Rain Phoenix honors brother River on solo debut; The sonic story of Rain and River Phoenix

Rain Phoenix has been spending a lot of time at Steakhouse Studio, a hit-making recording facility in the center of North Hollywood. But the singer-songwriter isn’t just laying down tracks for her forthcoming debut solo album—she’s also honoring her brother, the late actor River Phoenix.

“I’m calling it River,” Phoenix told Ghettoblaster of her upcoming record, which is nearly wrapped up. “Kirk Hellie co-wrote and produced it. I’m really happy with it so far. I hope it can find its way into the hearts and ears of many people.”

Photo courtesy of Rain Phoenix.

No release date for River has been announced just yet, but if her recent solo single, “Time is the Killer,” which features a rare appearance from R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe on vocals, is any indication of what’s to come, her full-length will no doubt deliver another poignant wave of sounds and poeticism.

The flipside of the “Time is the Killer” 10-inch vinyl single, released in February via Kro Records, serves as yet another salute to her iconic older brother, as it includes two previously unheard songs from Aleka’s Attic, the progressive indie-folk band led by River (guitar/vocals) and Rain Phoenix (vocals) from 1987 through 1993.

The abstract pop tunes included on the new release, “Where I’d Goneand “Scales & Fishnails,” serve as a reminder that River was more than a rising Hollywood star—he was also a determined, distinctive songwriter. At five-years-old, a bowl-cut sporting River picked up an acoustic and never put it down. By his side, through it all was his musical collaborator Rain Joan of Arc Phoenix, who was born Nov. 21, 1972—two years after River, and two years before their younger brother, acclaimed actor Joaquin Phoenix.

Growing up in the early ’80s, well before River shot to teen superstardom in 1986’s Stand By Me, Rain and River spent much of their childhood playing music together, busking on street corners from Venezuela to Los Angeles. The DIY money earned performing on sidewalks helped support their tightknit, caravanning family.

“He was very passionate and energetic,” Rain recalls of River. “He loved to make music.”

At the height of his fame, River himself admitted in an interview: “Music is a hobby, because I’m not making any money out of it, but I put just as much conviction into that as I do into my acting.”

Once River hit it big in Hollywood in the mid-’80s, money was no longer an issue for the once financially-struggling Phoenix family. And with their progressive parents John and Heart Phoenix at the management helm, soon all five youthful Phoenix kids were landing acting jobs.

Still, River and Rain never lost sight of music or their band. In its five year existence, Aleka’s Attic steadily performed, recorded and toured the underground-rock circuit—even as River landed roles in blockbusters like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and indie-film masterpieces, like Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991).

Photo courtesy of Brian Bowen Smith.

In the spring of ’91, as River prepared to shoot Sneakers alongside Robert Redford and Dan Aykroyd, Aleka’s Attic booked a long list of gigs. From their hometown in Gainesville, Florida through North Carolina and Tennessee, all the way up to New York and Washington D.C., the group tore through sets of their original tunes.  

“Our biggest and longest tour was up the east coast and a little toward the Midwest, so we called it our ‘Middle East Tour,’ Rain recalled. “We’d cook vegan fair in the RV and play Frisbee at every rest stop. Most of the shows were for animal rights and the environment, which was cool because we met inspiring activists and played shows for a good cause.” 

That tour ultimately became the group’s last hurrah on the road. A two-year development deal, inked in 1988 with Island Records, led to some recording sessions, but the deal eventually dissolved and, eventually, so did the band.

Aleka’s Attic may have never released a proper album in its existence, but Rain is finally comfortable enough to start gradually releasing some of those unissued recordings. She’s even digging through the band’s old VHS tapes for footage, which has already resulted in new music videos for “Where I’d Gone,” and “In the Corner Dunce”—songs River wrote while he was garnering acclaim for his role in 1988’s Running on Empty, which earned the then 18-year old an Academy Award nomination. It was a busy, turbulent time for River, but he always made time for the songwriting process. It’s an era of Rain’s life she looks back fondly on.  

“I love Aleka’s Attic and have always listened over the years and shared with close friends,” she said. “Combing through footage for the videos was wild and brought back so many memories, too.

“I hope to release as many (Aleka’s Attic songs) as I can,” she added. “It depends on the quality. River always insisted that his songs were mixed and mastered before being released. I still have some work to do.” 

