Remembering River: Rain Phoenix Presses Aleka's Attic Vinyl In Honour Of Her Brother's 50th Birthday
The late River Phoenix shot to stardom in classic films like Stand By Me and My Own Private Idaho, but he was also a passionate songwriter. Now, Rain Phoenix’s LaunchLeft label is pressing up previously unheard songs from her brother’s discography.
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As the California sun rises over the Los Angeles home of Rain Phoenix, her mind pivots between a laundry list of to-dos. Her indie label/podcast LaunchLeft evolved from a steady passion project to a full-time profession and there’s a lot to be done.
Calling vinyl pressing plants, mastering songs, arranging interviews for her podcast. It’s all in a day’s work.
When Clash called, the musician/actress/activist was busy editing the video of her new interview with Jack Black. Past LaunchLeft episodes include in-depth Q&As with Liz Phair, her brother Joaquin Phoenix, Gus Van Sant and Mark Mothersbaugh, to only name a few. And they’re all chatting about not only their own work, but also talking-up a DIY musician they’d like to help “launch” into the mainstream.
“It’s a more niche thing, but that’s what I’m passionate about,” says Phoenix about her imprint. “That’s what I want for LaunchLeft: to highlight niche things and not be about what’s most popular. Talking to real artists is what’s important to me. The mission is always ‘artists helping artists and artists launching artists.’”
Pandemic be damned, since COVID-19 shut down the United States weeks ago, Phoenix’s productivity has only swelled. While stuck at home, she abandoned the podcast studio and went Zoom-style, connecting with her interviewees online. She just uploaded a new episode with Lucinda Williams and coming soon are conversations with Daniel Lanois and Wayne Coyne.
“I’m doing a million things, to keep sane, partially,” she said. “Maybe it’s a way to work through anxiety, but I’m very grateful I can be productive and have a constructive way to do that. There are no distractions, like going to visit friends.”
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Looking back on her life, it’s not surprising she chose a left-of-center career. As a teenager in the late ’80s and early ’90s, she toured clubs across the country alongside her late brother, actor/musician River Phoenix (vocals/guitar), in Aleka’s Attic—their progressive indie-folk band. In more recent years, in between acting jobs, she’s also spent time fronting indie groups like papercranes and Venus and the Moon.
Meanwhile, as the ’90s turned into the 2000s, the Aleka’s Attic catalogue sat dormant. Though she would listen to the band privately, none of the tracks were publicly released following River’s death in 1993 at age 23. It wasn’t until early last year that LaunchLeft dug in and began releasing songs and videos from River’s music archive. One record, the Time Gone 10-inch single, featured two exhumed Aleka’s Attic songs along with a new solo song from Rain Phoenix, 'Time Is The Killer', which featured co-vocals by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe.
Later in 2019, in further remembrance of her brother, Phoenix released her acclaimed debut solo LP, River and embarked on a calendar of gigs. But not long after a string of shows opening for Pete Yorn, the pandemic hit the United States. Plans for touring the River album, like all other tours, were cancelled for the foreseeable future.
It was while in quarantine - and in between taking long walks, frequent rounds of meditation and cooking homemade soups - that Phoenix decided to dust off even more of her brother’s recordings. This time, in honor of the Stand By Me actor’s 50th birthday. The release is the next big project for the LaunchLeft label. While fans can hear the songs digitally August 23rd (River’s birthday), that same day pre-orders start for a 12-inch vinyl edition of the single.
“A cool side note is that it’s also the 50th anniversary of Earth Day,” Rain interjects. “I didn’t realise River and Earth Day shared a year, which is amazing. They’re both 50 and that’s powerful because he was such a massive environmentalist and animal rights activist.”
Making the forthcoming tracks even more special, the original songs feature licks from one of River’s close friends, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who recorded fresh basslines for the long-shelved tracks. In a past interview, Flea said: “River Phoenix was a good friend of mine, he is someone I’ll always hold very close to my heart. He’s someone who understood a lot of things about me that nobody else has ever understood about me. He was very insightful, intelligent and probably the kindest person I’ve ever met in my life.”
Leading up to the Aleka’s Attic release is LaunchLeft’s accompanying Launched Artist Digital Singles Series, a run of new singles recorded by family and friends connected to River. The biweekly releases just kicked off with a single from Capes, a duo featuring their sister, Liberty Phoenix. On deck is a single from 'FUNKILLER', out May 24th. Other artists on the roster are: The Angel, Simi Stone, Ane Diaz, Tenlons Fort, Simone Istwa, and more. Each single debuts every other Sunday and will be accompanied by a music video and a LaunchLeft podcast spotlight.
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Aside from working on all of these LaunchLeft releases, what’s been on your mind during these stay at home days?
The one thing that kills me is thinking about people who don’t have a house or don’t have rent. At least I have a roof over my head and I know I’ll be able to eat. I feel privileged because I can still put together creative things that I hope will inspire people.
So, for me, personally, how am I dealing with it? I’m concerned about the future. I’m just staying as productive and artistic as possible.
If I didn’t have all of this time [in quarantine], I’m not sure all of this would’ve happened so quickly - putting out eight artists. Basically, a month or so ago I came up with the idea, now it’s manifested, everything fell into place and it’s happening. I took on a lot, and I’m also doing some upcoming film and TV as an actor. I’m a creative, so I can’t say “no” if I like something.
