and gigs throughout the United States in the fall.
Now then, Minnie. While she's known almost exclusively as an actress, Driver was a singer first and foremost. As a teenager she performed in the jazz clubs of London and started a group that caught the attention of Island Records (band name: Puff, Rocks and Brown. Ew). Noticing Driver's charisma, the big label had designs on turning her into the next Kylie Minogue. At the same time, however, Circle of Friends, featuring Driver's breakout performance alongside Chris O'Donnell, was earning massive critical and popular acclaim, and before she knew it she was swept up by the Hollywood tornado and plunked back down in flicks like Good Will Hunting and Grosse Pointe Blank. Still, she's been writing songs all along but just never found the time to sit down and record them. When producer Marc "Doc" Dauer coaxed her into the studio two years ago and surrounded her with some ace musicians, she finally did. The result is Everything I've Got in My Pocket.