Since River’s untimely death at 23, Joaquin Phoenix has obviously kept busy in Hollywood. The A-lister stars in the much-anticipated 2019 Joker film, due out this fall. Meanwhile, Rain has also racked up some acting credits—but she’s always remained more fixated on her first passion: music. And it’s a diverse resume. In the mid-’90s, she toured with the Red Hot Chili Peppers as a backup singer during the band’s colossal One Hot Minute tour. She also contributed backups on “Bang and Blame,” R.E.M.’s 1995 single.

From the late ’90s through today, Rain performed in a series of indie bands, including The Causey Way, Venus & the Moon and papercranes. However, even with a lengthy discography behind her, the Los Angeles-based troubadour feels her freshly unveiled solo tune, “Time is the Killer,” is her best work to date. A new piano version of the track was cut for her upcoming River LP.

“I think that song needed to come through and I was an available channel,” she said. “We all forget to remember we are dying with every breath.”

The track delivers a sullen yet beautiful soundscape that echoes earthy old ballads (think Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris’ “A Song for You”). But while “Time” is sonically subtle and airy, the lyrics pile on the heaviness. In the four-minute melody, Phoenix warmly serenades about our fleeting existence:

“Everybody’s dying
To know
Where we go
When we die

Everybody’s crying
For those
Who go
Before their time

Time is the killer
Time is the killer

With 2019 marking the 25th anniversary of River Phoenix’s tragic accidental overdose, time has indeed been on her mind.  And it seems time is making it a bit easier for her to publicly open up about River—which is a definite change of pace.

In the decades following his passing, the entire Phoenix family has remained respectfully tightlipped in regard to River. Never have they indulged reporters in search of tabloid fodder or sensationalism. When the Phoenix family openly discusses him, it’s often a lighthearted anecdote or in regard to one of the many causes the late actor championed. From animal rights to social and environmental crusading, River was a trailblazing vegan and activist years before it was hip in Hollywood. He once declared:

“If I have some celebrity, I hope I can use it to make a difference. The true social reward is that I can speak my mind and share my thoughts about the environment and civilization itself.”  River Phoenix

Even though he’s no longer on this planet, those missions live on, thanks to the River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding (RPCP). In 2012, the family founded the mission-driven nonprofit to create peacebuilding and social justice solutions. To this day, Rain serves as its vice president and her mother, Heart Phoenix, is its president. That’s how the Phoenix clan prefers to honor his legacy.

That’s why it’s not surprising that Rain’s upcoming album, and some of her other various musical ventures, offers other creative, artistic nods to River. One of her top projects right now is overseeing LaunchLeft, a musical alliance aimed at aiding and spotlighting still-rising musicians. The idea is to bolster underground talent “by enlisting iconic creatives to find and mentor them,” explained Rain.

“LaunchLeft aims to help unknown, left-of-center musical artists have the same opportunities to get their work heard as popular artists,” she added.  “The idea of creating an intentional space for an alliance of left-of-center artists was inspired by my upbringing and the life and activism of my late brother River.”

Over the past nine years, LaunchLeft has championed (aka “launched”) a roster of emerging musicians, with curation help from Conor Oberst, Spike Jonez, and Shepard Fairey, to only name a few. It’s also the home for Aleka’s Attic.

The platform of LaunchLeft has been fluid since its inception (it varies from podcasts to events), and Rain said the alliance will soon venture into yet another medium.

“Next for LaunchLeft is a short form TV show,” she said. “The first episode is Gus Van Sant in conversation with my sister Summer and I. We’re talking about how he came to know Elliot Smith’s music and chose him for his film Good Will Hunting, but also Elliot’s subsequent Oscar nomination and what it means to ‘sell out.’”

As for Rain, while she is no doubt enamored with left-of-the-dial sounds, a few major-label albums also continue to inspire her. Among her favorites: Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love and Tom Waits’ Swordfish Trombones. “Both of these artists are uncompromising, unapologetic and important,” she said. “They were life-changing for me. I heard them in my teens and was never the same.”

Of course, the catalog of Aleka’s Attic music remains close to her heart as well, but Rain will continue to honor her late brother’s wishes, and only unveil select tracks. Back in the early ’90s, River indeed made it clear that he wasn’t going to rush the musical process.

“Music is my main goal, but I’m not going to rush a record out,” he said in an interview. “There are so many actors who have come out with albums these days. I don’t want to do it because it’s the thing to do. I want to wait until the time is right.”

Perhaps in 2019, the time will finally be right. In the meantime, Rain Phoenix’s River LP will soon be here.