You’re releasing two new Aleka’s Attic tracks, will there be more coming soon?
Not every song that was done towards the end of River’s life is going to make a record, so I am strategically putting out like two songs at a time. I want to honor him. I know how particular he was about what was released. I want them to be special. That’s why I keep pressing vinyl. It’s an opportunity for his fans to have a keepsake. It’ll be only two songs on 12-inch vinyl, which means it will sound epically beautiful because you have one song per side. It’s going to sound so good and warm.
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Your first proper band may have been Aleka’s Attic, but the Phoenix family is known for being a musical family. Before River became a star in the mid-’80s, I’ve heard the stories of your family traveling the world in the ’70s and early ’80s, hippie style. The Phoenix kids would busk on L.A. sidewalks. Were your parents always open to being free and artistic?
Basically, yeah, that’s where LaunchLeft comes from. It’s my upbringing. We were always encouraged to make art from a place that’s authentic. I think that’s a place a lot of young artists are coming from and a lot of times that’s not culturally supported.
Both of my parents could play a little guitar and sing. My dad did write songs before he ever had children. He lived in Hollywood and wrote songs. I know River and him did collaborate on some songs, but River had his own passion for it from the age of five. He would just sit with a guitar and play for hours and hours. It was inborn in him. If anything, he surpassed our dad by the age of six (laughs). He was very gifted.
Of course, my parents being as encouraging as they were to be creative, he had that time and space to do that because they were supportive of that.
Aleka’s Attic took off when your family moved from Los Angeles to Gainesville, Florida in the late ’80s. I’ve heard there was a thriving music scene there at the time. Do you agree?
Gainesville did have quite the scene back then. A lot of it was like heavy and more punk stuff, which was fun to be a part of. We were more indie, the rock and folk area. River called Aleka’s Attic “ethereal folk rock.” So, it was fun and we were doing something a little different from what was popular there, but the community embraced us. Honestly, it’s probably a universal feeling.
When I think back to what it feels like when you’re 16 or 17, and you’re playing rock music in actual clubs—it’s freedom. I have a gratitude for my brother River for always including me and for the opportunity. It definitely set a tone for my life. It has informed who I am to this day.
Historically, famous actors who delve into music usually get roped into a cheesy, cookie-cutter pop setup via a major label and a team of hired songwriters. River stuck to his guns. He always stayed connected to the underground music scene and never stopped playing his own abstract folk songs. Do you think River had pressure to go a more commercial route musically?
He was a true original. He absolutely always was. He followed the muse, that’s how he made music. He never compromised that and I’m sure there were people who were like, “We can capitalise on this if you do this” and he declined. We [the band] always did it how he wanted to do it. River was very strong creatively and he wasn’t interested in being popular. He was interested in making the music he believed in with friends and executing what was in his head. He knew what he wanted to do. It was in his heart.
With the release of your solo LP, River, you opened up about your brother more than ever before. So far, how do you view releasing such a personal album?
I’ve done music since I was a kid and have been in so many bands, so many iterations of expression through music. But this project is obviously very important and very near and dear to me. Through the process of making the record, it was more about realising how grief and loss are such an important subject to talk about—because we all pretend it doesn’t happen.
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Right now, nobody is playing shows, but you were able to play a few following the release of River along with your musical collaborator Kirk Hellie. How was that experience, given the emotional weight of the record?
The live shows, for me, were an opportunity to—through music—talk about it. A little of that is even what I say on stage. It’s just an opportunity to share and highlight the things we’re all a bit scared of, because creating more community around that can’t hurt. Other cultures do that. They talk about death and dying much more. So, I really enjoy performing it. The whole process of making the record was amazing.
Your immediate family, including your mother, Heart Phoenix, were open about how much the River album touched them. Were you expecting that reaction?
No, I don’t make art in expectation of a reaction. It’s something that wells up and needs to be expressed for me. The outcome is always interesting. It was surprising, but yeah, it was such an amazing experience. I can only really speak for myself, as far as healing, but it seemed to affect others, as well.
What’s so amazing, I didn’t set out to do that. I just realised I needed to do that. It was a need. It was an itch that needed to be scratched. That’s what I love about art and why I believe art has a healing mechanism. You don’t necessarily know how it will heal you or others, but inevitably it’s the best place to work out the subconscious. I am so grateful. Just naming the record River was a big part of that snowball.
Your family is also behind The River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding down in Gainesville. It focuses on restorative justice and other progressive social justice practices. What’s been the best part of watching that grow over the last eight years?
Seeing many of the principals and ethos we were raised with and believed in as kids. Seeing the organisation not only be founded on those principals, and the things River really championed, but also growing that into something that’s affecting so many people from all different walks of life. From law enforcement to incarcerated youth - and bringing them together to have conversations - so they can help grow the culture to one of peace.
Every year, the center grows. Every day it shapes more lives through peace and very much through River. The quote my brother River is very well known for, the one Joaquin highlighted in his Oscar speech this year, is “Run to the rescue with love and peace will follow.” The center is implementing that quote into the work they do every day.
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Words: Rich Tupica
Photography: Gus Van Zant + Michael Muller + Brian Bowen Smith
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